Friday, February 17, 2017

Passing Through

As I wind down my time here at Rensing, I have been thinking about the value of putting down roots. South Carolina appears to be the sort of place where people have not only formed a deep connection to the land but are proud to have done so. People here even like to talk about genealogy, so, in the hopes of passing, I will give it a go.

I come from a long line of wanderers. On my father's side, we have in less than a hundred years made home in Moldova, Philadelphia, New Jersey, Baltimore, Berkeley, Albuquerque—I could go on, but I won't. Let it suffice to say that I am expanding on the tradition.

That I can do so is the realization of a long-held dream. Since the age of twenty or so, what I most wanted was to travel and write. Not separately, mind you, but at the same time. In this dream, I might park myself in a pension for a couple of weeks, writing furiously until it felt time to leave again. That I now manage to live this way and support myself feels like a minor miracle.

So why do I travel? The popular answers are wrong or shallowly right. The world is a book and those who do not travel read only one page—so Saint Augustine tells us, but this is only true in the sense that people in one country have a big meal with wheat at midday and in the next country a big meal with rice at sunset. More importantly true is that the patient observer can learn everything there is to know about the world in each tiny village on the planet. You do not need to travel to know the world.

Twain writes, Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness...broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one's lifetime. This is nonsense. Donald Trump is an extraordinarily well-traveled man, and his prejudices are in robust health.

No, one travels not because it is virtuous or useful but because one likes it. Traveling is fun—for some, that is. Some would rather stay at home. And I think this gets to the heart of why I travel: it is on the road that I feel most myself. It's simply how I'm wired: I travel because I was born a traveler.

But to everything a cost: The more dead and dry and dusty a thing is the more it travels about, G.K. Chesterton writes. Fertile things are somewhat heavier, like the heavy fruit trees on the pregnant mud of the Nile. This is the cost of traveling. Living on the road, one has no time to let things settle and to let slow things happen. One becomes—and one starts to see—a world of speed and surface. Traveling isn't reading the book of the world—traveling is skimming.


Which puts me in a bind. I know that if I really want to see this world, I must pick a place and stay put until the land around me becomes a place of dreams, of scars, of birth, of tedium. But I know that I would not like it. To live that way would shut down a part of who I am. That does not mean I won't someday give it a try anyway, but I believe it does mean, regardless of how hard I try to put down roots, that I will eventually follow family tradition again and pull up stakes.

Friday, February 10, 2017

a local story

Though the Rensing Center does an admirable job of fostering community, it is not yet the true community center of Pickens County. That role is still filled by the flea market just down the road, a weekly morning of commerce in a wide muddy field.

Without corporate America there to mediate the buying and selling, one can appreciate the vastness of South Carolina's wants. Some vendors, for instance, have strewn their tables with nothing but rusty bits and bobs of metal--a truck hitch, say, and the business end of an old mattock. Before actually seeing two men haggle over rusted iron, I would have been dead certain you'd have to pay the landfill to take it.

Take a few more steps for the chance to buy a caged rooster and a stars-and-bars bandana from the same woman. Or, if not interested in ethically questionable poultry, why not buy a controller for a video game console that hasn't been manufactured in this century? Come on. You know you want it.

Which of course just goes to show what we already knew: there is nothing good or bad but thinking makes it so. As we all do when we travel, I arrived with my own notions about what things belonged in the category called "valuable" and what things belonged in the category called "trash."

The categories we put the world into become a story we tell, a declaration of what we believe to be important, and I have appreciated the chance at the flea market to get acquainted with the story those in upcountry South Carolina are telling.

That story seems to have two centers. The first is Jesus, whom I run into again and again. His face is on the art I see for sale and his name is all over the books I thumb through, including the one I actually bought: Becoming a Woman of Excellence, a bible study extolling the womanly virtues of obedience, demure dress, and silence. The vendor suggested I give it to my wife—once I have one, that is. That I am to be put in the category called "Christian," I have come to understand, is simply assumed at this market.

The story's second center is race, which is entwined of course with Jesus. That he, a Semite born in the Middle East, is invariably presented as white at the flea market says it all. But race rears its head everywhere and even in the most surprising ways. For instance, the lonely man selling adult DVDs separates his grand collection into three categories: "White," "Latin & Asian," and "Black." Race, apparently, is also sexual taste.

All of which troubles me, but is perhaps not quite so different from much of America. What makes me feel most foreign in Pickens County is something wonderful: everyone seems to put me in the category called "important."

When I was fifty cents short on something I wanted, another shopper simply gave me money. People ask me where I'm from and how I like it here. Many seem excited to meet an actual writer. The produce man at the supermarket seemed happy to drop what he was doing to help me. Even the postal workers here seem concerned with whether or not I am having a good day.

Having spent my adult life in places where the polite way to show you respect a stranger is to leave them in peace and let them do their thing, I am consistently caught flat-footed by the local friendliness. I have no idea what to say when someone wants to make small chat with me, but it has at least shown me how, elsewhere I've lived, letting someone be often becomes just an excuse for not giving a damn.


I like this part of the Pickens County story, where the welfare of strangers is in the category called "everyone's concern." The trick, I suppose, is learning to voice care while also leaving people space do their thing. It will be my goal, when I leave the Rensing Center, to learn to do just that.

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

A few thoughts concerning my first three weeks as Resident Artist at the Rensing Center Keith L. Andrews Sculptor


Let me tell you a bit about this experience on three levels.

First, I had never spent much time in the rural southeastern USA. After 20 days here, I can now confirm that the stereotypic southerners we who live in other parts of the USA “know about” in fact do exist. They are very real. You see them at the flea market, in the diners and in front of their trailers with their dogs. And, yes, 73.9% of the voters in Pickens County voted for Donald Trump. But – and this is the important part – the stereotypes are just a small part of a much larger, more interesting and nuanced reality that I am discovering. It’s a complex reality that I have very much enjoyed getting to know. Let me give you the positive side here.
I go out for walks here for about an hour most days - just as I do wherever I live. But never, not once, in Dallas, Pasadena, Chicago, Tallahassee or Guatemala where I have walked hundreds of miles, have complete strangers stopped and asked if I’m OK and if I need a lift. They do here. This is genuine rural courtesy and concern.
Even if they don’t stop, they almost always wave to me. The women and the men in sedans do the full open palm salute, while the men who drive big pickups usually only give you the lifted-index-finger-on-the-steering-wheel greeting. But they all acknowledge me, and I like that.
And I do love being called honey, darlin’, sweetie or sir wherever I go. Cheers me up. And I try to respond appropriately. 
And I gotta tell you that the fried chicken, collards, cobbler and other southern fare are really tasty here; but so are the vegetarian fusion dishes that are available.
And, despite what people from other regions might expect, I have seen a dozen instances in which white folks are chatting, sitting and laughing real friendly like with Latino/as or African Americans.
And then there is the fact that we don’t have to lock our car or house doors when we go out or at night. Poor city folks in other parts of the country.
Gimme some more time to get to know the culture better, and I’ll add some more details. (But before I move on, I have to report one more observation: the surname on the mailbox of the home with the biggest Confederate flag is “Black”. Kind of ironic. No picture yet….)

Second, Lemme admit it: I am a bit homesick for Central America. That’s odd because judged strictly on phenotype, I absolutely belong to this community. My coloration, facial features and, well, the big ol’ beard all fit right in; genetically these are my people. But I do enjoy it when I got to talk to the Spanish-speaking guys who were delivering the food supplies in a very rural grill I stumbled across, and I was really tempted to strike up a conversation with the women speaking a Mayan language in the fleamarket but didn’t.  As I say, this social setting is more complex than outsiders would expect.

And the sculpture?, you ask. The place I have is ideal for work and very comfortable for living. I have a comfortable 80 square meter work/living area with great lighting, access to tools and supplies, and a wood burning stove that I love (may the eco-gods forgive me for burning up a big chunk of South Carolina’s oak forests). The south wall is made entirely of sliding glass doors with a great forest view. And I can work on a very large back porch when it’s not too cold. Above me is a garden with half a dozen sculptures from former residents.  This is a great place to do a couple of pieces I have had pending for years. And there’s so much time to just think, catch up on the music I missed out on over the last four decades, and read when I am not sculpting.


Will post pics of finished works next time.