The first day of our 8th annual Bedlam Farm Open House was wonderful, and also different. We had the smallest number of people ever to attend one of our Open Houses, and yet it was one of the most joyous, uplifting and touching Open Houses we have ever had.
Something is changing, and while I’m not sure what, I can’t say I care all that much about the size of crowds, although I did brag about them, but I do care about the Open Houses being relevant and important to people.
The Open Houses are going somewhere of their own accord, and Maria and I both want to go, and are being led to go there.
Our first Open House eight years ago drew 1,500 people. We always got many hundreds of people, the cars were always parked a half-mile down the road.
This morning’s Open House (it runs through tomorrow) drew about 200 all day, by far the lowest attendance we have ever had. Just a year ago, more than 700 people came.
We were surprised, we count on the sale of art to pay for the cost of the Open House, and for the first time ever it won’t. The sum is not huge, but it was a surprise.
Was it the gloomy and windy weather? Poor promotion? An anxious and distracted country? The absence of a published book of mine for the past two years? Competition from many other events? We don’t really know.
We won’t ever really know.
This morning, before the Open House began at all, Susan Riley messaged me on Facebook. “Never measure the open house by the number of people that attend but by the joy and happiness of the people that do come.”
It only matters in one way, it maybe a message to get down to the pure and joyous point of the Open Houses, just like Susan Riley said. They were never meant to be circuses or sold out rock concerts.
They were meant to be just like today and I suppose it took us eight years to get there.
This was good and prescient advice from Ms. Riley.
I will be honest, I have not ever enjoyed an Open House more.
Carol Gulley read some of her poems about Ed, who we honored today. Mary Kellogg got herself here – we did not think she could physically make it – to read from her new and fourth book, “This Is My Life.”
Mary has such a strong life force, she dug within herself and did a knock-out reading full of wisdom and humor and warmth.
The very wonderful artist Rachel Barlow is giving us an oil painting she did here today on the back of a piece of bark from a tree.
It is beautiful. Sara Kelly, another artist, made a digital woodcut of a donkey. Amy Herring and Jackie Thorne, two gifted poets in my Writing Workshop, read from their new books on poetry, books they published themselves.
Amy’s book is called “Flounder,” and will be sold at Battenkill Books, (518 677 2515), Jackie Thorne’s book is called “Gone To Ground: Selected Poems And Essays.” Both books are available for sale on Amazon.
Dozens of people came to meet Bud and watch Fate and Red (and now Bud) work on the sheep. Bud was a big hit, and so are Fate and Red. People love to see working dogs work. These dogs have a lot more fans than I do.
When, i wonder, did I slip a bit into that idea that bigger was always better, when in truth, it is rarely better, as I have learned so many times in my life?
Because of the low turnout, Maria sold less art than usual for her Open Housel, but she sold a lot for one day. No one wanted to buy her snappy new Vulva pillows. There is perhaps a bit of the martyr in all of us, I thought.
We were taken aback, we briefly wondered if it was time to rethink the idea of an Open House. Was it too antiquated and irrelevant in our time?
Maria noticed the smaller crowds – hardly anyone came until noon, an hour after the scheduled start. And in all fairness, it was a gloomy, chilly and forbidding day.
Maria and I were both initially surprised and deflated by the small crowd.
We got used to drawing the biggest crowds that come to our town each year, every year. I remember when the crowds were so thick – just a couple of years ago – that I had to rush through and past people to get to the next event.
I felt like a big shot when the Open Houses started, the Open Houses were expected to be big deals. Motels all around our town were booked, restaurants were full. I was a big shot.
Talk about stress. People who wished to talk to me were lucky they didn’t get shoved to the ground, and people were always coming up to me and saying they came to my Open House but never saw me.
So they left without saying hello or meeting me. I could barely get to the bathroom, there were always lines.
But I told her – she was in the Schoolhouse Studio much of the day – that this was a special day for me. I could actually talk to everyone who wished to talk with me, and isn’t that the very point of having the Open House?
I told Maria that it was in many ways the best Open House. Big crowds are flattering, but they are also intense and chaotic. I said I thought we needed just to have it, not to spend hundreds of dollars on it. We needed to take all that out of it.
Then we kind of came to our senses, and we thought the better idea was to simply invite people who want to meet us and our animals to come to the farm once a year, and only talk about it on our blogs – no promotion, no marketing, no weeks of gut-busting work and planning.
We would continue to invite artists like Mary Kellogg and Ed Gulley and Rachel Barlow and poets like Jackie Thorne and Amy Herring to come and paint, as she did today.
Just good people in our community coming together, meeting our animals, seeing the honest and beautiful art of rural life. The idea was always to have Maria and her band of very talented artists come to our farm to show and sell their work.
People who want to visit us can, simple as that.
We won’t hire or do anyone to do what we can do our selves, we won’t order a porta-potty or hire local kids to haul things around, we won’t have jazzy posters put up all over the place in color.
If 500 people show up, great. If 300 people show up, fine. If 50 people show up we’ll make it a luncheon. I am not invested in drama, struggle or rationalization, not at this point in my life. The Open House will be what it is, it will find its proper size and place.
I turn that over to the spirits.
I loved today’s Open House so much. I talked with good and caring people, and I had time to talk to just about each one.
They wanted to know about Bud and how he was doing, they loved watching Fate run in circles around the sheep, they loved Red’s focus and presence.
They wanted to know about my work, my publisher never asks me abut my work.
These were the kind of people who hugged me when they introduced themselves. They felt like friends, not fans.
They read my work, they follow my life, they love my dogs.
How blessed Maria and I are to attract those kinds of people to our home.The Open Houses are more intimate now, they feel more like family gatherings than big-deal events. That’s what happens when you actually talk to people.
I read a study recently that found that Americans were going out to fewer and fewer events, they were spending more and more time on social media, smartphones and computers. I think there is something to that.
We are, as a nation, forgetting how to talk to one another. At our Open House, we remembered.
One woman cried telling us how much our marriage meant to her, and our struggle for happiness. Another, Holly, came to the Open House with her husband and two small children, she works at Bennington College.
She told me when she was a new and lonely student in a Buffalo winter a few years ago, she holed up in her room with all of my books, and they got her trough those first weeks.
Ever since, she has been looking for a way to thank me person to person. The Open House gave her a way.
So Holly came to the Open House to thank me, and she said it was an honor to meet me, and now, she has found my blog and reads it daily. Holly was, for me, the face of the Open House.
She just wanted to thank me face to face. The honor was all mine. That kind of gratitude seems rare in America.
Maria started to cry when she introduced the poet Mary Kellogg, who struggled to her feet and leaned against bench to stand up while she gathered the strength to read from her new and almost certainly final volume of poetry, “This Is My Life.”
Mary means so much to us, and she told us it meant the world to her to be able to come to the Open House and read her work. Her daughter Nancy said we had no idea how much this meant to Mary.
But we do. This was such a powerful moment, Mary is now living in an adult home and suffering growing memory loss.
She is clear enough – she has fierce spirit, and is honest enough and smart enough to know this was surely her last poetry reading at one of our Open Houses, she has come to read at every one of our eight years of Open Houses.
I do not mourn what I can no longer have, but I shake my head and my heart sinks to think of an Open House without Maria. It is very likely to be that Open House that year.
As I get older, I sometimes wonder if there are things about my life that I just don’t wish to face. Older people often fade away in the minds of younger people. But today, I felt as if I was just learning how to face my life and love it.
Almost everyone was in tears as Carol Gulley read from her touching poem, Butterflys And Crows, written in memory of her late husband Ed Gulley, my best friend, who came out as an artist as well as a dairy farmer at our Open House three years ago, and sold his first works of art here.
He died in August of brain cancer. We miss him, especially at the Open Houses, where he came to rant about milk prices and sell his art on our lawn.
And there was Bud, who became another loved Bedlam Farm Dog, about 100 people came to meet him and congratulate us for getting him, and for his amazing acclimation. One hundred people is not a lot for one of our Open Houses, but it is a huge amount of people to take the trouble to come and see us and him.
And there was Maria tucked away in her studio all day selling art, keeping track of sales and money, pushing so hard for her artists to sell their work. She loves curating art shows. She is very good at it.
Was our Open House a success or a failure? A friend of mine said it was “lackluster.” I think she meant it was quiet. But I didn’t feel that way at all, not from where I stood. The joy and feeling and emotion was overwhelming to me.
How can any gathering have more joy and feeling than that? How can there be a better Open House?
I suppose it depends on how you look at it. By modern media standards, it would probably be considered dismal, there were not thousands of people lining up to cheer.
How can I say how much I loved taking people to meet the donkeys and telling stories to wide-eyed people curious about Simon and Lulu and Fanny? People care about our lives because they are interesting and have meaning to us, we’re not marketing Hollywood mega-movies.
It may not be clear how much I love explaining Red and Fate and now, Bud, to the groups of people who lined our pasture fence crowded our pasture fence to see these remarkable dogs do their remarkable things.
I am so proud of my farm, my donkeys, my dogs, and of the rich and creative content Maria has made herself and has assembled in the Studio Barn. She just sparkles with energy and creativity.
I love telling the story of Red. And Fate. And now, Bud. I’m a good story-teller and it lifts me up.
Is a couple of hundred people a big crowd?
The truth is, it is an enormous crowd when it comes to love and compassion and community.
We will do it again, I am sure, and learn to let nature take its course and accept the result. The people were came were joyous and happy, I could see it in their eyes.
It is a curious thing, but in so many ways, the smaller the Open House gets the bigger it gets.