The Hillhouse

The Journey of a Mother and Son

Away… and Home July 7, 2013

This is one very, very big world. And there are so very, very many ways in which to live. Naturally, there is nothing like a trip away to highlight the differences (or similarities, as it may be) between the way you like to live your life, and the way others do. And there’s nothing like going away and then returning to your own house to help you to see it as others may. That certain way your house smells, for example. Living in it, you don’t notice it. But when you first open the door to your house and step inside, that first – and only that first – inhalation tells you things about your place you can never know in day-to-day life. When I lived in my giant, mid-century home, visitors would always tell me the place smelled ‘old’. And I could only know this for myself in that first, fleeting moment back. It smelled of wood, dust and dry, aging formica. Yeah, it did smell kind of old. Kind of like grandma’s. But within minutes it would be back to life as usual again, and once again I’d need an objective outside party to tell me how the joint smelled, because the scent became unnoticeable almost immediately. As it was here too. When I opened the door last night, the first thing that I smelled was the damp. (Here in upstate New York I always sense the relentless humidity first.) As I ventured into the living room, I noticed a particular scent that brought me back… it was the smell of the places where my father had taught, it was the smell of our older friend’s homes….I knew it, but what was it? I pondered as I stood there, noticing it for the first time, when it came to me as plain as day. Wet piano. And wet harpsichord. Yes, that’s it. The smell of slightly moist wood – but not just any wood. Not furniture, not floorboards, but instrument wood. Yeah, and the other stuff too… the felt of the hammers and plectra dampers, the varnish, the oxidation on the strings… Ok, maybe I’m being a teeny bit dramatic, but the funk of instruments left to themselves was unmistakable. Was it always like this? Did I just not notice? Interesting what appears in the wake of a short absence. (Mental note to myself: running a dehumidifier would not be an extravagance.)

Whether you fly, drive or take the train, you’re gonna pass a lot of homes. For me, most of my window-gazing thought on the train is spent considering all those tiny scenes as we slip by through people’s backyards, pass within feet of their back porches or speed over their neighborhood parks… From the country to the innermost city, we pass it all. A cross-section of the American population, unawares, just doing their thing as they do every day, and me, their most appreciative and grateful (and perhaps a bit apologetic) audience. It is simply too much to comprehend. I wish I could know what it was like to enter each of those homes, from rotting farm house to luxurious high rise condo – and furthermore, to live as the residents do. What is it that motivates them each day? What’s important to them? What’s the first thing they do in the morning? What’s on their minds? Some are content to live as hoarders, others cannot see life without granite counter tops. And so much in between. It blows my mind, so I try not to wonder at it too much. I just take it all in, reminding myself that just my tiny witness is enough. I’m lucky to be seeing so much of my world. I’ve also been lucky to have visited much poorer and more remote places on the other side of the planet in my lifetime, so wondering at the variety of this world is not a new thing to me. But nonetheless, it is always, always fascinating to me.

Elihu and I visited the beach this past week, and while we didn’t swim in the beautiful water of my beloved Lake Michigan (it hadn’t warmed up enough yet by my perhaps too-uptight standards) we did pass a lovely couple of hours just taking it in. The horizon, the clouds, the sky and water. And, of course, the seagulls. ! We brought several bags of bread and had fun feeding them. But even my own super-deft bird catcher of a son realized he wasn’t grabbing a gull and gave up his pursuit in favor of playing in the sand. I joined him. What a perfect moment in time we had. It’s a joy to have such a thoughtful son as mine; soon we were making metaphors between our play and life itself… It seems to me that any thinking human might have a hard time resisting the sort of contemplation that millions upon millions of grains of sand evoke. It can’t be just us. We note that even though there seems an infinitesimal amount of them – crazy as it seems, there is a finite number of sand grains on the planet. ! The many grains of sand remind us of all the people we’ve seen here. In the city, it seems not a single square foot is uninhabited. Everyone is out and about, each on their own chase, each with their head swimming with their own world of thoughts. There are millions of stories, sub-plots and interactions going on each single moment. As I’ve said before, this is a big world. And the beach seems to highlight it for us both. Yet at the beach, immensity and peace exist together, almost as the very same thing. We notice the juxtaposition, and we both marvel at it, continuing all the while our fruitless scooping out of the ever-wetting sand…

Contrasts slap you in the face when you partake of modern travel. One morning you can be feeding your chickens, and that night you can be on a city street in a valley of office buildings. This is not new to any of us in the Western world. This morning, as I awoke, I hardly felt I’d been away. While the images in my mind were somehow refreshed, they were still, just memories. (You got it – it all kinda felt like a dream.) I heard the clucking sounds of my flock from inside the coop and realized the timer hadn’t opened the door for them this morning. Automatically, I rose from my bed, donned my muck boots, and in my nightgown went to let the girls out. In the middle of my path, I thought back on a moment not more than a few days earlier and paused to let it sink in. Just a couple nights ago I’d been on stage at the Green Mill in front of a packed house doing my thing. Fan in hand, arms outstretched, belting out an old-timey jazz tune. Doing one of those things I feel I was just meant to do. Man, it was natural. And man, did it feel good. Came back like I’d never been away. But so did tending the chickens. Funny the latitude of experience in any one person’s life. So many folks have different careers, different homes, spouses… It’s nothing new to experience such vastly different things, but the rapid succession from jazz singer to chicken farmer still amuses me. I imagine myself on stage in my nightgown and boots, basket of eggs on my arm and it makes me smile to myself.

So here I am. Back. With a month or more of child-free living before me. Many might ask me what I plan to do with ‘all this time’, as if I might sunbathe or catch up on old episodes of a favorite show, but since I get all the sun I need working in the garden, and since I don’t watch much tv, those things don’t enter into it. Some of the things that are on my list are to get my piano teaching method book formatted and done, to learn some new computer skills so as to enhance my blog just a wee bit, to begin to prepare parts of my blog for a release as an eBook, as well as a myriad of ’round the farm type stuff. Enlarge the chicken run (involves digging fence post holes, yeeks), clean up the perennial garden outside the door, power wash the house on the side students and guests see first when they pull up, mow the lawn, paint the outside stairs. Lots and lots to do. Never mind the mess in the basement left in the wake of a busy school year – projects, supplies and out-of-season paraphernalia that haven’t yet been put away. If it weren’t for the photos on my data cards I might not fully believe that I’d ever even been away. But there is some tiny evidence of my trip; a deeper appreciation for space, clean air and nature all around. I am one lucky gal, I am. Lucky to have been given the gift of being able to go away for a while, and luckier still to know the even greater gift of coming home.

 

6 Responses to “Away… and Home”

  1. Gene Burnett Says:

    Really nice post…

    (Consider this late night musing: There is a question that comes up any time you try to count anything, and that is, what is the exact definition of the thing you are counting? To say there is a finite number of grains of sand on the planet presupposes at least two things. First you need a clear definition of what constitutes a “grain of sand”. At what point in size does a small rock become a “grain” of sand and at what point in size, as it’s ground into smaller and smaller pieces, does it cease to be a grain of sand and start to become dust? Exactly where you set the parameters will have a huge effect on the total number. So a large part of what that number will be, will be up to you. And since measuring anything absolutely precisely is always impossible, there will always be a little fuzziness around the edges of your numbers. Secondly you need to theoretically stop time for an instant and count all the small rocks that are, at that moment, within the parameters of your definition. So yes, there is a theoretically finite number of grains of sand on the planet, but in actuality, that number is constantly and rapidly changing as grains are constantly coming in and out of being, at least according to whatever your definition of a grain of sand is. So you could say that indeed there is a finite number of grains of sand on the planet, but that number is infinitely hard to pin down…I find this a fascinating meeting of order and chaos, just like the city.)

    • wingmother Says:

      wise guy, eh? (just sos ya know – we kinda went there too… but gave up on it. glad you got our back.)

      • Gene Burnett Says:

        I didn’t mean for that to come across as corrective in any way. ;~) Just that it got me thinking about finite/infinite in relation to counting anything, particular things that are always in flux, like grains of sand….GB

  2. wingmother Says:

    not at all! jest havin fun with ya… finite, infinite, tomato, to mah to, let’s call the whole thing off…


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