Sassafras comes to Asheville by way of New York, California, Colorado, and Massachusetts. She has a degree in fine art and makes a living trying not to sink into existential ennui. She enjoys...
Photo: J Christian Smilanic/Dawnfire Photography
Week two complete, and this place has been hard to process. It's unclear how to organize one's experience with Asheville. Each attempt at drawing conclusions or making categorizations has resulted in the realization that to try at all is to miss the point. Asheville seems like someone painstakingly laid out the most beautiful stained-glass window imaginable, complete with full theological imagery and complex historical detail, and then took a hand-made ethically-sourced sledgehammer and reduced it to tiny, technicolor fragments. Then out of that explosion, the actual thing was made. A mosaic, a tapestry, a synesthetic interactive post-modern something-or-other. Which brings me to the only way I can discuss my first few weeks here – through the art.
The art took many forms, including an amazing hip-hop benefit featuring conscious rap; an immersive and varied house tour; a beautiful, stripped-down gallery-stylized acoustic sound improvisation; concrete and graffiti explosions; spoken word and contorted narrative.
Each of these events was different in myriad ways, but they all shared one common element in the insistence that there was no preset form to the experience of being part of an audience, no etiquette to how I should be showing up to experience them. They simply requested of me that I allow myself to take from each event whatever it was offering, without trying to ask myself what it was supposed to be, or what I was supposed to be within it.
Sometimes I felt confused, like sitting in an empty room with nothing but a projector and a chair, wondering what the hell I was supposed to be doing as the minutes ticked away and I became more and more positive I was just somehow doing art wrong. Or I felt uncomfortable, like when I stood against the wall, paralyzed upon finding myself thrust into a voyeuristic role as a scantily clad artist writhed around on the bed. At one point she walked over to me, all legs and unbroken eye contact, and, holding up one impossibly round purple grape, offered it for me to take from between her fingers. The thought crossed my mind that I am allergic to grapes, but then I really didn't want to be, so I sucked it off her finger. Ultimately, however, no single piece of art, unexpected sound, or explosion of words was really the focus. Each experience was about me, experiencing a place within the self that this town gently, or not so gently, suggests one consider setting up residence. You know, the place where you, as the kids would say “do you, boo.”
This place then makes it clear what Asheville is: a conduit to a place of inner residence. Sure, I am beginning to learn the people and places, and at first was eager to categorize and label. It's natural. It's part of how the brain sorts and processes immense amounts of information. Without the natural tendency to categorize and infer and judge, we would be so overwhelmed with input we could never successfully build schema of any kind. You know:
“Ok, these are the outdoor folks, the hippier-than-thou folks, the earnest earth-savers, the permaculturalists, the guru-wannabees, the manic pixie dream girls, the good-ol-boys, the debutante girls, the young professionals, the mom-crowd, the party people, etc...”
But with that comes trying to rank and file. And not just everything and everyone else, but the self too. “What's good for me, what's bad for me, where do I fit.”
But then Asheville offered up its art. While I was standing there listening to beautiful sounds made by rubbing a rock over metal strings and watching a man in the corner shimmy and sway as if something had taken over his body, it hit me. That's what Asheville's about. It's about leaving the categories and the binaries and the “making sense of it all” gently on the ground and letting yourself and everyone around you be whatever they are. If something feels bad, do less of it, change it, build something else out of it. If it feels good, do more of it, share it, shine it up and live in it. There's really nobody who can tell you what's “good” or what's “right.” And those who try? Well, Asheville itself will give you the gift of contrast. You'll notice it, right in your gut, the difference between being asked to fit in someone's box, and the feeling you'll get the next time you find yourself free to play catch with an onion inside a room with nothing in it but a ladder and a stranger.
“You do you, boo,” Asheville says. And then you do. Whatever that means. Amen.