Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Sweetgrass Baskets and Ancient Piazzas

I have a tattoo on my right arm. It's the Chinese character representing "change" placed in the center of a chaos rose. It has always stood for everything I believe, to my core - change for the sake of change, a reminder that nothing grows without changing.

So I moved from place to place, met new people, held new positions, and each time the last place I lived kind of faded into the backdrop. It was like when a baby, who has yet to master object permanence finds something new to distract her, and she forgets about the last object in question. It never occurs to her that the thing still continues somewhere without her attention. I can't tell you how appropriate this is in my situation. Charleston is still here. It moved on while I was moving on, in its own way. It's changed, it's changed dramatically in many ways, but its soul is static.

I've never moved to another city to get there. I've always moved to get away from something else, whatever it may be - more often than not, I realize in retrospect, that thing was usually me. It was always this change I was seeking, real change, always at the tips of my fingers. The pot of gold at the end of the rainbow was a merciless, trickster-shapeshifter. I've never found what I was looking for, because I've never known what it was. So I settled for change, pure and refreshing, and purely escapist, as I spoke of in another entry.

So after coming South from New England, why did I want to stay? Why come back permanently? I didn't grow up in Charleston, I grew up in West Columbia. I only came here after I returned from England, and spent the first six months trying to find a way back to the River Thames and my Brit friends. Fast forward to the past nine months, and I was in Greenville waiting for a means to come back to Charleston. The means materialized, and here I am. I'm in the only place that has ever felt like home, but asking myself why. Why do I love it so much here? Why, of all the places I've seen and in which I've lived, all the places to which I've had the opportunity to move, did I want to come back here, almost desperately?

I'm not sure it's any one thing. It's so many thousands of little things. It's the strobing of the sun through Spanish Moss that hangs from the live oak tunnel as I drive down highway 61 past the plantations. It's the smell of low tide on the wind, and the hazy silhouette of the Cooper River Bridge as seen over the marshes of West Ashley. It's the cheap-production cheese of Lowcountry Live in the morning. It's the black water threatening to retake the roads down dark highways. It's the scars of earthquakes, fires and plagues, the very old fighting the very new with its last breath, and the refusal of a city twice-burned, leveled by hurricanes and twice under siege to simply fade away. It's a solid place, fortified by time and war, a city that refuses to change, but somehow embraces it at the same time.

I love walking along the battery with sweat stinging my eyes, the pavement hot enough to warm my feet through rubber soles threatening to melt. I live the shade of trees used to hang pirates in White Point Gardens. I love the market, that while never a slave market (that was located blocks away), serves as a gentle reminder, dotted by African-American women weaving Sweetgrass baskets, that Charleston is not and never will be Disney perfection. But it is perfection.

I love that the shrink-wrapping of tourism is a barely discernible taint on the character of a city molded by war and Malaria-ridden summers. I love lazy wide ceiling fans that beat blase' against the oppressive humidity on ancient piazzas. Yes, I even love August here.

There is something about this city that grabs you and doesn't let go, an undercurrent of spiritual bliss and harshness of reality, woven together like those Sweetgrass baskets in the market.

So maybe this is why I'm here. It never let me go. And maybe this is what I was looking for all those years of my *Detour. I think it doesn't matter why. What matters is that I'm home, and for the first time in my life I know that.


Mandy said...

Welcome home, baby brother, welcome home.

There is just something magical about Charleston, isn't there?

Will Shealy said...

Without a doubt, sis,

Evil Twin's Wife said...

It sounds amazing! I love Spanish Moss (or kudzu as we called it as children, which it's really NOT kudzu, but whatever!). I hope to visit Charleston soon!

Doc said...

I like Charleston too.. haven't been in a long time though.

Anonymous said...

Well written Will.

Boomer Pie said...

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Anonymous said...

What a beautiful post! I've only been to Charleston twice and neither time I was in a state of mind where I could truly appreciate it. I've discovered Savannah in the last two years and am in love with that city (or at least what I've seen of it), I imagine it is the same feel of Charleston.

I relate to your moving often thing. Since my husband and I have been married, we seem to always have our sights set on the next place. Tallahassee has become home to us though and these days when the "next place" is discussed I feel more sad than excited. I guess that's a good sign and maybe we'll just stay put this time....