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Yaddo: Transforming Sorrow into Joy

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Yaddo, in Saratoga Springs, New York, is more than America's most prestigious artist retreat: it is a testament to one couple's determination to transubstantiate loss into works of art.

When I was born, still mourning a brother who survived but a few days, my parents gave me his name. His absence has been forever in my life a powerful presence. Yaddo's story is also about the presence that absence makes. After the tragic deaths of their children, Katrina and Spencer Trask dedicated themselves to the creation of Yaddo for the same reason that my parents created me. They hoped to transform sorrow into joy.

There clings to Yaddo (rhymes with "shadow") an appealing Victorian melancholy that serves as an unspoken reminder to even the fastest of trackers in any given pack of ambitious young artists passing through the place of serious art's immense stakes.

I first came to Yaddo in summer 1984. A few months earlier, my mother had died in my arms and I had left the Midwest house in grew up in, resolved never to return. I had just graduated from the Curtis Institute. It was the very, very end of a different era in Yaddo's history, a time not long after the days when Elizabeth Ames invited people. Accordingly, Ned Rorem, with whom I had been studying, telephoned the President of Yaddo, Curtis Harnack (that wonderfully humane man), and his brilliant, wise wife, Hortense Calisher to arrange for my first visit.

Ned instructed me to ask David Diamond (with whom I would begin studying at Juilliard the following September) what books I should read before entering his studio. David had commanded me to read Thomas Mann's Doktor Faustus and Romaine Rolland's Jean Christophe. I arrived at Yaddo with the need not to be Rastignac, but Orpheus; I desired nothing more than to sing my departed mother's spirit out of the Underworld, bring her back to life.

Expecting nothing, knowing nothing, and having been told nothing by Ned except "You might not like it; these places are not for everyone," I disembarked at the Saratoga Springs train station. I had with me the clothes on my back, Mann and Rolland in my backpack, four shirts, three pair of underwear, two pair of jeans, four pair of socks, mechanical pencils and erasers, thirty dollars, and lots and lots of King Brand manuscript paper.

James Mahon, a courtly, red-bearded Charon with a mild voice and probing, intense eyes who gravely addressed me as "sir" long before I had any claim to it, placed my backpack gently in the beat up old company station wagon.

James drove slowly through town, past Town Hall and the Post Office, and the Adirondack Trust bank. We passed the Parting Glass, where mingled during August the jockeys from the Saratoga Race Track and their tall, glossy girlfriends, the Yaddo artists, the City Ballet dancers, the Philadelphia Orchestra players, the townies, and the bettors.

James turned on to broad, tree-lined Union Avenue -- one of the Hudson Valley's grandest boulevards. Flanked by over a dozen Queen Anne-style mansions built during the late 1800s, it begins at Congress Park and culminates a mile and a half later at the Northway. In 1978, the entire area was listed in the National Register of Historic Places as the Union Avenue Historical District. As the car rolled by the racetrack, with its bevy of Victorian structures, I felt as though we were going back in time. We passed the National Museum of Racing. I thought out loud: "Seabiscuit." "Ah, yes sir," James drawled, glancing at me curiously in the rearview mirror, "that was a brave little pony now, wasn't it?"

"Whitney," I said, "Jerome, Vanderbilt...." "Ah, yes sir," James drawled, "those would be some other names associated with the race track, that's for certain." On our right, at the far end of Union Avenue, adjacent to the track, began a dense, shadowy forest. "This would be Yaddo, sir," James said, turning on to the grounds.

Spencer Trask, founder of the well-known Wall Street firm, and his wife Katrina had the mansion built in 1892 by architect William Halsey Wood, who did little but execute the designs provided by his clients. 55 rooms, a medieval dining hall and tower, barns, outbuildings, four man-made ponds bearing the children's names, a rock garden, and a large formal rose garden, all laid out to Spencer's specifications.

James slowed the car as we passed between the lakes. We veered left, and then right, then rose up the drive, and to our left the mansion blossomed into view atop the hill. I gasped. Embarrassed, I looked toward the rearview mirror and saw that James' eyes were warm. "Yes sir," he smiled, "that's the Main House. We'll be driving past West House, Pine Garde, and East House so that I can drop you at the Office." We shook hands and he handed me my backpack after I got out. (Even Yaddo changes, if glacially: James is now retired.)

Tears spontaneously flowed as beloved, infinitely capable program director Rosemary Misurelli (who I had never before met) bundled me up in her Rabelaisian Earth Mother arms at the front door of the office. "I feel as though I have come home," I burbled into Rosemary's generous breasts. Weeping, she covered my face with kisses, and then took me in to meet Curt, who asked me why I was crying.

"I have no idea," I said.

"Are you okay?" he asked.

"I think so," I said. "I don't understand why I'm crying."

"Oh, I do," he said, with a kind, open mid-western smile.

Upon arrival, a Special Assistant to the President escorts every artist to his or her studio and bedroom. That summer, painters Doug Martin and Nancy Brett served. I was given a tour of the grounds, and then shown into the mansion's grand hall.

Hanging over a luxurious, gold velvet couch were two life-sized full portraits. Before being told who the woman was, I was as irresistibly drawn to Eastman Johnson's painting as I had been to the Norman Rockwell portrait of Mary Louise Curtis Bok Zimbalist in the Common Room at Curtis three years earlier. We hadn't met, but my heart instinctively moved out to her. I felt safe here.

"Yes, that's her," Nancy said, gently pulling me away and leading me up the sweeping stairs. "Katrina Trask?" I asked. "Yes," she said, pointing up at the two-story tall Tiffany window atop the stairs. "That's her, too." We turned left at the foot of the window, passed a large brass spittoon, and reached the sliding door leading to Oratory (a place of prayer), the room next to what had been Spencer's den that would serve as my bedroom.

Everyone who has lived and worked at Yaddo over the past century has heard stories about the ghosts. There's the Puritanical one that keeps watch in the bedroom on the second floor of the mansion opposite the stairs that opens the windows when something naughty is happening in the room. There's the Testy one that slams the closet door in Katrina's bedroom when the current occupant spends a little too much time on the fainting couch.

Katrina's was one of what Rick Moody calls the "momentous and astonishing and beautiful deaths" that have taken place at Yaddo. I had spent the last several weeks composing a requiem, what Richard McCann might call a "ghost letter" to Katrina. Richard wrote, in one of his poems, "Quiet! Don't you know that the dead go on hearing for hours?" I believe that they go on hearing just as long as they care to.

This is the story of how I met Katrina.

Near the end of my first visit, novelist Doug Unger was sitting on the second floor landing, around eleven-thirty in the evening, reading The New Yorker. Across from him sat a third person, whose name escapes me. That reassuring, late-night quietude (the plashing of water in the little fountain next to the front door, the soughing and whispering of the pines, underpinned by the steady thrum of automobile wheels on the Northway) particular to this house surrounded us. I didn't know at the time that Doug was up there. I was reading in the Great Hall, next to the fireplace with the phoenix on it.

I less "saw" her than "felt" her there. In the same way that one might glimpse a child streaking out of a suburban front yard and into the street, and with the same terrible wave of heart-in-the-mouth dread, perceived peripherally, intuited while focusing elsewhere, a woman descending the main staircase in what Cheever mischievously described as "poor Katrina's shower curtain" came before my mind's eye. It was unquestionably Katrina's ghost. Her right hand was slightly raised, as it is in the portrait, and in it was a telegram, a poem, or a letter. Allan Gurganus suavely describes what I saw as "some essence quorum of our souls' intensities." At the instant that I noticed the apparition, I heard a cry from the second floor. I leapt to the foot of the stairs to see what the matter was. Looking up, I saw ashen-faced Doug.

"What did you see?" I asked.

"A woman in a white dress, so help me God," he said. From behind him in the darkness the third person -- who couldn't possibly have seen the staircase -- said, softly, "It was Katrina." We coughed, laughed, looked at our feet. I have seen an angel, I thought. I used to describe the feeling I took away from the moment as being exactly like the way I used to feel when I heard the crunch of gravel in the driveway that meant Mother was home. Now a father, I recognize that the feeling was more like the way I feel when my children are sleeping in the next room, yet I am in every way but physically with them.

Anyway, that's my story, and I'm sticking to it.

The next morning, everyone at breakfast had something to report. A limb had fallen on the front stoop of Pine Garde (there had been no wind); the front door of West House had been discovered swinging wildly (again, no wind); someone had heard whistling near the Tower, stepped out to see who it was, found only darkness (no one would touch that one). It had been a busy night.

I have since returned to Yaddo many, many times. My ghost story is no longer mine; other people have repeated the incident to me over dinner as having happened to them, or to someone they know. As Rick writes of his ghost story, "I support the addition of any lies, fibs, whoppers, and extraneous characters to my tale, by which I mean that the work done [at Yaddo] is done by the community as a whole."

For two vagabond decades, Yaddo was my home, wherever I actually slept or received my mail. When I married happily at last, Yaddo became my parents' house. Of course, it remained, and always will be, a place where I can go, as people do, and as Yaddo poet Theodore Roethke described it, to "learn by going where I have to go."

The first and most important of the many meaningful friendships that I have made at Yaddo began that summer. Gardner McFall was writing The Pilot's Daughter, a volume of poetry about the process of coming to terms with the disappearance of her father and the birth of her daughter. I could relate. Over the course of three summers at Yaddo twenty years later, we worked together on Amelia, an opera based on her personal story, carried along by music inspired by my inner journey, which began with the death of my mother and ends with the birth of my son.

Meeting the composer David Del Tredici during my first Yaddo visit in my 20s remains one of the most important events of my life as a composer. His marriage of flawless compositional craft, superb pianistic technique, extraordinarily clever mind, and hugely generous spirit, were (and remain, a quarter century later) a genuine inspiration to me. I joyfully joined him at table, observing how he treated other artists, how he handled younger composer colleagues, teased stories out of him, and joined him at the piano, where, when playing four hands with him, I tried, but never could really keep up because of how giddy with happiness watching his flying fingers always rendered me. David is the Mozart of his generation. His was and is perhaps the purest musical talent I've ever witnessed. I'm proud to call him friend, still.

In my 30s, I spent more of my social time at Yaddo with my contemporaries. I shed "rabbit-hood," talked a lot, drank a lot, laughed a lot, and worked like a dog. In my 40s, I found myself again sitting mainly with older artists at dinner, because I had become one, and because it was more comforting after a hard day's work to speak with people who have read and value the same books, witnessed the same careers fall and rise, shared the same departed friends. Now, when I am at Yaddo, I am there but in a way no longer there. Working there has the easy familiarity of a harness into which, with gratitude, I step. First a rabbit, then a dog, now I think of myself as a draft horse, determinedly pulling my compositional plough.

Yaddo is a place where a sane and humble person can see ghosts and believe in them, a place where one can be transformed by talent and the magic of being a guest there into heightened creature, and a place where one is made better than one is. One is borne aloft -- no matter who one is, or who one thinks he is -- by the conviction that Art matters. The sole qualification for coming remains that an artist shall have done, is doing, or gives promise to doing "good and earnest work."

Yaddo is a safe haven for souls painfully familiar with the deafening solitude that is an intrinsic part of our corporeal existence. It is a Genuinely Good Place where artists create things of beauty and goodness that bridge the gap between souls. Artists who are invited to Yaddo aren't "colonists." They are guests of the Trasks, who wrote:

"we desire to found here a permanent Home to which shall come from time to time ... authors, painters, sculptors, musicians and other artists both men and women, few in number but chosen for their creative gifts and besides and not less for the power and the will and the purpose to make these gifts useful to the world."

Yaddo is a place where the fierce discipline of having to fill not only the empty page or canvas or computer screen (insert technology here) but also the wastebasket reigns. It is a link to the artistic continuum not only for the artist who has, as Paul Muldoon once described it to me, "solved the money problem," but for newcomers and those who have been living hand-to-mouth because they were compelled to create something that, while artistically nourishing, was not trendy or commercially viable. Yaddo is a place of rebirth for the heartsick artist wondering whether it is worth going on. It is a safe haven from whence one can confront life's most terrifying conundrums. Fashions change, political movements flourish and fail, one decade you're hip and the next your passé.

Thirty years on, my hair has now got more salt than pepper in it. There are more rules at Yaddo now. There seem to be more rules everywhere. The composer walking down the dirt road deep in the woods near the adjacent racetrack is probably not singing an aria from his new opera; he is talking to his agent on his Bluetooth. The library sometimes feels more like an Internet café than a repository for the signed copies of new books. The unknown and unknowable abide, of course; they, like sorrow, move in the shadows, ready to be brought out into the light, shared, and transformed by hard work and inspiration into joy.