Last week I sat on Ellen’s screen porch lit by tall candles, around the table with five others talking into the night. There was talk of indigo dying, talk of community organizing, talk of gardening, talk of physics. Having been in residence at Rensing early in 2016, having returned to these foothills three years later, I’m struck again by what a good place this is to think, to re-think, and to make art. It’s the informality and the lack of pretense that do it. It’s mingling with people who have so very many different realms of knowledge, interest, and skill.
Some people might take a look around here and say it’s the middle of nowhere. I wouldn’t exactly disagree. I myself grew up in the middle of nowhere, on a road called Miles Hollow in the ridges and valleys of central Pennsylvania. I like being in residence for a while now on a road called Mile Creek, decades and hundreds of miles distant from that kid I was biking up and down that road I grew up on, but sounding a bit the same.
My paternal grandmother grew up in West Virginia. When I tell the details of her childhood it sounds like I’m making a bid for president, aligning myself with the salt of the earth: Her mother worked at a glass-cutting factory; she walked three miles each way to school. For many years I thought of her life as occurring in an entirely different universe from that of my other grandmother’s life, my maternal grandmother who was born on the Lower East Side in Manhattan—her parents spoke Yiddish; she smoked cigarettes on stoops and went to lectures at the 92nd Street Y.
But both of my grandmothers, I think now, lived much of their lives in the middle of nowhere. Both socialized on porches or stoops, and lived nearly all of their lives in one or two zip codes. The world didn’t see either of them as “someone.” Both were reared in a kind of wilderness.
Perhaps because I am descended from these women, I feel most interested in people and places that feel unwatched, un-branded, informal, anarchic. Whether I’m in Appalachia or New York, I crave the beauty and the electricity of the unexpected, the un-branded encounter, rather than the bored familiarity of the suburbs or much of the moneyed art scene. If art is a way of being in communion in as many directions as possible—up, down, left, right, and directions we don’t even know about yet—then too much energy towards the fallacies of “someone” and “somewhere” can get in the way of those flows.
Walking up the hill from Ellen’s house, after dinner and conversation, walking beneath the stars, I thought: The truth is that everywhere is the middle of nowhere. I like places like Rensing that are honest about that; that relish that, mine that, plumb it, explore it, delight in it. It’s the only place we ever really are, and it’s a wonderful place to be.