Tuesday, November 29, 2016

At Home With Paradox

My first days and weeks back from my Rensing residency could probably be described as one long ascent out of a waking dream. From the distance of 3,000 miles, I've come to understand why: the residency "bubble" enabled by time away from home in a new environment; the cataclysm that was the 2016 Presidential election in a state that couldn't be any more different from my native Washington. I've made new friends I plan to keep for lifetime, written a number of poems I still feel good about, and have had my perspective shaken through encounters with people who hold beliefs and perspectives very different from my own. And reflecting on that time, I realize it's possible to emerge from such a dream and be changed forever. 

Autumn light in Six Mile.
A running theme during my two and a half months writing in the Guest House was the idea of paradoxes. I tend to go by the Merriam-Webster definition of the word paradox as a statement that is seemingly contradictory or opposed to common sense and yet is perhaps true. The operative words: perhaps true. And common sense would long ago have had me living single track according to a comforting set of dictates that are emotionally satisfying but hardly the entire story. When I arrived in South Carolina for my residency, my Dorothy-out-of-Kansas dislocation had already primed me for that story. And as it unraveled, and I was shaken from my old narratives about people and the world and myself as a player in that world, an odd thing happened: where I had once been closed, I fell open. The hardened parts of me softened up. And the blacks and whites of my life slowly muddled together to become a lovely, if deeply unsettling, shade of gray. 

It's perhaps no coincidence then that gray is The Rensing Center's signature color. Ellen, Rensing's tireless executive director and an artist herself, is a self-confessed "queen of neutrals", and all this strikes me now as appropriate because it was during my residency that I realized that life's gray areas had always been one of my foremost impulses in my work as a poet. I recently spoke with a friend on the phone about this. I'd come to Rensing, met and dined with and befriended some wonderful people in this rural, Trump-supporting community -- and when election night rolled around, still lay fetal in my bed into the small hours, refreshing my phone and watching the poll numbers creep steadily towards disaster. How could this be? My friend's reply offered little comfort, but still rang with a truth I could feel inside my body: that it's fully possible to wear lipstick and protest the patriarchy; to celebrate Thanksgiving and live embedded in our deeply oppressive system of fossil fuels and still be outraged at what is happening to our indigenous friends at Standing Rock; to be a liberal who voted for Stein and still hold peaceable but probing conversations with deer hunters who voted for our new President. That holding of tensions is not to condone those who are destroying peace and equity on our planet, but rather to demonstrate the possibility that one can cleave passionately to a set of ideals and, with receptivity and curiousness, still be capable of peering through other lenses onto a world that belongs to all of us.  

Sunset on the screened porch in the Guest House.
The grim morning after the election, I went down to Ellen's house to carpool to the Wednesday flea market. We were pulling out of her driveway when we failed to notice the basket of gardening supplies left from the previous day's work party and ran right over it. The basket, though crumpled, still retained its shape. And there sat its contents -- baggies of seeds, a mason jar, a pair of gloves -- roughed up but somehow utterly undestroyed. 

The metaphor in this was hardly lost on me. 

A week or so later, Ellen invited me to participate in an exercise in her studio with some Rensing neighbors, writing out in calligraphy old stories we wanted to let go. Once they were down on paper, we read them out loud to each other and then we shredded them. And on my last day, I was given the fun experience of joining Ellen in her studio again to turn those strips of paper into collages over translucent silk. Beginning early on in my residency, a certain someone I eventually became very fond of had brought me roses, magnolias, pampas grass, tea olive, turkey feather, oak. Because I couldn't take all his gifts with me, I harvested pieces of each of them, then added them in with the strips of shredded paper. The specimens had been hanging from the wire in the Guest House over the weeks. Because I hadn't bothered to press them, the leaves had curled while drying and cracked as I glued them down. 

The collage, including strips of shredded stories.

I imagine looking at this piece years from now -- if it even lasts that long -- and remembering the beauty and presence that can be found in disintegration. 

I suppose no write-up of a Rensing residency should leave out the muse and founding inspiration of the place: Evelyn Rensing, with whom I didn't spend nearly enough time. But at 96 years old, and blind, and still delivering mail to me in her golf cart and walking the grounds daily on her own, she quietly showed me the meaning of two things: letting go of assumptions and never giving up. She was present for my collage exercise, and as goodbyes go I couldn't have asked for much more than that. 

Never stop moving: Evelyn.

I depart from my new family at Rensing with a lot of sadness, and with the promise to return in the future. I've been honored by the gift of a residency and the chance to step far enough back from my ordinary life to see my work and the world with new eyes. In this new season, amid a lot of fear and loss of hope in our country and communities, I am blessed to find myself rededicating my art to helping solve the many crises we now face.