The Hillhouse

The Journey of a Mother and Son

Tribe November 14, 2015

Sousaphone

Elihu loves everything low – especially if it’s made of metal. There is no doubt about it, this kid’s found his tribe.


Elihu’s flight got in very late last night, but the kid, he’s a trooper. He’s traveled a lot more than many adults I know, and in spite of having to deal with some really draining hurry-up-and-wait situations, his spirits seldom flag. Last night was no exception; he passed through the exit hallway as nonchalantly as if he were merely getting off the school bus. He coolly walked up to me this time – for the first time ever – without being followed by an employee of the airline holding out a clipboard for my signature. No one checked for my ID to see that I really was his mother. Nope. None of that stuff anymore. Just a lone ‘young traveler’ (as Southwest now officially refers to him) returning home.

Our reunions are different these days, and I struggle to remember what it felt like to see that tiny boy coming around the corner and running into my open arms. Now we just sort of pair up and begin walking to the escalators as if no time had passed, and as if we were nothing more than casual acquaintances. Which is ok, cuz however brilliant I may think my child to be, he is still 12. And self-respecting 12-year-old boys, no matter how much they love their mothers, do not want to be seen running into open arms, being gushed-over and animatedly doted upon. It’s my deepest desire to hold him tight and have him return the embrace, but I check myself. And secretly, I congratulate myself for holding back; because I actually do think that I’m settling into my new role as mother of a pre-teen with some style and dignity. It’s not easy, but it’s important to adjust, to respect the change that’s taking place here. And it’s got me thinking.

The little boy chapter is coming to a close, this new teenage chapter is yet to begin, and what follows is almost too much for me to even contemplate. One day, in a mere minute or two at the rate things are moving, my son will move out. And away. The way things are looking now (with his growing love of all things German), it may well be very far away. Our airport reunions will be far fewer. They may one day become more joyful, animated events, but nonetheless, there will be less of them for sure. As I sit beside him at baggage claim, I can see in the super-bright overhead lighting that there is a darker and more obvious patch of hair above his lip, and my heart sighs heavily. It’s coming. This young man is changing right before me. And one day, he’ll be out in the world doing his thing, and by then… it’ll be just me. I don’t mention this observation of mine, but as I study his elongated fingers and note how he sits almost as tall as me now, my heart whimpers. This will not be easy. I’m definitely gonna need a plan.

As we chat on the walk back to the car Elihu asks what I did this evening. I tell him that a friend had come over, and we’d had dinner and hung for a bit. Elihu asked about the nature of my relationship, and I told him. Me, I don’t want another element in my life. Not romantic, an any rate. I’m just not interested. “Does he know that?” Elihu asked me, sounding more like a bestie than my young son. I told him that yeah, I’d made it clear. There was a pause. “So, then, what do you want?” Elihu asked. I thought about the wide-open expanse of life in front of me and considered it a bit more critically than usual.

Recently, I’d made digital copies of some ancient videos. They represented so many of my old worlds, and it blew my mind to see things that I never thought I’d see again… My son, a tiny baby, being given a bath in the kitchen sink in our old house in Evanston. A clip or two of me at the radio station getting ready to go on air. Seeing Elihu’s father and me, performing together, happy and doing what I’d loved so well, it had cheered my spirits and saddened me all at the same time. Seeing me as an even younger, huge-haired rocker was amusing, and remembering that world was like peering into a dream… Then there were the alt-country bands, the indie projects and a million little worlds in between. Bits and pieces. A haphazard mosaic of my young adult life.

And then even longer ago here were fuzzy clips transferred from my dad’s super 8 reels of us as a young family – back in the early 70s when the Studio was just being built. Clips of concerts and rehearsals, of harpsichords being loaded into old Volkswagons. family dogs running underfoot, too-long scenes of cherished family cats doing nothing much at all. Almost every adult was smoking, and all were laughing and happy in this world of their own creation. I was peering through a magical window to see my mom, dad, Frank and Martha, and the many musicians who’d spent time with us in summers past as young adults – most of them far younger than I am now. These people were my whole world when I was young, and now many were simply dead and gone.

I thought of all the friends and peers whom I’d loved who were now so far-flung across the globe and fully embedded in their contemporary lives… All these groups I’d also been a part of once. All of it – the distant past and even the not-so-distant past – seemed in stark contrast to our current life. We had friends, yes, we had wonderful neighbors and truly good people in our lives, but still, there was something still missing. “What do you really want?” Elihu asked me again as we finally reached the car in the airport parking lot. After another moment of thought, I answered him, happy to have finally identified it for myself: “A tribe.”

Everyone needs to belong. Groups – in whatever form they manifest – are for most of us, essential. And all of us belong to several groups at any one time. Even here and now, in my somewhat smaller life, we belong to certain populations. The Waldorf school is one. Elihu’s peers, another. And there are those who help to make up our family by virtue of their physical proximity to us. But in revisiting these videos and recordings from another era, I’m reminded of the bonds that are absent in our current life. I miss being part of a community – of musicians.

Musically speaking, things appear somewhat fragmented in this area. I meet musicians who seem to know only folks whose genre they share. I inquire about folks outside their worlds, and they don’t really know much. Back in ‘the day’, in Chicago, while there were surely separate and distinct genres of musicians and scenes, there was often an overlap. Pop musicians would hire jazz guys to play on their tracks, jazz guys would stop in the dive country bars and marvel over the hidden talent there, hard rockers and R&B artists would mingle at the same parties. And me, I benefited from all of it. Me, I floated all over the place. As a result, I felt at home in many worlds. But the thing of it was, all these disparate musicians were aware of each other on some level. There was a commonality among all musicians, and one almost always felt an inherent sense of belonging. At least that’s how it felt to me. But here, in this small town, it doesn’t feel like that at all. Granted, I’m not working here as a musician, and I don’t get out a whole lot, but I’ve made some small inroads, and from what I can see, there are a lot of ‘micro scenes’, and no substantial cross-pollinisation between em. I’m not sure which population I might belong to. Honestly, I’m not convinced I belong in any of them.

Secretly, I’ve held the hope that one day I might bring the music to me; that I might create my own scene here, rather than searching for one out there. While the Studio is currently a bit too ambient and live a room in which to host anything but the most acoustic of musical ensembles, I hope to figure out a way to deaden it up a bit so I can begin to think of casting a wider net. As I imagine a future in which all things might be possible, I envision the room, once again full of people. Alive with music. A place in which people can meet each other. A place where a new tribe might assemble.

It is beginning to happen. Maybe not in a terribly obvious way, but things are starting to take shape. There is now a weekly yoga class. I see the looks on the faces of folks who are seeing the space for the first time. And just as in my father’s day, I hear people remark with surprise as they scan the room that they had ‘no idea’ a place like this existed here. But it does, and it calls for people to gather within its walls.

As the room fills with a dozen middle-aged moms in search of time for themselves, I begin to see more possibility growing… When Kristin dims the lights and begins to coach our bodies to move and our minds to relax, I begin to feel a future growing in this place. The way isn’t clear yet, but it isn’t as vague as it was a year ago. This is a time of transition, I remind myself again. I need to be patient. I also need to stick to my to-do lists and be vigilant about following through and keeping on the path. Things will get better, the way will get easier, and someday, oh I pray, I’ll find my new tribe along the way.

 

Waking Time August 15, 2015

The sound was so shrill that it pierced the layers of fog surrounding me and reached deep into my subconscious, playing itself as a new feature of my dream. It sounded as it always did; like a warning or a cry for help. Was it a child’s cry? It didn’t quite sound like that, but it evoked a similar tightening of my gut. Was it a predator? Was it a happy sound or one of anguish? It was hard to tell, and as always, even after searching my surroundings as best I could, I wasn’t able to find the creature responsible for it. Gradually, as the cry continued, it pulled my waking self loose from the blissful abandon of my dreamscape, until I floated up and out and eons away from that place and instead came to the daily, and many times disappointing realization, that I was here. In my bed. And the goddam rooster was crowing.

Today’s re-entrance into waking reality was a little bit less of a blow than in mornings past. Elihu’s been gone for a couple of weeks and I’ve gotten a lot accomplished. Some mornings I wake with dread. Some with urgency; last night’s to-do list sits encouragingly on my bedside table and I’m ready to rock. Some days I awake in a pleasant neutrality, with caution and gratitude striking a momentary balance before the day begins to favor one over the other. Either way, it’s very seldom that I wake up entirely happy to be here. But this morning it definitely was different. Maybe not exactly a thrill, but at least waking up today didn’t pull my spirits down. That was progress.

A week before, each day had started differently; I’d had house guests stay here and so for that window in time things slowed down. So as not to lose forward momentum, immediately upon waking I turned my attentions to minor domestic repairs and garden chores to assure the mundane stuff got done, even when larger projects had to wait a bit. It all worked out very well, and in fact the visit was filled with serendipitous little meetings and outings – plus it gave me the opportunity to be with my friend’s daughter, a young girl who’m I’ve known for much of her life. We enjoyed some true girl time together (Elihu’s a great kid, but he could give a hoot whether I dress up or wear farm boots to town) and a chance to wear ‘super-sparkly’ stuff and mascara. (Just so ya know, Lilas and I also caught plenty of frogs.) Plus mom Mary left me with a pretty tasty recipe for oatmeal chocolate chip pancakes. It was a nice break in the routine, and after they left I could feel a refreshed surge of excitement for all that lay before me.

It’s beginning to look like the Studio might really blossom in the coming year – construction’s coming along, both indoors and out, and the place looks gorgeous. I’ve been trying to move about in the world in spite of ongoing panic issues, and have been making an effort to meet new people and see how other folks run their businesses. I’ve been practicing piano and have spent hours honing my book, moving songs into my preferred keys, merging lyrics and chords, making peace with formerly unknown bridges and verses. I’ve even gone out and met musicians. I’ve learned the contents of my wardrobe and cobbled together a few new outfits that will suit a new, public and active life. And more than all of this – I’ve finally gotten rid of the falling-apart and mismatched table and chairs that took up most of the precious screen porch. Since my food bill had been considerably less over much of the child-free summer, I was able to put that money towards an ensemble of low-end patio furniture I’d had my eye on since June. My patience paid off; the stuff had been marked down by almost half. I borrowed Zac and Stephanie’s vintage diesel truck and bounced down the road to pick em up. Planted the old wooden chairs at the top of the hill in the woods (what fun that always is to come upon some useful chairs when on a walk! And in the winter, it’s a great view) and last night, as the grass was still wet from a recent rain, I launched the old table to the heavens in an immense fire.

The first thing I did this morning was check the porch to see if it I hadn’t maybe dreamed it all… and to make sure the heavy table had indeed burned. No, that had not been a dream. It was now a pile of white ash. And yes, the porch looked lovely. It was whispering to me to come, sit, take my coffee there. Ok, maybe on paper it doesn’t seem like such a big deal, but this has added a whole new room to the house, and plus it’s outside. Surrounded by flowers, hummingbirds and butterflies, its ceiling dancing with the reflected sunlight from my pond and my pool. My kiddie pool. But still.

I also got a lawnmower this past week. Got five open acres that the woods is quickly reclaiming and have felt a growing urgency that I equip myself to take some action. I have a friend who mows the place a couple times a year just to keep on top of it, but the place really needs a bit more maintenance than that. A rider is far beyond my budget, but I was able to find a self-propelled and fairly new Troy Bilt from a fellow down the road – and what’s more – I can actually pull start it myself without throwing my back out. Yes. Finally, I have the power to cut my own grass. Again, on paper, not much. But in reality, it truly makes me queen of my castle at last.

The kid’s having a great time with his father and their family. He’s on Washington Island in the far northern region of Wisconsin, kayaking and enjoying nature walks. He sounds rested and happy. Makes me happy too. Glad he’s able to share in all of that typically summer stuff. I don’t always have the resources to give him those experiences. So that’s good. We’ve both enjoyed our time away. I have two nights left, and in that time I hope to sit in at the local piano bar. All this practicing has my voice a little fuzzy and my knuckles are puffed and sore with arthritis, but hey, it all still works. Things could always be worse. !

Shortly after Bald Mountain called me back into this waking world, I checked my nightstand to see if there might be a note of encouragement left by my last night’s self to help propel me into a new day…. And indeed, there was. It read “August 15th, 2015. Been here seven years.” Earlier this week I’d passed my three year mark for having quit smoking (I was a part-time smoker then, but still, it counts). And wouldn’t ya know, here it was. Today was the day Elihu and I had arrived, seven years ago, at this great unknown new life. A sketchy ranch house with green shag carpeting and what I like to call “high Angie Dickinson” decor – wrought iron pulls on the mahogany-toned cabinets, red velvet-covered doorbell speaker… I had looked about me from a place of deepest desolation. My head was spinning, my heart broken, my future absolutely unknown. The faint smell of wet dog didn’t help, and to be honest, neither did the fine view from my living room window. I was petrified of the situation, and my ex was so full of rage at me for having left. It was an absolutely horrible place to be. But see, now – it’s not. Things aren’t exactly what I’d thought they’d be when I set out to create a family and build a new life, but still. This place is my home, and this is my life. Not so bad. Really.

If you’d have told me seven years ago today that down the line I’d be raising chickens, shooting at foxes and stuffing a string bass into the back of my CRV, I’d have thought you were dreaming. But look how it’s all turned out. Wow. Me, a single mom in the country raising chickens and a polka-loving, tuba-playing boy? Yup. It’s all true. And I’m pretty sure I’m wide awake.

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Clean Slate February 22, 2014

For me this has been a day of very mixed feelings. From elation at the prospects of the future to intense pangs of sorrow at having lost something precious, now irretrievably gone from my life…

Today some friends and I cleared the Studio out of its contents. There was so much more stuff than I’d realized there’d be. And I do understand pretty well how stuff adds up – I’m rather a stickler for organization and pairing down to the most important stuff – but the piles and the boxes just continued to appear. It’s amazing how we humans manage to stash away objects. And when you finally do get around to excavating every last corner of the place and have set all the piles out before you, what then?  How do you let go of things when they’re so loaded with nostalgia, longing, subtle shades of regret? Where do you draw the line?

I regarded the boxes and when pressed as to whether or not they should go out onto the big trash pile I found myself sounding a lot like those poor souls on the show Buried Alive… “Mmm, uh, I might use those again, uh, maybe just put them here for now. Hm, um, wait, wait… I’m not sure, I don’t know…” Wait, me? I can’t let go? I myself used to help others let go of their stuff and organize their possessions long before it was trendy, long before places like The Container Store were even dreamt of. Under the informal moniker of “Assess a Mess” I’d go to people’s homes and help them throw away all of their crap or send it back out into the world. A combination of psychologist, personal assistant and trashman, I’d help them make all the hard choices. I employed what I called my “rule of two”: if you hadn’t used it in the past two years and didn’t plan on using it in the next two months, then out it went. I wasn’t cold-hearted about sending stuff away; I always tried to find objects a second life – and this was before the era of Freecycle, Craigslist or Ebay, yet somehow I’d make it through mountains of stuff, leaving a perfectly clean and organized joint behind. But now that it’s come to me – now that we’re talking about my recently deceased father here and all the tangible results of his life’s work – it just isn’t the same deal at all. And my mother’s hand is here too; it was she who kept the place running, made the videos of all the concerts, fed and watered the audiences at intermission, the musicians before and after concerts and rehearsals – her things are here too, and it’s troublesome to vote her things out when I know all the love and attention they represent…

Thankfully I had my partner Ceres and her kids here to help. It was far more work than it appeared to be at first, and I – physically or emotionally – couldn’t have done it alone. After getting a bit further into the job I discovered that the more I excavated, the more that I liberated the walls and corners of long-forgotten stuff, the more hopeful I became. I began to envision little future scenes of what one day happen here in this room. I’d been listening to the boombox I’d bought dad for Christmas last year (so he could listen to his favorite Bob and Ray CDs) to keep me going, and I heard violinist Andrew Bird on the local college station and wondered… might I host him here one day? I realize he’s become kinda big now, but I knew him in Chicago back in the day. Never know. And what of my other friends from my old life? I started imaging concerts, combinations of folks whose music I love… I didn’t want to spoil my fantasy with all the ‘yes, but‘ conditions, so I held back the sober voice of reality and limitation and allowed myself to continue to dream while I cleaned… Later on I heard jazz vocalist Janice Borla – also another fellow Chicagoan – and man, I though her recent recording sounded great. A totally different kind of music and crowd, but maybe, I thought, might I have something like that here too?

All manner of possibilities started to come to me, and I let myself fantasize for a bit as I worked. I loved music of all kinds – I just couldn’t see limiting the room to one thing or another. House concerts? Maybe that’s the route to go… Baroque Ensembles that are starting out and need a smaller venue? Hm. The jazz kids from Skidmore hosting small ensembles and including some of the high schoolers in town?? Stuff just kept coming. But then I’d feel a sudden wave of panic, when I’d look up from my task for a moment and see in my mind’s eye the room as it had been for decades… In an instant it was a late summer afternoon and the house was full of people, there was the scent of freshly cut hay in the air, and of course the music. The harpshichord, the gambas, violins, flutes, voices… The familiar sound of the chairs being scooched back on the wood floor as people got up to stretch and mill about… The dreamlike vision came upon me and with it all those subtle feelings I associate with my entire childhood. In my head I could still see so clearly the golden sunlight streaming through the western doors; I remember the flowers, freshly cut from the local roadsides, that my mother would arrange for a vase on the stage; I remember the murmur of the audiences’ voices as they chatted during intermission….

Baroque music and the scent of newly cut hay, the warm sunlight, low in the sky… The memories all swirl around my head, tugging at me to remain there with them, never to leave them lest they die forever… My heart wants things to continue to hear and see these very same things for years without end.  But of course, this is impossible now. Their leader is gone, that era has closed. I know I sure don’t feel like much of a leader myself, and I haven’t a clue what I’m in for. But I guess there’s no question about it. It’s my party for now, ready or not. Into the future we go, much to learn, much to do, and lots of great music and memories yet ahead. Thanks, mom and dad, for the great start. The Studio won’t be the same, but it will continue to have a lot of heart and soul.

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The Studio as it appears from the South from just outside mom and dad’s house.

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This is the side of the Studio people see first, the main door and box office are here. Note the stuff already piling up out front.

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I really wanted to convey the size of this hump in the middle of the room. Seriously, right now we could rent the place out as a skate park! Look at this stool – all four legs are on the floor!

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A selfie with the ever-present tapestry on the back of the stage wall.  Dad and I once had a picture taken of us on this very same spot. I’m feeling a bit sad about things right now.

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See the tilt of the floor now? Crazy!

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I was hoping this might illustrate the drama of the mid-room bump. Kinda…

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Ceres’ son, Christoper, is being creative in trying to illustrate the big bump. In real life it looks much more impressive.

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This is the green room. None of us (mom and me, that is) ever liked dad’s ridiculous choice of green. Ich. Thank goodness I can finally get rid of it. This room served as a backstage area, holding pen for several harpsichords and apartment for musicians and their families while they played here at the Festival. Now my Rhodes lives here – but after sitting in three inches of water for over a week, it’s in need of some serious cleaning and looking-over. So back to my basement it’ll go. That’s grandma’s rocking chair on the left – in good shape. Anyone want it? It’s yours!

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More stuff.

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The box office jam-packed.

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Hmm. You can always tell a lot about a person by looking at their trash….

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The spiral staircase to the balcony. As kids we had loads of fun on this. Note the high-tech, ten pound cam-corder mounted to the balcony railing – mom recorded every last concert on it. (We’ve since had them converted to DVD.)

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The Studio’s sign came off the frame shortly before dad died, and it’s been sitting in a bank of snow. Lest it become warped and useless as the wood floor of the place, Ceres and son Brian moved it up from the road and into shelter. (The Conant’s summer cottage is in the background – it’s where my brother lives now.)

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Ahh, such a great space.

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Always loved this beam detail.

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Even with the damaged floor, she still looks beautiful.

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Had to take this pic from a distance so it’s fuzzy – but it’s from mom and dad’s very first festival in 1959. !

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Here the Zabel family is going home after an afternoon of hard work. Thanks guys! We’re on our way now!!

 

Sans Solo February 8, 2014

Not a single event, discovery or achievement has ever truly been a solitary endeavor. Whether someone’s climbed a treacherous mountain peak, invented something revolutionary or done something for the very first time – none of it happened in a vacuum, apart and unaffected by the world. No matter what Miss Rand claims, we people here on Earth are absolutely interdependent of each other. Our personal triumphs ride on the experiences of those who have come before. You can’t beat a record unless one has already been set. You can’t build something unless something similar has already been built (and likely failed, hence the innovative re-build). Coaches, teachers, guides, the opinions of friends, personal opinions, the disregard for opinions of any sort – all of it goes into the pot. (Kinda reminds me of that saying ‘if you decide not to decide, you’ve still made a choice’.) There aint no way an achievement of any sort stands on its own. In part, maybe, but certainly not entirely. Try to back-engineer, understand and then make for yourself the handful of items you use in the first five minutes of your day today. Nuff said.

And here is where I need to let go of the illusion that this burden is all my own. This is the thinking I need to assume this morning, at the beginning of the path immediately before me. Yeah, I have a lot on my plate, and yes, I will be ‘directing the troops’ as it were for the time being, and I understand it’s important to have a vision for the future, but I can also see that the project I intend to set in motion will be by no means exclusively my own baby. Even my father’s incredibly successful and long-running music festival was not his alone. It might have seemed it – he certainly did a hell of a lot of the grunt work on his own – but he could never have pulled it off had my mother not been there to feed the many musicians and their families, to keep track of who ate meat and who didn’t, who had allergies, how many beds needed to be made up, when folks were arriving, when they needed to be at the airport… Then there were the assistants – one every year – to help run the administrative side of things. And, of course, the musicians themselves who made great expenditures of time and energy to participate. One could say the whole thing was very definitely inspired by the vision of one man at its core – but in the end, the Festival of Baroque Music was a huge group effort. And from the get-go, I can see the same will be true of the Studio in its new incarnation.

In a few hours I will meet some younger-bodied folks who are going to help us begin the long and un-sexy process of cleaning up. Not meaning this to sound like a sour grapes excuse for the way I let things happen, but I don’t think we (again, not me alone, but me and my artist partner, Ceres) would have ever made such a thorough cleaning-out of the place had we not been forced to. Many times I’d walked the place, shaking my head in frustration at all the stuff that needed to be assigned new homes. Many times I’d pushed it to the back of my mind. I’d made a few feeble attempts to remove an item or two – even tried to sell some paintings at local shops – but in spite of them having been hot tickets once-upon-a-time, I couldn’t find any current interest for the art. So I brought it all back, to languish in the Studio as I waited for a plan to come to me. I still have no idea what we’ll do with the contents of the place or where it will even live as I find homes for it all. In my basement, most likely. I have the space, but I don’t relish the idea at all. It’s ok, eventually things will sort themselves out.

There’s sentiment floating around some of this stuff too, like for my dad’s harpsichord tools. What to do with them? Which items do I keep, which should I give away? Posters of past concerts, expensively framed (a Christmas gift from me and my husband one year), certificates signed by famous, long-dead musicians, awards given to my father from local institutions, and many various original paintings. Not to mention my Rhodes, which lived here as I hadn’t the room in my own place. Guess I’ll have to make room now. (I’m not one to make New Year’s resolutions, but I had secretly hoped to learn how to successfully sell on Ebay this year – now might be a good time to take that project on.) Yeah, there are things here that could very likely find appreciative homes somewhere in the world, and while it’s hugely daunting to me to know how to find those homes, at least the process has begun. Here again, it can’t be just me. I don’t have these skills (yet), so the theme of the day has now become ‘delegate’. It’s time to enroll others in the mass project. Get rid of stuff, demo, choose new materials, rebuild. And then, at long last, move forward…

I still don’t know much about the future of this place. But I do know enough to recognize those first chills of excitement, hope, inspiration…. It’s a challenge for me to move past seeing this place as my father’s, to move past all those exquisitely nostalgic memories. The other day, when Ceres, mom and I were discussing our next move, when we got to the part about the floor, mom had said something about making sure to duplicate the amazing acoustics of the first floor… but suddenly aware of what she’d said, she stopped herself short. Ceres pointed out that mom, like me, had a hard time thinking about the space in a new way. (Ironically, the place had been too live a room in which to do any other types of music besides acoustic chamber music. Yes, an audience sops up part of the sound, and yes, it’s better to start a room too live than too dead, but still…) Our objectives are going to be different now, and for me it’s still a challenge to see this old building in a new light. I understand that where dad is now, it doesn’t really matter. He saw his vision come to life, and he saw his creation come to a perfect close. He surrounded himself with all the right people to realize his dream, and now it’s my turn to do the same.

This will be an ensemble piece, with just the occasional solo.