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Holiday lights, noise makers signal hope and solidarity as Oregonians hunker down

PMG PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Michael Cady Russell and Kate Russell, along with their three children. Like others in the city and across the U.S., the family decided to keep the holiday lights up on their home in Southeast Portland to spread cheer during a long stretch of quarantine.  Lori Geske noticed something happening in her neighborhood recently.

"Every house was lit up," Geske recalled. At first, she doubted what she was seeing. Were homes and apartments in her Southeast Portland neighborhood really lit with Christmas lights in the spring?

"I didn't know what was up. I don't own a smart phone or a computer or a laptop, so I'm really out of the loop in terms of what's going on," Geske said.

She borrowed an iPad from her grandson and took to the social media app Nextdoor to convene with neighbors.

She was right.

"My lights are up year-round but they're not on. When I saw them that night coming home, I thought, it's so pretty, I like this!" she said. Taking cues from her surroundings, Geske did the same, plugging her apartment's strand of lights back in.

"They haven't been on since Jan. 1, but now they're back on," she said.

Nationwide, homes have taken to plugging their decorative lights back in, or in some cases, dragging them out of storage and re-hanging them.

To some, like Geske, the twinkling lights give a glimmer of hope, a moment of joy, and proof of life as millions stay sequestered inside their homes while a deadly virus sweeps the nation.

In Portland, a city that has notoriously turned to art, crafts and non-sequitur forms of expression to cut through long, dreary months, it's no surprise that households have embraced the off-season displays.

"It was the easiest thing we could do, with kids, to stay engaged and stay positive in a time that's really hard," said Michael Cady Russell. Cady Russell and his wife, Kate, have three young kids.

He says taking down the Christmas lights was on the spring break chores list, but now, his family has plugged them back in.

"We started reading things on the Nextdoor app and on NPR about people keeping them up to keep things festive," Cady Russell said. "Our neighbors made a joke about it being a good thing we hadn't taken them down yet."

His kids are enjoying the gesture.

"They're quick to smile and ask people (walking by), 'Hey, do you like our Christmas lights?'"

To add to the isolation antics, homes are adding teddy bears, hand-made signs and other decorations to their windows. Others have started scavenger hunts, displaying items in windows for children to spot while out walking with their parents.

Now, there's sound to complement the gestures.

Last week, echoing efforts taking place across the U.S., Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler encouraged residents to join in on a daily 7 p.m. nationwide noise-making event, to show appreciation for first responders and other essential workers. "Set your alarms!" Mayor Wheeler announced via Twitter. "Let's cheer for our frontline heroes starting (Friday) at 7 pm & every night until #COVID19's deadly impact is history."

In downtown Portland, with its array of tall apartment buildings and higher density, the joyous clamor rings out each night at 7 p.m. In the Ladd Tower on Southwest Park Avenue, residents are urged to cheer for front-line public health workers, but also for "janitors, grocery clerks, delivery drivers, chefs, TriMet drivers, etc."

Geske gladly joined in. She's taken comfort in hearing the faint sounds of others out ringing bells or chiming on pots and pans, albeit to the bemusement of neighboring dogs.

"I don't know why it brings such joy," Geske said of the lights and noise making. "I'm just hoping some people notice this is some small sign of support for them."

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