I Could Be Good for You

Watching a YouTube-guided playlist of era-specific videos while tending to the mindless task of scanning an unending pile of lead sheets for my new paperless life as a musician, I was brought back to some long-forgotten guilty pleasures, one of which being the band 707 playing their 1980 hit “I Could Be Good For You”. The live recording is rather primitive, but the performance is loaded with energy, and it positively thrills me.

Guitarist Kevin Russell, slumped over his low hanging Gibson, with his early rocker haircut and form-fitting T-shirt simply reeks of Nigel Tufnel from Spinal Tap. (In fact, the more I think on it, the more convinced I am that Christopher Guest may have modeled his character after him. Did Kevin Russell create his look or was he simply mirroring the collective archetype of the time? It’s a chicken-or-egg type of dilemma I suppose.) From the outside, this guitar player is a caricature, but from the inside, (to me) he represents the familiar.

These days, things familiar are dwindling. So seeing and hearing the band 707 as they were back in my youth brings me a mild sense of things being right again. It makes me feel the energy and hope of a kid. And who on earth does not thrill to the feeling that only naivete, inexperience and limitless possibility can bring?


While we make plans for the future and almost always have our eye on goals down the road, this doesn’t usually include the final stretch. That patch when it gets ugly and real. Seriously, who the hell ever truly thinks about getting old? Older, yes. But old? Consider this for a second.

I’m guessing being “old” is a vaguely defined time for you, a place in time far off into the future. You might be mindful about the process ahead, but I doubt you’re deeply aware. (Barring any unique or extreme situation, that is.) Me, I’ve yet to truly face the mirror. Yeah, I broke my neck once, but youth and good luck helped me to avert a life path which might’ve had me looking more closely at my mortality a whole lot sooner.

I’ll wager you haven’t put a lot of mental energy into visualizing how things will end. How things will really end. End end.

These days my mobility is limited. Really limited. And it sure does shed light on what the ending times might look like. The prospect of descending the five steps from my kitchen door to the ground outside is a challenge. Lightning bolts of pain are a possibility in every thoughtless move. A single step must be fortified with a cane’s solid contact with the floor and a tightening of core muscles. It’s exhausting. So is getting out of bed. The whole thing – just moving through a day and trying to maintain some faint semblance of time spent in contribution, not to mention performing the basic functions of living – is a huge effort and takes gobs of time.

Guilt blankets my spirits as I try to rationalize my diminished output. After a week of merely just existing, my ego is broken and looking for harbor. My inner voice sounds like a forgotten old woman muttering to herself: I’ve been a useful person, right? And I’ve been a musician, too. How lucky for that, right? But wait, was I any good? I think I was… I was good enough, I suppose… But what the hell was I doing all that for anyhow? It seems a bit vainglorious, truly it does. Well, at least I know that I’ve mostly been kind to people. I do know that. And I’m a really good teacher, yeah, I know that too. I do. And there’s also still a lot I’d like to write about – that’s of interest to some, but honestly, who cares? Wait, does any of this actually matter? Who needs another piano teacher or another blog post to read? Can I just be satisfied with my turn as it stands? Has my contribution been enough? Haven’t I had enough fun? Do I still have any reason to be here?

(Further musings go much deeper into the existential conversation; I’m still ambivalent about the “everything happens for a reason” philosophy, however pieces do tend to arrive in serendipitous ways, which tempts me to believe. But at the end of the day, whether we’re here for a reason or not, the ultimate takeaway for me is that we may as well do our best job at life while we’re here. Be kind, help when able, and do what we’re good at doing. Seems that’s the least we can do, and also the most we can do, too.)

I feel like Cinderella when I recall a reality of just six months earlier in which every one of my dreams had seemed to be coming true. A time in which I had a new keyboard, a new band and new prospects. Damn. I had it for a minute there. Right? Wait, did I? Well, I had a taste, at least. That’s more than most people ever experience. Dammit. I won’t be able to do any of this shit for much longer. Crap. Will I ever have it again?

Watching my 87-year-old mother moving around her house pushing a rollator and hanging onto the counters like a rock wall, I’ve harbored some sorry thoughts. God, how sad. How does life end up like this? And just what in hell is she even living for at this point? I like to think that I won’t end up thusly. But do not we all think this? Ha! We can all be sure, at least as things are now on this planet for most of us, we won’t have a choice in the matter. Some of us will draw the lucky straw and go either peacefully or quickly. The rest of us – the majority of us – will languish for a length of time in ill health and weakness, dependent upon others for basic tasks. This is a future none of us wishes for. But statistics show that it’s our likely outcome.

The lava lamp in my son’s bedroom has ceased to flow as it always did; the wax inside has grown stiff and slow-moving. Looking it up, I learn that yes, even lava lamps have a shelf life. I resist the temptation to see this as a metaphor for my own life and how it has slowed precariously over the past few months. This is not a sign from the universe, I remind myself. Get over it.


I begin a search on YouTube for back injury success stories. I’m gonna need some footholds on the way back up.

It appears I have a herniated disc (MRI next week will confirm). This new situation isn’t the usual back issue that’s bothered me since my twenties. This is acute, intensely painful and very different. While there’s been a slight improvement over the past four weeks thanks to several chiropractic sessions, I’m still unable to walk properly (let alone racewalk or dance, two things I dearly love). I certainly can’t workout – I can’t twist my core or lift a hand above my shoulder without experiencing a stunning electric shock of pain.

Perusing vids and websites, I’m encouraged by success stories. One young woman peppers her shpeel with the phrase “check your ego”. I really didn’t get her meaning for the first few minutes. And then, when I began to understand how long my road back to physical fitness was going to be, I got it. Sheeeit. I got it. Who cares if I was working out six days a week and could easily curl 20 pounds last May? None of that matters. I can’t do shit today, and I have to let all that “I used to” stuff go. No laurels to rest on. Crap.

My body is weak, soft, fat. And injured. But I just received my first round of exercises, so at least I’ve got a plan. Sadly, I’m beginning from a place way behind the usual starting line. That’s discouraging. It’s gonna be a long climb. This recovery will demand the kind of patience and perseverance I’m not keen on. The process won’t be sexy. But the alternative seals the deal on a lost future. So, onward I must go.

My mother faces a knee replacement in the next month, and this is the next family hurdle. I’m feeling slightly stressed that I cannot be of any significant help to her right now. She is in pain – I’m guessing it’s worse than mine – yet she doesn’t let on how horrible it is. But it shows; she looks weary. It’s all got me a bit emotionally guarded and on the ready for difficult times to come in the new year. My mother speaks cryptically about dying before she makes it to surgery, she laments the long wait time before the procedure (she needs relief now). She tells me how this is far more daunting a prospect than having her mastectomy this past summer. She’s a stoic woman and seldom allows her deep feelings to be known. But I can tell she’s afraid. Hell, I am too. My dear friend Ganga was seven years younger than mom when she died, shortly after her hip replacement. This stuff happens. We all know it, but aside from the very frank and helpful consult with the surgeon, no one else has spoken this fear aloud. It’s a strange time. A new and scary place.


My small and sedentary life of late has not been entirely wasted; I’ve written a number of songs. Most are toss-aways, some novelty numbers, a small number of earnest songs too, if not a bit too simplistic. Hey, I’m not a poet. At best I can write a jingle or a hook. So this is new territory. It’s taken a hard stop on my go-go-go life to bring me to writing music, so in some ways it hasn’t been a total loss.

A few weeks ago (before things got this acute) I saw the comedian Maria Bamford perform here in Saratoga. Her candid, stream of conscious style was stunning, mesmerizing. She is a genius. I am not, but I am definitely full of something that still seeks expression. Seeing her inspired me. She gave me a small dose of courage. She helped plant a tiny seed of a thought…

Characters, voices and bits come to me, and they quickly get recorded on my iPad memo app before they have a chance to vaporize in my flimsy memory. I don’t sleep a whole lot (getting in and out of bed positively sucks!) so I drag on into the wee hours of the morning, writing, inventing, improvising. I’m beginning to hatch a plan to weave all this into some sort of one-woman show. There are online busking platforms that might work as a venue. It’s only a germ of an idea at the moment, and until and unless it becomes public, only my son and a few friends will hear these primitive stabs at content. It’s a tiny light which helps to distract me from the sucky slog that is my life right now. All in its time, I suppose.

I may not have a lot to contribute at the moment, but I shall do my best to avoid wallowing. I’ll do something every day to pull myself up and out. I have my mom, my lost brother, beloved son and high school bestie to think of. I can’t leave them all quite yet. So for now, my life will consist of gentle core exercises, a handful of piano students, and writing new material. I’m a bit anxious about the next two months, so this seems like a productive way to focus my energy and take my mind off the worry. (My body doesn’t move fast, but my brain continues move with the pace of a nervous squirrel.)

Hopefully, by the close of this short chapter, I’ll be in a better place. Hopefully, by then I really can be good for you.

707 performing live on the Midnight Special. As a kid I would try – mostly in vain – to stay awake long enough to watch the show.

A short clip of Maria Bamford, with a clever piano accompaniment by Luke Thering.

Falling Reign

This past summer has been an emotionally difficult season for me.

At a time when most of my peers have been wrapping up their careers, and at a time when I had fancied myself to be starting my career anew, I instead discovered my future to have fallen far short of that expectation. This has consumed me, and I have been stuck. And when my son returned from his trip to Europe late this summer, he knew it too, straight away.

“You are becoming happy in your sadness” he’d said after I’d admitted that I was still bereft at the end of my recent musical employment. “You are becoming happy to be sad. It’s not acceptable. You’re letting this become your story. ” He paused, and then he let a few minutes of dark highway pass, as if for effect. “Do not let this become your story.”

Although whatever had happened was in the past, he could tell that I was still dwelling on it – nay, simmering in it. What was gone – and how it had all gone down – was becoming toxic to me. “You have to move on” Elihu said, as we drove home in the inky darkness. It stung to hear him so critical, so serious. He was hardly my kid anymore; he was a peer offering sage advice. My mental health depended upon it, and we both knew it. I’d been able to push it away during the lonely summer months, as I’d had no one to counter my mood, no one to discuss it with. But he was home, and now I had the outside perspective I’d needed. Yeah. Time to move on. But to what?

________________________________________________

With no musical comrades, no peers and no dear friends in physical proximity, “moving on” seems truly daunting. Elihu has been my closest companion for the past nineteen years, and it is a tall order to replace such an insightful and considerate person with whom I can discuss things. I do have a few close friends – my oldest bestie from high school having recently become a cherished part of my life – but she is far away and has her own life to contend with. And in the end, no one can really take the place of my son. People warn against considering your child to be a peer, but I dunno. I have often said jokingly that I gave birth to a 50-year-old man. Not so funny as it is true.

Music seems to be fading into my past, and it breaks my heart fiercely. I have new projects – unrelated to music – which I should really dive into, but I flounder. I try to convince myself that I need new headshots, new recordings. That I need to write songs. Sure, I can always do that, but is it truly necessary at this point? Who fucking cares? I’ve worked mostly as a sideman; at 59 it’s a little late to pretend I’m a solo artist. So what is it that will earn me money, give me a sense of joy, self-respect and fulfillment? Is music even my path anymore? I am beginning to doubt it. I mourn the richness of my musical past and miss the brief taste of how it felt to make music again with other humans (that gave me joy, albeit short-lived). For now, I suppose it’ll have to go on hold while I discover what the next practical move should be.

What that will be, I don’t know. I’m grateful for my spiral-bound pads, filled with writing, lyrics, poems and project to-do lists, yet following through and assembling any of it into meaningful content seems as challenging as losing these goddam extra pounds I’ve solidly re-packed onto my frame over a season of self-soothing and grief.

__________________________________________________

Last night, a violent late-summer storm pelted the house with sheets of rain and gusts of wind that knocked out power and toppled trees. I stood in the screen porch, feeling fully the might of the wind and water, and I asked the force to please wash me free of the past; wash me clean that I might start over again, from this moment forward…

It’s been a few weeks now since Elihu has returned to campus. He is an autonomous individual. I am no longer a full-time parent. The Queen has died, lain in state, and been buried. Things are different now. It’s time for the new order.

I suppose it’s time for Elizabeth 2.0 now. And when I figure out what form that will take, I promise you’ll be the first to know.


Turn of a Dime on “Liz Sings 70s”, my YouTube channel

hillhousewoman on Instagram

The Heart of a Moth

If one were to believe in karma, or in a certain “this-therefore-that” way of thinking, a belief that each event is the product of other events, all serving to bring forth one particular outcome, then things would be easier to justify, easier to handle emotionally. But these days I’m not too confident about it.

Once I was. And it was a less stressful way to live. Everything happens for a reason. Easy.

Sure, one can see in hindsight with some clarity how things build upon each other. Some consequences are so clearly related to things that came before that one can’t help but make the association. And there are those segments of our lives when things just seem so perfectly scripted that it’s hard to believe it wasn’t all “meant to be”, or that we might not have just earned the perfect outcomes through a withdrawal from some sort of energetic bank account.

I’m a mass of conflict these days. Just a few months ago I could not have felt stronger, more hopeful. Great things were within my grasp – I’d say I even sat squarely in the middle of some moments of pure perfection. Things I’d dreamed of for ages had finally come to fruition. And somehow it felt as if I’d earned all of it through my years of sacrifice and toil and hope… The world owed me some good shit now, cuz I’d been through a lot, and I certainly deserved it. Right?

A lot of people deserve good things. And a lot of people will never, ever receive these things. Most people on the planet will live fairly crappy lives, ones in which merely existing is the only goal, lives in which nothing out of the ordinary will manifest. But what on earth have they done to deserve these horrible fates? Not a bloody thing. Not in this life, at any rate.

Where is the parity? There seems to be none.

Not to say that there isn’t a direct correlation between hard work and its reward. Of course that can exist. But to me, that kind of opportunity seems a luxury. For me personally, I feel that reward doesn’t always seem to be a reliable outcome of hard work. Cuz I work a shit ton. I toil, I clean, I sort, put away, file, fix, tend, check in on, shop, cook, learn the tunes, learn the gear, teach the students. All for what ends up being not enough income to pay bills in anything like the real world. Were it not for the home provided for me by my mother (the Hillhouse itself), I truly would be out on the streets. And at 59, that’s a crappy thing to know about myself. All this work, just to exist in another person’s dwelling, and without the means to sustain myself in the most primitive way. Demoralizing.

Yes, I might see my reward as existing in my son. He is undoubtedly a remarkable human, and he’s destined for great things, he’s happy and launched. Yes, I’ve enjoyed a life densely packed with experiences that most folks don’t have.

But here I am on the other side, with the remainder of my life an expanse of nothingness. No rewards in view, no destinations. Got some ideas, a couple of projects I’d like to accomplish, idealized visions of what I’d like to write or perform. But any one thing on the list seems to require an investment of energy which I just can’t seem to summon anymore – or money, which I simply don’t have. My gear is old, my clothes are outdated, and the blog isn’t free. So what now? As I see it, it’s a game of waiting and simply slogging it out, hoping for a few more good moments before the finish line.

My inner conflict is further stoked by a secret disdain which I feel for some people. Shameful, but true. Look at those ham hock arms, listen to the horrible way in which they speak to their children, look at that antagonizing shit they post across their vehicles… And then I realize that if there were to be a catastrophic event and we were all thrust together, I would see their humanity first. My heart would soften when our eyes met… I would see the fragile person within. I would feel forgiveness, and I would understand that their life was a product of the situation into which they were born. And I wouldn’t care that they still believed in Trump. (Many of my friends would disagree with me on this quite fervently, but I say humans are humans at the end of the day. I don’t have to hang out with them, but I don’t have to hate them either.) How dare I feel so superior?

As I was standing at the window just now, looking out at the tall weeds surrounding the vacant chicken coop with a deep feeling of despair growing inside, my eyes landed on a moth, clinging to the wall. That creature and I both have hearts, I thought. A vague feeling of hope overcame me. For just a second, I felt some relief. It felt as if we were all in this together, every creature on this globe. Good outcomes and bad outcomes, we all experienced them. Moths too. Imagine flying towards a thing that your whole essence tells you to be the ultimate goal, only to find your life extinguished? That doesn’t seem fair, to be sure.

“Who ever told you life was fair?” my mother would often say to us as children. I could never form a response, shamed, scolded and immature as I was back then, but now I understand what I had been thinking but couldn’t articulate. “Everyone”. From the time we’re tiny, we’re told to play fair. What a strange incongruity. Play fair, nothing in life is fair. I suppose that both are true.

We earthly creatures are all linked in some way, sharing this bizarre brew of the tragic and the magic. And strange as is may seem, in view of the unfavorable odds with which we are presented, it appears that each one of us somehow manages to maintain a tiny feeling of hope. Each one of us has a heart which continues to beat.

Even a moth.

The Privilege of June

This is the first June 12th in several years which has passed rather uneventfully.

Last year on this day my son graduated from high school. Two years ago on this day I permanently injured my eye. Today had been my former in-laws’ wedding anniversary. This is also the birthday of my ex-husband’s second son, the out-of-wedlock child who inspired me to move with Elihu from the Midwest to upstate New York and start a new life.

It’s interesting to me that the day which used to cause me such anguish now hardly registers as a day of note. Even my eye injury (something which is still an ongoing cause of mild discomfort) falls to the status of the everyday. And my son’s half-brother’s birthday is not the hurtful anniversary it used to be. In fact, I’ll likely suggest before the day is through that he might call him. Can’t say that I don’t feel a slight twinge when this other family is mentioned, but at this point, it’s simply part of our reality.

The past several weeks have been painful for me, in the wake of an imprudent move of mine regarding an old friend. I lost a professional situation in the mix as well, but it pales in comparison. Yet somehow, the internal anguish which has dogged me recently without much letup has tempered a bit today.

This morning and afternoon I have passed the hours in the sunshine and in the shade, reading, leisurely walking about the waist-high grasses of our property, and just being with my son. When Elihu and I walked together down the long, wooded driveway to the road at his suggestion, my heart was made light. We two always enjoy great conversation, and much laughter. It’s something I’ve never taken for granted, but perhaps in this final time before he leaves for the rest of the summer, I cherish his company even more. These days I am living moment by moment, noticing the peace and comfort of my life, and regarding it far less casually than is my habit.

“I am not grateful for my life,” answered Elihu when I asked him if that was how he had felt, “but rather I feel privileged to be here”. He went on to cite the exceptionally rare chance that each one of us had at becoming humans, let alone coming to be in such a safe and thriving time and place. Prone to depression as I am, it’s easy for me to want to give it all up, to get it done with already, just fucking leave. But something about the way in which Elihu presented his case and the manner in which he spoke had reached me. It inspired me just a little. And a little is something. Today it was the something I needed.

On Wednesday my son leaves to spend the summer in Europe with his father and the other family. I’m thrilled for him, but I admit that a tiny piece of me still feels a tad jealous. I wish that I was going with him on this adventure. But instead, after having raised him on my own, and having done all the of heavy lifting during those densely-packed academic times, the trend continues; his father gets to share with our son all of the magical, other-worldly experiences, all of the travel and adventure. (Fits the term I recently learned of “Disney Dad”.) But it’s ok. Elihu’s life will be so enriched by the events ahead. This makes me happy. It makes me feel grateful.

Actually, it makes me feel privileged.


Postscript: Another contributor to my improved mood is the success of my mother’s recent surgery, and her favorable prognosis. She is faring well and her recovery looks to be complete. An enormous relief.

June 12ths of the past…

Birth and Baptism

Summer, Defenestrated (9th paragraph)

Storm of the Eye

For Now

My son is at the kitchen table adding to an already thirty-five thousand word essay on his unfavorable feelings about Abrahamic religions, and I am sitting just outside the door in the sunshine, putting the world off just a bit longer, myself also writing. Or at least trying to. The material isn’t coming the way it usually does. There is a dull sense of dread present in my gut today which is making everything much harder to do. There is quite likely a bit of unpleasant news waiting for me soon in my inbox, and I cannot bring myself to look. And there is some information forthcoming from my mother’s doctor which also might not be good.

This day, however, is a counterpoint to the threatening unknown which awaits.

It is the most perfect sort of late spring day one could wish for – clear skies, just the right temperature and no heavy humidity to weigh things down. The occasional breeze delivers the rare scent of irises. Every so often a single-engine plane buzzes by overhead, preparing for its descent into the nearby community airfield. Water trickles endlessly over the rocks in our small pond, and the usual backyard birds do their thing. The chipmunk who I hand feed each morning has paused for a very un-chipmunk-like length of time in a crook of the apple tree, as if he too knows how perfect a day this is and wishes to take it all in. Knee-high grasses dotted with stands of pink and yellow flowers bend in the wind, common fritillaries and the occasional Karner Blue butterfly dancing among the blossoms. This is a moment I do not take for granted. I hope to linger in this pleasantness of the day and in this state of unknowing for as long as possible.

My mother has had a recurrence with breast cancer. She’s 87, so when I heard this, my first thought was that this was the ‘get out of jail free’ card she’d hoped for. There would come a decline in her health, a need for increasingly generous doses of morphine toward the end, and then finally she’d die a peaceful, pain-free death at home, something she’d long made clear that she wanted, and something which I had promised her I’d make happen when that time arrived. Instead, she is choosing to have a mastectomy, followed by a home-based recovery. No chemo, but likely radiation. If she were a decade younger, it might not concern me as much as it does. If her strength and mobility were a bit better I’d be more confident that the surgery would do more benefit than harm. As things stand, I’m apt to think this action might make her remaining time on the planet less than ideal.

I think some skilled nursing might be in order after the surgery, maybe a few days at a rehab center. But my mother is insisting that I’m making a big deal out of this and says if her doctor’s not concerned, then why should she be? She insists that she won’t need help and reminds me that there’s hardly anything left of her breast now anyway, as if that somehow mitigates the trauma. But she’s a good planner, and so has already made and frozen food for the recovery period, something which will certainly help. (Recently she made a slightly dramatic comment about maybe finally being able to get her favorite pizza after the surgery – as if for the past several years she has been actively prevented from enjoying this perceived luxury. Her Silent Generation stoicism and predilection for passive-aggressive comments drive me positively nuts.)

So tomorrow we’ll learn whether the cancer has metastasized or not. Mom got a funny feeling from the way in which the doctor talked about her case, and it has her suspecting that the news might be bad. I’ve got a funny feeling about a recent situation in my life that has me suspecting bad news, too. And so here we exist, in this perfect spring day, neither of us knowing the outcomes that await us.

My son being home offers a nice distraction from my empty calendar and ignored inbox. There are still meals to be made and a bit of shuttling around to be done while he’s here. Errands, haircuts, doctor appointments and prepping the Airbnb all help to fill the space. But my students are just about wrapped for the summer, and there are no gigs on the calendar, aside from a few solo shows in the fall. There’s time for a few farmers market dates I suppose, but still, those offer very little motivation to get out of bed in the morning. When Elihu goes to Europe with his dad for the summer (he leaves in a week), I will be faced with long days. But then again, mom may need my help. From where I sit right now, I just can’t tell.

The following few months contain a lot of unknowns.

It’s times like this when I need those lists, those spiral bound notebooks which I filled up when I was light-of-heart and full of inspiration. It’s times like this when I’m so grateful to have reconnected with my high school bestie. There is no tribe to which I belong in this town, and now that my son’s life is expanding and taking place mostly elsewhere, it has me further questioning where home should be, and what it is that I should be doing in this world. I almost don’t even feel that I can say with complete integrity that I’m a writer or a musician, when there is so little pay and work isn’t consistent. The only thing I’ve ever known myself to be with absolute conviction is a mother.

I hear Elihu moving about the kitchen making some food. He and I have both done very little today. I didn’t make anything to eat, just couldn’t find it in me. I called out to him to bring me some naan just now, and he did. I’m glad for the company, and for the bread. I’m glad for the fine spring day.

For now, I’m glad for the simple things.

Growing On

We are put upon this earth without our consent. We are launched into a life incarnate without our choosing and by the time we’ve finally gotten our wits about us, many of us may come to realize that we might not have signed on for the experience if we’d been given an option at the outset.

This may sound deeply cynical, I know. But please understand that although I may often feel as if I don’t wish to be here, it’s not to say that I do not bear profound witness to the unfathomable marvel of this planet and the mortal life we share. Daily I am astounded by the complexities around me in the natural world. Daily I am fairly tortured by my desire to know more about my fellow humans and what motivates them to move through their lives and into their futures. Who among us is enthusiastically participating in life? Who among us is caring principally about advancement, who is working simply to avoid the pain, and who is altogether unaware that his or her own existence even merits examination?

From my privileged seat in a commercial airplane I can see vast tracts of land below me, all organized into human-sized portions. Suburban grids by day, cobwebs of light by dark, our handprint is ubiquitous. While I know there’s plenty of magic taking place here, I can’t help but feel the collateral despair. I imagine all of the strife, all of the heartbreak and loss. All of the fear, shame and regret. Perhaps it’s this way of thinking which has motivated me to live a more colorful life than some of my peers. I wish to avoid undue toil and discomfort in favor of the more pleasurable experiences. I am interested in reaching people and connecting. I am attracted to candor and insight. My goal is to bring comfort and witness to people. You can count on me to be the ice-breaker at a party, or the one who gets the silent old man in the corner to smile.

But sometimes, none of this is what’s appropriate or necessary. Today I learned that lesson again, and it has me stopped for a moment of reflection.

As I look out at the disheveled property that surrounds me, it cries out for me to surrender. This is the summer when it seems I will have to relinquish any illusion of control and simply let everything go….

The lawn is already up to my knees, the downed trees are becoming overtaken with vines, the retaining rock walls are tumbling down the hill, and my perennial garden looks to be nothing more than stinging nettles and goldenrod. The many hours of labor I spent tending to the garden last year appear to have been in vain. My arthritic hands hurt and my once-broken neck is becoming more of an issue each day; I just don’t see how I can wrestle the patch back into shape the way I’m feeling now. I honestly don’t think I have it in me anymore. And with a recent surprise turn of personal and professional events, my energy reserves feel even more depleted. As some might say, “I haven’t got the bandwidth” for it all. Truly, I don’t.

This will also be the final year for me at the helm of the Studio. It will conclude a decade of my hard and unpaid work. Work that was, at its core, a Sisyphean task. That’s not to say that it was a waste of time and resources – to the contrary, it was the birthplace of many great works and memories. Audiences leapt to their feet in applause at inspired performances, people of all ages danced, sang, acted and played music. Artists painted, writers finished novels, dance troupes worked out choreography, yoga teachers held workshops, kids enjoyed summer camps, elders convened to talk about death, people were married and neighbors drew into a circle to play drums together. There was even a workshop in which participants (of which I was one) walked barefoot over hot coals. Truly, a wide net was cast. I cannot say that it was not a success. In many ways it was an astounding success. But that era is over now, and I need to find something which better suits my waning energy and stamina.

I have to wrap while I can still feel the afterglow of the good things that happened there. If I stay at this too long, I’ll resent it. Time to stand aside now. Time to let things be.

What will come next is truly unknown to me. There will be music, there will be new gigs, new jobs. I know this. Just not sure where, or with whom. Not entirely sure I’ll even stay here at the Hillhouse. For now it’s where my piano is, so it’s where I am. But like the Studio, this place may have served its function in my life. Not sure. Much is yet uncertain.

The only thing of which I can be sure is that with or without me, the grass will continue to grow.

The Birth of Death

Although I find the expression “passed away” a weak and distasteful euphemism for the term “died”, I admit that I myself have used it many times, when deep down I’d much rather have not. Hard to say whether I acquiesced for the comfort of my audience, or because on some level I’m a coward and lack the integrity to put my money where my mouth is.

This needs to stop.

I am so weary of the ways in which this current, first-world culture regards death. I am weary of the way in which we neglect the subject. I am weary of the trepidation with which most of us approach death. It drives me nuts. No, I take that back. It doesn’t just drive me nuts. You know what? It makes me angry. Seriously.

Here is the point at which I must express myself through a mild rant….

Do we not all understand how cemeteries pollute the air and waste people’s time with all that goddam lawn-mowing and weed-whacking? Do we not understand how embalming is horrible for the environment, and how it will not keep your loved one ‘as is’ unto eternity? And why do we just assume once a loved one is dead, that their body must be immediately whisked away from the premises, as if it was now a loathsome thing to be avoided?

You’d be surprised how many things around the experience of death are either taken for granted or are never even questioned in the first place.

Funny how you plan the shit out of everything in your life, yet when a family member dies, you’re all of a sudden thrust into the middle of an administrative vortex, making decisions with no prior information – and no bargaining power whatsoever. Death deserves as much planning as anything else. After all – this could well be one of the biggest ticket items of your life.

Depends on whether or not you’ve made some plans.

Once, while I was sick and confined to my bed for a few days, I set out on a little research project. I’d long had a list of unanswered questions which I could never justify carving out the time necessary to address. This was at the top of the list: Is it legal to be buried on your own property? There simply wasn’t enough online information at the time, so I found a couple of funeral directors and got them on the phone. I called different states, too. And I took notes. The consensus was “yes”.

When my boy was about eight years old, we’d had a conversation about death and where the bodies of dead people go. He’d accompanied me many times to the town cemetery on the hill, following along as I meandered through the headstones, matching up family members and imagining aloud the details of life back then. He’d understood that these were people just like the two of us, whose homes had been right here in Greenfield. He’d understood the concept of once-living people now lying in repose under the sod. And, as we’d seen a whole lot of dead animals at various levels of decomposition on the side of the road or even in our chicken run, none of this death talk was inherently unfamiliar to my son. In fact, I think it was precisely because he’d grown up like this – with a mom like me, and on a farm where creatures often die without warning – that he came to have his own feelings about death and what to do with a body once it was no longer living.

My young son told me that he himself wanted to be laid out in the woods. He told me that he should be put into a slight depression in the ground, and covered with leaf litter. I admired his thinking. We never wished to waste anything here; scraps always went to the chickens, paper and such went to the burn bin, and the resulting ashes were subsequently shoveled onto the garden or into the woods. (We called this method “going back to God”.) I told him how much I loved the idea, but that strangely, it was likely illegal. He protested adamantly, driven to the point of tears. He insisted it was the right way to put your body back into nature. He told me that it was the only way he wanted his body to end up. I calmed him by saying that I would do everything I could to make sure it would happen.

A dear friend of mine saw to his own burial in advance of his death. A craftsman and a farmer, he built his own casket and even dug the hole with his backhoe, right there on his property, not far from his house. In his mid-thirties he had been diagnosed with Leukemia, and after a couple of years it was clear that he wasn’t going to live much longer. While he still had enough physical strength left, he set about to make his final arrangements. My life at that time was in Chicago, and he was then living with his wife and three children in the hills of upstate New York, so sadly I wasn’t able to be there. I heard he hosted quite a party. And afterwards, he began his decline in earnest. Then he died, was put into the casket he had made for himself, and was buried in the grave he’d dug. His friends backfilled the hole. Can you imagine anything more perfect? Me, I cannot.

I hold this man’s ending as an impeccable model of closure.

It seems simply crazy to me that we in the first world are so forthright about every last goddam detail of our lives, broadcasting our dramas on public platforms and rushing to share our every insight and opinion, and yet when it comes to the only experience which we all have in common – aside from being born – we are virtually silent as a collective. Sure, there are groups – there are always groups – who come together to discuss death and its related concerns – but as a society on the whole we are not very comfortable with the subject.

I’ve hosted a handful of Death Cafes. Just the idea that there is an international group founded simply for the purpose of providing places for people to convene and talk about death is proof enough that the need for such a forum exists. And yet still, even among the most progressive populations, this is just not a well-discussed topic.

In future, I mean to change this if I can.

Many years ago, after my first job playing music for essentially forgotten and dying people in the most low-budget of nursing homes, it occurred to me that many of these people were the last of their clan, and they faced dying alone. I began a little inquiry, asking the workers when people usually died – what time of the day or night – and how they went. Was someone there with them? (There is such a thing as “active dying” and health care professionals can usually tell when a person is entering that phase.) Almost every one of these residents died alone, many in the wee hours of the night. Few were ever accompanied by another human. I asked if there was such a job as sitting with someone when they died.

They told me that there was not.

Well, as it turned out, there actually was such an occupation. And while I had experienced a short moment of elation in thinking that I’d just invented the new vocation of “death doula”, I soon learned that there were folks who’d already navigated this terrain. Turned out a “death doula” was actually a thing. But there was a punchline: it wasn’t a thing for just anyone. It was a service available only to a privileged population. There was no money to pay someone to sit with a dying person in a poorhouse of elder care.

This is such a heartbreaking reality, and it’s long had me wondering what I might possibly do to help improve the situation. As I see it, the best contribution I can make at present is to share my thoughts on death and the dying.

I do believe that one day things will be different. That one day our culture will place more value on frank and open end-of-life discussions. But personally, I think it’s going to take many decades. And it’s going to take folks like me who are ready to help start the conversation.

So friends, please consider this post to be the birth of a discussion on death.

The Rights of Spring

When people say to me “Happy Easter”, I feel a bit conflicted. The “Happy Passovers” don’t bother me, nor do the “Happy Ramadans” I hear from my Muslim relatives. But I can understand why it bothers me; I was born into a Christian family, one which conveyed mixed signals about the religion, let alone the origin or meaning of the holiday. We were a secular family who went to church together maybe five times, tops, during my childhood. The subject of religion was never spoken of in my family; we were one of those educated, white, liberal households who hung their cultural hats on the Episcopal Church, but who seldom actually went there.

In that my parents were music lovers, and in that classical music – more specifically Baroque music – was their thing, a lot of religious texts went along with the territory. And that always confused me greatly. They would sing along with choirs, lifting eyebrows and swaying with great emotion, yet the words they sang were completely counter to anything they espoused to believe in real life.

My mother is fairly foul-mouthed person who would often loudly chastise religious folks for being “goddam Christers”. There was a strong implication in my household that anyone who believed in Jesus – or who was loud about their beliefs – was tacky and ignorant. This message, however subliminal it might’ve been, was delivered to me loud and clear. So when I was 12, I decided that I needed to learn for myself what this religion thing was all about, and I asked my mother to please drive me to St. Augustine’s for service every week.

Sunday school and the occasional youth group events went along with the experience. And, after noticing peers serving as acolytes, I asked if I might not be one too. So began my five-year stint as an alter “boy”, attending the 8 a.m. services with the ancient and unintelligible Fr. Lightburn and sometimes, with nerves present, the high services for Christmas Eve or Easter with Father Mazza himself.

I loved the ritual, the mystery, and the notion that I was performing actions that had been done by so many before, for hundreds of years, in the very same manner. I felt the essence of reverence in the pouring of the water over the priest’s hands before he prepared the sacrament for communion. I loved the very name of the container into which the water spilled – the lavabo bowl – its Latin-derived name just reeked of antiquity. The service – in particular the smaller, less well-attended one – pulled me in. I loved the silence (no music accompanied these early services), the robes we wore, I loved the lighting of candles (there was a slightly stressful moment when you held the long taper up to the candle and waited for the wick to take the flame), I loved the way we two acolytes stood during the service, motionless, flanking the alter. I loved the language too – I relished the recitation of the Nicene creed. (For me it was never the same after the church later modernized the text.) All of this motivated me to try and better understand the meanings behind the pageantry. It seemed disingenuous to be part of a service, the reasons for which weren’t entirely clear to me.

For several years in my adolescence, I struggled with the concept “God is everywhere”. How could this be? And how disturbing was this? I knew He was supposed to love me, but really? Did he also watch me as I undressed? Was he in the shower with me too? This I never liked.

One day in youth group we’d baked little heart-shaped dough pieces onto which we’d painted the words “God Loves Me”, and I remember a moment in the green, wet grass outside in the church’s courtyard when I got it. I had been holding this small thing in my hand and thinking very hard. If God was everywhere, then God had to be… energy! What else was everywhere? Energy was present – latent or active – in every single thing in the universe! Finally, I had figured it out. I was giddy. I was ready to accept this religion thing now. The Jesus-coming-back-to-life thing would still need some work, but at least I now had some sort of reliable footing onto which I could build.

And so I passed the next decade thinking that yeah, there was merit to the basic tenets of Christianity. But of course, the more one learns about the world, other cultures and other religions, and about how power works in general, the more one grows understandably skeptical about the whole concept of organized religion. By my mid-twenties I was pretty sure that the truths that Jesus et al were trying to share with the world had been corrupted by the filter through which the information was given; the messages were coming to us through a lens of privileged men (I’d say “white” men, but there are more races implicit in the re-telling than just the white guys). We were not getting the unadulterated truth. The message – as well as the terms and conditions which the religion laid out for its believers – had become mainly a vehicle for power and suppression. And it was not always easy to know where the truth ended and the falsehood began.

My mother-in-law was the first person to introduce me to more metaphysical ways of organizing the world. She was a bit wacky – and she never really liked me much – but she taught me a lot, and I can credit her for expanding my ways of thinking. A lot of the stuff she turned me on to was, especially at the time, very “woo-woo” and would’ve had most mainstream folks rolling their eyes and passing judgement. But it was material worth considering. After all, we humans have an innate need to quantify and qualify our existence, and every little bit of information helps us along the path. Even if we choose to be atheists or agnostics – that in and of itself is a choice. Like the old Rush song goes, “If you choose not to decide, you still have made a choice”. Me, I’ve always chosen to keep my thinking open.

When my husband left me, it threw me into an existential tailspin. I spent hours upon hours reading all manner of material related to spiritual thought. I meditated, I visualized, I learned about ancient texts and beliefs in energy. At the time, I was desperate to learn why my husband had treated me so badly, how he could possibly have justified his behavior, and how it was that he simply didn’t care anymore. The concept of past lives was the only thing that supported my new reality. This idea held the possibility for a definite cause-and-effect phenomenon which helped to explain things. And for a very long time I was fully invested in that belief.

Now, I just don’t know.

A few months back, I started speaking aloud Nichirin’s Buddhist chant “Nam Myoho Renge Kyo” every day. I’m no closer to allying myself with the Buddhism thing than I was before I started chanting, (and I do think many Buddhist folks I know are just as fanatical about their beliefs as are super-devout members of any religion) but I do feel very much in agreement with the way in which all sects of Buddhism champion a continued effort towards a higher level of peace and acceptance. Plus, I am growing more comfortable with the concept of impermanence. And I’m not chanting for religious reasons per se, but for the mental focus it brings to me. The way in which it offers clarity and specificity to my goals. For me it’s a vehicle for good and productive living rather than an expression of any belief system.

And it has me thinking again.

Are we part of an individually, soul-based continuum – or a more general, energy-related, molecularly described continuum? Either way, we are unquestionably made of stardust. We are, on a purely physical level, made of the cosmos, and to that physical cosmos we shall return.

I’m sure that Jesus lived, and I know he was a great teacher of love, and although I’m not convinced, I think he even might’ve come back for a minute. I’ve had plenty of my own metaphysical and unexplained experiences, so I can’t dismiss this high-profile event out of hand. And while I’m questioning such things, I might also ask: Did lamb’s blood painted on doorways really prevent the deaths of newborn babes? Did the angel Jibreel really visit Mohammed and impart to him the teachings of the Koran? Did Siddhartha really banish the evil Mara?

What seems to matter more than the verity of any of these historic claims is that they provide us with belief systems, something we humans crave. We want to know that waking up this morning was necessary. We need to feel important, validated and purposeful. And all of these teachings, at their heart, are about the very same things.

Spring is a time of renewal. And it doesn’t much matter what we call it, or how exactly we got here. A renewal by any other name is still just that. All of it is correct. All of it is right.

Happy Spring to us all.

Making Music

It’s come to pass now. I’ve just been to New York City for a rehearsal. It was my first time playing with other musicians in almost two decades. And it was fun.

But it was also work. I had learned my parts, yet I’d still missed a few details. The music director and the leader were kind about it though and helped coach me as best they could. But in the end, there were a few nuances I couldn’t get in the moment, and which I promised to make good on by the time we met in Chicago for our first show.

I know I talked too much. I’m accustomed to being the funny one, the one in charge, the most colorful character in the room – but it wasn’t so in this situation (nor was it really appropriate for me to add my unnecessary commentaries). For as many times as I scolded myself during the rehearsal to please stop talking, I failed at that effort. It had been so long since I’d been in the company of professionals that I felt downright provincial, and it threw me off. I felt like the chicken farmer from upstate who couldn’t stop chittering about how exciting it was to be in a big city and playing with a real band. Sheesh.

But all in all, it went well. And it’s going to feel like heaven when we’re all assembled on stage and playing (we have some guests for the upcoming date in Chicago who are joining us – it promises to be a night of gorgeous sounds). How perfect is it that our first show will be in my hometown? It seems like something from a dream. And yet it’s real. Very real. When it’s all said and done, I will have driven a few thousand miles and moved a whole lotta gear. I will have spent hours upon hours learning and practicing. Man, it’s just such a lot of work. But strangely, that seldom enters my mind. It’s just what one does in order to play music. It’s a challenge, but it’s also a joy. And not everyone can do it, so I’d be foolish to waste such a gift.

It does make one wonder, though, why in hell would anyone go to all this trouble and invest all this time and money only to end up barely breaking even? Any sane person would question the whole thing. But musicians, we don’t tend to focus on the effort or expense. If we did, I can promise you there would be no live music! So why do we do it? For me, honestly, it feels like I’ve never had a choice. And look, I know, no one made me do this. But I’ve always felt that playing music was so naturally a part of my life that there were no other options. I did go to college and I tried to do things the “right” way, but it simply wasn’t my path. Learning, rehearsing, loading in and loading out, it’s been part of my life ever since I was sixteen and my mom drove me and my suitcase Rhodes to rehearsal in our powder blue ’65 Valiant.

This new situation is more than just about the opportunity to play music, it’s about the opportunity to work with people who are very good at what they do. Over the past fourteen years I’ve been so musically lonely. When I lived in Chicago there were so many excellent and talented musicians with whom to work that I never experienced a shortage of projects, and I was always challenged. But here in my country life I haven’t had any musical relationships at all. Of course I’ve been busy raising a child, but still….

So this is why I bought a new keyboard, spent hours learning material and just drove four hundred miles for a rehearsal.

So I could get back to making music.

Imposter’s Roster

All in all, things are going so well these days that I’m starting to become suspicious. I’ve had such a challenging run over the past fourteen years, I can hardly believe the recent and rapid cascade of events.

Firstly, I have been welcomed into a new band under the leadership of one very intelligent and creative individual, a man whose work has been known to me for many years.

There was a time when I’d held him in such high esteem that he seemed altogether in another league. And I still assert this to be true; the guy is super-prolific and uber-talented. But, if I will remember my own sentiments from a recent writing, he is still just a man. I get this. I’ve spoken to him on the phone and very much enjoy his energy from those conversations alone. And after having watched a few interviews and having begun to read one of his novels, I’m feeling much more familiar. I can feel the love and sincerity present in him, and frankly, I’m beside myself with happy anticipation at our first meeting in just two days’ time. I so seldom meet individuals whose energy comes close to mine, and this time I think I will definitely have met my match. I cannot wait.

At this writing it is Thursday, and my very first rehearsal with the new band is on Saturday in Brooklyn. I’m hoping to capture my experience as it unfolds, because this, the “time before”, will be an interesting thing for me to look back at some day. It feels a bit bold to be revealing this part of the experience; is it not cart-before-the-horse? Is it too much like a flat-out diary entry? Perhaps. Nonetheless, I shall continue to document the process.

I keep telling myself to be realistic; things could still change. I might not be a fit. I might not be good enough. Oh, but man. I know I am. I just know it. But wait. Do I?

There is a constant feeling living in me these days which I must combat. And having learned recently that it’s an identifiable “thing”, I feel a bit better. Perhaps I’d heard the term at some point in my life, but previously it had meant nothing to me. “Yeah,” my friend had said as I described the unpleasantness I was experiencing, “You’ve got ‘imposter’ syndrome.” “Yes! That’s it!” I’d shouted when she named it. What a relief! She told me that as a working architect she too often wondered if she hadn’t been fooling people all along. “I think to myself: Why am I here?” she said, “There’s got to be a mistake, do they understand it’s me?“. Exactly. That was how I was feeling too. Somehow, I musta fooled someone. Right?

Likely not.

It’s just that is has been nineteen years since I’ve played in a band with other musicians. That’s a very long time to be on hiatus, and it makes me wonder if it’ll be just that easy to get on the horse again. And I can’t say that I don’t write that with a bit of inner animosity; curse those musicians who had supportive spouses to share the load of a household. Curse all of those people whose lives didn’t change with the advent of children, whose music didn’t come to an abrupt halt. I admit it, it makes me jealous. But keeping in mind the wondrous result of my almost two-decade hiatus – a successful, creative and thriving child – I can temper these thoughts and instead focus my energy on the adventure that awaits.

As some readers may know, I recently had a piece of writing published in a very public way. It happened so very quickly, and with no foreknowledge whatsoever. I’d been upset at the headlines surrounding the death of drummer Taylor Hawkins and immediately set out to express what I was feeling. When I finished, it was 1 a.m., and as an afterthought – I have never once submitted a single piece of my writing to anyone before – I decided to send it to a couple of newspapers. I perused their requirements, amended the piece accordingly, then sent it off to the Boston Globe, New York Times, San Fransisco Chronicle, and lastly, from my hometown, the Chicago Tribune. I had a tiny voice inside my head saying that the Tribune would pick it up. Ages ago I had written a grant proposal and mailed it off, never thinking of it again. Turned out I was the winner. The grant had been from the Chicago Cultural Center. So, I had a feeling.

I slept very little the night after I’d written the piece, and by the time I arose and checked my inbox just a few hours later, there it was. A rejection from the NYT, but a letter of interest from the Trib. I was excited, but I was conflicted by the subject matter. Seemed strange that I should revel in a success made possible by a man’s death. I smiled to myself all morning, but then would scold myself for doing so. Just how was I supposed to feel? Within two days the paper’s syndicates had in turn published the piece for their weekend papers, and shortly after that my inbox was filled with emotional letters from people all over the world. This time, however, there was no imposter thing going on. These folks all just wanted a witness to help them process their grief. I set aside several hours to respond to all of them. It was the necessary and right thing to do. For once, I knew that this was my job, and I was good at it.

I’ve got some exciting but rather intimidating challenges ahead in my immediate future. I suppose just meeting the fellows in the band and spending an afternoon rehearsing in earnest will be the first thing on the list. Then comes the show in Chicago. And then comes a photo shoot. And finally, on my 59th birthday, I’ve agreed to perform some absolutely on-the-fly, improvised and through-composed songs as part of a storyteller’s program. When the host asked me, I didn’t allow myself to say no. Many have been the moments I’ve wanted to call her back and tell her to find someone else, but I can’t. These days my life is about saying “yes”. Even when I am fairly certain there must be some mistake, I need to behave as if everything is just fine.

I’ve got to trust that people know what it is that I am capable of, even if I myself am still not quite sure.


Visit my future bandmate Wesley Stace (formerly known as John Wesley Harding) here.