Birthday Angel

It is early on the morning of my son’s eighth birthday. Lying on my right side I look at the clock. 6:38. Eight. Eight. I begin the new contemplation for today. What does eight feel like? Can I see all eight of those years at a glance and fully ‘get’ what it means? I feel I can, and for the first time in my son’s life, he seems to have the full history of a young person. A little of this, a little of that, and the discretion that comes with experience to be able to sort it all out.

When he turned five he turned to me, and in all earnestness said, “you do know that I’m more 45 than 5, don’t you?” Feeling his need to be understood, and indeed understanding just what he meant, I reassured him that I got it. I got it. Five was a year of turmoil. Looking back I believe that he felt trapped inside the body of a small kid. Deep inside he seemed to be so very frustrated by his own lack of ability, experience and knowledge. This may seem a bit profound a statement to make about a five year old, but I can tell you, as his nearly constant companion and fretting mother, I know this to be true. That year Elihu was prone to destructive explosions of rage that seemed to erupt right out of the blue. I have a scar on my left forearm of where he bit me. I’d meant to prevent him from breaking anything, as he was moving rather like a weed wacker – spinning his arms outward to take down whatever lay in his path – and so I wrapped my arms around him. As I held him fast, and as his rage found its last possibility of expression, in desperation to rid the torment from his system, he leaned over my protective arm and sunk his teeth in. That was the year we moved here, the year everything changed.

I had always thought I’d done a pretty good job of keeping things hopeful and cheery during this transition. I’d thought it much harder on me than on him. I’d lost my best friend of the past twenty years, I was giving up my friends and life, while my son had barely started to make friends, much less get into the rhythm of a ‘life’. This all may have been true, but at five, Elihu felt something was not right. I now believe the import of that year was not lost on this tiny person. While I may have told him initially that we were ‘going to visit grandma and grandpa for a while’ (and subsequently apologized many times for having duped him), I think he knew shortly after we arrived, that this was no visit. His life had just been changed, and he’d had no say in it. What was worse, he was tricked into it. (Even now, at eight, the fallout from this past chapter rises up and threatens him in the form of panic attacks, which we both approach head on, unwilling to allow the unsettled feelings to grow, as we work together – along with a softly listening counselor at the local family services office – to learn what feeds them, and to pick apart the issues and discuss them all in love and understanding.)

In his sixth year his rage lessened, and he began his life of birds in earnest. That was the year we came home from Tractor Supply with our first family of chickens. The photos I saved in his first grade memory book show the summer of a carefree young boy on a farm. (I squirm to use the term ‘memory book’, but it was created at the request of his first grade teacher. I admit I have felt great disdain in the past for those who would spend hours of precious time ‘scrap booking’, but I did learn that making a simple book that reflects the highlights of a particular year is a nice way of keeping the chronology correct, if nothing else. And there is actually plenty of ‘else’ as well.) There is a photo of Elihu, arms outstretched, running after our white Pekin drake, Joseph. It is filled with the joy of summer and a young boy’s pure, nature-driven heart. Yet by just looking at the photograph one wouldn’t know that this is a rare moment in which Elihu has ceased to hold his dark glasses tight to his head in order to block out the sun so he can see well enough to track the bird. One wouldn’t know the back story of our new life alone, without husband, dad. The tenuous day-to-day balance of need and supply isn’t apparent in the images. But the photos do remind us that many delightful moments did happen, and in spite of the back story, there were some truly happy times that year. A year of discovery, the door to our future was then flung wide open and we crossed the threshold, mouths wide open.

Elihu’s seventh year was one, I’d say, of transition. While five was small and not so well-equipped to do things, at six Elihu was becoming aware of what was needed in order to do things. Seven then, was putting it into action and finally doing many things for himself that he couldn’t when he was younger. And now, at eight, I realize that the door to that pure, innocent chapter of Peter Rabbit and Pooh is now beginning to close. This is the year when the magic of Santa may no longer hold. When the cracks in his tiny-child beliefs will become bigger and harder to ignore. I’ve always marveled that a kid who took such a scientific interest in his world, measuring wingspans and learning migration routes, could so easily believe that one man delivers gifts to every child on earth in one night. (That Santa delegates, and has a lot of elves helps to ease the doubt a bit.)

So here I am. Quite possibly the last birthday in which my son will believe that the presents sitting on the kitchen table in the morning were delivered magically, as he slept, by the birthday angel during the night. Eight feels like a long time now. No longer does it feel as if my son were born just a few short years ago. So much life has passed for us since then. Here is my son, small child no longer. Young boy today. In a few minutes I will wake him, I will tell him that when I went into the kitchen to make breakfast I found something. I will tell him in a quiet, wondering way – so careful not to overdo it – and then I will share once more, perhaps one final time, that breathless moment of delight when he sees the unbelievable sight before him. Happy birthday, my beloved Elihu.

Easter Morn

Hallelujah! The Lord has risen, and so has the temperature! Fully expecting to see a figure beginning with 3 or 4 on my kitchen door thermometer, imagine my surprise and joy just now in seeing 60! Really? Wow – gotta let those chickens out, surprised I haven’t hear them crowing yet. (Two days ago I awoke to see snow covering everything, and rather thickly, for a spring snow. I’d thought briefly to post a picture on Facebook, but snow in April hardly warrants surprise for northerners.) It’s a lovely, sunny, warm and still Easter morning here in upstate New York. I look around and imagine all those farmer types who might be just a little miffed that they’ve got to dress up and go to church on such a good day for getting some outside work done. Then I think, well, at least it’s great weather for getting the kids dressed up and loaded in the minivan… That’s better. Should really start this day with a more uplifting sentiment.

Coffee cup in hand, I stand on my front steps and begin to think over all the things I’ve learned so far in my two years here, and then I begin to consider all the lessons yet ahead. I begin a quick inventory of the things that have begun to come into my field of awareness. First off, I’m really glad to have serendipitously come across the author Michael Perry through his latest book “Coop”, which I found directly in my path as I did a final once-over of the local Borders on its last day. Got it for a buck (sorry, Mike). Therein is a nice chunk of not only remembrances that parallel mine in many ways (growing up farming, a late sixties, early seventies childhood, going it alone with a capricious ‘try it and see what’s the worst that could happen’ attitude and more) but a lesson in the end which I would do well to learn from. He comes to the conclusion (bless that man, oh how I wish my ex had felt the same) that it is his wife who really holds down the whole operation as he spends a good deal of time on the road. He credits her for feeding the animals and tending the garden while raising the young children. Then he begins to realize that farming is in itself a job, and that he really cannot both farm and write professionally – at least to the degree he’d thought possible at the outset. My mother expressed her concern recently that this garden/chicken thing is a huge endeavor, and that I should be putting the bulk of my time into The Studio instead. Well, somehow, I’ve managed to juggle things before, and with nice results, so I’ve been thinking I can pull it off. But in the two days since she said this, the reality is beginning to sink in. A 20’x40′ garden. Forty chickens, a new coop and run (which I must build). An eight year old boy. A community arts center with summer camp programs (which I run). A concert hall dedication ceremony and Baroque concert with promo to be done, tickets to be sold. Sheesh. I haven’t even added in my new membership at the Y, my ambitious new ‘women on weights’ class or just general life. Caution rises up in me and a new, more responsible voice begins to emerge, telling me that it’s not about ego, that I have not failed if I can’t pull it all off, that I must remember that everything takes half again as much energy to manifest as one bargains for at the top.

Ok. Today at Easter dinner I will sound out mom and Martha – now the old women at the table – and I will see how crazy my plate looks to them. Just since I awoke about an hour ago I’ve already begun to research tillers and what that labor is about. Hmm. Front tine: cheap, but good for small gardens. Require more effort. Rear tine: expensive, good for big jobs, less grunting. My mom has a small Mantis I can use. That will have to do. I guess before my farmer neighbor came over the other day to offer a kindly consultation on my land, I’d had romantic, Foxfire-ish visions of swinging a hoe in the humid, hot July, laboring down the rows stopping to pluck a potato bug here and there, wiping my brow as I assessed my progress and happy to finally have a good reason to wear my floppy garden hat. Oh dear. I need to slow down and think this over.

I’m just so thrilled to be alive now, to have the tools for self-education right here in this little box. I have become a sponge these past two years. One can investigate virtually anything with google and you tube. That saves one a lot of time and mishap. While there is absolutely no substitute for jumping in and experiencing your own three stooges moments, it behooves one to do a little reconnaissance first. With these tools I add one more; getting out and visiting with those who have gone before. In my search for free lumber on Craigslist, and my forays into the countryside to pick up the stuff, I’ve enjoyed many very educational discussions with folks who’ve been at it for years. Building, fixing, raising, growing. So I’m asking a lot of questions. Man, the information just comes in. And so does the dawning realization that I just might not be able to pull it all off – at least not this year.

In the two decades I spent living with a classical guitarist, the most frustrating thing about it was quite literally, a fingernail. (This is the line that will get all partners of guitarists to smile, the guitarists themselves won’t, and I’ll get into that here.) Fareed was constantly swiping his right hand thumbnail with a teeny fragment of fabric-soft, ultra-fine sandpaper which he ALWAYS carried with him (or almost always – the occasional search for his missing sandpaper was as frantic as the search for the crying baby’s missing pacifier). The right hand thumbnail, to a classical guitarist, is the essence of who he or she is as a player. The very physical condition and shape of the nail combined with the technique (oh dear, to add flesh or not to add flesh? Segovia or Williams?) is what makes the ‘sound’. And by sound I do not simply mean it simply plucks the string; rather it creates the quality of the sound that defines the player. The endless filing of the nail was accompanied by daily and even hourly proclamations that his sound was getting closer. To what? I waited for years to arrive at that destination. My husband was always trying to improve his sound. Improve his thumbnail. Improve the angle at which it reached the string. He was in ceaseless pursuit of that elusive combination of a thousand micro-changes that were apparently ALL of great significance to the end result. He would announce hundreds of times with sincere elation that he’d made a discovery today! And I would try, so hard, and many, many, many times with genuine thrill, joy and love for him at his success, to share in that moment. But I’m sure you can imagine, that at the thousandth such proclamation it was hard to conjure real thrill. It was tiring. This day-to-day emotional roller coaster of the search for the perfect thumbnail shape. I began to get a grouchy about it sometimes. I found it very hard to believe that after years of fussing with it he hadn’t come upon the perfect shape. Or at least perfected some method of getting somewhere in the workable neighborhood.

But indeed, God is in the details. Many times in my new single life in the country I’ve smiled to myself at his unending process with a new light of understanding. I too, am realizing the umpteen million degrees to which one can take any endeavor. And all the different results that manifest from those nearly invisible changes. From growing seeds to monitoring the humidity in my incubator, I’ve seen the effects of subtle changes on the results. I guess I’m now a believer. I wonder how I might give him this gift; how can I tell him, with love, that I am sorry for my exasperation at his tiny triumphs? How can I convey, with humor intended (for it is kinda funny to me now) that I have a better understanding of how much more there is to anything than one can possibly understand at a casual, outsider’s glance? In my heart, I apologize to him many times for this, and I almost always laugh, because I am beginning to be humbled by how many choices go into life.

So on Easter morning, I am taking stock. I am renewed with hope, I am educated by my past. I am going to slow down today. Perhaps I’ll see if the trout lily is up in the woods. Heck, I don’t even know if it grows this far east. There’s so much I don’t know. It’s such an adventure, this life. A pain in the ass to be sure, but humor and gratitude oil the big machine. I’m off to git her started. Nice and slow, Elizabeth, you’ve got a lot ahead.

My Old Home

I’ve just been snooping through Facebook. I came upon a photo album of the woman who now lives in ‘my home’. While I’m interested to see her children and her life, as I move through the shots all my attention goes to the corners of the frame where I can make out the so-familiar details of what is still, in my deepest heart, my home. I see the raised slate hearth, the jack-on-jack Roman brick wall above it (which my husband and I plotted to cover up when we first peered voyeuristically through the window into the home we knew we would buy, but later learned to love it for the mid-century finery it was), the ratty old kitchen cabinets, the aging window frames, the floor, which I hardly knew, as the owners after us had them redone. I see a post of mine below a photo in which I lightheartedly remarked that I was happy to see the salmon colored, boomerang patterned formica still on the counters, the black plastic tile behind, but saw it wasn’t met with a response. I don’t respond to a fraction of the responses of my own photos, why does my heart cringe the teensiest bit that my nostalgic remark went unnoticed? I search my home for all the details – and my heart almost sighs with relief to see the grand, stunning beams that ran the entire length of the house and that required traffic be stopped when they were brought into Evanston back in 1955… Then my heart stops. And my eyes begin to tear. She writes simply: ‘the glacier threatening to migrate off my roof’. And it hits me. This oh so familiar sight, this roof, those beams, that expanse of glass and sky beyond, it is no longer my house. It is her house. And I cry. I don’t sob, and it doesn’t last long. I don’t cry much these days. I’ve stopped crying about my husband too, for the most part. Not much, not even poverty gets me going anymore. But this, it was too much. It’s MY house, I want to say to her. But it isn’t. And what’s worse, is that I’ve created this woman in my mind to be the sort who might just not get my over-devotion to a house. Who might just think it’s a little creepy that some 6 years gone this crazy woman somewhere across the country still feels such a sense of proprietorship over what clearly is no longer her home.

In fact, the woman who lives there now seems to be a karmically just
inhabitant of that house – at least from my perspective. She is a doula, and she has two young children of her own. She is crafty, handy, motherly. Good energy. And that more than cleanses the rather dark energy of the woman who preceded her (the woman who bought it from me). And it also redeems my failed ‘birth story’. Our beloved cat, Kukla, died in our arms in that house, we were married in the house, and our son, while he wasn’t born (as intended) in our home, he was in fact first sighted there. Close to crowning, Fareed stood at the foot of the bed and said with a smile “I can see the head!”. But that’s as far as that went. After 17 hours of stalled labor, a declining baby’s heartbeat and maconium in my long broken water, it was decided that I would be one of that tiny percent of home births that end up in the hospital. I can remember squatting my way down the front steps when the delivery guy from Dave’s Italian Kitchen was arriving with our bag of dinner. “No, not now, I’m having a baby” I said as I wattled to the doc’s minivan. What happened that day is truly another story. But it weaves me right back into the web of feelings that house created in me. This house, this grand, mid-century home has now replaced the home in which I grew up as my emotional epicenter.

For many years I would dream of the house in which I grew up, 154 Maple Avenue in Wilmette. It was a beautiful Tudor house, built in the ’30s, one whose design had won architectural awards. My father was a harpsichordist, and there were two of the instruments in the ‘sunken’ living room (I still just love saying that – it’s just so, I don’t know, decadent?), leaded windows and huge stone fireplace – the place was easy to create a whole fantasy world around. Especially as a young girl on the advent of her adolescence and in the height of the Led Zeppelin years. Every young man looked like either Donovan or Robert Plant, and the golf course on which we lived, the moor. The Bahai temple was visible from all the northerly windows in the house, my bedroom included. I’m not sure where this came from, but I have a dim memory of someone, somewhere saying that anywhere with a view of the Bahai temple was the most romantic place on earth. And while perhaps this comment was meant in a more classic sense of the word and not so much a titillating nod to eroticism, I always like to cite this statement, adding quickly afterward, “and my bedroom has a view of the Bahai temple”. I was always kidding, and I thought it was cute, but it seems silly now. But the view was something. At night I would lie on my left side, and from exactly where my head lay on the pillow, I would see the entire form, glowing white against the black sky, like a giant orange juicer. The branches from the oak trees gently framed it, my translucent, psychadelic-colored butterfly decals flew up to the sky on the windows, and below was an alter-ish scene of a George Harrison poster from his “All Things Must Pass” album flanked by candles on my dark-stained bookshelf. It was perfect in its time. My room, my fantasies, my feelings, all products of the time. And well-loved memories. This home showed up in my dreams incessantly for the decade after I moved out. My parents sold it, and they too moved on. Yet even after I’d bought my first place – that in itself another stunner (on Lake Michigan, 7th floor, balcony view of Chicago) my dreams took me back to Maple Ave all the time. In different aspects, some rooms recognizable, some not, sometimes the whole house was in a different place, but always it was that house, at least in feeling. The feeling was what I sunk into and comforted myself in. I always just knew in my dreams that the lake was to the east, the temple to the north, the golf course and canal to the west, the lights of the city to the south. Those were the cardinal directions of my heart’s compass for half my life. Until I moved to Judson.

So here I am. On a fine piece of land in rural upstate New York. Half a country away. Spent all day making plans for this little plot of land. I’m trying to love it, it has all the potential one could ever hope for, it’s got a view of the Vermont mountains, a storybook footbridge over an almost running creek, it’s got forest, open field, the steepest hill around – it has it all. But it doesn’t yet have my heart. My heart still gets its fix on the world from my home on Judson. But I’m working on it. Looking back, I see that it’s taken me a few years after each move to catch my heart up. When we moved to Judson I still dreamed (and still do often) of Lunt, that city apartment whose orientation was both the vast, inland sea to the east, and the glowing promise of Chicago spread before one to the south. And yet when I reached Judson I felt I was at home, finally. But it wasn’t final. And there’s one more house between us yet, the one in the cornfields. The home in which I’d tried to set my heart up for its midlife story until it changed once again.

I’m trying my best. I’m growing into my home. It’s slow. My intent is here, but my heart is dragging its feet. That it’s really the only home my son has known helps to make it feel more like my own true home. I think about the idea of home a lot. At least I have over the years. There are nights here in my little cottage where I half wake, and think that I see the lights of my parent’s room down the hall at Maple. Then other nights I wake and believe fully that I am at Judson, and I feel relieved to be home, before I awake more fully to slowly realize where I am. It seems my heart has not come to rest yet. I ponder all the changes in the hearts of my own parents through their journeys. My father is starting to show signs of his Alzheimer’s. It will be interesting to see where he feels he is. Already he’s believed that he’s been moved to a ‘house on the lake’. He spent his childhood in a house on a lake. The very house where I was conceived. His lake house must be imprinted deep into his heart. What makes a place feel like home? Is it the age in which we lived there? The events that happened? Do we cease to identify our souls with a home after a certain point? Where is my home? I wonder. I’ve wondered this so many times. I’ve marveled over how home can be everything to one person, and simply a nice place to pass some life to another. I’m a Taurus, I’m of the earth and I need to know where my home is. Then I will dig in and make it even more my own. Guess that’s what I’m doing now. I’m just going to enjoy being here, because it’s where I am now. And I’ll simply have to adjust if there ends up being just another home on my path, because Lord knows things change. Dear old George was good to remind us that ‘all things must pass’.

Working for a Living

I think I’m a pretty hard working person for someone without a day job. My son is with his father for the week and I haven’t stopped moving since he left. When we moved here over two years ago I had no idea how different life would be. I had romantic notions of off the grid living, of being a robust mother who could do the work of two parents, of creating a homestead filled with the laughter of guests, music around our fire and homegrown produce on our table. As with any new endeavor, one knows so little about the reality of it until one is knee deep.

Last summer I fought with the sod for days – probably over 20 hours in total – to create a small garden. It was a humble 5’x12′ and yielded little but the zinnias and arugula I bought mid-season already grown. While those few plants gave my 7 year old son true joy as he ran out of the kitchen to check on them first thing each morning, they gave us so little to put in our tummies. I dug the fresh cut arugula’s zingy flavor, but had only enough to add it to store bought lettuce. Our pumpkin plants, it turns out, needed us to intervene in their sex lives; it looks like our neighborhood is bereft of the already dwindling bees to pollinate such plants. Q-tips in hand, Elihu and I swabbed the pollen from the male flowers’ stigmas and carefully dragged them over the stamens inside the shorter, feminine blossoms. I’ve since read many blogs on the topic, and of course there’s always a little snickering about it, but sex aside, when you see a packet of seeds with a lovely photo of the end result, are you even aware that you may be responsible for making sure your plants are properly knocked up? Really – I haven’t seen one package mention the importance of this missing link. Just another thing you learn once you’re already under way. (We did, after many tries, achieve only one pumpkin, and it only turned orange in one small spot by the end of october.)

Today I visited a neighbor to see if I might barter eggs or piano lessons for some plowing. I had begun to realize the scope of such a project, and since yard had grown in place of the one-time gardens on the property, I gave in to the need for horsepower. That, and someone who has the horse. I’m not proud to say that when I see someone’s beautiful and successful vegetable garden, jealousy and even anger grow inside me. First, I think, ‘they’ probably have a spouse to help (grrr), then I think, crap, they probably sank a couple hundred into it too (who the hell has a couple hundred extra dollars to play with?), then I think they probably own some kind of machine. Then I give up, and descend into a good dose of self pity. I think I threw in the towel today – on pride, on envy, on the despair of feeling it was out of my reach to have a garden of my own. True, I cannot do it by myself. So I approached my neighbor, and he was so very kind to come by and check out my hopeful project. This fellow is farming a good chunk of land himself, plus his grandparents built my place, so I feel lucky he’s in the mix. Now I’ll just have to wait and see what a neighborly kindness looks like here in the country. I already feel a little guilty, because I just can’t pay what the task is worth… I guess part of the ‘takes a village’ thing means accepting that you can’t do it alone. It means learning to accept help.

You can’t put in fences alone either. Nor is it so easy to dig a post hole (this town really should be named “Stonefield” and not Greenfield, as thousands of fist-sized rocks lie everywhere just inches beneath the surface). Lucky I’m not on bedrock (or am I?) as many in the area are. That would mean no post holes or gardens. My neighbor was the first person to offer me encouragement about the post holes. While I was unable to dig even a 6″ hole last summer with my shovel, perhaps with a post-hole digger, time and determination, just perhaps, I can do it. I will certainly try.

Onto the coop. It is now a foot deep in the detritus of winter. Poop, hay and wood chips have packed down to make a dense, spongey floor which when loosed with a pitchfork springs forth with the most horrible smell. I’d always heard about how smelly chickens are, yeah, yeah, yeah, I’m thinking, cuz up until that moment when I broke the seal with those long tines, nothin much was all that smelly. That’s perhaps because I ain’t done my proper maintenance. I had clearly opened Pandora’s box. I considered the job ahead for a moment. The day was sunny yet cold, and it rained down tiny droplets of ice all afternoon. It was mid afternoon, and I was already pooped. I just couldn’t make myself address the stink. So I grabbed some more fresh wood chips and covered the open wound. When it’s warmer, I tell myself. Just not too warm….

In fall and spring I try my best to clean up the leaves. With five open acres dotted with mature hardwood trees, this aint easy. I set to work in the transitional seasons making great piles throughout the property and them setting them alight. By the end of the day the place has the feel of a civil war camp, smoldering mounds hither and yon stretching off into the distance. My house is rather leaky I learned, for despite the seasonal cuttings of hyacinth in my kitchen, which usually perfume the whole house so nicely, all I can smell is smoke. Ok. I’m ok with that. I’m ok with a lot of things these days. There’s a teeny mouse poop in the bottom of my olive oil jar. I regard it as the worm in the bottom of the tequila bottle. I sleep in a bathrobe over my pajamas – which are not pajamas but sweats – and then go out to let the chickens out in the very same. I’ll go a few days in the same underwear and socks – and long underwear is part of my wardrobe til May. Am I saying too much? I would have had great disdain for such habits a decade ago. Back then I would have been choosing a hair extension and dress for the night’s gig, my biggest concern being to successfully apply my false eyelashes without incident. I do believe that all is in its time and place. I have no regrets. But I do have a lot more to do, so I’m off to make hay. (Hmm, hay? I wonder if I could actually make my own hay one day?…)