The past few days have been like a bad episode of Survivor (put aside for a moment, if you can, the implication that sometimes there’s a good episode of Survivor). We’ve been knee deep in mud in Ellenville, N.Y., subject to torrential downpours, tents that threaten to collapse, golf carts that get stuck in manure piles. And I’ve been suffering the agony a parent feels when her only child decides that what she really, really wants out of life is to rise at dawn, hoist herself onto a large pony, and jump in intricate patterns around a show ring under the cruelly subjective gaze of a judge. As my 12-year-old daughter, Caity, would happily tell you, she’s always been a country person. She might have been born in Mount Sinai hospital in a birthing room overlooking Central Park, but that, apparently, was a fluke, and deep in nature is where she belongs. This is one of the factors that led to the decision my husband, Kevin, and I made two and a half years ago to move 280 miles north to Saratoga Springs. Neither of us thought we were country types (unless scrupulously reading the vacation houses section of the weekend New York Times counts). But we were ready to try it out—I would leave publishing to become the president of Yaddo (the 100-year-old artists’ retreat that has hosted many of the 20th-century greats, from Aaron Copland to Sylvia Plath, Philip Guston to Philip Roth), and Kevin would write without constant interruption from honking traffic, the dog-walker, the baby sitter, and the usual clamor of the Upper West Side.
Back to reality: Before mud season there was endless-snow season, which created immense, Great Wall of China-esque shapes around the 400 acres that we now call home. When I was being interviewed for this job, someone asked: “What about the winter? Do you think you’ll be able to handle it?” In a moment of hubris, I scoffed at the notion that a little ice storm or two could rattle me. I was raised in Scotland, after all.
And, indeed, people around here have learned to embrace the seasonal extremes that come their way—snow, for example, equals the prospect of a great day on the slopes. In my past life, when I was the editor in chief of Elle magazine and liked to wear toeless shoes year-round, snow equaled the unnerving prospect of the town car not pulling right up to the curb at 1633 Broadway. In the city, the elements are to be railed against, battled with, and subdued. The expression of personal affront is a competitive sport for the urban dweller faced with obstacles; tolerance of detours and delays is the bucolic parallel.
Now that I split my time between Saratoga and the city, I find that this is just one of the schisms that I have to straddle. I listen daily to people who fear the city—and they did long before 9/11—and who sigh sympathetically at the thought that I have to spend so much time there. On the other hand, the majority of the 200 or so artists who stay at Yaddo each year are inner-city types, and for them “disaster thinking” centers on ticks and bats and the growing rumor that someone heard a coyote call really close to one of the studios back in the woods. Last week, as I settled into my Amtrak seat and prepared to look out at the Hudson for the two and a half hours it takes to get from Penn Station to Albany, a billboard looming above the highway caught my eye: Bad Things Happen When You Leave the City.
These competing conditions for safety remind me of Samuel Johnson’s notion that civilization had caused the monsters and gremlins that had once lived in the forests to move into the cities. Without that flip, the pastoral ideal would have been impossible. Since then, the flip has flopped back and forth, and here we all are, sensing threat wherever we go.
Last week, at a meeting of Yaddo’s finance committee, I listened to one of Wall Street’s top analysts wonder out loud whether the story for 2003 would be SARS or the war in Iraq. This is a man who measures time by grand acts (“Nixon took us off the gold standard, and look at what happened”) and their impact on the stock exchange. He was hoping that Iraq was this year’s story, hoping that the price of oil really would come down, hoping that the latest virus felling people like trees in Asia wouldn’t grab hold in the current culture of fear and push consumer confidence further down the drain. This is the world we’re all trying to navigate, and as we vibrate at ever-increasing frequencies in response to the daily headlines, back here, up in the woods, the goal is to create an atmosphere that, in the words of our founders, is “conducive to good and important creative work.” We are a buffer zone; that’s what we do. The stillness that exists here is one of the things artists mean when they talk about the “Yaddo magic.”
As the three of us drove up I-87 today in the pelting rain, wet horse gear in the back, semi-dry humans in the front, I found myself wondering what had happened to transform Rain and Monsoon from neighborhood restaurants to facts of life that I track compulsively on the Weather Channel. Then we swung into the long driveway that winds past the public gardens at Yaddo, past the Yaddo mansion, past the studios, and finally to our house. Of all the things to fret about, the weather seems like a pretty sane choice.