Fare Thee Well

Fare Thee Well

Harriet Barlow and David Morris (Photo courtesy BMC Archives)

I agreed to organize BMC prior to ever setting foot on the property that was to become my home, my workplace, my community, the site of my wedding to David Morris—and the political, practical, emotional and spiritual centerpoint of my existence for these 36 precious years.

On a sunny day in the spring of 1981, Adam Hochschild and I lunched on the patio of a restaurant in Ghirardelli Square in San Francisco. I believe my dish was Crabmeat Dewey. I should recall every detail because the conversation we had spirited me away from work on public policy and political organizing toward an adventure in discovery and co-creation I could not have imagined.

David Hunter, a colleague to us both, had suggested to Adam that he pick my brain about the idea of converting the Harold Hochschild (Adam’s father, who had died recently) vacation house into some sort of writers retreat, a la McDowell or Yaddo.  I had never visited the property but Adam described it as  “a camp of sorts, that is able to comfortably accommodate 15 or so guests.”  His mention of a lake and a mountain enhanced the image in my mind.

At the time, I was on leave from the Institute for Local-Self-Reliance, living in Bolinas, CA in an under-furnished cliff-side house that I deemed suitable (and could afford) for writing the book that was scratching at my brain.  In his inimitable way, Adam lured my creative juices away from the book to engage with him in imagining a vision and, ultimately a plan, for what was to become Blue Mountain Center.

The specifics of the conversation are lost to my memory.  But I can imagine it.  In response to Adam’s gentle prodding, I might have said, “Perhaps a gathering place for cultural workers— artist/activists who are working to forge a more compelling progressive, winning movement?  (We were still bruised from Reagan’s 1980 victory.)  “Yes!”, he responded. “ And what about some sort of residency program too?”  “Yes, those elements could be compatible.”  “And a place to  incubate projects, and maybe an R&R capacity for burned-out organizers?” And so on.

That’s how I was lured and snagged.

The short of the story is that I agreed to organize BMC prior to ever setting foot on the property that was to become my home, my workplace, my community, the site of my wedding to David Morris (my anchor and sail) and —with time—the political, practical, emotional  and spiritual centerpoint of my existence for these 36 precious years.

Anyone reading this can appreciate that it was a very pleasant shock to finally visit the place into which I would settle.  The Hochschilds’ cook, our beloved Evelyn Thompson, and property Superintendent Albert (Brother) Blanchard helped me learn quickly and in no uncertain terms that real life in the Adirondacks was not for emotional or physical wimps.  I am forever grateful for the grit they required me to garner in order to enjoy the benefits of a culture that was intensely familial (“If your grandparents weren’t born here, you’re a newcomer”) and where help is scare and loyalty hard-earned.  There was also a lot of cultural code to absorb.

Upon arriving, I was game to meet the challenge of turning a vision into a program.  Friends helped. Ben’s mom, Nancy Strader, sewed curtains and cushions to soften the feel of the “servants wing” that was now to house staff and visual artists. In short order, those artists were offered the studios that were honed from former horse stalls and a part of the boat house.  The early Residents helped me resolve hard, core operational questions such as “Whom do we want to attract and how do we do that?  How do we choose among those who apply?  And how do we create and sustain a culture that reflects our mission and vision?”   Of course we still ask versions of those questions to this day. And we still depend on friends, old and new, to help us find ways to be relevant, meaningful and ever in service to “The Work”— the central project of movement building that occurs outside our nine acres.

Ben arrived in June of 1984, fresh from high school graduation. Bringing only a backpack, he became our first intern and, incrementally and cumulatively, my  primary co-creator of the life of Blue Mountain Center.   Sharon Fish, Kay Burnett, Sheila Kinney, Wretha Wiley, Alice Gordon and a blessed raft of other able program staff and interns also gardened and schlepped and helped organize dance parties and the conferences that were the animating forces of day-to-day life at BMC.  Chocolate chip and oatmeal raisin cookies, bacon and the capacious embrace of nature were the balm that kept us going. Since our first Resident, author Eliot Asinof, ambled into the kitchen in June of 1982, several thousand Residents and an equal number of conferees have graced BMC. They’ve instilled in us the passionate commitment to this place and community that is required to sustain BMC.

Meanwhile, over these precious decades, a parade of often unexpected teachers have shared invaluable lessons  in movement building, community dynamics, wonder,  the power of generosity, and the invaluable gift of freedom from certainty.

Ben Strader will become the Director of BMC at the end of this season.  No one could be better prepared or more able than he to work with you to sustain and evolve the program and spirit of Blue Mountain Center.  It is my solace and joy to think of him in this role.

Folding my BMC tent will be hard.  But as all seasoned desert travelers know, you’ll find your friends again at other oases.  Come find us.



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