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What It Looks Like To Strength-Train The Resiliency Muscle

Joe Kuhlmann
Courtesy of Joe Kuhlmann

Ever since 46-year-old Joe Kuhlmann had to close the doors to The Evening Muse more than a year ago, he’s fielded constant questions about what the future holds for the NoDa music venue.

He gets it. Those questions are on his mind, too.

"'When are you going to open? What's going to happen?,'" he says of the constant questions. "You’re answering it every time and you're just kind of like, all right. And you just breathe through it and tell them like it's going to be a while."

For nearly 20 years, The Evening Muse has provided a home to musicians, poets, and comedians. That’s two decades worth of songs, lyrics, and jokes all held within its walls. The venue has weathered a recession, the expansion of the light rail which caused street closures, and the construction boom of new apartments that swallowed other local businesses whole.

And now, Kuhlmann can add surviving a pandemic to that list.

"I just wanted to get back to what we had been doing most of our lives — just putting on shows and being around the artist, being with guests and giving people a good time," Kuhlmann says.

There’s been a lot of change Kuhlmann has had to surrender to during the pandemic— the first was accepting that music venues would be closed for … a while.

And as 2020 wore on, more challenges were thrown his way.

In the early morning hours of Dec. 19, he woke up to his phone ringing. It was way too early for a social call.

Someone had broken into The Evening Muse.

"Fortunately, they didn't get away with anything," he says. "I mean, there wasn't any money in the register. We don't keep money in there at night, anyways. But, it really got me thinking and realizing how desperate people were. It’d been a long time since The Muse’s been broken into. It's a sign of the times."

He got some wood and boarded up the windows with the help of his friend and business partner, Don Koster. After that, he says, there was nothing to do but count themselves lucky and go out for breakfast.

"And as we were driving, you know, we wound up going over to the Landmark Diner, masked and everything. Just a beautiful sunrise that we got to see," Kuhlmann says. "So I kind of was like, all right, you know, no need to get bent out of shape. They didn't get anything. Let's not waste energy on that. It could be a lot worse. So, (I) just lost a little bit of sleep, but at the same time, you got to have breakfast with my friend."

Kuhlmann continued through the slow pandemic shuffle. The year 2021 rang in. He has a tradition of picking a word that’s the theme for the new year — he reflects on it daily.

The word for 2021? Resiliency.

"Resiliency to me, it's a muscle and it's something that we have to keep training and it's something that we have to feed and take care of," Kuhlmann says. "Just like a muscle, it has to be tested and broken down, and then it comes back stronger."

He didn’t realize when he picked the word "resiliency" that it was going to prepare him for what came next.

Jan. 26 was a normal day for Kuhlmann. That evening, he went for a grocery run for a friend who’s been homebound during the pandemic. It was a cold night. When he got to the Food Lion parking lot, a woman approached him and asked for some spare change.

He didn’t have any, but he offered to buy her what she needed. She asked for soap, sandwiches and water. He bought what she needed and then dropped off groceries for his friend.

"I came home and I could see from the driveway— through the window behind me, actually — that all the cabinet doors in the kitchen were just wide open," Kuhlmann says. "Yeah, I was like, 'That's weird.' And then I noticed my side gate was open and I was like, 'Oh, man, somebody broke in when I was gone but 45 minutes."

While Kuhlmann was shopping for his friend and the stranger he had randomly met, the back door to his house was jimmied open. Someone went inside and ransacked his home.

"They did get a coin jar that meant something to me," he says. "My dear buddy Rodney, who passed away in 2011 and (had) given me this moonshine jar that I just used as a coin collector, or whatever, they took that — which kind of irked me. And they also took my Eagle Scout medals. They also took my diploma."

Computers also were stolen that had personal writing Kuhlmann hadn’t backed up.

"And I just I haven't been able to get around to feeling confident in sharing that stuff," he says. "And I think that's part of why I hadn't backed it up. So I think there's a lesson in here for me with all of that: To not be afraid to share that."

He started to reflect on what he was supposed to take away from these two break-ins and the cards he was dealt in 2020 — and now in 2021.

"There's a lot of chaos," he says. "There's a lot of uncertainty. There's a lot of despair."

Kuhlmann was determined not let these break-ins get to him, so he kept turning back to that word "resiliency." Part of what has continuously helped Kuhlmann be resilient throughout his life, he says, is the act of forgiveness.

"It’s not energy for me to hold onto," Kuhlmann says. "It's not really going to be productive, the amount of time and effort that they put into it. Yeah, it's more of an inconvenience than anything. There’s several collective issues that I think are way more worthy of my head space than just being upset with somebody that was desperate."

Throughout the course of the pandemic, Kuhlmann developed self-care rituals that help him make it through. He attends a men's group — sort of a support/group therapy meeting. He cooks for himself. He works on home repairs he’d been putting off.

And one of the best things to come out of the pandemic is that Kuhlmann, a self-described workaholic, has slowed down.

"I also I've gotten into having a fire out back," he says. "I have a fire pit now and it's funny — my ex-wife would smack me upside the head because we never would do that. I was just so busy. I was such a workaholic and a jerk back then. And she was always like, 'Oh, let's go camping, let's have a fire.' And I'm like, 'I've been working all the time,' and I just didn't want to. And I didn't understand the value of it."

Kuhlmann's not only reflecting on what resiliency looks like for him, he’s also thinking about what resiliency looks like for The Evening Muse, which celebrates its 20th birthday April 6.

"Our resolve and resiliency will come by way of the community and the public's need and desire," he says, "and because it's live music been taken away from them, that they're like, 'Oh, wow, I didn't realize how much I missed that. I didn't realize the value of it.' And so I think it's just going to come back and have a really, really big way."

The first step is a virtual birthday party for the music venue on Saturday, April 10. In May, The Evening Muse will open its doors to small audiences with spaced seating. It won’t be full capacity, but it will be people, in person, experiencing music together.

If resiliency is a muscle, as Kuhlmann believes it is, it’s a muscle he’s constantly flexed, tested, and strengthened over the course of the past year. It’s the muscle that will hold the door open for people in May who can’t wait to return to North Davidson Street and East 36th Street, to hear music paint every inch of the 20-year-old venue and to see the person who keeps getting back up to make it possible.

Still Here's theme music was composed and produced by Patrick Bowden and Patrick Lee.

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Sarah Delia is a Senior Producer for Charlotte Talks with Mike Collins. Sarah joined the WFAE news team in 2014. An Edward R. Murrow Award-winning journalist, Sarah has lived and told stories from Maine, New York, Indiana, Alabama, Virginia and North Carolina. Sarah received her B.A. in English and Art history from James Madison University, where she began her broadcast career at college radio station WXJM. Sarah has interned and worked at NPR in Washington DC, interned and freelanced for WNYC, and attended the Salt Institute for Radio Documentary Studies.