Bittersweet is a term often associated with change and the cauldron of emotions that change and loss provoke.
This word-merged adjective rarely nets to zero. Bitter sometimes outweighs sweet and vice versa. The ratio changes over time and circumstance as well. Our sad/bitter spikes when we lose a family member, friend or personal hero (this week, the life of John Lewis looms large for me), yet converts to joy/sweet when we remember their admirable qualities and legacy. A hard-wired optimist like me leans to the sweet.
Today is my last day of being in the office. In 10 short days, the moving van arrives at the Director’s House. The house that Pamela Djerassi and her husband built and spent 3 short years in. The house that is 9 steps away from the office. Separating work from home has never been my strong suit. So today, I’m pretty sure, is the last day of having 24/7 responsibility for a mission other than my own. The last day that belongs to others more than it belongs to me.
The lifting of that weight is more sweet than bitter.
It has been 43 years since I started my first full-time job for a non-profit organization. I was the first paid employee of Whitman County Historical Society in eastern Washington. Seven jobs. Five states. Three bosses. Four executive directorships. Twenty-five board chairs. Dozens of employees. Scores of close colleagues. Hundreds of performances, films, books, lectures, workshops, conferences and nametags. Thousands of donors, philanthropists and elected officials who shared a vision of a vibrant world where creative people and the organizations who provide platforms for them are celebrated and supported.
I have deployed every codependent, organizational, guerilla, political and leadership skill I could muster. The oldest daughter of an Army colonel, my late dad also played 15 instruments and sang with a stunning tenor voice. Though I toyed with joining the military as a Russian language specialist, that was not my calling. My field of engagement, my settled purpose in life was history, arts and the humanities. I didn’t have the toughness or talent to perform for a living, so I became an advocate. An arts administrator before the title was widely used.
Other than that first oral history job (my sole directive was to listen and record the stories of early wheat farming families), the privilege of guiding Djerassi Resident Artists Program has been my most rewarding posting. I am so deeply connected to my settled purpose here—the advancement of creativity and the vitality of life lived at the edges of easy definitions. (Again, with John Lewis and the resonance of “good trouble”). I feel at home with outsiders and rebels. I revere artists—they take more risks in a day than I take in a month. Leaving this lively stew of ideas and intellectual generosity is definitely more bitter than sweet. Temporarily without resident artists, the land and buildings are desolate. The creative void is palpable. COVID-willing, we will welcome them again soon.
You Never Know When You’re Making a Memory
Rickie Lee Jones’ song aside, I will remember with sweetness Chef Dan Tosh’s Friday night dinners with artists and guests. I will remember the 49 dinner parties my husband Nick and I prepared in Pamela’s kitchen as residents sighed their own bittersweet goodbyes after a month of creative cocooning and collegiality.
I will remember with sweetness the board members—past and present--who put their volunteer shoulders to the wheel of programmatic and financial success. I will remember fighting with them for excellence—sparring with co-founder Carl Djerassi was twinkling-eyed fun. There is candy in my box for hike docents and committee members. And there is nothing but sweetness for the hundreds of people and organizations that have shared their cold, hard cash with us. I will miss my sky, water and land co-workers--the hawks, coyotes, foxes, deer, newts, and banana slugs. I will miss wandering among the redwoods and grasslands and installations. I AM bitter that I never once actually saw a mountain lion.
I will remember the brave and loyal Bear Gulch Road-traveling staff—past and present—who battle power outages, storms, rattlesnakes and godawful Wi-Fi to provide the gift of time for residents.
Live Your Life. Live Your Life.
Recently, I came to the conclusion that the only worthwhile questions to answer during the challenges of the global pandemic and #blacklivesmatter are “What am I saying YES to? And, why?”
I vote for saying YES to authenticity, truth, justice, equity and freedom. I will continue to say YES to new frontiers in history, art and science. I say YES to a new generation of cultural leaders.
And again—back to artists. I say YES to artists who confront the issues of our time, force us to reexamine historical assumptions, challenge us to have difficult conversations.
I am saying YES to mostly sweet and mostly NO to bitter. Because you cannot know one without knowing the other.
Djerassi Forever. #djerassidreaming
Margot H. Knight
Djerassi Program Executive Director (2011-2020)