The Hillhouse

The Journey of a Mother and Son

Pullets’ Surprise September 25, 2012

As most backyard chicken hobbyists do, we began our adventure with little more than a vague dream, a soft outline of a goal… We imagined that having our own hens and fresh eggs daily would be charming, picturesque, that it would bring us closer to nature and to simple living. We might have done a little research online beforehand, but not too much. Just enough to sort of get the idea. After all, we really want to do this thing, and if we knew too much, we might just decide it wasn’t really worth it…

So, one naive stroll through your neighborhood farm supply box store around Easter time and you’re hooked before you realize it. You hear the tiny, incessant peeps long before you spot the red heat lamp bulbs or even see the irresistible, fuzzy, day-old little chicks crowding the temporary cages. My God, you had no idea they were this cute! Crazy, over-the-top cute with love-me eyes and tiny, drunken walks. Klutzy little chicken feet hobbling over each other, standing, now falling, cheeping all the while. It’s just too much for you to bear. You must take some home. You must have one all to yourself to smooch endlessly. How hard can it be? You’ve had pets. You know. Yes, it’s a responsibility, but that doesn’t worry you. You’ve done this before! You had to walk the family dog all through junior high school! But see, you don’t even have to walk a chick! Seriously, how hard can this be? Man. Just give me that little cardboard take-out box and I’ll choose me six of the cutest little chicks ever seen. Really. No big deal.

Ok. So the cutest little chicks in the whole wide world have been living in a plastic storage bin in your son’s closet for two weeks now, and the whole house smells like, well, chicken shit. It’s a sour sort of funk, a weird new poop smell, mixed with the tang of urea. Hm. Oh well, you knew they pooped. Just change the wood shavings, or if you went poor-house on ’em, change the soggy shredded newspaper. That’s a little better. But not much. Man, who knew they’d smell up the whole house? And look how much bigger they are all of a sudden! Wow. They sure are growing, aren’t they? Oh-oh. Seriously. What now?

In the back of your mind you thought you could put em in the cellar for a while longer, cuz it’s still kinda cold and snowy out. Easter in the north is still on the edge of winter, and even though they’re growing, they’re still not up to the 20 degree nights outside. Ok. So you’ve killed another two weeks, but they’re still growing. They’re eating and drinking like crazy, the upkeep never stops! Plus they keep escaping their temporary home and exploring all corners of the basement! What now? The funky smell is everywhere and so are the poops, and you’re not sure you’re good with another month like this. Ok. Think. Heat lamp. Got some place in the garage that’s secure? That’s fenced in? If you don’t, you’ll spend next Saturday afternoon with a chop saw and some scraps of wood cobbling together a mildly sketchy pen of sorts for your teenagers to move into. On a mild, early spring day you’ll get brave enough to commit them to this new apartment. You’ll hang a red heat lamp bulb above them – the kind that costs $10 a pop – like you saw at the farmer supply place. Check the windows and doors otherwise the raccoons’ll get em the very first night they’re out. (Then it will take another full calendar year to get to this stage again. Been there. I know.) The morning after their first night in the new digs, you run out to check on them. They’re all still there!! Now you know what this kind of relief feels like. It’s your first rite of passage. This is how you’ll feel hundreds of times, over and over again for the duration of your career as a chicken farmer. You’re over the first hump, so congratulations! Here we go….

So it’s mid summer. The chicks are long-legged and gangly looking, their plumage is spotty; fuzzy down pokes out from the emerging patterns of adult feathers. The combs on their heads are mere bumpy ridges, waddles are yet far-off, and it’s still not clear who’s who. But after another month – usually around the end of July or beginning of August – it becomes more apparent who will be laying and who will be strutting about and making trouble. The young roosters become apparent by three defining features. No, not their spurs – that comes later. Not even their crowing – for that too comes later. What first appears are three different sets of feathers: the hackles, the saddles and the tail. The hackles and saddles look much the same; drapey, elegant long, thin feathers that serve as an embellishment to the neck and lower back areas. And the tail feathers themselves are grand, arching things that rise above the height of the bird and cascade out behind him. No hen has such a tail. No hen has such long, thin decorative feathers about her neck or hind quarters. Hens may be surprisingly beautiful, but they are not as flashy as the men. Nor as obnoxious. Gradually it will become obvious to the armchair chicken farmer that something must be done about the excess of testosterone in the coop. But what? Hmm. You hadn’t quite thought this far ahead. You just sorta thought they’d all stay on as one happy family. But you’ve stalled so long now that the boys are challenging each other and things are no longer so peaceful on the farm. In fact, the poor girls are now being mounted by these randy teenagers to the point where some may be missing the feathers on their backs. Oh dear, something is not right. No, it is not. The ratio, half males to half females, it just doesn’t work in the world of chickens. Not at all. But you didn’t really think it through, did you? You hadn’t worried about having too many roosters. Heck, chickens are chickens, right? Not really. So. What’s next? I’ll tell you…

Chicken soup. Like the kind that’s simmering right now on my stove. Man this house smells good. Smells like a home. Puts my son in a fantastic mood, makes me feel like a real good mom. Plus it gets rid of all that extra testosterone on the farm. They say the ratio of hens to a rooster should be like 25 to 1. Seems about right. (It’s a living lesson for my son about the power of chemistry over good judgment. Read into that what you will, ahem.) It’s funny, but I really never gave any thought to the difference between hens and roosters before I became a chicken farmer. In fact, I’m pretty sure I used the terms interchangeably for a while. Wasn’t quite sure that hens were girls – the ones that laid the eggs – and roosters were the fancy ones. The ones you only ever saw one of on farm. Never gave much thought to that until I was in the thick of it. And a pullet? What the heck is that?

Well, I’ll tell you. It’s a young hen. A gal who’s just started to lay. In the very beginning of your chickening career you start to lose hope that your own hens will ever lay. Months seems to stretch on with no proof that you really do have hens. It seems that hens that actually lay eggs might really be something out of a dream – some sort of crazy magic that happens somewhere else, not in your own backyard. But just as soon as they’ve crossed the line of puberty, if the young hens aren’t overly stressed and are given some nearly private sort of space in which to work things out, you will indeed have eggs before long. And oh, that first egg is truly a miracle. It is a landmark day in your life, it is a personal triumph! Hens really do lay eggs! It’s taken months – but they’re actually doing it now! How crazy is that? I mean, eggs come from factories, right? This is what you believe on a cellular level, so it will seem almost supernatural to your modern self for a time. And I know that there are even some of you who will be even a little put off by actually eating these au-natural eggs… Yes, it might just gross you out a little bit in the beginning. Yeah, I know. I’ve heard it many times. I too felt a little weird in the beginning. But the longer you live with your fresh eggs, the longer they become a staple of your homestead – plus the more guests you have who marvel over the intense flavor of your eggs – the more you will become not only a believer, but a liver-of-the-lifestyle.

You may choose to bring the extra eggs into work, give them out freely and be a hero, or you may decide that the cost of feed and upkeep deserves some payback, and so you may sell them just a tad less than those at the farmer’s markets. You’ll definitely have enough to make your son fresh, home-made, healthy French Toast for breakfast every morning, and enough to pack a hard boiled egg into his lunch each day. So these hens are a happy story with a happy ending, but what of the other story – that of the rooster? Why that is a very different story, to be sure.

Roosters don’t stay long. Almost as soon as we can tell em from the rest, we make a call to Mr. Shaw, the Amish farmer who prepares em for us. Elihu is excused from the first half of his school day (mainly cuz I need him to physically round them all up and get em in the toter) and we dedicate one chilly morning in September to butchering our modest flock of roos. First off, you’ll notice the term I choose is “butcher”. You may use other words – kill, do in, dispatch – but the term ‘butcher’ says what it means, plus it seems to infer some civility, skill and tradition in the trade too. So that’s why I use it. And butcherin’s messy. It’s a process best left to someone who’s got the setup. If you’re kinda on the fence about it – I recommend you still go ahead and have your roosters butchered, but just don’t watch. My kid and I choose to watch – I might not have if it weren’t for his strong desire to know the whole cycle – to take real responsibility for his food, and to be a part of their death too. I supported my then 7 year old son so much there was no way I was not going to share the experience with him. And it was shocking. Truly. I was stunned by the amount of blood, the bright, bright red of it. That iron-y smell of the blood. The kicking and kicking of the dead birds’ legs, long after they’d been bled out. Witnessing the actually killing part does require one be in a certain emotional place. You must just steel yourself. Distance yourself. I like to try to maintain some gratitude, some reverence for the sacrifice that’s being made of one living being for my own sustenance. But with all your adrenaline flowing and all that blood-letting going on, keeping one’s heart somewhat reverential and calm is a small challenge – and the combination of it all makes for a surreal event.

When we first went, three years ago, Elihu would whisper his thanks to each bird before handing them over to be dunked upside down into a cone and having its neck slit. He felt closure in his offering of thanks and gratitude. I was amazed to watch Elihu go through his own process with such certitude, with a real sense of gravity projecting throughout his whole demeanor. To see how deeply he felt it, how critical it was for his experience of raising and making his own food. On the way home however, finally he began to cry. I wondered if there wasn’t going to be some fallout afterward, in fact I rather expected it…. I told him that I understood that it was a hard thing to watch, that the whole thing was sad and difficult. But he protested that that was not what was bothering him so. He wasn’t so much sad as he was mad – at Ben Shaw, the Amish farmer. Apparently Ben had told Elihu not to say prayers of thanks to the animals because God had given us the animals to do with what we would. That they belonged to us, and that they had no souls of their own. Ben told Elihu instead to make prayers of thanks to God alone, for these were his gifts to us. Elihu was livid, through tears he protested to me that Ben was wrong! “How can he look into his dog’s or his horse’s eyes and think that they have no souls! It makes me want to turn the car around and go tell him that he’s wrong!” Oh my poor, dear son. This is what troubled him. I could only tell him how much I agreed, and share his great disappointment with Mr. Shaw’s beliefs.

Since then, we haven’t looked back. We let Mr. Shaw believe what he will, and we continue to know that even the beasts we butcher and eat each have their own unique imprint of life, animated by soul, just as we are. They are just another speck of God that’s taken another form. And we thank them, we do em in as quickly as possible. And man, do we LOVE the soup that we get from em. We started out this year by roasting and souping up our handsome black/green rooster, named ‘Sylvan’; we ate “Sylvan soup” all week and loved it no less the last time than the first. I tell ya, these home raised chickens make the tastiest broth I have ever had. I like to over-salt things – but I find I just don’t need as much when I make soup from these boys. Yup. Our Rooster Soup is a highlight of fall. Nothing like the smell of crisp, autumn leaves outside and simmering soup inside.

But there’s still one more surprise this year on our little chicken farm. The pullets – the young gals whose brothers are now resting in plastic bags in the downstairs chest freezer – they have just started laying. And on account of us having a rather rag-tag, higgeldy-piggledy sorta flock – inbred now these four years – we have ourselves some interesting looking gals, and now, we’re learning, some interesting looking eggs. We learned about pale green eggs from our petite little lady Shirley Nelson, who is an Aracauna. We learned that mixed-breeds are a toss up. Some lay enormous pale pink eggs, some medium light brown ones. Some lay close to white. But today we learned of an altogether new experience here in the Hillhouse Coop – we found two small, roundish (this tells us they’re from first-timer pullets) dark purplish eggs! When we set them in water they turned a deep brown, but when they air dry, the reddish, purplish cast returns. ! Just when we thought we knew it all. Ha! Far, far from it.

So nice to know that we can still be surprised by our hens in happy little ways, like today’s discovery of purple eggs. Between the pullet’s new contributions to our hen house and the fresh pot of rooster soup on the stove, we have the makings of a very content little homestead. If you would have told me four years ago that this would be my life in the near future, I don’t think I would have believed you. Sometimes I still can’t believe that this really is my life – and that I really do love it. Yup, this whole beautiful, serendipitous, heartbreaking, soul-restoring, chicken-raising, child-rearing ride here in Greenfield has been the most unexpected – and welcome – surprise ever.

 

Free Friday September 22, 2012

Elihu has had bad asthma the past couple of weeks. That, plus the seasonal allergies – and last night a quick bout of 24 hour flu – have caused him to miss five out of his first twelve days at school. Might not seem like such a bad thing to those of us aren’t overly concerned about attendance (I myself remember once winning tickets to a Cubs game for having had perfect attendance at school one year), but Elihu has found himself now a bit more behind than he’d like in his schoolwork. Friday morning he awakes, still so very congested and weak from a night of heaving, so I take pity on him and let him rest. With one condition: that we do all of his schoolwork after breakfast. I have errands I must do later, but I assure him that I won’t do a one of them if he hasn’t finished his work. He agrees. So home he stays. One more day added to the list.

Elihu is more than a little concerned about how far behind he’s getting. I assure him that we just need to make a plan, a schedule, and stick to it. I tell him that I can only help him if he lets me. If he starts crying and complaining and stomps off – then there’s not a thing I can do to help. I need his cooperation. Is he with me? I’m committed to this – is he? I like to joke around a lot, but it is clear that I am not joking. He knows it, and he takes my hands, looks into my eyes and agrees to let me help and to cooperate. He’s concerned about his spelling assignment. Not that he can’t spell – quite the opposite – but it’s because he hates writing. The physical act of writing itself, as in pen to paper. He finds it tedious. I get it, I do. I reassure him that one day he’ll know the relief it is to type nearly as fast as he can think, but for now he must do it old-school. It helps when I remind him that hero John Audubon wrote all his notes – and manuscripts – by hand. “He didn’t have an old-fashioned typewriter?” he asks. I assure him that it was years and years before the thing was invented. I grab a Max quill from the kitchen window sill. “He did it all like this” I say, miming a quick dip into an ink well then scribbling on the table. Elihu’s eyes open with new interest. “If John did it, you can too” I smile, and thankfully, Elihu smiles back. We begin.

Elihu’s Waldorf class is studying Norse mythology as part of their daily main lesson, and we at home have been reading at bedtime from a book I was given when I was his age, “Great Swedish Fairy Tales”. A fantastic collection. He recognizes characters in our stories from his lessons at school. As his teacher has asked me to please find some more challenging spelling words for him, Elihu and I together pull out the book and begin to look… We agree on five, then he sits down at the kitchen table to write them out and use them in sentences. He strays after a few, I allow a small break, then he’s back to the task. In about forty minutes he’s done.

The greatest cause of his stress is his book report. Thing is, he and I read the book over a year ago. It’s old news. In fact, Elihu loved the book so well he re-read parts on his own throughout the year. This should be a friggin piece of cake. Yet he is as stuck as can be. I watch him, frustrated. I see him watching everyone else in the class pass him up. Even more behind than he was, he despairs of never being able to catch up, and stops altogether. The class is on chapter seven, and he’s still on one. ? He sobs to me his agony about never catching up. I promise him that he just needs to follow a plan. Ok? He sniffs and nods. We make up our minds to knock out the first two chapters, but then realize the silly book is at school. My heart sinks. We call the library. Their only copy is out. I ask for one to be couriered from another library. It’ll take a couple days. Well, I don’t feel great about it, but for now, this part of his homework is on hold. I agree that he’s done what he can, so after he does his morning nebulizer treatment, we can go on our errands.

As we wind down the lovely country road behind our house on our way to town, we see that the tiny railroad crossing lights are on – a very unusual sight. But we know that the tiny Delaware and Hudson line has been recently restored for a northerly tourist run (in fact a good friend is now conductor on that line) and so we do see a small train pass by every now and again. How lucky we are that one is coming now! We pull over and get out. There aren’t any warning bells and no train is yet audible, but Elihu freaks out anyway when I walk up to the tracks to investigate. “Please come back, Mommy!” he shouts. “I don’t want to lose my only Mommy!! Please come back!” So I do. We wait a minute more, and then we begin to hear a distant rumbling. I have an idea. I run to the car, find my purse and rummage around on the bottom. I find one single penny. Perfect. I run to the track as fast as I can, find a good spot, then lay the penny down. It’s all happening so fast – the sound of the approaching train, my running back and forth – that Elihu doesn’t say a thing, he just watches, his intrigue winning over his concern. I manage to run back to him just as the blue and yellow D & H engine comes around the bend. We wave to the engineer then to the few passengers in the dome car. It’s a small train, and it’s rumbling down the track in a cloud of diesel smoke within seconds. As it clatters away and the tiny crossing gates wobble up again, I run to the spot where I’d placed the penny. Nothing. If it hadn’t been for my experience in Dekalb, Illinois where dozens upon dozens of trains pass thru the tiny town daily, and all of the coins I’d practiced smashing there, I’d have been dismayed. But I wasn’t. Looking closer, I saw an imprint of a circle on the track, and a few inches away, an imprint of an oval. Elihu joins the hunt, and we widen our search. Finally, there it is. I coach Elihu to find it himself. He laughs when he first spots the oval sliver of copper in the gravel. We take it back to the imprint and lay it down; it matches the outline perfectly. Earlier that morning Elihu had been lamenting the fact that he remembered so very little of his younger years before we’d moved here, and that he felt he’d forgotten so many of the things he’d done. He was worried he had so few precise memories – his past all seemed to wash together. He wanted clear and distinct memories, specific stories to pass on to his own kids one day. This is the first time he can recall squashing a coin on railroad tracks. “Now, think you’ll remember this always?” I ask, hoping he’ll easily agree. He laughs. “And keep this coin. You can show this to your kids one day. Plus you can show them exactly where it happened. You’ll always have this memory. Always.” He is happy. He continues to marvel over the whisp of a penny as we get back into the car and head on our way.

Our day is lovely, the weather is sunny, mild and breezy, and walking hand-in-hand, we move through our day at a easy, gentle pace. Register my folk’s van at the DMV, find a ladybug (who may well be a male, Elihu reminds me), get a few groceries, pickup a gift card for a birthday party and get a new timer for the coop door. Our final stop is in the mall parking lot where we are going to feed the seagulls. This is always a nice little extra in a day. We pull into a far away corner of the mall parking lot and begin to throw tiny bits of bread outside the window of the car. We open the windows and turn the car off so it’s quiet. One flies overhead and then swoops down. Then another, and soon there are a half dozen seagulls swooping down just feet from Elihu’s window. He sees them close up, hovering, swooping, even snatching pieces in mid-air. (Sometimes we’ll put bread on our sunroof and watch them from below!) I miss Lake Michigan for many reasons, seagulls are one. I used to feed them on the beach where I lived, and have images in my memory of dozens hovering only feet above me, just hanging in the wind… It saddens me that people now think of them as pests. Hey, it saddens me that people think of pigeons as pests too. I like to think they are incredibly resourceful. Good for them to figure out how to make a living from our waste. (If it helps you to like pigeons better – just call em doves. Pigeons and doves are the same thing, it’s only context and culture that makes us think of them different creatures. If you aren’t convinced, just look it up for yourself.) The birds eat their fill, so we head out. The sun is now much lower in the sky, and we realize we’ve been out doing errands for almost five hours.

I’d thought the consensus was that we were both fairly pooped after our long day out, but as soon as we pull in the driveway – before the car has even come to a stop – Elihu is out and running after his beloved chickens. As I unload the car and begin to think about making dinner, Elihu is at the small pond searching for frogs. (His current goal is remove all the frogs from our tiny, plastic-lined pond and move them to the larger, mud-banked pond where they can properly hibernate for the winter.) In a while I have supper ready, and although it takes three rounds of bell ringing to get him in, he’s content to eat a cold supper. Once again his head is full of flying ideas – how wings work, how amazing they are to watch, how he wishes he could know what his birds are thinking… I am almost fed up with all the bird talk, but hey, I suppose I’m lucky to have a kid who’d rather spend his free time with an actual bird than an electronic game about birds – let alone angry ones. !

We’ll catch up on that book report – I promise us both. Granted, we hadn’t accomplished what we’d hoped for school-work wise, but it wasn’t a day wasted. Elihu may yet one day need to use spell check to make sure he’s spelled ‘exquisite’ correctly, but no doubt he’ll always remember the day we flattened a penny on the railroad tracks, and maybe that alone was worth taking a free day.

 

Second Act September 17, 2012

“Bankruptcy is not a dirty word” is followed by an image of a Staples-esque ‘easy’ button… “Considering Divorce?” is followed by a graphic of two browning, crispy roses shedding their petals… Been looking online for a local attorney to help me create a will – not that there’s anything except a few killer gowns and a handful of vintage keyboards to pass on – as I was reminded once again by my primary doc recently at my annual one-stop-shop-git-it-all-done visit that I really should, as a 49 year-old single mother, have a will in place. Yeah, made sense. After all I’d come to my doc’s to demystify my physical world, to break it down, to learn the things I must watch over more closely as I neared the half-century mark. To create the most personally important to-do list ever and to put it into action.  And if she had a sidebar tip about end-of-life planning, why not. Hey, it was a small personal success that I finally knew my cholesterol numbers, so I was ripe for more forward strides.  When she said the bit about the will, I immediately whipped out my date planner and wrote it down in the never-ending list. At least it was finally written down. A physical manifestation of my intention. A good start. It still must make its way into action, and that is why I find myself tonite, after having watched Oliver! with Elihu and finally putting him to bed, searching for attorneys to help me craft said last will and testament. Maybe not the best way to shop. But hey. It’s a start. And besides, I feel the need for an internet nightcap.

My shopping for an attorney reaches its conclusion, so I set sail for a little fun… I begin to torment myself, searching for “then and now” images of actors and musicians (as initially inspired this evening by me and my son wanting to learn more about the kids in the production we’d just seen.) Interesting indeed, heartbreaking too. I hardly remembered the chap’s name, but I can tell you that as an eight year old girl I felt the first, faintest tingles of sexual excitement watching Jack Wild on his crazy, high-70s adventures of HRPufnstuf. It was good that I finally saw him as Artful Dodger – else the poor man would had died with me only knowing the fluff that followed. I see he played football – but let’s just call it soccer – with Phil Collins, whose mom was a talent scout. Ok. I’m stuck at the idea of little Phil and even littler Jack playing soccer…I begin to imagine it… the future pop icon’s soccer mom says “Philip, sweetie, can you bring Jackie over here for a minute? His Mum and I need to speak with him about something…” Oh yeah, and that Jack Wild is even dead – that was sure news to me. You too? Just wait til ya Google him and see him looking like, to quote my son,” a ninety year old lady”. He had oral cancer, and it must have helped to shape his face in the final years. As I study the changes – the ones I hope so dearly people will overlook in me – I note how even the subtlest shifts result in a remarkably changed countenance. Tiny increments can result in a big transformation. Yikes.

I admit it; every so often I check up on folks to see how they’re aging. Lately – as in the past six months or so – I find myself thinking about aging a lot. I don’t mean this with any false modesty; I know that I don’t look bad for my age. I feel relief that I don’t – cuz in my younger years I fairly begged age to make an early home with me, indulging in hours on end of baby-oil sunbaths while sucking down Marlboros and hydrating myself with alcohol… Although that was several decades back, and it hardly seems like it should still count, I’ve heard the damage lasts. I dismiss that thought however with visions of regularly scheduled yoga classes, daily aerobic activity, disciplined portion control, and a robust daily intake of water. In this future life I also see daily meditation, an orderly, systematic approach to household chores, more delegation of such to my able-bodied son too. Oh, what a bright life this will be. This life that I will start just as soon as my house is clean and tiday. What’s that? Oh yes, my house is clean and tidy. Well then, just as soon as we get Elihu’s new violin and get him started on lessons. Then I’ll set out to get going on it all… Oh, but then there might be a day job… And I can’t possibly start drinking all that water if I have to sit at a piano all day, can I? And yoga – I can’t go because it’s too late and Elihu would need a sitter!

All joking aside, whether the hitches are mild or severe, there truly are some blips in the road that seem to make my ‘new lifestyle’ a little less than practical. I was able to do the yoga thing for a while a couple of years ago, but it just got too expensive. So I’m hoping with the little extra cash from playing piano for Waldorf, I can afford them again. But when? If not working, then it’s mom duty. No subs for mom. Grandma has to tend to Grandpa. No budget for babysitter. See? Taking action can be tricky. Still, there must be a way to live well. More research will be needed on this one.

And this aging thing – I just can’t lie down and let it take me without a fight. But that’s essentially what I’m doing. I think I’ve got a pretty healthy mental/spiritual/emotional thing goin on, and I do believe that helps to mitigate the signs of aging (cosmetic or otherwise)… but the physical part of the equation has me a little worried. Just tonite, after sitting for an hour to watch Oliver! and then getting up and trying to walk down the hill to the compost pile – OY! did I feel like a little old lady. Sheesh! Hand on my lower back, unable to stand up straight… A real mess, and just because I sat ‘wrong’ for too long. Yeeps. Now that feels old. My core muscles were hardly able to help. I slipped from right to left, each side taking the shortest turn possible in keeping me erect. I can honestly say it was kinda scary. Cuz I can tell you, just one short year ago my body never felt like that. I haven’t been using it much, and well, we all know what happens ‘when you don’t use it…’

I once found and contacted Jaye P. Morgan’s most recent producer and was this close to getting an interview with her for my radio show. This was a good ten years ago now, and back then the woman must have been in her late 70s. I’d been fascinated by how she, as a career diva, had dealt with aging. She’d even written a comic song about west coast plastic surgeons and the everyday trials of her glamorous, aging peers, so I knew she was at least able to treat the subject with some humor. But I wasn’t persistent about making the interview happen, and deep down I think she didn’t really want to get into it. And maybe I myself felt that it was too intimate a territory for me to breach. So I let it go. Besides, at a mid-thirty something, what the hell did I know about aging yet? Nothing! These days, however, I bring some experience to the table. Just this afternoon I even removed a pure white hair from my eyebrow. A first. Sigh. Miss Morgan, if you’ll indulge me, I think I’m ready for that interview now.

Years ago, I asked Fareed if he was at all worried about getting old – and ugly. He said no, because he’d always been unattractive, so getting more so wouldn’t be much of a shock. People wouldn’t treat him much different either way, he supposed. Me, however, having started out as a pretty young thing, and enjoying all the power that went with it, he proposed that aging might well hit me a lot harder. He postulated that I’d likely see changes in how people responded to me as my looks changed. Once, shortly after I’d had Elihu and was quite large, I went to the grocery store. I was exhausted, unkempt and fat. And I can tell you this too: I was invisible. I knew well what it was to be an attractive, well-dressed young woman who drew people in. And to experience the absolute opposite just these few months later – it truly blew my mind. I learned instantly and unequivocally that in youth and beauty there is power. Never did and ugly old man inspire the same feelings of warmth as a pretty young woman. Never. And yet within the outer shell of that man lives a person as complex, as human, as needing of love – if not in more need of love – than the pretty girl. How unfair is life. The moment I realized people were not even noticing me was stunning. I got it. I realized how lucky I’d been. How much love I’d been given by strangers just because of the way I looked. My heart bled for all of those who never knew that kind of immediate acceptance. Truly this is a cruel, cruel world.

I’m not doing this aging thing with a lot of class. Really, I’m not. I’m uptight about it, I’m continually surprised by it, I’m offended that age should drag me along with it… As light-heartedly as I may live my life, deep down I’m wondering how this is supposed to work. Oh, I can be happy here on my back forty with my son and my chickens, but I can’t hide back here forever. Maybe til my kid graduates from high school – but what then? I need to find this new life, this new person I’m to be. It used to be about the tiny-waisted cocktail gowns or the platform boots, but those things are never coming back. So what’s next? I find myself with thirty pounds on my frame that I can’t simply ditch the way I used to. My upper arms move in two different directions. I have no jaw line anymore, and what were once slight, temporary laugh lines are now permanent contours. Although it might sound it – this is not about knowing that I’m truly, legally divorced that’s bringing this on – I’ve been keenly aware the last few years that I’ve been walking through a transition time of sorts. The past four years here in New York my son has grown a foot, and my hair has become undeniably gray. And I just can’t seem to understand it.

I’ve identified this window of age in which everyone shifts from their ‘first act’ selves to their ‘second act’ selves… (The third act seems to occur in a wider range of years, and has within it some subtle differences, as in there’s ‘old”, then there’s ‘slack-jawed-in-the-nursing-home-wearing-a-diaper’ old. Those would be the last couple of pages – and I’m not thinking about those for now, although let us open our eyes to this very personal possibility. That may be us one day – although I pray we all die sweetly in our sleep before our kids ever have to choose that fate for us.) This transition phase seems to occur sometime in the mid forties. Don’t know quite when the threshold is crossed for sure – but I can tell you from my own experience that I felt ‘ok’ and ‘youngish’ still in the first few years of my forties, but this last year I no longer can claim those feelings. I don’t necessarily feel old, but I no longer feel young. I can much more easily see over the rise ahead. Or perhaps I might say that I’ve reached the rise in the elevation and can now see the grand plateau before me…

Personally, I was never one to look forward. Never once dreamed of ‘my’ wedding, a house, a career. Knew I’d be a musician and that was pretty much it. Knew I wanted to travel, have a beautiful home and be a mother one day. But ‘one day’ never existed in real, calendar form. It existed in a far-off, fuzzy dimension I never took a moment to envision. For all my lack of energetic homework, I feel lucky to have landed in such an idyllic situation. There are times when I lament my lack of planning, wondering where instead I might have ended up had I indeed bothered to plan it all out a bit better, but in the end I know that regret does nothing. Sadly, it doesn’t even burn calories. ! I’m in a good place from which to go forward. I’m still without a social life, and my friends seem to be mostly back in the midwest, but I’m a bit more hopeful than I’ve been the past few years about our life here continuing to improve. The past four years have been my transformation time, and the process is now gently lifting to reveal a wide-open future.

There’s much to come, I’m fairly sure of it. Intermission was refreshing, but now I’m eager to see what awaits in this next act…

 

Twist September 14, 2012

I’d heard of it happening before. So I know I wasn’t the first. In going over some routine business through email today, I learned from Fareed that we were in fact – and had been since July 18th – officially divorced. Unexpected news. I still hadn’t heard it from my own attorney. In fact I’d recently written my lawyer a letter. I’d wanted him to know the process was waiting on one final dental procedure, that Fareed knew this too, and he could go ahead and ‘finalize’ our divorce after that. Guess it was a moot point. Another lesson in the never-ending ‘rules’ of divorce: if the insurance company isn’t told about the divorce (let alone the wife herself), you are still covered. Until they know different, things are as they’ve always been. That is to say, it’s all a friggin game. There’s some play in the rules. Things ain’t necessarily what you thought.

That I come to discover today that I’m now divorced is, in reality, very unspectacular. That I should even be moved to write a post about it probably seems silly. That I cried when I read the news should seem rather ridiculous. That I felt anything at all, it just doesn’t make sense. I kept going over it and over it again in my mind – why did this make any difference at all? Why should this news still jar my system, shake me up, break my heart all over again? I had to understand this. If I put myself in the shoes of readers for whom this drama dragged on way longer than it should have to begin with, and then appeared to have been over half a year ago… how would they feel about another self-sorry, virtual crying jag over this tired not-so-new news?

Just this afternoon I’d been at the eye doctor’s and was explaining that I could still make an appointment if it was before my dentist’s appointment – because I was still on ‘my husband’s’ insurance. I noticed how familiar it was to say ‘husband’, noted how many years I’d been saying it. I even noticed that in spite of the fact that it was soon to be different, I still liked to say that. “My Husband”. It felt like home somehow. To know that somewhere out there, I did really have a husband and his name was Fareed. He was a friend with whom I’d laughed, made music, and with whom I’d been around the world, and he was the man with whom we’d had one very planned and long-awaited child once, not too terribly long ago… Secretly, somewhere deep down, I liked that we were still married. While I knew all the reasons it was not a real marriage anymore, I still felt it kept us connected to so many things I wasn’t looking forward to letting go of. (And I don’t mean insurance.) So much history…  My mind flashes to a time when we lived in our tiny hi-rise apartment in Chicago. It was a time when I (and perhaps I alone) felt things were goin really good. Life was full then. Close to perfect. We were in love, our cats slept on the bed with us and we had coffee together every morning at the little corner cafe. So when I mourn our marriage, that’s one chapter of many that comes to mind. Just one. Of many.

But really, what the hell??? Married to a man who knowingly had another woman pregnant at the same time as me? Married to a man who now has two children with another young woman with whom he’s been in a relationship with for more than five years?? (And all this while he was still married to me; one wonders: is she patient or foolish?)  What, oh what, has changed that I can still feel such poignancy at the expected – and intended for – news? It’s not like I didn’t know it was coming. Divorce is just so, well, different from marriage. Marriage you plan – then you celebrate in a big, public and joyful party. Usually with good food. But divorce – it sneaks up on you quietly. Divorce backs up a moving van to your life, loads up all of your stuff, then drives off without leaving you so much as a box of pizza to soften the blow.

I’m lying in bed with Elihu tonite, we’re kinda thinkin about butcherin our roosters tomorrow morning, we’re kinda thinking about cool Nordic names, we’re kinda thinking about the crazy rules of this modern life. He wants to know what changes now. Now that I ‘really am divorced’. I tell him not much. Most of the hard changes have already happened. Lots of quiet follows. “I’m mad that we don’t have enough money”. Not sure the context, so I wait. “I’ve been thinking. Grandpa Riaz has money, right?”  “Kinda” I answer, as it’s complicated. Lots of real estate, probably not a lot of cash flow. “It makes me mad that we have to figure out how to pay for Waldorf and he doesn’t help one bit.” Obviously he’s been ruminating like this for some time. He simply wishes we had money. Somehow he is taking this divorce news to confirm our poverty. That’s what it is I guess. Hmm. Gotta turn this one around here…

I present to him my spin on things: how much more comfortable would his bed be if we had more money? How much more would he enjoy his chickens if he had more money? How much better would he play his drums if he had more money? And so on… He gets it, and I’ve made a good point, but he’s not stupid. Me neither. We both know that be able to heat the house before it gets super cold – and not to have to wait for assistance to kick in in November – that would definitely make things better. Not to run our of money for food by month’s end. That would definitely make things better. And realizing that both his Dad and his Dad’s family have exponentially more means than we do, well, that is no longer lost to a bright nine year old boy. I can comfort and justify only so much. His wheels are turning, and he’s seeing some inequities here for himself. For the first time.

But I can offer this: It is all an illusion. Nothing is what you think it is. Everything you know will one day change. And money can’t stop that. Money can’t fix your broken heart or make you healthy. So money isn’t what it’s all about. Not really. Only problem is, it also kind of is. I mean I want to be honest here, money is a loaded subject. I can be all Zen about it – and ultimately I want us to know what it is to feel good with what we presently have. Really. And honestly, for the most part, we do feel pretty good about what we got goin on.

But shit. Just think twenty thousand could do, huh? Git a little infrastructure taken care of around the crib and knock the to-do list down to nuttin but a grocery list. Can’t say that wouldn’t feel most exquisite. That’s some serious cash. So yes, money can make things better, easier. (The little voice within is yelling ‘dishwasher, please!’)  Life can be poor, rich, simple, complex, married, divorced. Kinda all at the same time with lots of blurry lines in between. There’s something to be appreciated about every situation and its flip-side too. The trick is feeling ok where you currently find yourself. And not to bitch too much about how it might be otherwise. Just relax, cuz whatever you think you know, or whatever place you might be in right now (mental or physical) – it’ll probably end up changing. So just try to be here and be ok.

Like my favorite soft-serve ice cream cone, twirling together lemon and raspberry (locals, I’m a Dairy Haus girl, if you must know) it seems the lives we lead are less about straight lines and more about the twists… and the surprising experiences that result.

 

Wheels, Wings and Water September 10, 2012

Elihu’s father had a bad experience with a bike once. It was early enough in his bicycling career and frightening enough to cause him to put the bike down for good. Once, in our early twenties, I’d tried to take up the campaign to re-acquaint him with riding, to remind him of the pure joy he would experience, to show him the sense of freedom it might bring to his life. Instead of seeing joy as I rode behind Fareed, I saw stress in every square inch of his body. He white-knuckled the handles and his torso remained one stiff, unbending unit. He was one big lump of fear. He wasn’t joyful, and clearly, he wasn’t experiencing anything similar to freedom. This, for me, was profoundly disappointing. As a young adult whose living was made pretty much with his hands alone, it became clear in a single afternoon that we would probably not be riding bikes together in our relationship. It just wasn’t a priority for him, and yes, it was quite possibly dangerous to his career (so was washing dishes – oh, that coveted right hand thumbnail. !). And I understood it, but I can’t say that I didn’t mourn it (as in for all twenty-two years of our relationship). I suppose I shoulda given that first, tiny rift a bit more consideration when I chose to make my life with him…

Time’s been a-passing, and I’ve been getting a bit concerned that Elihu himself might grow up not knowing how to ride a bike. Now Fareed’s parents didn’t themselves ride, so he didn’t have any backup, anyone motivating him. So when he gave up, it wasn’t considered a real loss. But to that I say: how does one grow up not riding a friggin bicycle?? To grow up not knowing the joy of exploring new neighborhoods and the independence and adventure that comes with it, never to experience the exhilaration of a fine, down-hill coast, never to know the incredible sense of freedom of that first, hands-free ride? This is all part and parcel of what it is to be a human being growing up on this planet – in virtually any country you might choose! Unless, of course, you live in the Australian outback, or perhaps on the frozen tundra – ok, then, maybe, a bike’s not a plus. But anywhere else – no, make that everywhere else – on this silly planet? Come on! It’s the single most ubiquitous form of transportation on the globe! Period. Not to ever ride a bike and know its freedoms and pleasures would be a heartbreaking loss. And if, as a mother, I did not teach my child how to ride a bike, I would be committing an inexcusable crime in parenting. So today, I took action. We will be a family who rides. We will!

It so happens that my family’s extended minivan (the Conants always needed an extra long vehicle for the transportation of harpsichords) needed to be driven a few miles before the guys at the garage could re-test it for the state emissions tests. So I threw our bikes into its cavernous interior and we headed out for the local middle school parking lot. I have never before found such a perfect place for learning to ride. Absolutely perfect. First, the place is huge. Like a high school, really. Second, it’s so close to level that riding in any direction is easy. There’s a bit of a grade here and there, imperceptible when going up (that’s nice), but a nice bit of assistance when going down. Lots of opportunity for easy forward movement. And aside from the couple we met who were walking their golden retriever, we were truly alone. The sky was blue with fast-moving clouds from horizon to horizon. A majestic day. Not hot, not cool. Perfect for riding bikes.

(Taking in the expanse of the parking lot, I remembered a story I’d heard many years ago: I once knew a man who’d played guitar in Ray Charles’ band, and it had been his job to take Ray out to the salt flats where Ray could put pedal to the metal and send his Buick flying at top speed in any direction. Yup, blind Ray loved to drive. And with all that wide open space, the salt flats were the only place he could really let loose. I can’t imagine riding shotgun in that car. Yikes.)

At first I nearly forget the helmets. Helmets are still rather a ‘new’ thing in my world; most of my bike-riding life has been without one. (Although I did bring mine along, I was a bad mom and neglected to wear it as a good example.) But I had Elihu well-prepared; in addition to his helmet he had on my old sailing gloves. If he went down, at least his hands wouldn’t end up scraped and bleeding. He is nine this year, and truthfully I’d thought he would have been riding by now, but each summer so far has been full of just so much stuff there’s never been an opportunity like this. Plus, Elihu just wasn’t interested, psyched. And you can only force so much. Especially on a gravelly, bumpy old driveway like ours. But today something was different. On the short drive there, I tried to sell him a bit on the way in which his world would simply open up when he could finally ride. Not sure if he needed it or not; by the time we got there, his face was all smiles and he darted away from me as if he had not one single forethought of a nasty fall (it was forefront in my mind for the first hour). My child does not have a natural aptitude for things physical; sports – games especially – things that involve either speed, balance or tracking of moving objects. Much of this is due to his having Achromatopsia, but then again, much of it is simply do to with, well, being my and Fareed’s kid.

I let it all go. Occasionally I shout out some of the briefest advice – but no coaching, no matter how understated and succinct it may be is really going to help him. What he needs is simply time. Did we not all learn by having all those summer hours to while away on our bikes? At first we tried to keep pace with the big kids, our training wheels allowing us to go just about anywhere they did (only much slower, and it certainly did not look very cool). So then maybe dad takes off one side. Three wheels. It’s still comforting. But hey, look, you’ve spent hours doing this now – and have you noticed how you’re not really even using that third wheel? You hardly touch it to the ground now. Hey – it really does seem like you’re ready. Yeah. Think so. So you come out one morning and dad’s already done it for you. No more little wheels. But you know in your tummy how it feels to ride, to balance moving forward, to roll upright. It feels just so, it feels right. Now you  know. Finally, you can ride.

But it took hours around the neighborhood to get to that point. Or at least hours around a better driveway than ours. So we will simply have to artificially enhance the hours spent on the pavement by driving here each weekend and just riding around. Til he gets it. And given his enthusiasm and sheer delight today, I think he’ll be riding before too long. I am very happy about this. Cuz I too had a wonderful day, riding in lazy circles, standing on my pedals, feeling the wind, imagining myself flying, flying…. I’d told Elihu (as a means to entice him) that riding a bike was probably the closest thing to flying he would ever get to experience. Today he told me he thought he just might agree. Happy boy was he. !

We found a natural conclusion to the day, a consensus that we were done for now. We loaded our bikes into the van, then sat in its open side door, taking in the vista of the wide, wide sky above. “Lake George?” I asked him, inspired by the sky and craving even more of it. “Yes, definitely” he answered. I knew he loved our last visit there, now two years ago. We’d heard my old friend David Amram play, he’d caught ducks and we’d eaten at a restaurant over the water. The memory, for some reason, lived larger than so many others in his mind. We still needed to put another 50 or so miles on the engine before it could be re-tested, so this was perfect. After dropping off our bikes and a quick change of clothes, we headed north.

The sky continued to uplift our spirits, and seeing the lake from its southernmost point, framed on either side by mountains, that was a sight that impressed even my low-vision child. We first drove around town, taking it all in, getting a feel for where things were. There’s really not much to it. It’s a tiny tourist town. The draw for us is the lake, the sky, the seagulls and ducks. We found our way to the restaurant we’d been to last visit, and had high hopes for a lobster dinner over the water. Turns out they’d downsized the menu a bit recently, which was just as well. I was feeling a bit ill about spending so much when we had so very little. We settled on some lobster bisque instead. And some clams. Perfect. We have a lovely little meal during which neither of us can stop tapping our hands or feet on account of the too-loud music they’ve pointed at our table. My thing is my right foot. Been playing an imaginary kick drum for half my life now. Hardly know I’m doing it. My kid – he’s just plain playing any surface just about all the time. We groove, we laugh. We have so much fun. We watch the parasailors float by in front of the pine forest mountains behind. We learn to say ‘thank you’ in Slovakian from our waitress. We have a pink plastic pig which we have decided we will now take places with us and have photos taken of him on location, much like Flat Stanley (his went to Cairo!). We snap a pic of pig on the roof of the marina’s tarp, looking out over the majestic body of water. We laugh. We pay our bill, stash some extra oyster crackers in our bag, and head to the docks.

We’re able to bring the gulls in close with our modest cache of crackers. I try to snap some pictures, then, frustrated with the delay time of the silly shutter, I put it away and choose to enjoy the moment instead. The sun is going down behind the mountains, and we are bathing in its final orange glow. Elihu has been smiling almost the whole day, I notice. We finish our close encounter with the gulls and head up to ‘the strip’. We discover the town is slowing down. Summer is over and shops will be closing soon. We find an arcade open and walk in to explore. The prices are good; we enjoy a few fast-paced games of air hockey, then Elihu wins not one but two prizes (and not lame ones either) in the nearly-impossible-to-win game in which the claw drops and then lifts up, hopefully bringing with it a trinket in its clasp. Two prizes. He was so pleased with himself, and I commenced to fan the flame of his pride with my continued exclamations of “No one does that! How’d you do that? No one does that!”. Finally Elihu plays a winner of an airplane game which moves him up, down, left and right, in a surprisingly thrilling simulation of actual flight. No topping that one. Time to go. Besides, we’re almost out of cash. Almost.

We cross the street and head for the car. We’re a savory-over-sweet family on most days, but a fudge shop whose lights were still on just drew us in. They had a wall of nostalgic candy items, many of which I had to explain to Elihu. (I also added that we rode our bikes to the stores that sold them…) He got some gold miners gum nuggets in a little cloth bag – just  like the stuff my brother and I use to get at Leo’s, and then, as I was paying Elihu spied two remaining boxes of crickets. Salt and Vinegar flavored, to be exact. We threw em in, much to the disgust of the young five year old watching, who covered his  mouth in earnest, and finally we headed on our way.

The ride home seemed to take but fifteen minutes. Mighta been closer to twenty, but sure was quick. We went to Grandma and Grandpa’s to swap out cars and recap our day’s adventures, then we were off to get the birds in and get to bed.

Getting to sleep wasn’t as easy as I’d thought it might be in the wake of a full day of outdoor air. But there was so much to go over. So many sights to re-see in the mind’s eye. I read an old Swedish Fairytale to Elihu, then after feeling the night set in, I spied a favorite stuffed parrot on his shelf. “What’s his name?” I asked. “Lenny” he responded, quietly. “Would you like Lenny tonight?” I asked, feeling that he really would. He nodded. I brought the big parrot down and Eilhu took him tightly in his arms. Maybe this would help me to leave sooner. Maybe it would be just the reassurance he needed before he set sail into his night of dreams.

Good night, my beloved son. Thank you for another blessed day. I love you as much as the skies are wide…

 

Happy at Home September 8, 2012

Elihu has had a fever on and off for the past few days. Reminiscent of his very first day at Waldorf last spring; on his first day of the new school year I was called by the school nurse to come and administer his nebulizer treatment (as I’d not yet gotten this year’s doctor’s slip) and I ended up taking him home instead. He stayed home today too, and good thing. His sleep was deep and long, his fever only breaking just this morning. This needed to be a day of rest. He’d been going non-stop with his father for weeks and had come home with little time to adjust to the new school year. My intention was to give him a day with nothing to do but feel better.

Well, kind of. I did have a secret agenda for the day which seemed like it might work well with my kid confined to the home. I had a pile of clothes to go through which a friend (with boys just ahead of Elihu) had dropped off recently. A boon to be sure, but there was still some labor involved in assimilating and using it all. Not everything would work; the piles had to be gone through. Not all would be the right size; some were too big and would need to be put in bins for next year (and clearly marked so as not to overlook them until they were then too small!), some weren’t quite his style (shirts that advertise ‘Nike’, ‘The Gap’  and that feature the ‘life is good’ stick figure playing baseball aren’t really a match) and some he can wear right away. It just takes some time to assess what’s what. And in a little house like ours there’s only so much room; one can only keep what one will really and truly use.

We did this for about twenty minutes, until Elihu hit a wall. I don’t blame him, I kinda knew I was pushing it. In his incredibly convincing adolescent girl routine, he flung himself onto his bed and wept, and then in his incredibly self-aware young adult persona he paused from his drama to explain to me that he needed to simply cry and be angry right now, he apologized for doing so, and then promptly resumed his performance. I in turn apologized, thanked him for helping as much as he did, then left the room to give him some space.

After a while I came back to check on him. He wanted a hug. I gave it freely. He seemed pooped. Still not himself. I offered to read him a story. He told me he’d like that. After the story was finished, we lay there on his bed for a moment, shifting gears, and then got up and had lunch.

As I cleaned up the lunch dishes, Elihu put on his glasses and headed outside. After I’d finished in the kitchen, I followed him out to the coop to see about some fixes I’d been meaning to get around to for a while now. The weather couldn’t have been more perfect. The air just right, on the warmish end but not too bad – that is to say no mosquitoes hanging around – and a nice breeze blowing through. As I began my work in the coop, Elihu began his work of chasing chickens. It was kinda cute to see him zipping past – first right, then left, whizzing by in pursuit of a fast-moving bird. We’d check in with each other every now and then, sometimes stopping what we were doing, each seeking out the other and simply meeting in a hug. Wordless, or perhaps with a simple “I love you” we’d part and go back to our respective projects. It was a productive day for me as I’d finally gotten around to the outdoor to-do list I’d put off for too long now; I zip-tied holes in the fences, screwed planks along the perimeter of the coop bottom to deter under-the-coop-laid-eggs (as well as hunkered down raccoons and such), fixed the timer that opens and closes the coop door, installed a couple new nesting boxes and did a half dozen other little things – all of which added up to a couple hours work.

All this time Elihu was in his own heaven. Birds everywhere, birds tame enough to hold, wild enough to chase, varied enough to be beautiful and fascinating each in its own unique way… And with each of us so close by to the other, yet each of us each so engrossed in our own work, it made for the most perfect afternoon. An afternoon of love, security, joy – and even progress. We enjoyed ourselves thoroughly. We’d take a moment out, pick up a bird, sit together side by side on an overturned milk crate and spend a full ten minutes marveling over all of its wonderful qualities. The variation from bird to bird is really impressive, and neither one of us is ever bored of bearing witness to it. We admired nearly every bird in the flock; at the end of the day we’ve handled, smooched, praised and thanked nearly thirty birds. Especially the young roosters who will go to the Amish butcher this week. (This is about as long as we can know them and still hand them over…) We know we have one mature rooster too many, but as we’ve had him for over a year now (his name his Judson) we cannot bring ourselves to butcher him too. The young ones go easier…And it’s these quiet, one-on-one moments we share with each doomed fellow that make it easier for us to let them go. They live a good life, and they die a quick death, and they receive our deepest gratitude. As farm animals go, it’s a sweet life.

The hours pass by and it is perfect. Every now and then I try to look up and around at my world; I see the spread of the beech tree branches, the canopy of the white pines, the view of the pale blue mountains beyond. The air is perfect. We are in no hurry. This is a day where not a thing is expected of us. And on account of once having lived a life where there really was a whole lot expected of me, it makes me treasure this moment even more. It’s a good thing to know the companionship of animals, to know the outside air, and to be blessed with unscheduled time – and to experience all of it with my young son makes it even better.

We even got around to burying out old pets today. They’ve been in the freezer for a while now. Some months, and well, yes, some even years. We have our three-legged leopard gecko Sweets – who’d come with us four years ago from Chicago and who’d had her leg amputated by a very kind and generous vet who did it gratis – as our situation was then fresh and dire – and she’d meant a lot to us. When she finally died, the ground was frozen, so we simply put her aside to bury later. Her sister, Stripes is there too. Died on Christmas day of a bored, tank-confined heart. (She got the best gift ever, in my opinion.) Then oh! Here’s King George!! Our beloved button quail. He lived free-of-cage in our house for over a year, every night making his surprisingly loud mating calls sadly to no avail… he pooped very courteously in one corner only, and he was a good companion to a six year old boy. (There are a couple of pics of them together in an album on Facebook which you can see for yourself.) And of course, there is Molly. The white hen who started this whole business. The cute little yellow chick that we found absolutely irresistible as we passed through Tractor Supply ‘just looking’ one Easter season.

I’d dug the deepest hole I could – and it wasn’t big, cuz digging in this particular corner of Greenfield is a job rife with rocks – and we planned on nestling all our little guys in there together. “With white cloth or on dirt?” I asked Elihu. “White cloth”, he answered. He put Molly down first, after we’d admired her peacock necklace and thanked her especially, then the others went in around her. “You know the white cloth is just for us. This whole thing is just for the living – you know that, right?” I said. He nodded. I said a general thanks to all of them for coming into our lives, and I apologized for the things we may have done to cause them distress. Then I told Elihu we should each take a fistful of dirt and put it in to begin the burial. He told me to wait – he needed to say something. Then, in the earnestness that can really only yet be found in a child, he kneeled down and pressed his hands together. He spoke for a while, basically saying what I had, but adding a whole bunch more. (He kinda reminded me of his paternal grandmother – always offering these ten minute long blessings at the start of a keenly-anticipated meal. !) Then, feeling ready, he let me shovel in the dirt. We marked the spot with some large rocks, then placed a couple of daisies on top. We hardly even paused; it was over, and we’d concluded the chapter the best and most fitting way we could. On to more life now.

We meandered down to check on our garden, which by now was reduced to a handful of plants; some tomatoes, peppers and beans. Elihu had pilfered some dried beans from his handwork class at Waldorf and brought them home in hopes they’d germinate. Germinate they did, and so we planted them here. Tonight they yielded just about enough for supper. We harvested an enormous, bright red cayenne pepper too, but learned that someone had beat us to the tomatoes, trimming off all the upper branches, leaving us just a few green ones close to the bottom. Maybe we really do need an electric fence next year. After all, we mean to do this right, and so far this garden has hardly been anything but a rather unsuccessful experiment. Gleaning a handful of a crop ‘every week or so’ wasn’t what we had in mind. Guess a true farmer can’t just get up and go to the Cape for a week, can they now? We’d missed a key week of watering and weeding and were seeing the results. Plus, going fence-free didn’t help. With our dinner in our hands – or rather, in one of my hands – we headed back up the hill.

I find some leftovers and heat em up, and I cook the beans. I’ve got a glass of wine left too; we have the makings of a nice, simple dinner. Tonite it’s kind of a white-trash kinda night; we’ll watch some show on cable about fellas scuba diving for gold in the frozen Bering Straight while we eat. We don’t watch a whole lot of tv – and when we do it’s usually while we eat. I know that’s not a great habit – but even that’s not so much a habit as it is a treat. Just as we finish eating, a truck pulls in… it’s a student of mine and her dad here to return a metronome and to say they’d like to start lessons again when they figure out their new fall schedules. It’s nice to see them again and to hear about their summer. Elihu whisks Katie away to look for frogs as her dad and I chat, but soon it’s time to go. It’s been a long day and we still have to close our birds in for the night. Goodbyes and good nights follow as they pull away and we go out to evening coop duty.

The automatic coop door opener is working again. Maybe all it needed was to be re-set. Who knows. But the door is closed, and all the birds have roosted. Even Max got back into the swing of an automated coop and got himself in before the little door closed. Now we have to close and lock the big door. But not before we count them all, and certainly not before we play ‘musical chickens’. When you simply touch the back of a resting chicken, he or she will emit a little sound – a little ‘whirring’ noise of surprise. Each a bit different; some coo low, some chirp high, and when you get going it’s kinda like a little bird orchestra. Elihu has fun with it. Then he stops, and the place gets quiet again. Head count. Twenty-eight chickens, six of whom are roosters (and going next Friday), one helmeted guinea fowl named Austin whom we love very much and who adds loads of comic charm to the place, and finally, the largest of our flock, Maximus, the Lavender Ice Goose. Thirty birds in all. For now. Elihu and I just stand there, looking, unable to walk away. Soft cooing and gurgling sounds surround us. It’s a peaceful place to be, here in our chicken coop. I know Elihu is feeling very proud right now. I am too. Honestly, it’s not as if we have some special talent here, but what we do have is a group of animals whom we care for responsibly, and whom we love, and of that we have pride.

Our night isn’t quite over. We want to enjoy our screen porch, and Elihu wants to enjoy some time in the darkness when he is free of having to wear dark glasses just to exist. I light all the candles until the porch glows. I sit and watch as he plays. He locates a long piece of PVC which once served as a drainpipe, and he begins to play it like a didgeridoo. Sounds pretty good. He looks around for crickets or mice (he wants a mouse to replace the one he found outside today and then let go by accident inside the house! Sorry, that lil guy’s showing up again tomorrow morning – in a trap…) He runs around back inside and flicks a light on and off, faking it’s a ghost, then asks me if I’d seen it too… Things get silly, then they wind down as I’ve drawn a bath and we need to get down to business. Candles out, pipe down, clothes off.

Elihu enjoys a much longer bath than I’d intended, as I sit down to write a much longer post than I’d intended. He’s certainly old enough to get himself out and dried off, and mostly that’s what he does these days, but in that we’ve had such a day of togetherness, when he calls to me to come and help, I do. Soon he’s in bed. Too pooped for stories tonight. Instead, the room is dark right away. I lie next to him, and lying on his side, he puts his hand on my face. “This was a great day” he says. I agree. We kiss, then lay back down. Oh so soon he is deeply asleep. So am I. It’s not til halfway through the night that I awake to finish the post. But now it’s back to bed for me too.

What a day we had. Such a very happy day at home.

 

Ev’ry Little Ting September 4, 2012

Well, he’s here. The first thing I thought when I saw my son was that his hair was long and his pants were short. (His nails were long too, kinda looked like the poor kid had been living under a bridge for a bit.) But overall, his spirits were bright and our reunion sweet, and as usual, when it was Elihu, Fareed and me, we had a lovely little get together in the midst of our three very busy lives. This time his father seemed a bit less stressed than he has in the past. Fareed had left his phone behind, as it’s being repaired, so for the first time I can ever recall, he was traveling untethered to the complex life that awaited him back home. No doubt upon his return he will be knee-deep in situations, both personal and professional, all which need his urgent attention. But for our late afternoon lunch together, he seemed remarkably present. We talked of Von’s memorial service, and of plans for this important first week of school. The weather was perfect and there were enough fish and chips left over to bring home for supper. In spite of a two hour delay to the train’s arrival, it had still turned out to be a very enjoyable afternoon.

Although my plan had been to get us back into our ‘early to bed, early to rise’ routine, Elihu had rediscovered trains on this past trip to Chicago, and with money his paternal grandmother had given him he was able to buy a new car and a new engine (the passenger car lights up on the inside to reveal tiny tables and seats!) and so he was eager to locate his ho scale track, set it up and get the new cars going. You can imagine how I felt when I heard those plans so late in the day (nay, so late in the evening by now as we’d started late). I didn’t want to simply turn into the bad cop parent who automatically puts the kibosh on things ‘just because’, so in the end, since Fareed and Elihu were actually making a working track and things looked good (we can thank my major putting-it-all-away campaign of the past five weeks for them even finding the silly trains) – I left them to it and myself turned in to bed. Last night it was so good to have all three of us together as we seldom are – that I just let it be.

Our visit was over in an instant this time, as Fareed had a flight to Chicago the next morning. There wouldn’t be a family outing to get school supplies, instead just a trip to the airport. Elihu woke up with a sore throat and a bit of a temperature, but we gave him some throat spray and he toughed it out, sleeping in the back seat on the ride to the airport. The goodbye was harder than ever before – Elihu had been with his dad for over a month, after all. We three all group hugged before Elihu and I pulled away and got into the car. As we drove off Elihu remarked that this was the hardest time he had ever, ever had saying goodbye to his father. He himself cited the long visit. And he knew he’d feel better soon, but he had some lasting sadness for sure.

By the time we were back in town, we were back in our own groove. We stopped for some groceries, ending our errand by visiting Elihu’s favorite floral department. We saw shopping cart filled with fine-looking arrangements which were marked for the trash. When we asked if we could purchase them ourselves at a discount we were told absolutely not, that ‘corporate’ wouldn’t allow it. I can tell you, I know waste, I turn my back on it regularly, and Elihu also knows the crap embedded in our systems – but to see this, it just represented such wrong that we were both rather sickened by it. All that effort to get the flowers here – let alone that they themselves are such works of nature – then they are left to die, never to know the purpose for which they have lived at all… Elihu was near tears. We had to keep moving. But as we walked, we began to make a plan: we’d write the CEOs – we’d make them understand, we’d be the ones to finally change the situation and bring justice! Carts of doomed flowers marked to half their original prices would find themselves brightening the homes of people, many of whom could never justify such a purchase ever before! Extra sales! Extra joy! A win-win…. We left the store our chests full of hope for our new future quest…

But shortly we were back with our chickens and frogs, and the campaign to save the fading flowers is itself fading. It’s a perfect day – sunny with a breeze, clouds are passing overhead. I find my zero gravity reclining chair, and uncover my whole self to the sun. It’s good to live off the road. Elihu is busying himself with catching frogs. That’s good, cuz I’m tired on account of our having to rise earlier than I’m used to… So I’m in and out of little cat naps in the sun. Every so often he’ll bring a chicken or a frog over to show me. We’ll admire it together, then he’ll dash off again. Round about 1 the mother’s clock in me goes off and I suggest lunch.

When it’s ready, I lean outside and ring the bell which I’ve mounted on the side of the house for just this purpose. In the thirties and forties it was the dinner bell for the lakeside house where my father spent his childhood summers. It makes me happy to know that that rich, distinct sound is the very same one that called my father from the beach so many years ago when he himself was a young boy as his grandson is now. We have a nice lunch, full of humor and silliness. Then we make plans to go to town so that Elihu might play a little djembe again. He wants to, and there’s still time.

Town is busy, yes, but it’s clear that it’s the last day of racing season. The streets aren’t packed as they’ve been. While I hear Elihu playing some very new ideas – and playing the best he has played in a long time – the tips aren’t coming in, and he’s feeling discouraged. After a while he’s recognized by an old school pal from pre-Waldorf days, so we leave our  post and walk to a record store with him and his mother. Soon we run into our friends from down our own road, we befriend a young man with a lovely Bernese mountain dog, and learn the guy working at the record store plays drums. It’s all a nice, serendipitous hang, and it seems a charming hour of our life has passed, until we part and head for the car.

As we near the car Elihu begins to break down. I wonder if it might not be part of the transition again. We get into the car, and he begins to talk about what’s on his heart. Elihu weeps his discontent to me. He is sad that there is no sense of connection with people. He feels people make pleasantries rather than real interaction. He says he wonders why he’s even on this stupid planet because he just doesn’t feel he belongs here. I know this is in part because of the transition. It is. And he’s old enough that I can posit this to him without creating a worse scene. I ask him. He nods, he agrees. But he adds that it’s much more than just having difficulty switching gears. He tells me that his ‘soul’ is not happy. That this town makes his ‘soul hurt’. I explain that it might be because this town is all about making money, and then spending it. Everyone is chasing the thing that will make them feel good. The next outfit, the next restaurant meal, always the next… This is not a culture of connection. It is a culture of distraction. I feel it too. And that’s precisely why we need to make compelling music and beautiful drawings and share these things with others. We need to help create the connection we feel is missing. We just sit for a while and think. With the windows open we can hear 86-year-old Jamaican Cecil pickin out melodies on his banjo across the street on his bench. “Don’t worry” he sings, “bout a ting, ev’ry little ting’s gonna be alright”. It helps. I tell Elihu to cry if he needs to, not to stop. So he does. He weeps.  (It would only be for me that I should ask him to stop, for it is heartbreaking to hear someone else’s discontent so acutely.) He’s ok for the moment, but we need to get home.

When we do get back, I throw yesterday’s fish into the oven for our supper, and join Elihu on the couch. We nestle ourselves into the cushions and finally, my arms are around my son. We just sit. We listen to the the wind change, and to a summer rain begin, a blue jay scolds past. A lovely evening breeze blows into the house and past us. He feels better, and so do I. After a while I suggest we play a game, so we find Mancala and In A Pickle and do our best to play each game through to its successful conclusion. But we’re not great rule-followers or rule-understanders, so we make up some of our own, and we do our best to just have fun. Which, thankfully, we do. We enjoy a nice dinner and are just about to retire to a much-needed bath when Maximus begins to honk outside. We have guests.

Turns out it’s our neighbor Zac, come to give us two big bags of wood chips from his mill. Perfect, we could definitely use em in our coop. We throw on our shoes, Elihu his dark glasses and head out to say hi and thanks. We get to talking and hanging out, and long story short, Elihu’s glasses fall to the driveway and as Zac drives off they get crunched beneath his tires. Which would have been fine if Elihu hadn’t just left his other pair in Chicago. Geez. And we have to go out tomorrow! We need school stuff! And Elihu has – school. He can’t leave the house without his glasses. Literally. So this  is a major monkey wrench in the works. (Or a spanner, depending.) It looks bleak, but I try to keep it light. Some options, none great. But let’s not worry about it now. Dad will overnight the others soon, and we’ll do what we can here. Right?

Right. We read the locally-inspired tale of Rip Van Winkle and soon Elihu is asking me to turn the closet light on and stay with him. “Daddy always leaves right away” he says through sleepy eyes. How can I deny him? The dishes need doing before the morning, but I can’t leave. I rest my hand on his arm and his eyes flash open, but on seeing me still there, he sinks back into sleep. I wait a bit more, watching him sink, hearing his breath change… I get up from the bed and look at him lying there. I’d expected to be struck by how big he was getting, but instead, he still looked tiny to me tonite. A tiny little boy in a big bed. So much going on in that tiny little person too. So much. It’s so good to have him safe at home again.

I know there’s still a lot going on, much to do and problems to be solved. But I also know that in the end, ev’ry little ting’s gonna be alright.