By Megan McMorris
When I moved to the Montavilla neighborhood in the fall of 2016, I felt like I was stepping into a dream.
After nearly 20 years in Portland, I’d finally found my permanent nest: a cabin-like condo near Mount Tabor in a neighborhood named for being a “village on the side of the mountain.”
With an iconic main street filled with restaurants, bars, shops and a movie house, the neighborhood felt like a small town on the outskirts of the big city. I had found my Shangri-La.
It wasn’t long before I found my new community in a nearby neighborhood tavern. For nearly two years, it was my “Cheers.” I befriended the regulars, got to know and love the bartenders and I even began a new relationship on the dance floor. Entering the new year of 2018 I felt confident about my future, both professionally and personally.
One year later, I was a shell of my former self. Confused, on the verge of an identity crisis, I was feeling trapped in a crazy-making relationship and ashamed that I’d gotten caught up with people I slowly started realizing weren’t good for me. It was time to change the company I kept, so I walked away from it suddenly and didn’t look back.
During this time I ran into my friend, Paul. “I’m glad I ran into you,” he said. “I went to an open mic down the street and thought you would like it. It’s tomorrow night. I’ll meet you there.”
Little did he realize how perfect his timing was.
The first time I attended Psanctum Open Mic, held at the time in the Pegasus Project building (AKA the old Beets Mechanic garage) on SE 76th and Stark St., I was terrified and mesmerized at the same time. Freestyle hip-hop artists, drum circles, didgeridoos, dancers, musicians, poets, lots of twirling and positive vibes filled the space.
The first time I got up behind the microphone, I was happy there was a chair because I knew my knees would give out if I had to stand. My throat was so dry I could barely finish my story. I’d spoken in public many times before and I even enjoy it! – but there was something different, more vulnerable, about reading at an open mic.
Slowly but surely, though, something started happening. During 2019, for seven minutes every Tuesday, I started gaining confidence in myself again. I read from my work-in-progress novel for the first time. I shared my big dreams and daily dramas.
One time my entire “story” was simply an angry rant where I continued finishing the sentence “I’m angry at…” until my seven minutes was up. I’ve told the audience things about myself I’ve barely told some of my closest friends.
Their response to me was a welcome change from what I’d escaped from. Instead of being threatened by my achievements, my new community applauded them. Instead of talking about doing things that would never come to fruition, these people were walking the walk. They started out as strangers encouraging me to try something scary, but they became my new tribe, my new role models, and unexpectedly, my biggest cheerleaders.
The benefits extended beyond Tuesday nights, too.
Professionally, the experience has helped me become more confident in my career as a freelance writer. It’s helped me stop second-guessing myself as I write. When I transcribe my phone interviews for a story, I hear my voice sounding stronger and more confident.
Personally, it’s helped me to rediscover my voice. To trust my instincts again and to remember who I am.
Sure, there were other factors involved for helping me get back on my feet. Good friends. Good family. A good therapist. Strangers and acquaintances who seemed to appear just when I needed them, to tell me just what I needed to hear.
Yet I credit open mic with singularly making the most difference in shaping my new direction.
St. Patrick’s Day 2020, the first day of the mandatory bar closures due to the coronavirus, fell on a Tuesday. With open mic postponed and the bars empty, I decided now was as good a time as any to visit what I call the “scene of the crime.”
Sitting outside the empty building of my former community tavern, I conjured up the ghosts of the good times past. Karaoke, March Madness, World Series, watching cheesy movies on a rainy Sunday, heart-to-hearts with my favorite bartender, playing shuffleboard and trivia, dancing to live music, the many hours I’d sat outside in that very spot laughing with friends.
I thanked them for the good memories, forgave them for the bad and then I got up and walked away.
As I strolled past the closed doors along Stark St., I was able to tap back into the magic of my neighborhood once again. I imagined all the doors springing open and thought about which ones I would most look forward to opening – and which ones I’d keep closed.
What about you? What door are you most looking forward to opening? Which ones might best be left shut? Whatever is shifting for you right now, take this away from my experience: If you come across an unexpected new door that scares you but deep down feels right, open it. It just may change your life.
Psanctum Open Mic, typically held Tuesday nights, is currently held via Livestream. Follow Psanctum Open Mic on Facebook or watershedpdx.com.