Attracting talented musicians from around the globe, the World of Bluegrass festival was just the latest reminder that Raleigh is more akin these days to the city that never sleeps than the sleepy Southern town of yore.
On a warm Saturday night, the ghost town that was our downtown looks like Times Square.
Despite this happy, vibrant change, Raleigh’s charm is that it still feels more like Mayberry than Gotham City. For all the buzz and zip, it is still a place where a familiar face seems to lurk around every corner.
Even as megatrends transform Raleigh into a global village, it is still shaped in palpable ways by North Carolina’s small-town life and culture. New people and new ideas are helping us chart new paths, but we are all borne back ceaselessly into a mostly happy past of community.
This powerful sense connection can be hard to remember nowadays when all anybody seems to talk about is politics. And, sadly, those politics are bitter and divisive. Yes, there are reasons for this ugliness, but it can also blind us to the larger truths of the generous place we call home.
As someone forehead-deep in politics, I need as much reminding as anyone. Fortunately, I received two welcome smacks in the head this week. Not surprisingly, both came from North Carolina’s tight-knit community of writers and readers, which embodies the best traditions of our state.
My first jolt back came last Sunday, when I joined the crowd celebrating the 30th anniversary of Quail Ridge Books in Raleigh. Some of our state’s most celebrated writers – including Charles Frazier, Allan Gurganus, Randall Kenan and Jill McCorkle – mingled with readers they have known for decades in the Raleigh bookshop. Name tags seemed like unnecessary accessories. All came to pay tribute to the woman who founded the bookshop, Nancy Olson, its current owner, Lisa Poole, and the longtime staff members who feel like book-loving neighbors.
They also served as living testimony to the power of enduring tradition: To be a North Carolina writer is to be part of a community, not just of other authors, but of readers. We have taken to heart E.M. Forster’s supreme advice – “only connect” – and made it our own.
My second jolt is coming this Sunday, when I will travel to Southern Pines to serve as the master of ceremonies for the North Carolina Literary Hall of Fame. Four poets will join the 53 other literary luminaries who have received this highest tribute on the idyllic grounds of the Weymouth Center. Please join us. It’s free and open to the public.
Like those inducted before them, each of this year’s honorees has created stirring works that have moved our minds and spirits while providing themselves with the closest thing we have to immortality.
But their lives also tell us something deep and true about our home.
In a state marked by growing diversity, it is telling that while two of the inductees are Tar Heels born and bred – Shelby Stephenson grew up on a small farm near Benson; Jaki Shelton Green is from Efland – the other two are transplants. Betty Adcock hails from Texas; Ronald H. Bayes, from Oregon. Yet, both are now and forever North Carolinians. Their enshrinement reminds us that North Carolina, like America, is at its best when the light is on and the welcome mat unfurled. That openness is the essence of a healthy community.
It is also noteworthy that all four inductees are not only artists but teachers. Each has been deeply involved in nurturing the next generation of writers: Adcock at Meredith College, Bayes at St. Andrews University and Stephenson at UNC-Pembroke. Green, who shared the power of poetry while serving as Piedmont Laureate, has conducted creativity and writing workshops around the world.
Indeed, so many North Carolina authors have learned their craft from Hall of Fame Tar Heels – including James Applewhite, Doris Betts, Fred Chappell, Reynolds Price, Lee Smith, Elizabeth Spencer and Louis D. Rubin Jr. – that two degrees of separation is all that comes between most writers.
Some might say I’m writing these words with a rose-colored pen. Perhaps. But at a time when we are bombarded with so much negativity, it is good to recall all we have. To appreciate it, celebrate it and never forget that sustaining it takes work. As Bayes wrote:
On the signing of letters it can be said
that where I come from we
all sign our letters
like who doesn’t
we try to neverless to.
Contributing columnist J. Peder Zane can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.