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.

Friday, December 2, 2016

The  Rensing Center - a Blog


    My residency in the late fall of 2016, is not my first visit to Rensing. It was, however, the first visit with purpose. I am a smith and a writer … in that order. I left the smithing at home, although I confess to bringing my favorite forging hammer, just in case the writing proved too hard or the itch became too severe. G.C. Waldrup, poet and guardian of the residency program agreed with  Ellen Kochansky, the creator and director of Rensing, agreed that I should be allowed to attend  as a ”‘craft elder,’ to do whatever he wants.” What a gift!
           

                                                                 The Guest House

       The year to date had been long, hard. Too much work, an impossible schedule, dogs to be walked, the cares of a very rural home, wood for the winter, the hawking of wares and filling commissions. I had planned hours hunched over the computer in the morning, teasing a memoir to paper; long walks in the woods after lunch; photos of landscape, beast and sky; evenings lost in the words of others from the Rensing Library or from Evelyn’s (Ellen’s ever interesting and knowledgeable mother) personal shelves.

Sunset
Bob
                                                    
   







 
       There was some of all of this. However, I realized I was dead tired from my year; exhausted in a way I had not felt since teaching in a private school some forty-five years ago. I gave myself permission to float in the gift of time. I did write (some four more versions of the current chapter); afternoon walks more often became naps restoring the synapses of body and brain; and reading often became conversations with Ellen and Evelyn or Ron or Pam or Chad, or Jon about where we as a nation of immigrants, as a people of good will, must head or lead from here.


                                 
"More Crackers, please!"
Evelyn, Ellen & American Beech



      I came to work within the rural time frame; with the pace of life dictated by seasons and sun; to slow myself down enough to think, to consider, to talk slowly and carefully. To converse with the goats while parceling out animal crackers. To watch the sun set through the big oak behind Evelyn’s house. To watch Ellen deftly shift from Director to Chef extraordinaire, with shrimp bought that morning at the Flea Market, or chicken, or a medley of vegetables too good to leave behind. Candles lit, a gentle presence, careful words, considered thoughts, truths we know in our bones and then rush on by … and, as I write this today, all lulled or washed by a gentle and long over due rain for Upcountry, South Carolina, stilling the beast of fire, while feeding the land before the big freezes. I accomplished little tasks for my “work time.” Repaired leaky hoses; a railing  for Evelyn across from the Guest House; a new latch on the Well House. Restorative chores intermixed with a deeply restorative sojourn amongst people of depth, of thoughtfulness, dedicated to the land and its healing and to people doing the same.



 


The hand, fingers up, a universal sign of welcome, 
equals Rensing.


  Art, land, healing, equals Rensing.

 



  
           Thank you,

Nol Putnam
Blacksmith and sometime Writer
Flint Hill, Virginia 22627

   


   









                                                     

  













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.  

Saturday, September 24, 2016

Into Autumn at Rensing: Abundance


The pasture at sunset

Always in life there are places you visit and remember with fondness – but also there are those places you visit that become part of you, such that you: a) put down stakes and opt never to leave, or b) bury a hunk of your indebted heart in the ground as collateral to ensure that at some point you make it back. The latter is already very much the case with my two-month stay as a resident here at The Rensing Center, the former a yearning strong enough to warrant a fair amount of no-jokes reflection (following a trip this morning to the Greenville Farmers Market with Rensing neighbor Ron Few, I texted my aero-engineer husband in Seattle asking, where was Boeing’s South Carolina plant again?)

Here in Pickens, SC, the soil is deep red (iron oxide-rich as in western Kenya, another country I love), and the air hot and muggy (in the 90s today, in what I’m told is one of the very last warm days we’ll be having before the state’s weather decides it’s actually autumn), the katydids are humming, and the sun is setting over a land that enjoys the warmth of the subtropics almost year-round. But for the skies' distinctive “pink of the evening” serving as my reminder that the candle is quickly burning on my time here, I'd ease into the dream state of a child who was going to live inside of summer forever.

Bell jar, mason jar, and cuttings in the library

Driveway/path to the Pottery from the Guest House

Jon Fritz

At the halfway mark of my residency the memories are carouseling into a bit of a blur, but the important things are easy enough to report. New billy goats arrived in the upper pasture on my first day here (see Rensing’s wonderful Facebook page). Weekly dinners at director Ellen Kochansky’s place have kept residents social and connected to the place and to each other, and for me they've been greatly needed respite from the frequently head-bonking work of writing new poems and stories. Jon Fritz, a local landscape designer/farmer and past Rensing Borseda resident, has been a supportive and generous presence to me and the other residents, giving us tours of the farms along Six Mile Road. Aijung Kim, a poet and visual artist who left us this week to return home to Richmond, Virginia, gave me my first lesson in how to sew together a chapbook, and inspired me during our walks together to see our surrounding nature with new eyes. To wake mornings in the Guest House to the calls of birds I don’t recognize, to walk in woods and not know the names of most of the trees –  these have all been invitations for opening and wonder, along with guided trips to the Pickens flea market and to historic Hagood Mill, or to the monthly fish fry at Soapstone Baptist Church where we visited the community’s Liberia cemetery of freed slaves.

And that's not even to mention the over-the-top kindness and chivalry/gentility of some of the good southern men I’ve met during my time here (the husband at home has been supportive); this Pacific Northwest gardener’s joy at finding eggplants thriving in the garden (plus peppers? God exists); the spontaneous gifts of bananas and oranges from Evelyn Kochansky (96 years old and the place’s incredible muse and founding spirit) – but when you’re a young poet cranking on new drafts with a 70% failure rate and have shelves of Eliot, Stevens, Camus, Rimbaud, and Kafka staring you down and daring you to see if you can top that, you’re going to take all the support you can get. And I am grateful to the Rensing Board and to poet GC Waldrep for opening the door to my stay here throughout this season.   

I’ll post more in a couple weeks with further reports on my excursions in writing, and in Pickens, and further abroad, out of this eco-haven and liberal-progressive bastion in the center of Trump territory (photos forthcoming of the Texas Longhorn cattle who are our neighbors –  if I can manage some snaps of the reclusive beasts when they’re not hiding from me).

With warmest greetings until next, 

- Hannah Lee Jones 
Resident, Poetry/Fiction September - October 2016

Friendly goats
Aijung Kim, showing me how to sew together a chapbook

Reading at the kitchen table in the Guest House on a cooler day