The Hillhouse

The Journey of a Mother and Son

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!!

 

Better Plans Ahead February 20, 2014

Folks warn ‘be careful what you ask for’ – because as we all know, sometimes you sure can get a whole lot more than you bargained for. And sometimes you don’t even get what you asked for – you get a whole new situation which might even seem quite beside the point; the answer to your prayers comes in the most unlikely forms, trying your patience, provoking self-pity and other loathsome mental states…. You wish rain would come to save your garden, but instead a powerful storm comes and leaves things looking much worse than before, but then that inspires an inventory and cleaning-out of the space resulting in a new, more beautiful garden. You hope for a promotion at your boring workplace, but instead you get fired – but now you finally have the time to go out look for that job you really want. You drop a lot of cash buying the wrong color paint for your house and then it turns out to look even better than what you’d originally chosen… I think you get the point. Right? You ask, then you receive. But not always in the way you had planned. But that’s the thing about plans – some of the very best ones change, and go on to become even better ones still.

Maybe you’re in an incredibly unfair and miserable situation – maybe there’s a high level of fear or uncertainty, discomfort, lack of basic things like food, shelter, heat…. Maybe things truly are shitty right now. (I know a little bit about it. Not the nitty-gritty, honest-to-goodness down-and-out stuff, but down enough, thank you.) There is one consolation to be taken even if this is your current state, and that is: if you don’t want things to be like this, don’t worry, they won’t be. Things change – so you always have something to look forward to.  If you have the patience to keep the faith, stay as hopeful as you’re able, and wait it out – soon you’ll see where this new situation takes you (the old ‘fake it til you make it’ idea) – you might just end up in a much improved place in your life – a place that didn’t even show up on your list. Might be a nice surprise.

Without meaning to appear coy or too passive-aggressive here, indulge me if you will in the follow story lines (yes, this is my story): Your husband leaves you. You hadn’t for one moment ever considered this might happen, and yet now you have no choice but to deal with the situation. The only option is to keep moving. You’re hurt and angry and scared, but nonetheless you begin to make progress down that new, unforseen path (of course you may well be sobbing and screaming much of the way). And a coupla years later down that unexpected path, you find that you’ve just learned a whole lot of wonderful things and met a whole bunch of interesting people that you wouldn’t have otherwise. And your kid goes to a school he loves, heck, you even work at that same school. Now that time has eased up on your heartache, you can look back from where you came, look at where you’ve arrived, and now, only now can you agree with the universe that it did indeed give you just about everything you’d wanted. Ok, so you’re doing it solo, and sometimes that has you a bit down, but maybe even that plays an important role in the perfection of your current life. (If nothing else, you can make your very own rules, do things your way. Keep a clean bathroom and a tidy house. !) So maybe things don’t always happen the way you’d originally planned, but that’s only because you can’t see the good stuff down that other road… You haven’t got the advantage of seeing the landscape from above – but apparently, it seems, someone or something else does have the greater perspective. And ‘it’ has graciously given you a nudge down the fruit-bearing path. (To me it seemed more like a rather rude shove, to be honest, but sometimes I guess it takes a little extra muscle to get someone moving in the right direction. Especially for the more stubborn sorts.)  So thank you, universe. Nice of you to help out, I appreciate that.

Continuing on with the story line… Sometimes you do want something really big to happen in your life. And instead of experiencing a dramatic, unanticipated, life-changing even, you experience what you perceive to be nothing at all. So you decide you’re ready. You plead a little with the universe, you make your case, you throw down the gauntlet. Your time has come, please, world, bring it on! You are sick and tired of things the way they are, you’re ready for something new, and you let the world know it. But your frustration is deep and you’re probably not seeing that the thing you’ve begged for is indeed making its way to you in mysterious, unpredictable ways. You haven’t noticed any of this yet, so you’re still pretty crabby… and you’re pretty close to convinced that it’s a done deal. Nothing’s coming your way. But hey – you kinda thought as much. Whatever. Slog though, keep making those to-do lists, keep on keepin’ on. At least you got a new mat for that little spot in front of the kitchen sink and a hyacinth plant for the table. Those are an upgrade of sorts. And maybe those’ll have to do. Cuz all this other shit – this big life shit, the real stuff – man, it’s way too much anyhow. I mean, can I see myself doin something so big? So ambitious? So, er, grown up? Naw – shit like that’s for those other people. Naw, I’m just gonna live my little life, do the best job I can at that, and be kind to people as I go along. That should do. That should take me on outta here. What else can I do? I’m not young anymore, aint got the tiny body, the full tank of non-stop energy, I’m not living in the epicenter of an uber cool music scene… Things are different.  I’m a farmer now. A mom who might also pass as a grandmother. Yeah, I’m the crazy chicken lady across the field who teaches piano lessons. Start a business? Take a huge leap into territory that I know nothing about? That shit just sounds crazy. Maybe crazy chicken lady aint so bad.

Lately, as in the past few months, I’ve been toying with some different thoughts about  who I am and what my role should be in this next chapter, and these ideas are growing, marinating, morphing and showing signs of something much, much larger waiting for me just a bit down the road from here…. It seems – fairytale-esque though it sounds – that in order to see a dream take shape, one must keep a vision, hold it dear, and then share that vision with the world… Like a snowball rolling down the hill, your idea collects more mass on its travels, and soon you have far more than you’d set out to create… And then, of course, you have just entered into yet another chapter in your personal and professional growth. Holy shit. But then it’s not a dream anymore, you can’t hide anywhere, and what if you’re not truly able to act on all these prophetic-like platitudes you’ve been broadcasting all over? What a disappointment you’ll be then – mostly to yourself, of course, but that’s still not going to be as bad as the embarrassment you’ll feel at your very public ‘jump and miss’. Oh oh. What have I started? Sheesh. Think I’m frightening myself here. I’m exhausted and I haven’t even begun. Gotta keep my focus…

You do know what I’m babbling about, don’t you? Life, death, the Studio and unforseen catastrophes…. Let me backtrack just a second… I’ve been formatting and printing out all my posts from the past three years, and I stopped to read some posts from the past couple months – the time before my father died, a time of great inner sadness and reflection. At some point I lamented that I felt I needed a greater purpose in my life – that I almost felt I had a calling, but I didn’t yet know what it was. And then of course there were dad’s enigmatic words shortly after that…”When beautiful January comes…” And then there was beautiful January – and with it, the great flood. The Studio was ruined. My vision for the future seemed dead before it had begun. And yet… Things have been happening with great serendipity; the right people appearing at the right time, kind offers being made, solutions appearing from nowhere, improvements suggesting themselves as we re-think our plans… All sorts of things are coming together like some sort of energetic groundswell coming to lift me up and push me into this next era.

In a way I’m glad my father is gone now, because I don’t feel I could have moved forward with a new vision for The Studio had he still been here, after all, this place was his baby. He created it with a very specific – and successfully met – vision of having a venue crafted with superb acoustics for his beloved eighteenth century music. That was his field of expertise, and it is simply not mine. (I feel I should add that while I do dearly love Baroque music, I don’t know enough about that world to make it my thing.) I not only feel freer to move into this next adventure, but I feel that somehow dad is energetically supporting me from wherever it is that he exists now. Oh this is tricky territory – I have some dear friends for whom this sort of talk verges on insane nonsense, some friends who may agree more than they’d ever let on, and some friends who wonder why I pussyfoot around here when clearly I’m talking about my dad being in Heaven, and that he’s still somehow connected to this world – and more than that – he’s able to assist me on some level. Hey, I don’t know the truth, all I do know is that a situation which had me wanting to hug my knees to my chest and rock back and forth in a dark closet has now got me excited to wake up in the morning, inspired to move, thrilled to follow where this all leads… Cuz I’m going somewhere. Not quite sure where, but that’s ok. I have a loose plan, and I’ll leave it that way, cuz things will be changing yet again, I’m sure of it. And I’m also pretty sure that whatever happens next will be paving the way for better things just over the horizon….

 

 

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.