Hello Stranger from Issue #55
Word has it the people who last owned the Glass House at the top of Cemetery Hill used to feed the foxes. We are accustomed to seeing deer, though it is now hunting season and they’ve turned color and withdrawn, but the sight of a very healthy red fox munching on something in our neighbor’s back yard is arresting.
And so we stand in the kitchen window, rapt, even 18-month-old Maggie, until he is finished, and vanishes.
Animals move with a grace we humans can rarely approximate.
It is just Thanksgiving. This time last year we first began seriously to contemplate moving to the small, Eastern Kentucky town where my wife was born, where her parents still live. Where we live now.
The first question, both from those in Morehead who know me only as Maggie’s father, and from old friends I meet away on business, remains: “How do you like it?” They all seem vaguely incredulous when I confess to great happiness here, for I have lived in Seattle and Los Angeles and Nashville, all places where, it is believed, things happen.
Things happen here, even though the titans of industry do not grace our diners and movie stars do not appear in the finest restaurants. Here the decisions made in big cities play out, and the art our pop culture industry creates comes to the end of its road, if it comes at all. Here the repercussions are felt, slowly. Here, downtown is largely empty and Wal-Mart’s aisles are full, and it’s not a moral issue but an economic challenge.
Life happens here, and it is hard work and messy, and not nearly so simple as it might appear. The same as it was in those other places, if only one stopped to look. But here, bad things happen to good people, and they’re people you know, and you’re supposed to stop and help.
Rowan is a blue county in a red state; some of the poorest counties in Kentucky, and, therefore, in the United States, surround us. It is also a university town, and can be an enclave of same-thinking individuals, just like any other.
Even so, one learns here to speak in quieter tones, for there are good people — friends, even — who might be offended if you commented about the sign outside their church, or the course of a war their son is about to enter. It is easier to blaze away when surrounded by people who look and think much like you.
These pages, it turns out, are read by a somewhat more diverse audience than we might have guessed. No, more diverse than we might have hoped. I learned more about what was going on in the United States from the letters written these last few months (and from the dialogue I was able to have with some who wrote them) than from all the professionals one reads or hears or sees on television.
Thank you for that.
But now it is time to go back to work, and I am left to puzzle out how best to do that.
A critic’s job is not to write clever lines that end up in advertisements, not to seek a middle ground with which the vast majority might agree, nor especially to serve as a consumer reporter who tells you what to buy, or not. A critic’s job is to develop a coherent and evolving aesthetic, and to make you think about art in some way that you might not otherwise have done.
Art’s job is to make you think about the world.
An artist’s job is to live in the world. That is what gives artists the right and the obligation to comment upon its goings on, some of which inevitably are political.
For that reminder I am indebted to this month’s cover subject, Mary Gauthier. “The human heart is strikingly similar across all things that are considered divisive,” she said. “The big things transcend all of that. I really didn’t know that when I first started traveling. I kept feeling like I was in foreign countries. But when you travel over different countries for months and months at a time, they don’t become foreign any more.
“You learn how to order your coffee, and you learn how to ask for the toilet, and you learn how to get around a little bit, and it’s not foreign at all anymore. It’s just another place to be explored.”
If, for me, these pages are about any single thing, it is that impulse to explore, both the inner spaces of art and the spaces between people which, just now, appear as wide as the Snake River Canyon.
Music is just one way to talk about those things, one way to close those gaps. Thanks for listening.