The Hillhouse

The Journey of a Mother and Son

Crossroads October 2, 2019

Elihu’s big brown eyes looked at me from across the tiny kitchen table. His eyes don’t meet mine much; having limited vision and a ticky disposition, his eyes often dart around, glancing low and to the side, seldom directly at me. “I’m at a crossroads”, he said. I waited for more; sometimes he just says something as a setup with a punchline to follow. I saw no smile beginning on his face, and he said nothing. “You’re at a crossroads?” I asked. He waited another moment. “Yes. And it just hit me tonight”.

It was already past eleven on a school night, and we’d just returned from his weekly rehearsal with the Empire State Youth Orchestra, the highlight of his week. It was a place where he’d finally found his brethren, a place where he had finally found his joy – one that other peers could share with him. A solitary child, this was a revelation and a relief –  for both of us. Last night he’d had a sectional rehearsal with the other low brass players. Elihu had never worked with anyone like this coach before. The session was less about playing, and more about discussing the conceptual aspects of being a musician. Elihu revealed his mathematician’s mind in his answers to the coach’s questions. When no other kids spoke up, Elihu would proffer a response. He was a year younger than the others there, and he was the only one who wasn’t planning on pursuing a career in music, and yet he was more engaged in the conversation than the rest. Elihu said that he could see the thought passing through the coach’s mind: Why wasn’t this kid going to study music? Elihu said that all of a sudden he sort of popped out of his body and viewed the scene from a third person’s perspective. “And the question became obvious to me too: Why wasn’t I going to study music?”

When I’d arrived to pick Elihu up after rehearsal, the teacher who’d led the sectional slowed as he passed me in the parking lot. He turned to me, his horn cases hanging there at his side, and he seemed to be forming a thought. He seemed to want to say something to me, but then after a beat he turned and walked on. I’d noticed this, and had wondered if there hadn’t been some observation he’d wanted to share with the kid’s mom. Perhaps.

Elihu and I began to talk about this idea. Sometimes, when one has a talent or an affinity for something, one feels an obligation to honor it formally. And this was why, I reiterated to my son, I was adamant about finding him a school with a strong music program. He didn’t have to major in music, he just had to keep playing. At the end of the day, we knew where his passion lay. Aviation consumes his thoughts (when he’s not thinking about tuba!) and it has since day one. Ok, so he has picked up the french horn in the past month, yes he can play any recorder extremely well, he can get some sound on a trumpet now too, but that is all stuff that he can continue to do on his own. He’s so naturally talented that it creates in each of us the temptation to just go for it. To take it and excel. But at some point one has to choose. And so we sat together at that tiny island in the kitchen, the silence heavy around us, reviewing the case in our thoughts. Music was important, but aviation was more important. “I think I feel a little sad”, he said. “Yeah, I know what you mean”. But what can one do? Only so much.

This morning when we were talking in the car about his last two years in high school, mapping out the landmark events and making mental notes, we came to realize that next year, his senior year, he won’t have the time to play in the symphony. There will be no concerto audition next year; this year was it. “This is my music year” he said quietly, but confidently. “Yup, this is your music year sweetie. So enjoy the hell out of it.” We turned on the classical station and listened with running commentary until we arrived at school.

It has been months since I’ve written about our lives. A half a year, more specifically. And this mystifies me – how is it that I can’t cull a few hours from my schedule to write a silly post? Partly it’s due to a lack of time and a full life, but it’s more than that. It’s that phenomenon of having so much to do, not doing it, and then falling even further behind. So much has happened that it becomes more and more daunting to try and catch up. Where oh where could I even begin?

This past spring we had Leevi living with us, the exchange student with whom Elihu lived last year at this time in the south of Germany. He became a part of our family, and we had a crazy-full life. His room became a recording studio, and I took on double the mom taxi duties. Feeding another body was a challenge too; I ended up putting groceries on my credit cards, something I’m still feeling the weight of. But this was an experience I could not refuse. The past year was about language and travel, and debt be damned, we won’t remember the bill, but we’ll always remember the experiences.

On the heels of Leevi’s departure, I had Elihu begin private French lessons. My thinking is this: Elihu’s schedule will never be as open as it is now, and his brain will never be as plastic and adept at taking in new skills as it is now. I noted to him that I made the most pronounced advances in my musical skills – learning techniques that continue to serve me now – between the ages of 14 and 18. He concured, and so, taking this to heart, he threw himself into the language lessons and he is now comfortably trilingual. For many other folks from around the world this is nothing to write home about, but for an American kid, I think it’s a tidy achievement.

On the last Saturday of summer this year, we finally buried the old rooster Bald Mountain and Austin, our goofy guinea fowl. We’d spent the sunny hot day harvesting grapes on the vineyard that now lives on Martha’s farm. When we returned home, we collected the frozen bodies from the chest freezer where they’d lain for almost two years now. It was a perfect day; warm, sunny, the air full of tiny flighted creatures buzzing off in all directions. Elihu carried Austin, and I carried Baldie. We set them down, side by side, in the hole that was dug beneath the flowering quince bush, where the old flock used to rest in the afternoons. We stepped back, but it wasn’t quite right. I kneeled down and scooched them together, so that they were spooning. “That feels better, doesn’t it?” I asked Elihu. “Yes, it does feel better”. We stood there, saying nothing, looking at our beloveds. This was to us like saying goodbye to a dog or cat. “We had them both for eight years”, Elihu said, looking down at the two birds. I said nothing, as I wanted to leave space. And then, Elihu started to cry. At first the edges of his mouth curved down in an alarming way, and soon he was sobbing. My son so seldom cries. This was hard to see, but necessary for him. I had already had my cry, but he hadn’t. I touched his arm to offer some comfort – knowing how he disdains physical contact – but what else could I do? He continued to cry, and I waited. And then he turned, and he put his arms around me.

“This is the end”, he said through tears. The late afternoon sun was still warm, but it seemed that a chill was waiting to take its place. “It’s over. My childhood is over. It just came to me. These guys were my childhood. And now, they’re really gone. And so is my childhood”. I could not disagree. Truly, this was the end of that chapter. I’d often felt ridiculous for not having buried them sooner – but life just never presented a window. Now I could see that it was perfectly timed. In the time since the fellows had left us – two years this coming December – we took a small comfort in knowing their familiar bodies still resided with us. Seeing them again after all these months was also somehow comforting – it presented us with a sweet opportunity for closure. We stroked their beautiful feathers one last time, we marveled over Baldie’s enormous spur, over Austin’s helmet. After a few moments more, looking down onto our old friends, we each threw a fist of dirt to begin the farewell.

And then the young man took the shovel and filled the hole.

 

 

 

Now and Hence May 7, 2019

Filed under: An Ongoing Journal...,Growing Older — wingmother @ 10:48 pm

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


Elihu turned 16 this past week, and today I turned 56. Neither of these numbers are ages I ever envisioned either one of us inhabiting. Just five years ago my son was a tender fifth grader. And in just five years my son will be a junior in college, and I will be 61. How on earth is this possible?

The changes of a decade in Elihu’s world are enormous. And frankly, as I think more critically about the transition from middle age to newbie elder, the changes are pretty big for me too. Elihu and I are both physically quite different people from the ones we were five years ago. And five years in the future? Once again, things will be visibly, unarguably different. Used to be I couldn’t envision it. Now, I can.

Although I’ve been absent from this forum for a while, regular readers are likely aware that this has been an eventful year for both of us. This years’ highlights are that I got my first steady piano single gig, and Elihu spent the fall term in Germany.

Beyond that there have been hundreds of tiny discoveries and adventures, not the least of which was my joining Elihu in Europe, meeting his wonderful exchange family (our own new family!) and then visiting friends in Paris, London and New York. Doesn’t that just look wonderful in print? It was indeed wonderful – a huge milestone for me, traveling solo again in the face of panic attacks and general anxiety (as well as the debt incurred to make the trip), but it was a much larger milestone for my son who, over the course of three months, became fluent in a second language and comfortable living in a new and unfamiliar world.

In spite of getting fairly sick during our travels, we were able to meet my godmother in Paris, visit Notre Dame together as well as meet Elihu’s half sister and her mother in London for what turned out to be the most enjoyable two days I can recall in a very long time. Elihu concurs.

He and his sister look very much alike, they are just a little over a month apart in age, and they are both whip-smart, academically strong children who greatly enjoy each other’s company. Once, as the four of us made our way down a crowded sidewalk on Oxford Circus, a man approached us and asked if I would like him to take a picture of our “beautiful family”. He thinks we’re a ‘modern’ family I whispered to C, the implication being that we mothers were ourselves a couple, and the two children were our own. “He has no idea how modern!” I added cheekily, and we had a good laugh over that! Our time with the two of them was beyond anything I could have imagined. My child, my ex’s child with her mother – and me.  All four of us having a ball and sharing a story not one single person in that crowded Christmas market could ever have guessed.

On this, my 56th birthday, one martini and a long day in, it’s hard for me to recall all of the major takeaways from this past year; it’s a blur of activities filled with surprises, serendipitous encounters and once-in-a-lifetime experiences. Scary, real-life events and OMG good stuff too. The assorted “snack pack” of experiences life is fond of giving folks. And while I could certainly fill a blog post with any one chapter alone, I will leave it at this for now… After this past year here at the Hillhouse I can say two things with certainty: Elihu is not a child anymore, and I am no longer a middle aged woman.

Not sure exactly what I am, but I’m definitely not a forty-something anymore (yes there is a difference). At 56 I need to do a quick assessment before diving in; cleaning the gutters leaves my whole body sore for days, planting the garden can do the same, trying a new workout at the Y can slay me for a couple weeks. Yup. This is a new landscape and it will require some new skills and tricks to traverse.

And the kid – he’s practically got the next five years all figured out. Metaphorically speaking he is anxiously eyeing his wristwatch until the time arrives at which he can finally be in college, finally be free to study in earnest all the things he chooses. (Wait, am I positive that Elihu is my kid?!)

Off for a good night’s sleep so that I might awake ready and refreshed to boldly take on all that waits for my attention…

Post Script: A deeply heartfelt thanks to friends from the many chapters of our life who have sent birthday greetings. I send all of you my gratitude and love. Please know that I smile as I read each one… Elihu and I appreciate having you in our lives.

 

 

 

Embedded February 10, 2019


Elizabeth singing with David Amram at Caffe Lena in Saratoga Springs, New York

There’s no time to write, no time to think, no time to plan. Life at the Hillhouse these days is just running from one fire to the next, one challenge to another…

I refer to my spiral notebook of to-do lists so that my heart will remain hopeful at all of the items that are now crossed out. With so many items checked off the list, why is it that life still feels like a fruitless, Sisyphean maze without a happy destination? Centered folks with a handle on their shit will tell me it’s all about the journey, the process. Yeah, well there are times when I enjoy the ride, yes, but for the most part right now I’m feeling compressed, broke and apprehensive. And honestly, there are so many things I’d rather be writing about than how stressful things are. But I have a hunch that a whole lot of my friends are also feeling the squeeze of life right now too.

I know one day I’ll miss this time. I do, but still… Sometimes, when I realize that I’ve been standing at that same stupid kitchen sink washing the same goddam dishes over and over for a fucking decade, I am overcome with a profound sense of frustration. But then I’ll remember in an instant that Elihu will be in college in two short years… There will be plenty of time then to arrange programs for the Studio, cull the crap from the garage and fix the chicken run fences. Plenty of time for all that domestic shit that just takes time and muscle. (But then I worry all over again; will I have any energy or muscle left by then to deal with it all?)

A week ago I had the good fortune to sing with my old pal David Amram. Elihu and I went to hear him at Caffe Lena, and he invited me up. For that one moment I remembered how it used to feel… Man, there is nothing like it. It felt like I was flying, weightless through space, supported by a warm, loving cloud… It reminded me of the same way I felt when, at 17, I recorded in the studio for the very first time. That feeling of hearing myself through the headphones, lifted by reverb into a starry, endless universe… It was enough to remind me that there is more to life than the to-do list and the dishes. But it’s still not quite within reach. Not quite yet.

I hadn’t planned on writing a post this morning, but now that I’m here at my desk I may as well catch folks up on the current doings here at the Hillhouse…

Elihu is continuing to amaze me; he’s on the mock trial club for his school (they have real trials in a courtroom presided over by an actual judge), he’s learning French now (I’m guessing by June he’ll be considered trilingual), he’s building gorgeous planes and continuing to post his builds on YouTube, and he’s kicking some ass on the tuba. On Saturdays Elihu is a tour guide at the local military museum, a post he enjoys – something that I could never have seen coming a year ago. There is a lot on his plate these days; homework often keeps him up until past midnight, and as a mother, it worries me. It’s always been my goal to keep my child’s life under-planned so that he might never feel undue stress (that will come in time!), so recently I apologized to him for having let his life become so full of commitments, but he assured me that he liked it that way (in his own words he describes himself to be an “aspiring overachiever”!). I’m deferring to his judgement on that. His life is really on his own terms now.

Last week, while driving Elihu to the military museum for his afternoon shift as a docent, we were accosted by an inebriated and angry young man (there was an outdoor festival in town) who, while crossing the street in the middle of the block, screamed as us that I was driving too fast. I waved to let him know I was aware of him, that he needn’t worry. He yelled at me again, and in my endless quest to be understood by everyone, I opened the window and told him not to worry, when in a better version of the universe I would’ve kept my mouth shut, and moved along on my way. My protest enraged him even more, and so as we drove off he swung his hardshell guitar case at the car. There was a loud cracking sound, and the car rocked. Sensing there might truly be damage, I pulled over, assessed the door and then followed him as he tried to retreat, yelling at me that “the pedestrian was always right”. The impact of his swing did make a dent, and the paint was chipped too. A small mark, but enough to compromise the finish and create a crease in the line of the door. To say that my heart sank is an understatement. (Keeping things in check I reminded myself that this is a first-world problem.) I’m grateful that his mother was there too; her peaceful energy was like an eye in the storm. She offered to pay for the repairs and gave me her cell number too, and so after I dropped Elihu off at his job, I visited the police station to file a report. This past week I’ve had to add body shop appointments to my list, and the issue is still likely weeks away from resolution. Ah well. Just gotta keep going.

Not long ago Elihu and I learned that his father was having another baby. It kinda threw us for a loop; Elihu had settled on things as they were (he and I had enjoyed a surprisingly lovely visit in London this past November with his half sister and her mother, and on that front things were very good indeed). Elihu said that it was hard news for him to hear, but suspected it would feel more normal as time went on. It was strange how hard the news hit me. I’d thought all that pain was gone, resolved and for the most part over. But there it was again, fresh; a reminder of how I’d never gotten the chance to have another child, how I was robbed of the possibility of a true family, how my partner had vanished without my consent. All at once the contrast was in my face; I myself was beyond menopause now, and somehow my ex’s wife was still in that youthful window of fertility. The wound opened up all over again. For a few weeks my stomach ached in an old and familiar way. But thankfully, in the month or so that’s passed, it’s subsided. My life won’t change much for this turn of events, and likely neither will Elihu’s. Crazy how stuff happens, and how one must shift one’s thinking to understand it all. Once again the landscape has changed in a way we never could have expected.

Our exchange student Leevi is coming from Germany at the end of March, and the house is topsy-turvy in preparations for our guest. A resident barred owl has picked off several of our hens; a plastic great horned owl sits atop a perch that we must move daily in order to appear a plausible threat to the henhouse predator. The weather continues to present challenges with flooding in our house and frozen pipes at the Studio. I can’t seem to get back on the diet train and feel fat and rather unhappy with it, but for the time being I simply can’t fret over it. There are too many other things to set right first.

So there it is friends, a rather hastily penned update.

Embedded below are links to websites which I recently created in order to hang ourselves a shingle out in the virtual world. Thought I’d try splainin to people what it was that we did in a more succinct fashion. Peruse Elihu’s site, won’t you please, dear friends? A lovely Valentine’s gift might be your subscribing to Elihu’s YouTube channel… (A mother’s thank-you in advance.)

ElizabethConant.com  (The main site to which all the others are linked.)

Copterdude’s site

Copterdude’s YouTube channel

Not Your Mother’s Piano Teacher site

Singing70s (and more) site

Elizabeth’s Instagram (hillhousewoman)

Elihu’s Instagram (copterdude)

The Studio in Greenfield’s site

 

Tenure November 10, 2018


Most posts come to me almost finished. They’ve rolled around in my thoughts over and over again; pre-sleep, in the midst of sleeplessness, and often just after waking. A line here or there comes to the fore, something to hang my thoughts onto, a general framework which gradually etches itself into my memory while I go about the day. A few days of somewhat passive ruminations and I have it. Mostly that’s how a piece of writing comes to me. Mostly. But not always. And definitely not today.

I’d put it off longer if I could. Stalled a few months already – something which is not at all characteristic of me. Cuz I love to write. Folks who know me personally understand how I love to talk – anecdotes, stories, sidebars – the whole thing (no matter who’s doing the talking) is always of keen interest to me. Stories, I got em. And if you get me started, you’ll hear the story til the very end. God bless my little man, my son Elihu – I remember when he was just a wee one, and we’d lie side by side in bed at the end of a day in the dark of his tiny bedroom, and he’d ask me to “tell him a story that really happened”. Oh, I did indeed have stories “that really happened”. Stories the likes of which most mommies probably didn’t. Jumping off the caprail of the H.M.S. Bounty into crazy-deep water, jumping out of a plane (and surprising my jump master with a kiss the on last round before bailing), hosting a radio show (sometimes while nursing that same kid as an infant), playing to packed houses on the road, never knowing a soul there… Leaping from a moving train in Italy after throwing my belongings onto the disappearing platform, hitchhiking in Indonesia. I could go on, but you get the gist. I’ve been a lucky, lucky gal. Lots of stories. Lots of them – until it all wound down to a rather mundane existence in the suburbs north of Chicago. After giving birth to my first, and only child. (Yes, your life changes.)

Shortly after Elihu was born, I was still performing in a couple of bands. I’d worn the rocker chick/jazz chick/hard working musician badges as long as I possibly could; I was on stage performing in an ironic, tongue-in-cheek homage to the 70s when my milk first came in. My poor newborn babe was at home, hungry, waiting for his first real meal, and there I was at a club. Dressed in a red, white and blue patchwork pattern, floor-length dress reminiscent of something from Linda Ronstadt’s wardrobe, I felt it start. My milk-filled breasts had finally let down. I felt two wet spots begin to grow on my chest and I was grateful for the visual distraction of the patterned material. Immediately I recalled how my gut had begun a robust round of Braxton Hicks contractions only a few weeks earlier – when the band I was in soundchecked for a performance of “Jesus Christ Superstar” at the Park West in Chicago. I’d truly thought it was the beginning of my labor and that some 800 paying guests – not to mention the band and cast – were about to be sorely disappointed… Thankfully the painful spasms subsided long enough for me to get through the show. It was close. Up until that moment I’d kinda treated the whole pregnant thing as some sort of amusement – but on that night I was finally made aware of the seriousness of my condition. (I even took on the job knowing the performance was only a handful of days shy of my due date. !! I know, right? I really didn’t get it until then. And that’s the honest truth.)

Yeah, it’s usually the way it goes for me. And I’ll guess, for you too. Who the hell truly understands the real significance and meaning of an experience while smack dab in the middle of it? Few of us. Ok, so there are some moments of clarity, paradigm-shifting events and such, yes. But for the most part, we need hindsight to provide clarity and perspective, and truth. And that’s what I have a whole lot of right now, ten years in. Oh so much has changed in the last ten years of our life here at the Hillhouse. I have learned so much. So much that was once fuzzy is now clear, so much which was unknown is familiar to me now. And to use a writing technique I rather loathe but feel might make my point very well in this case: Oh. So. Much. Has. Changed.

There is no tidy way in which to summarize. I cannot possibly recount a decade of life with all of its drama and joy. Suffice to say, in the ten years since Elihu and I moved here, he and I have visibly aged. When we moved here (to the small white ranch house with a great view we lovingly dubbed “The Hillhouse”) in upstate New York from the suburbs of Chicago, Elihu was 5, and I was 45. He was tiny, and I still looked ‘young-ish’. Now he is taller than me, with a voice an octave lower than mine, and I can no longer hope to pass for forty-something.

There was a blessed island of time – say from his being 6 (and me being 46) and his being 12 (me 52) when all seemed easy, gentle, innocent. Sure, I grumbled under my breath about how hard it was to afford food (then came the food stamp era) and how much time it took to cook the damned stuff (it was only two people, why did it take so much time?) and then there were all those dishes (again, how do two people use so many dishes?) and yet still, in spite of the poverty, the domestic drudgery and even the loneliness of it all, there was a certain unmistakable charm to that time. And even when in the midst of my fresh heartbreak, all the chores and my near-constant grumbling, I had understood that. I knew that one day this time would be in our past. I surely knew it intellectually, but not so much emotionally (that would be the understanding I’m achieving now, in these reflective days).

There were the bathtimes, followed in the earliest years by playing dinosaur on my big kingsized bed – me roaring loudly while tossing the small child up and crashing him down onto the bed to his shrieks of pure delight… Then a few years later (an era which lasted a long, long while, perhaps due in part to my son’s reduced visual acuity) we came to read together each night – or rather I would read aloud to him. He would be lost in his inner visions as I shared along in the adventures. Oh so many books we read. I lament now that we didn’t keep a record on file at the library – I learned only after reading dozens of books that our titles had not been recorded as I hadn’t signed up for that service (all young parents please take note of that!).

Each Spring I read the Burgess Bird Book for Children (a first edition given to us by a dear friend – this tome is over one hundred years old!) and Elihu had a nearly word-for-word recollection of the text – something I’ve come to learn is a byproduct of his low vision. (He told me this past year that he’s informed only about 20% by his vision, with his ears telling him a good 80% about his environment. Even with my knowing his visual situation better than anyone else on the planet, this was still revelatory.) Elihu would correct me when I read something slightly different from the printed text – and many times when a signature, oft-repeated line would arrive, we’d say it slowly together, smiling at the secret joke. I deeply treasured those moments, knowing they wouldn’t last forever, even if it surely felt as if they just might… I loved our evenings reading together, and especially those precious spring seasons when we read from Mr. Burgess’ tender book. In the spring when Elihu was 14 he allowed me to lay down next to him and read a few lines. But it wasn’t the same. I felt it and so did he. The magic window had closed. But I couldn’t bear to leave his side, I couldn’t bear to confirm it aloud or with my actions. Eventually, he asked me to leave, softening it as best he could with a “please”.

Single mother. Used to be, years ago, when I heard the descriptor “single” used before the word “mother” I would think some unkind things. How does a mother end up single? How pathetic is that? And for single mothers with more than one child I just tossed my head and rolled my eyes in disbelief. Idiots. For God’s sake, didn’t you make a plan? What do you mean your husband just left? Why in hell did you allow him to? Yeah, I wasn’t very open minded, tolerant – or experienced. Yet. And although something deep inside me still bristles at the term “single mother” (culturally I may never cleanse myself of thinking it brings low-brow values along with it) I myself have (sometimes even proudly) brandished the title many, many times in order to impress upon folks that it’s just one woman doing the work of two people here. I’ve used the term to help create a clearer picture without going into details. My hope is that folks might understand that I did not ever expect to be in this situation. I use the word “single” to imply I am in the situation, but I didn’t choose it – it chose me. But if they don’t get that bit, or if they end up passing judgement on me, that’s fair. I guess I have it coming to me. Once, when Elihu was a wee one and I was juggling the usual domestic crap (my then husband was on the road most of the time) I lamented over the phone to my mom that I felt like a single mother. She responded “Every mother is a single mother”. Nuff said.

Having just one child, and having no spouse around to accommodate has been a great gift. Raising a child alone offered me great freedom, almost unlimited opportunities. Any adventure that appealed to us we were able to dive into without the baggage of extra people and their stuff. Mom and son is a very portable unit. Everything could be done at a moment’s notice; busking, birdwatching, poultry auctions, a trip to Vermont, a trip to New York City, a walk in the woods, gliding at the airfield, flying a handmade plane in the cemetery. A thousand tiny moments, hundreds of excursions, hundreds of snowbound days indoors side by side, talking, not talking…  Discovering how to draw a wing, how to build a cantilevered shelf into a tower of building blocks, how to articulate passages on the tuba, how to figure out the chords to a melody on the piano, how to nurse a hen with sour crop. Together, Elihu and I have become good at figuring it out. Solving the problem. It’s been a great adventure for both of us. I often say I gave birth to a 50 year old man, cuz this kid’s always had a much deeper understanding of things than anyone I know. Yet he’s been a tiny, adorable child, too. And as a mother I can recall all of these aspects in an instant. Years ago, I was unable to conjure an image of my son taller than me. No matter how hard I tried, I simply could not. Even now, when he appears in my mind’s eye, he’s usually shorter than me. But when I see him, I begin to see the next era. Now I can begin to understand all those things I knew were coming one day, because one day has arrived.

This past May I turned 55. At a glance, not so crazy. But then you realize – 55 is closer to 60 than 50. Wait, what? Come again?? How long have I been in my 50s? Wasn’t I just 45 last year? Give me a minute here…

This becoming 55 really altered my awareness. This was the first year that I could have imagined myself dying. Sure, we never know. I could yet die this week, next month, next spring. Who knows? Although none of us is very good at living as though we were dying – I began to get a bit more motivated this past year. My piano chops were still pretty modest, and I while had long stalled on looking for a local piano single job, indefinitely citing the need for improvement before I could get a gig anywhere, I decided that that shit had to end. There was no longer any time to waste. I decided my timidity was doing me a great disservice; if I had limited time remaining, what in hell did I have to lose? I had enough in my fingers to work. All I had needed was something to dissipate the unnecessary fear. Now I had it. Mortality.

I got in my car and drove to a local golf club and asked to play for the manager. She and her assistant leaned against the tables as they listened. “When can you start?” was the response. Empowered by my first success I knocked on the door of the only restaurant on Broadway that had a piano. The owner let me in and within minutes I was playing and singing for her and her husband. They booked me for that Saturday in March, and I began a steady which had me working all the way through September. Finally. The kid was old enough to be left alone, and I was back out in the world. Finally, I was playing again. Doing what it was that I used to do before this whole kid/divorce/move across the country/raise chickens/start a business adventure began. Phew.

The Studio too has brought me a long way in my personal development. Not a one of us Conants ever thought the scenario through to the far-off future, and it appears that future is now upon us. I myself didn’t really believe (although on some subconscious level I must have known) that running the place would be entirely on me. But it is. And now the main matter at hand is to get the venue inhabited by compelling programs and – the kicker – to see the venue paying for itself. My mother’s been able to patch up the holes, covering the shortfalls and helping with some maintenance, but it cannot remain this way. And it won’t be. A year ago my head was still fully in the motherhood mode; I was making progress with the Studio in fits and starts, and I simply didn’t have time or energy to devote myself to the job as it required. And now that Elihu is 15, things on the domestic front are a lot easier. Hell, I even have my own labor force – and a willing one, too. The kid is so helpful when it comes time to set or strike the room. I’ve given a lot of myself to him and he knows it. My heart is warm and grateful when he returns the service with enthusiasm.

I’m still not enjoying a lot of administrative success – I haven’t assembled a true working board yet (friends, mom and a couple of local artists hold the space for now), and the website is rudimentary and not at all the way I’d like it. I cannot add images in the proper places or align text correctly – the whole thing is a huge frustration. But I know about frustration. This too shall pass. Somehow, I’ll figure it out. In the past year the Studio has lost its power line from the road (thank you dear friends who donated to our power restoration!), been struck by lightning, and we were also sued by a woman who slipped on the ice at – get this – a community drum circle. So nothing really fazes me anymore. Nasty letter from a lawyer? Mech. Sliding door doesn’t slide? Red food dye on the white walls? Table gone missing? Hey. At least the place is still standing. All possibility is yet before us…

My son is in Germany. The last time he was in Germany he was inside of me. Last time I took a trip of any note was when my ex and I went to Germany to perform, and then to Italy to make a baby. Truth to tell, I’ve always felt pretty smug about how it happened. Sure it happens all the time – but I got pregnant on my very first ovulation cycle off of the pill in over a decade. Ha! Fareed and I stayed in a tiny town on Lake Como, in a small family-owned hotel, in room 12, which was the lucky room in which our Evanston friends had stayed, the room in which our friend worked on his book. The room with a view like no other. And 12 happened to be our shared lucky number. The stars were lining up… One afternoon Fareed and I took a walk in the woods on the steep bank of the lake, and we came upon an ancient, moss-covered well. I looked down into the black, and I became aware of a feeling. I knew that there was a tiny new life inside of me. I knew it. I continued on the path under the canopy of pines as if I was floating in a dream. I just knew that things were different now.

Back in Frankfurt I saw a drop of blood, and I was disappointed. How could I possibly have thought it would be this easy to get pregnant? I remember the sounds of the men in the Turkish coffee shop on the street below, the high ceiling of the tiny room where we had spent the night, the sorrow in my chest… In hindsight, I know now that the drop of blood was due to a small cluster of cells embedding themselves into the lining of my uterus. I’ve often said that Elihu’s life began in Italy, but he took up residence in Germany. Funny how life goes… He is loving his time on exchange in the south of the country. He has informed me that he may attend university for free – even as a US citizen! – if he tests in. And that, for my little straight A student, will not be a problem. He loves the slower, gentler pace of life there. It seems his childhood in Greenfield has prepared him well for it. Now fluent in German and without question truly bilingual, his world expands. My eyes fill with tears if I think too hard on it; I am proud, I am in awe, I am in love, and I am sad at the impending separation that college and his life beyond will bring. But it’s all good. It wasn’t all good at the start of this Hillhouse adventure, but it sure is now.

In a couple of days I will fly to Zurich and rejoin my son. We will stay a few days with his host family, I’ll visit his school, meet his teachers and new friends, and I’ll have the opportunity to thank them for their enormous gift of support for my son. We’ll say farewell to our hosts, then take a train to Paris, where we’ll be visiting with both my Godmother and an old friend from Saratoga who now lives there. Finally, we’ll take the train – the famous Chunnel – to London where we will enjoy two very good seats for the musical Hamilton on Thanksgiving eve. We’ll meet up with Elihu’s sister who lives just outside of the city, and then we’ll embark on adventures yet unknown to us at present.

This year marks ten years well-lived here at the Hillhouse. To be sure, we’ve earned our tenure.

 

 

Dear Readers, Elihu has worked so very hard at building aircraft and subsequently documenting their flights – all of his work available for viewing on his YouTube channel entitled “Copterdude”. Indulge me if you will, please, and watch a video or two. And if it’s not a great imposition on your inbox, might you consider subscribing to it? This mother would be deeply grateful.

 

 

 

 

 

Chameleon August 13, 2018

big hat 2

I am not a fan of change. Not at all. I pretty much like things the way they are. I like things simple, and I really like routines. I fairly thrive on the predictability in my life. But I’m also big on wild, serendipitous romps, and those who know me well will understand I’m not terribly keen on rule-following, which can make for some fun life adventures. These two approaches to life might seem at odds with each other, but for me they’re not. It’s not terribly hard for me to slip into other people’s worlds, observe, participate as if I belonged there, and then retreat back into my own private universe when the party’s over. I’m pretty good at wearing a bunch of different hats. Seriously. You should see my closet.

Recently, I enjoyed an unexpected foray into the horse racing culture here in my town. I’d had a good look at it from the inside the year before, so this year I had a much better idea of how to dress, what to say, what not to say. I was thankfully in the company of pals from back in my high school days on Chicago’s Northshore, so my edit function was a bit softened. But not so much so that I didn’t ask questions, that I didn’t pull out my small notebook and jot down some observations. And when my friend shouted, “Liz, winner’s circle, now!” after a race, I readily dropped my phone, bag and journal and followed the entourage down the stairs and out onto the side of the racetrack, where we lined up for a group photo of the owners and trainers. My host’s girlfriend refused to join us, maybe because the whole affair was intimidating. I can see how it could be. But me, all I could think as I looked back up at the grandstand was “once in a lifetime”.  And although the cheap fascinator clipped to my head had seemed a weak choice all afternoon, it turned out to be just the ticket for the photo op. I could just imagine my mother saying to me as she had all throughout my youth and young adult life: “Kid, you live right”. Yup, I admit it. Sometimes I’m lucky.

If it weren’t for the fact that I’ve been raising poultry for almost a decade now, I might still not believe that I myself really am a country girl. It flatters my ego to pass insider small talk at the feed store, and especially at the livestock auction house – where for goodness’ sake the workers always remember me and ask where I’ve been after long absences! – but secretly I almost always feel like I’m pulling one over on everyone. I’m not posing, not at least at this point in the game, but deep down, I always feel as if I kinda am. My muck boots and brown felt farmer’s hat guard against anyone being the wiser, but me, I always know better. Am I a country girl? Yes, and no…

When you play piano for three hours at one sitting in a busy restaurant, you never know who’s listening. Sure you can eye the crowd, get a good feel for the demographic, overhear a conversation or two to help inform your musical choices, but at the end of the day (or the end of the night as it were) you really can’t know. A couple of weeks ago an unassuming middle-aged foursome left the room after tucking a tip in the jar. “I really enjoyed Where Are You? ” one of the men said, smiling and waving as he exited. That was a tune very few would’ve known, and the generation that did was getting a bit too old to be making their way to this downstairs dining room. Musta been a musician, I’d guessed. You just never know the hats that folks are wearing which you just can’t see…

At the age of seventeen I was hospitalized for depression. I guess. Back then folks didn’t know the nuances of mental illness; panic attacks were simply lobbed into the mix with bipolar disorder and anorexia and any other possible affliction of the mind and spirit. We who suffered from any of these ailments were all sent to live with each other in close quarters, and made to push our chairs together in a circle each day to unburden ourselves to the room. It was there that I met a very drugged up man in his late twenties (all ages from teen to elderly shared the unit) whom I’d been quick to dismiss as all but lost. I remember his round, balding head, that he shuffled about, unable to lift his feet individually, and his lips were always shiny due to a constant drool (which I knew he could not control but which did not stop me from passing an unfair judgement of him). He and I were talking once and I had lamented how no one could understand me. How I just plain felt different from everyone (yeah, I know this is the song that every 17-year-old on the planet sings, but please just go with me here). Tom said he knew what the problem was: I was a chameleon. He’d observed how I’d changed my way of speaking to different people based on what I thought would make them comfortable. He said that he’d watched as I’d become someone completely different with each interaction. Immediately, it hit me. Yes, I did that. Yes, he was right. This man, so terrifically slowed by his meds, so dulled by his interminable residency there, he had observed me as no professional had. “You’re a chameleon” I remember him repeating, to make sure I understood. He wasn’t just saying some shit inspired by antidepressants. This guy saw all the hats and knew that none of them were mine – and all of them were, too.

Wearing so many hats can be thrilling, but it can also become a tad burdensome. The hats that I present to the world here in my writings can give some folks the illusion of having a personal relationship with me, when in truth, there is no such relationship. Recently I’ve been getting a little insight into what being familiar to a lot of people might look and feel like in real life (I hesitate to use the world ‘famous’, but well, you know what I mean). Mostly I’m pretty thrilled to get private messages from folks, and I’ve even made a few friendships through this platform, but wearing so many hats – and wearing them so publicly – makes it easy for folks to think they know exactly who I am. As a friend once said so candidly about my writing: my words are ultimately self-selected. One might take this to mean: how would you know if I was making it all up? How would you know when I embellished or when I omitted things to skew the results, to make you like me better or sympathize with my plight?

The answer is: you cannot know. Because I simply have too many hats in my closet, too many dresses in too many colors. I am, after all, a chameleon.

 

 

 

Morph August 1, 2018

Waiting. Waiting three weeks for my son to return from China. Waiting to muster the resolve to stop drinking empty calories in wine and light beer to help make it through. Waiting for the renewed oomph to workout regularly again. Waiting for the hope, the inspiration, the vision. Waiting for the skills to run this silly arts venue. Waiting not to be afraid. Waiting for the arthritis in my body to cease its progress. Waiting to play more interesting solos. Waiting to learn how to earn a livable wage. Waiting. Waiting for something, something to change inside of me…

I suppose that’s not completely accurate. I’m changing alright. Without my understanding – and before I could gather my wits and fully understand that it was truly underway – my body joined that population of the fading. Of those past their physical prime. Past their mental prime too. It feels like very little prime overall is left in my own personal pump. But I need to make what’s left last just a while longer. I’m bitching, whining, doing this passage-of-time thing without a lotta class, and I know it. Searching rather desperately for ways to age without losing me. How do I do this? Waiting for the answer. Reading essays of those who’ve gone through this themselves, remembering how my ancient father lamented that as a little boy he’d watch men like him and think that he would never become a tottering old man himself, and yet there he was… Watching half a dozen monarch caterpillars turning into butterflies in my kitchen. Posting a pic of the glorious new creature perched on my nose. Noticing the vague new contours of my face. Realizing that the changes that await me are not like the those of the caterpillar. Thinking back… just when exactly was I a butterfly? And when I was a butterfly, did I fully understand how glorious it was to fly? Not completely. But now, of course, I begin to get it.

When I awoke early this morning, at around 4 am, I checked my phone and saw that my son, who had not texted or called me anytime in the past few days, had arrived with his father and the ‘other’ family in China. I have a friend in Beijing who told me not to expect communications of any kind, so this was a surprise, and a relief. But with this news a queer and foreign feeling entered my consciousness and made me feel almost weightless and sick: my only child was without me on the other side of the planet, and I had no control over a single thing that would happen to him. I felt as if I were in a dream, I felt untethered and all of a sudden, without a distinct purpose.

You may say that my child being half a world away is the reason behind all of this self-sorry nonsense. And goodness, Elizabeth, we all age. Mine are first world problems, are they not? I suppose if I knew how it was that I would make a living for the remaining several decades (something tells me I’m not off the mortal hook for a while) I might rest easier into this shift. But facing growing old and having no substantive source of income is a huge stress to me. I suppose I could get a job as a clerk at some shop in town – but the last time I did, upon moving here ten years ago, it did not end well. I have never done well at traditional desk/cashier/clerk-type jobs. But I have enjoyed moderate success at hundreds of unusual jobs; I’ve been everything from Tony the Tiger (yes, costume, paycheck from Kellogg’s and all) to deckhand on a boat. I’ve also typed, answered phones and fumbled at cash registers, I’ve taught classes, I’ve hosted radio shows, I’ve raised chickens, sung a cappella in front of thousands of people… Oh so many jobs, hats, achievements, and yet… These days if you ask me what it is that I do for a living, I do not know how to answer that.

Folks are fond of telling me that “I should write a book”. Yeah, I dunno. Isn’t that what this blog already is? And who needs another memoir on their bedside table? I would like to pen a Wikipedia page for my father, but even that seems just insurmountable from where I sit right now. There are too many things to do, too many administrative tasks that need my attention. (How on earth would I manage to organize my content into a book when I can’t even keep my website updated in a timely fashion?) So many ruminations thread through my brain in the long hours of the night when I cannot sleep, but retrieving them while sitting at the keyboard just isn’t happening even as it used to a year ago. In real time I forget words and names which I know I wish to use, yet cannot retrieve from my mind. Things are indeed different now than a couple of years ago. It seems I am truly entering into a new personal age. I just don’t know what the fuck it will be about.

I also worry that there will be no one with whom to share it with. But is this not a choice? I see my mother and several other older friends who deeply cherish their independence and solo lifestyle – just as I do – and I see their individual worlds contracting. My mother tells me she has so much work to do, and then I see her at her desk attending to a stack of solicitations from Native American groups and alley cat rescues. A pile of dream catcher key chains and return address labels with cat photos attest to her main business these days. I can’t begrudge her this; it is her role at this late stage of life. These are the tiny reasons that drive her, that help to give her a purpose. I get that. And she funds much of The Studio’s ongoing needs too, so she derives her sense of purpose through this as well. If only I could.

The Studio, the few students I have and the even fewer gigs, none of it serves to define my reason for leaving a carbon footprint. I have three more years to shepherd the kid into college – and that alone will be a part-time job, with all the scholarships and such that we must hunt down – but when he is launched and out, what then? I have told Elihu that I intend to follow him. That I will not be a burden, but that I will also not allow myself to live far away. I want to know his wife, my grandchildren. I wish to be solitary, but not. Kind of like my mom and her son. Just enough, but not too much. So this plan lingers, somewhere in the not-too-distant future, and that helps. But the space in between now and then is still fuzzy. Waiting. Waiting…

A couple of the chrysalises in the kitchen have stopped in the middle of their process. While one hatches, the neighboring package turns darker still; no patterns begin to show beneath the papery outsides. For some unknown reason, the change has ceased. There will be no butterfly, there is nothing more to wait for. It’s tempting to see this as some cryptic sign from the universe, but I scold myself that it is not.

For these creatures, stopped in the middle of their great changing, the waiting is over, the most exciting parts of their lives are history. I wait, and I wonder. Will another change arrive for me? I am fairly sure the most exciting parts of my life are over too, and I am certainly not going to grow wings again, but I hold out hope for one more chapter, just one more adventure… I await one more chance to morph.

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Dear Readers: Although I thank you in advance for your sincere love and concern, please do not send me private messages suggesting I seek professional help, do not suggest that I take a 9 – 5 job, that I hire someone to do the admin work for me (with what money?) or offer solutions. If you have a good house sitting gig in Saratoga, or wish to simply underwrite my low-key life in the country, that’s fine. Otherwise, don’t fret. (Also, haters, please, don’t share your hate or contempt for my feelings. There is nothing productive that comes of all that nonsense.) This too shall pass, and please remember that this blog has always represented my deepest, most uncensored expression, and if we all took an honest look inward I’m pretty sure our revelations wouldn’t always appear as the bright and shiny aspects of our best selves that we might wish them to be.

 

Two Days’ Time June 28, 2018

 

“It happens to you about two days out of every two weeks” my son said as we sat together at the kitchen island, me with my face in my hands. “A couple days in a row, that’s all”. I don’t cry often, but hot tears were welling up without any effort. It’s not possible to describe it in words, but the pain is real. So real, so acute. The feeling of despair and hopelessness is so complete in those moments that it’s impossible to envision life feeling otherwise. But at least it helped to have a number. I considered the data. Four days out of a month. One day a week. Yeah, I guess that wasn’t so bad. If that’s really all it was, I guessed that I could deal with that. I was so glad my son was there with me, because he helped to take the edge off, to give me a ray of hope. Sometimes I wonder what I’d do without him. No, I would never kill myself, if that’s what you’re thinking. No, I couldn’t. Too much is riding on me in this lifetime. But therein lies the main issue. This is precisely what pushes me over the edge. It feels like it’s all on me. The Studio, my falling-apart old house, the chickens, my kid’s needs, the arthritis in my fingers which gets worse all the time, the bills that are never, ever paid in full… It’s all of that, and also perhaps a smidge of my family’s genetic predisposition to mental health issues. It’s a good thing I can express myself, that I can identify my feelings and issues and put a voice to it all; it’s essential to my sanity and my ability to soldier on.

My brother and only sibling is an alcoholic, a hoarder and social hermit. Hasn’t had a job or a girlfriend in over twenty five years. Without a diagnosis one can only guess at the problem, but that’s not important. His reality is all the evidence needed to indicate his deep distress. My brother is paralyzed by his illness, and angry at the world for it. My mother plays her own role in this drama too; she pays all of his bills and allows him to use her car. She opens her house to him so that he can prepare food and use the internet. A heavy hush falls about her household when my brother is present, sulking and tapping away at his laptop in fruitless labor. She cannot speak freely with her son about this unhealthy situation – the only conversation that passes between them is small talk to fill the space, if even that – and it’s my suspicion that my mother feels guilty about his inability to function in the world, as if it were all her fault. It isn’t, of course, because dysfunction has many moving parts, but I don’t think she’ll ever truly feel it’s not all on her. And so to assuage her guilt and provide her son the best life possible, she gives him all the support he needs to get his booze, eat, do his laundry, live and continue the unwell routines of his life.

This, as anyone can see, is helping to perpetuate the dysfunction, but as long as she lives it won’t be any different. The two have a mutually beneficial relationship; my brother’s needs are met as he continues his efforts to numb the pain that can never go away without proper attention. And my mother enjoys her solitude without having to be completely alone. They are each others companions, whether they talk to each other or not. Whether they even realize it or not. It’s not my place to rock the boat that sustains them, and so I don’t try to fix things anymore. My mom likes to boast of her generation’s frugality and prudence, but along with that gift has come the burden of secrecy and an innate discomfort with speaking aloud deep truths, thereby exposing vulnerabilities and shortcomings. Hopefully I’ve managed to create a much healthier and self-aware future for my son. If Elihu makes it into adulthood with some optimism and skills to identify the things that trouble him, then I feel the Conants have made it out of the woods.

But for now, three of us are still trying to find our way through the forest of life, each dealing with our own situation the best we are able. I can’t fault my brother for self medicating, and I can’t fault my mother for putting her head in the sand. Everyone behaves according to their abilities, experience and insights. Some folks desire a deeper and more honest understanding of their lives, and some don’t. Hopefully I will find a way to keep my panic attacks and bay and my spirits uplifted as I move into the challenges ahead. Maybe I can still get some new insights, some new skills, new confidence… In the old days it took good old fashioned muscle to get through panic attacks and depression, but at least these days I have the power of pharmaceuticals. By whatever means necessary I say…

Elihu will be leaving in a week for a long summer away. He will visit his father and half brothers in Chicago, and then that family will be traveling to China. He’ll return at the end of August for a week here at home before he then departs for a three month-long school exchange with a host family in Germany. He has a lot on his plate. Internally he’s switching gears, getting ready. He shares my propensity for anxiety, and when he reaches a certain threshold of stress, behavioral ticks can begin to arise. And so I don’t bother him with extra tasks or house rules. He’s a good kid, he’s a kind and thoughtful person. All he desires is to make airplanes and learn more about aviation, how to conjugate verbs in German, play his recorders and tuba. He helps when I ask him, and helps keep me from falling into despair when life feels bleak and relentless. And so I give my kid space, time, freedom. I can’t think of anyone who’s earned it as he has. Elihu will be fine. Me? Still not so sure…

Sometimes I get excited about all the possibility ahead, but sadly that spark doesn’t last long. But on the other side of the coin, that dark wave that crashes over my head every so often doesn’t last long either. I just have to keep going, just have to make it through that tunnel. Just gotta make it thru the tough days. Two days at a time, that’s all. Makes me think of a bumper sticker I saw once: “Just remember, in two days, tomorrow will be yesterday”.

 

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Post Script: How strange it is that I should write this post and only moments after I finished the draft, my mother called saying that my brother had taken the car and hidden it? The keys were there in her kitchen, along with a cryptic note from him. My suspicion was that the recent landscaping job at the Studio had put him in a rage of jealousy, and that in order to let his feelings be known, he’d stashed the car somewhere nearby and walked home to return the keys, knowing that mom in her limited mobility wouldn’t be able to find it. Never let it be said that my brother isn’t clever. He had parked mom’s Prius on an angle at the foot of the shared driveway, making entrance to the venue (as well as both her house and his) inaccessible. Well done, brother. Well done. Before we knew the location of the car, my mother had called the sheriff. The sergeant remembered my brother well from previous incidents and encouraged my mother to call if she ever felt she was in danger. (I was satisfied to know a report had been filed, because documentation will help me at some future time when I need to have him removed from the dilapidated farm house, which is legally property of The Studio.) The writing is on the wall, but who cares? In a metaphoric “two days’ time” this too will shift, and the new normal will assert itself. For the time being however, the resting state of “normal” around here is anything but.