By Jay Walljasper
As the dinner bell gongs, people stream toward Blue Mountain Center’s main house in jolly expectation of great food and memorable conversation. As has happened hundreds of times around the 20-foot dinner table, the meal begins with a round of introductions—this time everyone reveals the animal associated with the year of their birth according to the Chinese Zodiac.
At his turn, Michael Bedford posits that he might be the earliest BMC alum at the table, dating back to a “Common Practices” conference on organizing strategies in 1983. Standing up next is Lizzie Hessek, who puts Michael’s revelation in context by noting that she was not born until 1988.
About half-way around the table, Conrad Johnson proudly notes he was on hand for the very first work weekend—the occasion for this gathering—in 1984. Ann Bailey, one of the last to speak from the overflow dinner table usually reserved for poker, sums up why she’s here: “Starting about 24 hours before coming to BMC, I feel like a kid again.”
Surveying the scene, a wide smile crosses BMC founder and co-director Harriet Barlow’s face as she calculates that this is likely the largest group for dinner since Blue Mountain Center opened in 1982.
“Whether people come to work weekend once or 20 times, it’s a great gift to us,” Harriet says later. “We get 8 to 16 hours of work from a number of people and we hope they get some R&R. We’re thankful for their commitment to keeping BMC’s candle lit, nurturing other people’s opportunity to come here.”
The next morning volunteers joined crews to till the garden, rake brush, prune trees, wash windows and other not-so-random acts of upkeep. From my perch atop a seven-foot ladder equipped with Windex, I hear people reminiscing of work weekends past. “I laid those stones in the walkway.” “Hey, I remember painting that.”
Taking time out from vigorous raking by the lake, Teresa Basilio explains why she made the trip from Brooklyn: “The place, the people, the chance to give something back to a place that has given so much to me.”
As she finishes lunch, Holly Wren-Spaulding observes, “It’s hard to get away to come, but it’s so immediately worth it. There are conversations that arise at BMC that are different from what happens everyday.”
Scott Moyer—veteran of 12 work weekends and the resident piano man at this one—admits, “Part of the reason I’m here is selfish. There’s a homecoming feel.”
After dinner the second night, Jean Rohe picks up her guitar and a crowd gathers in front of the fireplace to sing—Woody Guthrie, Leonard Cohen, Leadbelly, Neal Young and Bruce Springsteen songs, but also Cyndi Lauper, Prince, Abba, Pat Benatar and a Romanian drinking ditty that Denise Iris learned from her grandfather.
There’s broad consensus throughout the gathering that BMC offers a distinctive experience of community that’s too often missing from people’s day-to-day lives.
“No one has used the word ‘vibe’ since the 1970s but this place has its own spirit. It’s like an instant gang,” explains Sheila Kinney, BMC program director from 1991 to 2000. “This place feels like it belongs to everyone who’s ever been here.”
“Harriet possesses such a vision of building community,” Michael Bedford adds. “She’s able to bring people together in a way that creates bonds.”
The inaugural work weekend in 1984 was billed as a Garden Party to attract residents and conference-goers to help plant vegetables, herbs and flowers. Work weekend 1992 saw the creation of the spiral paths in the garden, conceived by Chris Marzec as a memorial to all in the BMC family who had died. “People gathered rocks in the woods and brought them to the garden in wheelbarrows, which we then passed up the hill hand-to-hand like a fire brigade,” remembers co-director Ben Strader. “A lot of people we knew we’re dying of AIDS and we were moved to create a place of history and remembrance.”
A memorial service has been held every year since then, which echoes a New Orleans funeral parade with flamboyantly dressed people playing music. Another layer of meaning was added to this year’s observance since work weekend coincided with Climate Justice marches across the world.
So on a rainy Sunday morning, more than two dozen people march to the garden wearing Mardi Gras beads, party hats, boas, ballgowns and fezes while playing drums, pipes, bells, whistles, maracas, tambourines and toy accordions. They carried signs with messages like “There’s No Planet B” and “Make America Cool Again.” BMC trustee Chuck Collins dressed up as a six-foot woodland beaver for the occasion. Even with this merry-making start, the ceremony itself is quite moving with the group forming a circle in the Buddha garden to listen as Harriet calls out the name of each departed BMC friend, followed by everyone offering names of other beloved who are gone.
The rain lets up as people stroll back to the main house in groups of two and three, picking up threads of earlier conversations. Blue Mountain Center’s 36th season is now officially underway.