The Hillhouse

The Journey of a Mother and Son

New Ground January 29, 2014

All day I’ve been feeling slightly detached from my surroundings. I’ve had to step into quiet hallways or bathrooms to let out a few tears before returning, fresh-faced to my professional duties. I’ve alternated between absolute heartbreak, nausea or just plain emptiness. I mean, at some point news is just so bad you can’t process it. You can’t do anything about it but accept it. And responsibility for it too. Which, of course, makes the horror so much more acute. Yes, something unspeakable has happened, and it’s very likely your fault.

Last night mom told me there was water leaking in the Studio, and that I’d better come check for myself. While it was my brother Andrew who’d thankfully first noticed it, he’d offered very few details regarding the damage. Last week sometime he’d noticed a slick spot on the driveway just down from the utility room by the Studio’s front door. When he got closer, he heard a pump going non-stop, and it was freely pumping water into the building. I’d thought I’d turned all the valves off – I knew I’d intentionally skipped on having a plumber come and winterize the place as I just couldn’t swing another $300 expense – especially with Christmas coming – so I thought I’d done my best to safeguard the pipes for winter. But clearly I missed something – at the very least I’d overlooked turning off the hot water heater (now I understand why the Studio’s monthly electric bills are at least $50 in spite of using nothing but a few exit sign lights). Crap. I’d been so wrapped up in my life – and my dad and the holidays and just my own shit that I’d neglected to understand the importance of properly shutting the place down. I guess I figured the past winter’d been fine, so if I just did what I did then we’d be ok. And since we didn’t have any programs til late Spring, we didn’t need the insurance either. After all, I have a hard time just paying my own bills, let alone those of an empty building that’s only used seasonally. What a big fucking mistake.

I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. I don’t think you would have believed it either. I’ve known about wood for a while – after twenty-plus years living with a guitar player (and being the daughter of a harpsichordist) I’d seen and heard my share of wood. Seen it shaped, bent, seen how summer and winter wreak their havoc…. but this was insane. The center of the large room was lifted a good two feet in the middle, in a line from the stage to the balcony. A great, undulating ridge just rose from the ground as if it had been fashioned so. Once I took it all in – realizing that the outer six feet or so of the room lay under a good three inches of water and that the floor rose like an island in the middle – I got brave and walked out onto it. I stood there in utter disbelief. I jumped. And jumped. But the floor was as solid underneath me as if it had been intended as a hump and not a flat surface. There was no real give, no indication that the cement was yet a few feet away from the wood. It was the strangest, most dramatic morphing of wood I’d ever seen. Fascinating. Heartbreaking. Unreal. Too much. Way too much.

My beloved Fender Rhodes sat in the greenroom, the ancient cloth grill woven thru with silver strands wicking up the water into its innards. I thought about the cabinet, considered the electronics. I hadn’t the heart to look any closer, I just hoped that it hadn’t yet reached the critical height of the inputs on the far side. And wet though it might be, I could still reclaim the action and have it all cleaned, in the long run it would probably be ok. Been on my list to have gone over anyhow. I was thankful we hadn’t moved dad’s piano here yet. In terms of gear, the loss was minimal. Even my friend’s kiln was up on blocks and appeared safe. But ancient concert posters had sucked up water and puckered, losing ink and fading to nothing but soggy, meaningless pieces. But if that was the worst of the stuff – that was ok. What else? I wondered, slowly wading around the corner…

I made my way to the bathrooms and found water dripping from every piece of trim and weeping from the ceiling. Mold had started to grow on the walls, but thankfully the cold temperatures had prevented it from exploding all over. The main issue was the floor. Where it was poured cement, not such a big deal. But that gorgeous wood floor of the hall itself, the one that had seen so many concerts, so many memories…. To lose that wood, the very wood that had made the sound my father had so keenly sought – and so successfully achieved… it made me positively ache. First I had lost him, now I had lost his room. I didn’t cry, it was too much. And there was nothing I could do. Not a mop nor bucket would make a dent. This would take a pump. Or someone with a pump. Definitely someone with time. I sure didn’t have that. I turned to go down to the house and let mom know the awful reality.

Before long I was crying, and asking for mom’s forgiveness. I knew I’d been lax about preparing the place for winter. I’d gotten away with it the year before, so I’d thought we’d be ok. I’d ignored that tiny voice that told me over and over to make sure… make sure…. Mom was kind to me and told me not to blame myself, and for that I was grateful. Her words helped take a little of the sting away. But going to bed last night, and waking several times during the night were miserable moments. This morning it came back with a sickening thud, but thankfully I had a child to get going and a workday of my own to prepare for. Not a lot of time to sulk, to think ‘what if’, to linger over the sickening prospects – or lack thereof – before me. Plus a new tiny voice had begun to arise in my mind, and it was persistent. I’d ignored it before and the outcome was horrible. Maybe I had better pay attention. It seemed to impart a sense of calm. Calm? This is no time to be calm! I think, but then I stopped to listen more attentively…. What is it… what…? A feeling came upon me that I should not despair. That I should not weep as I might have wanted to (not that I didn’t weep – oh I did.) But even after I wept came a feeling of comfort right behind, a distinct and real sense that everything was going to be ok. Even last night as I’d gone to bed, it was there as the tiniest inkling. And by now I do know unquestionably that amazing things can come from the worst initial experiences. I felt, somehow, as if there simply had to be something to this. That there had to be an answer – that there was an answer, but I just hadn’t gotten there yet. I thought back on all the unlikely things that had happened as a result of other unlikely things – the divorce, the move to New York, my son ending up in the Waldorf school, me ending up getting a job at his school – all these things, each one dependent upon the other, the first event of which I never would have chosen for myself if given the choice. Yeah, there definitely was something here. I just hadn’t found it yet.

While waiting to print out a map of the Mojave Desert on the downstairs pc for Elihu’s latest assignment, I pulled up the wonderful photo of my dad that I’d used in his obit. Through tears I asked him to please give me the answer. I apologized to him, begged his forgiveness for being so stupid, for letting him down. I told him that I knew there was a surprise here, an answer, somewhere. Please, I asked him, could he please, please help me from his side? I wiped the tears from my cheeks, minimized the picture on the desktop and sat there for a moment, my mind blank, waiting. Then the phone rang. It was the guy who was going to be doing the cleanup on the Studio. I’d called a bunch of people and had liked him on the phone the best. He’d come by earlier to assess the job, and had met mom. She really liked him too. I realize feelings go only so far, but that there was such quick consensus made me feel lucky. (Things don’t always work out so easily as this had so far.) As we talked about the cleanup and subsequent repairs, he himself suggested we could salvage the floor and repurpose it. Couldn’t use it again as a floor, but he’d clean it up and stash it somewhere safe. Being more involved with the creative, physical arts these days than the performing arts, I thought it perfect. Struck me as kinda strange that he even suggested such a thing. “Or I could just junk it. Whatever you prefer.” I considered for a moment seeing dad’s old flooring being revamped in a hundred new ways – pieces of art, sculpture, benches, stuff… Stuff that would live again. The floor would come to life in a new way, and in so doing would carry with it a new story…. As a friend reminded me tonight, it is as the old saying went regarding the wood from which a harpsichord was made; in its death it sings again…. This was beginning to feel better. And then came the final discovery. The answer.

For years we’ve struggled with the heating situation in The Studio. It was never designed for more than summer use, and outfitted with baseboard electric heat, it could cost an awful lot to heat. It didn’t seem like a viable option. We’d toyed with other ideas – using the one air duct we used for AC to move hot air – but that would mean installing an outside furnace and perhaps even constructing a shed-like home for it too. The option that I had yearned for – but was never a workable option – had all of a sudden become the solution. I’d lived with it in a Chicago co-op for years and had loved it. (Nothing like walking on a warm floor.) There was the answer. Was it possible? The guy from the restoration service said absolutely. Ok, so we didn’t have insurance. But we were harvesting the woods for timber this year. We’d planned on socking it away for the future, but it seemed the future was already here. A plan was making itself: take the floor out and start over. And I knew how we’d start over – of course, the answer! Radiant heat! Heated from the floor up, it will be easier on the instruments and much more pleasant for the yoga classes and the dancers. Oh heaven, heaven! Finally we can heat the place in an even, gentle way. Finally we can take out those baseboards and free the room up from wall to wall! I can hardly believe it, but here it is. The answer. This is the sweetest relief. A moment ago I was heavy, now I’m light with possibility. And I’m full of hope again. Happy, elated. Amazing.

Other things come to me too. The walls must be taken out at the bottom, and when we do that it gives us the opportunity to insulate the place properly too. Wow. We’d talked about it, but it had always seemed low on the list. Now the list was making itself. If I can speak from a purely intuitive place, it feels as if I’ve been putting this project off for a few years now (ok, single mom duty to young kid does kinda make such things a bit harder) and it just kinda feels like the Studio is crying out to me for the attention and love it deserves. I still have no fucking clue how to run an arts center or what happens next, but I won’t let that worry me for now. This place needs some tlc, some basic repairs and upgrades, and truthfully, had nature not forced my hand I do not believe any of this would be in the works. One project at a time. My partner Ceres is still on board, we’ve still got plans for the summer, and I don’t see why we shouldn’t keep moving towards them.

This chapter has become, quite literally and figuratively, a bump in the road. And thankfully, this unforseen bump will make way for wonderful new ground.

 

Chill of It All January 27, 2014

How does the oil go so fast? We had a delivery less than a month ago and yet tonite I see the telltale signs of a tank below the intake level; the thermostats dipping below fifty and that ominous blinking green light on the furnace. So it’s time to share a bedroom again, time to heat the kitchen with the Brady bunch double ovens. We’ve ridden out times like this before, and I know it’s ultimately going to be ok, but when I got back from checking on things in the basement, Elihu was in tears. He said he could ‘just feel the negative energy in the house’. ‘Well, kid’, I think, ‘waddya want? I can’t fix everything all the time. I do my best, and that’s all I can do’. I don’t say what I’m thinking though. I keep my mom cool and put a positive spin on it – it’ll be like camping, it’ll be cozy – like it must have been in the old days. I remind him we don’t live in a tent or a longhouse – can you just imagine? (I don’t think I have the stuff to live like that.) So no matter how the next twenty-four hours pan out, we have electricity, and at the end of the day it’s a lifesaver. Glad we have Mario Brothers on a night like this. Need a distraction besides homework.

Our heating oil guy is wonderfully reliable, and if he can see his way to a delivery of less than his usual minimum, or if I can get a bit of assistance from mom, it’ll be crisis averted. I’m not thrilled about needing him so often though (nor do I feel good about always going to my mother when the shit hits the fan), and it’s got me scratching my head about our oil use. I turn the heat down to fifty when we leave during the day times, and at nighttime I don’t usually go above sixty-eight, and in fact try to keep it closer to sixty-five most nights. So what’s going on here? I don’t know, and not knowing has me a bit panicked. Mom had told us to go ahead and look into pricing out having the attic insulated, but this past year it just didn’t seem an expense worth getting into. Now I think I might have to take her up on it. Can’t do anything about it now, but I’m certainly motivated to get moving on it as soon as we’re able.

But for now we just gotta get over this hump. I look ahead to my own long-term life plans and I find myself yearning for a life without all this relentless cold and snow. I never thought I’d be one of those folks who gave up the great Northeast for North Carolina, but it’s beginning to feel like an option. I’ve always loved the seasons, and I’ve felt incredibly blessed to live where we do. And I’ve always thought our modest house was just perfect. But will it always be? I reflect on all the upkeep. Hmm. Maybe I might return one day to apartment living. That has its appeal, too. Who needs a garden and chickens? It’s all so much work – plus it’s the kind that gets harder as one grows older. I begin to flesh out this idea for a minute. Imagine having no driveway to plow, no shoveling, no frozen water troughs to keep on top of, no threat of frozen pipes or the reality of a house with frost on the inside of the windows. Although the thought of a simpler life appeals in this moment, it also kinda feels like giving up, wimping out. But right now – from the inside of my rapidly-chilling house – it seems like a Utopian existence. My mother speaks with contempt for those who flee the northern states for the south. They’re clearly not made of very strong stuff. And while I myself had never seriously considered spending my aged years anyplace other than this house, or at least this part of the world (this latitude, more accurately), I begin to long for a more moderate climate with less rigorous heating requirements. I know the globe is heating up, but tonite it sure doesn’t seem like it.

Other stuff’s weighing on my mind tonite too. A friend responded to my recent post, the last one in which I called attention to my tip jar. I had thought it a fairly polite post, nothing terribly whiney about it (not so much more than the usual, I suppose), but she pointed out to me that most people had it hard. That it wasn’t just me – and that folks weren’t in a position to help with all of their own burdens. Yeah, I can totally see that. I’m sure many folks are working extremely hard at surviving. But you don’t hear about it, cuz they’re not writing about it on a public platform. And I get that not everyone will agree with what I write. But that’s kinda the point here – my goal is to express myself without censorship. Guess I have to be ready to accept the occasional consequences. But I still stand by my post; the point remains that I have had tens of thousands of visits and only five donations. Ya know?

And then over supper Elihu disclosed to me something that one of his classmates had expressed to him about his mother not being thrilled with me. This child is delightful, and he and Elihu each ask me all the time to organize a play date. I haven’t done so in a few months only because I’ve been rather beset with life – but it seemed we were approaching a good time to get it going. But apparently, I’m not seen as ‘Waldorf enough’ by this kid’s mom for her to feel comfortable with setting one up. Or at least that was the gist of things in this kid’s words. And I know we’re getting into second generation, he-said, she-said territory here, but nonetheless the news was a bit shocking. I know that I do allow my child to play video games – but damn, he has chicken chores, practices his bass without prompting and finishes his homework. Plus he reads like crazy. And can identify hundreds of birds (without benefit of color) because he looks through field guides as a hobby. And he honors and thanks his food before he eats. Honestly, what is the problem here? Again I run a little internal monologue to myself… ‘you probably live on your smart phone, lady. That sure aint very Waldorf…’ Hell, I don’t even have a smart phone. How low tech can one get?

My life is generally a sweet one, and I know I have the love and support of so many friends, but I find myself stuck on these two things tonite. Man. I try to be a good person, I try my very best to show kindness to everyone I interact with – truly, I do. And I’m not full of shit here – I sincerely want a good, equal and honest relationship with everyone I deal with. My main goal these days is to live with as much transparency as possible. So I don’t get it. Maybe in my desire to please and get along there’s some element of timidity apparent in my demeanor – or perhaps even an impression of seeming aloof. I have been misinterpreted in the past for appearing unfriendly when the truth of the matter was that I was just trying to be neutral and unprovocative. It seems here I may have had the opposite effect. Oh crap. I am at heart a big fucking wimp. I can’t tolerate not being liked very well. Maybe I need thicker skin. Hmm. Maybe that. Or Xanax. !!

Gotta get back to it. Dinner, homework, a little time going over my new music on the piano. Bedtime will be sweet relief. A big, warm bed and a little time to just forget it all and chill.

Post Script: The heat’s back on, but not without a few glitches in the form of micro leaks which may be compromising the system’s ability to work at maximum efficiency. Ah, but it’s working. Seems with this super cold of late we’ll have to economize even more with lower temperature settings. I’ll end up sounding just like my mother… “if you’re cold – put on a sweater!” 

 

Tip Off January 26, 2014

The sidebar of my home page shows a tip jar, and if one should click on it, it’s possible to leave a donation. The icon was created and installed as a gift by a woman I’d only ever met online; it was truly a case of the kindness of strangers. (Visit this wonderful blogger, writer and kind stranger here.) I’d long wanted a simple means by which folks could leave the smallest amount in exchange for the enjoyment of reading – the cost of a cup of coffee – something I myself would happily offer to a friend. Something simple, something that wouldn’t be of any great hardship to most folks. My goals were always what I believed to be realistic; I never held out hopes for a great stream of income here – but that I can count on one hand the number of gifts I’ve received through the jar (minus a thumb, that is) during the eight months or so that it’s been up. And that has been surprising. Now you four kind folks who have left something there (and given far more than I ever intended when I had the vehicle installed) know who you are. While simple thanks aren’t really enough, I’ve conveyed my gratitude, and please know that I’m still thankful.

While I have never been so naive as to expect to generate a stream of income from this blog – I do admit that I’d secretly hoped to buy a box of printer paper, pay something towards the month’s electric bill or fill the tank in my car just once with some blog-related proceeds. But aside from the gifts of those four generous and kind friends, not a penny has found its way into the jar. I’d hoped to make it as easy as possible for folks to leave a quick dollar or some pocket change (while keeping in mind that Mr. Paypal still finds his way to 2.9% of the donation plus 30 cents per transaction. Sigh). I’m not good at talking about money, it makes me slightly uncomfortable. My folks came from a culture where it was not spoken of. Maybe it’s helped contribute to the situation I’m in now, I don’t know. What I do know is that I am good at living frugally, but still I’m beginning to wish that my writing might net me something by way of a modest economic return. I write cuz it’s what I do… but still.

I think the expected return on a direct mail campaign is something like 2% – and that might even be ambitious. But the thousand or so subscribers to this blog are not merely random recipients of an ad insert. I know folks aren’t checking in with us here at The Hillhouse the way they are with the trendy Downton Abbey or their beloved Facebook feeds, but the readership does continue to grow – while the pot does not.

The health of my tip jar won’t in any way affect the content of my writing. I’m clearly not motivated by generating income here, but given the hours I have spent at my craft, I sure wouldn’t mind some return on the investment. But, as I said in the very beginning, I’m not here with any expectations. That I have a thousand followers is, in of itself, rather unbelievable to me. Some days it’s what helps motivate me to get out of bed. Other days I think it might be in part responsible for my resurfaced panic attacks. !! Either way, the idea of each visitor leaving a dollar in my virtual jar gives me a tiny thrill… Can you imagine? Wow. That would take care of the electric bill for a couple of months! Lest I appear to be using flagrant passive-aggressive techniques here, let me clearly state my hopes for the future of our tip jar in no uncertain terms:

Dear Readers,

If you’ve enjoyed reading of our adventures here at The Hillhouse, I hope you’ll please consider leaving a donation in the tip jar on a future visit.

My deepest appreciation for your continued friendship and emotional support!

~~~~~~~~~

A Post Script: In an effort to keep this issue living and relevant, I may re-post this or another such reminder from time-to-time. Please do tell me if and when it should become too tedious. Let’s hope it becomes effective long before we reach that point. !!

 

Learning To Fly January 25, 2014

We’ve been a part of the Waldorf School of Saratoga Springs for just about two years. Elihu joined the class just after Spring break of 3rd grade, in 2012. He’d come home from ‘regular’ school one day beyond fed up. He was in tears (not the first time he’d come home like this) when I picked him up from the bus at the end of our long driveway. I got into the back seat with him, and he rested his head in my lap. He was sobbing, and through his tears he told me he was done with that school. He told me I could either home school him or put him in Waldorf, those were the only two options. He was beyond adamant. He was not going back to that place. In that very moment, I understood fully that our lives would be different from here on in. I had absolutely no idea how we’d make it happen – the school is private, and expensive. But as a mother I had no options but to advocate for my child. As I sat there, stroking the head of my weeping child, I wondered at the unknowns before us. It would be an adventure, that much I knew. On paper, it wasn’t logical. But in my heart, I knew it was right.

His former school, I feel I must add, was by no means a bad place. He’d even be the first to tell you so. It had even won the ‘Blue Ribbon’ award for being a top-tier elementary school of New York state. And we absolutely loved the principal – a cheerful man who knew the name of every last kid there, who dressed in crisply tailored suits to greet the students every day of the year regardless of the weather, a man who outfitted the school in authentic, mid-century office furniture (I know, right?), and who, above all, played drums (did I mention he was good-looking and kind?) – plus his name rhymed with Elihu. (We sometimes referred to him as Mr. Elihewitt.) We liked the teachers too. The biggest problem for Elihu was primarily the size and population of the place – that plus the relentless, bright flourescent lighting. Everything was color-coded and there were visuals everywhere informing students in every sort of detail; directions of floor traffic, rules, winners of this or that contest, kids on time-out, science facts, sports of the season, artwork, reading lists – you name it, every manner of information was posted on every available surface – and all for the kids’ benefit, of course. But if you have a hard time seeing to begin with, if color doesn’t even exist for you, and if bright lights are murder on your system – the whole thing becomes a senseless onslaught of meaningless information. And you are clueless, while everyone else is informed. And then there was the cafeteria. The single loudest room on the planet save a nightclub on the last set of the night. I could barely take it when I visited. And my son, usually a very socially interactive person, he would sit by himself at the far end of a long table, hands over his ears and head down as he tried to eat. He, like me, is predisposed to feelings of panic and anxiety, and it took great effort and concentration on his part to keep himself somewhat grounded in the midst of the lunchroom madness. I’d seen it myself more than once, and it was a heartbreaking sight.

So I understood. He’d cried about it before, listed his complaints, made his case. I’d been a very present classroom mom, and I liked all the kids, the teachers – and the school – very much. But still, I got it. The visual chaos, the overlit rooms – it all made for one disoriented and exhausted child at the end of the day. When we’d moved here at the start of Kindergarten, Elihu and I had visited all the schools in the area. He’d attended a Montessori preschool in Illinois, and it had been such a good experience that I thought it couldn’t hurt just to see our options. But the instant poverty that came with being cutoff from my previous married situation didn’t really show any other viable options but public school. And in the beginning, our local public school was wonderful. He even learned some meditative techniques and basic yoga postures from his Kindergarten teacher. (Plus she gave us the iconic phrase – one which we still use today: “You get what you get and you don’t get upset”. We will always love Miss Crooks.) But it had served its purpose in our lives, and now it was clearly time to spread our wings and leave the nest.

His timing was pretty good, because we had one more school day before Spring break. I wasted no time, and the very next day we found ourselves at the cozy Waldorf school, Elihu visiting the 3rd grade class upstairs, me sitting in a comfy wing chair in the director’s office just below. How kind, how warm, how – dare I even say this of strangers? – loving everyone was here. There was a sense of everyone being present that I had never experienced before in a formal school environment. And when my meeting was finished, and I went upstairs to collect my son, imagine my surprise when I saw the teacher receiving each one of the students in a handshake and a brief personal moment of connection before they were dismissed. I couldn’t help it, I cried. It was one of the most moving things I’d ever seen. (Later, when meeting a couple of parents for the first time and sharing our ‘how we got to Waldorf’ stories, the father admitted to having been moved to tears during a math lesson. For him, that was when he knew.) If I hadn’t been sure before that moment, I was then. This was going to be my son’s school.

A period of unknowing followed as we applied for tuition assistance, waited to see how Elihu’s teacher felt he fit with the existing group, as we made our way through the application process. The day after break we returned for one more visit. He went outside with the group, I went to the office. When I returned to pick him up, I saw that he had a band aid on his thumb, and was whittling away at a piece of wood with a long, sharp knife. ?? I asked that gal leading the small group what had happened, and she just looked up, smiling, and said that Elihu had cut himself. He’d been washed off and given a band aid. “He probably won’t do that again!” she added, going back to her own work. Ok, so some parents might have been freaked out. But accidents happen in real life. And real life involves sharp edges – and for once a real-life mistake hadn’t triggered a pile of paper work and incident reports, instead, it had taught a lesson. I can tell you my kid has a new respect for a knife. Plus he’s not bad at whittling. I was even more in love with this place. I fairly held my breath for the next week as we waited for the governing board to convene and make a decision about the new student. The day we received his letter of acceptance to the Waldorf school was one of the happiest days of my life. They say a parent is only as happy as her child – and my child was in bliss.

So here we are, not quite in our second complete year. From third grade to fifth, a lot has changed. The younger grades, one through five, have rooms upstairs in the quaint old building, the middle school kids are on the main floor. So for me, these final months of fifth grade are to be savored. In many ways it’s like the end of Elihu’s true childhood. I love that he and his classmates all make the trudge up that incredibly long, wooden staircase to their room. I love the sounds of the still-small kids. I compare them to the much-larger middle schoolers and shake my head in wonder that my own kid will ever be ‘one of them’. I take not one moment of this time for granted. I too am on a journey alongside my son. As I play piano for the eurythmy classes as well as do yard duty at recess, I’m present with my child almost all day long. And I count myself blessed. Not a day goes by that I’m not grateful to the clouds for our fortune. I made a promise to my son a year back that I’d see him through to graduation. That he’d be a Waldorf kid until the end of twelfth grade, on my word. If I had to sell my piano, I’d make it happen. And I have wondered sometimes, if left without the assistance of my mother – and recently the participation of Elihu’s other grandparents – how would this work? But I know that it’ll be fine. It can’t be any scarier than it was in the very beginning – I took off with absolutely no safety net. Now that we’re aloft, staying in the air is much easier.

Last night was another marker in our life here at Waldorf. The high school hosted an open mic as a fund-raiser for the eleventh grade’s annual trip to Ethiopia. I have a soft spot for the country; for nearly a decade I sponsored a girl in Addis Ababa, and I’ve been an enormous fan of Ethiopian food since my college years (Chicagoans, consider yourselves lucky), so it made me happy to be a part of the project. I did my little bit by playing piano for the now eighth grade teacher (teachers and their classes move together up the line from first through eighth grades) as he took to the stage with the very ‘un’ Waldorf (as Elihu described them, and I agree) ‘Old Time Rock and Roll’ (yes, the one you think I mean) and Tom Petty’s ‘Learning to Fly’. I had my doubts about the latter, and even sadly forgot to insert my quote of ‘Free Falling’ in all the last-minute, open-mic madness, but Brian’s beloved charisma and my son’s interjection of energy and pulse on his djembe made for a very lively mini set. And who knew that a roomful of today’s twelfth-graders would jump to their feet and start singing along with an ancient Bob Seger tune? Not me. But hey, I sang along with ‘What Does the Fox Say’, so ya never know. The night was such an impressive mix of things, from original poetry to call and response singing with the room, to a four hands version of a Scott Joplin rag, to an original, choreographed modern dance – one woman (the talented woman who does my acupuncture treatments) did a hilarious ‘impersonation’ of a piece of bacon frying in a pan. Elihu even got to sing a song on mic and sounded great. Such energy, such joy, and such good pitch! Proud mom. As folks began to strike the room the dj humored the remaining kids (me too) with some end-of-the-night standards. A very good night. My kid was dancing and singing, having the best time he’d had in ages. And I was too.

We’ve known that this is where we should be in our lives, and while I suffer the occasional existential hiccups and dark moods, I do realize that on the whole, things are going very well for both of us. Our life is a continuing adventure no matter what our moods may be, and day by day we’re always learning something new. These days, it seems, we’re learning to fly.

 

Coasting January 24, 2014

What comfort can I take from life right now? I have woken up in a bit of a sad mood. I visited some photos of my father on the blog (it’s served us personally as our only real photographic record of the past two years) and now I sit, vaguely depressed, putting off the starting of my day. I don’t want to go into the dark, cold kitchen and find it rank with the smell of a convalescing bird. I don’t want to make breakfast, lunches. I don’t want to get dressed, to drive into town again. I just want to sit here in my bad mood and work my way out of it on my own time. I do need to check on my son however; just minutes ago I was fully present in a dream in which I’d let him go flying in a small plane and they needed assistance coasting to the ground as they’d had a fuel line problem. The dream was as vivid as is my now-real bedroom, and I can’t help but want to see my young son for myself just to make sure that the other time line has come to a close.

Strange moments, those upon waking. Dreams – whether anxious or hopeful – disintegrate like steam in the sky and all of a sudden you’re here again, in the middle of a just-so sort of life with many just-so sorts of details before you. Ich. Fuck the daily crap. Just fuck it. I feel a little bipolar here; just yesterday I was in a pretty good mood I suppose. I’d even had a couple of really good moments. “Bubbles of happiness” my son and I call them. Every now and then, when a tiny bit of joy springs up – for no apparent reason other than it’s just a very delightful moment – he or I will announce to the other out loud “I’m having a bubble of happiness right now”. The other will acknowledge it and we’ll continue on our way. Think we each had several last night. It was a nice night – complete with a phone call from a ninety-four year German woman whom I’d known in Evanston years ago – through Alice Angermann, the Vienna-schooled piano teacher of my high school and college years. Our conversation was an unexpected treat and it added even more magic to our day.

But magic and bubbles of happiness don’t last – in fact they’re very short, which is why we take the care to announce them – they need all the witness and appreciation they can get! In my same-old, same-old chair, in the dark of morning with the day’s events all just around the corner, waiting for my attention, I am not feeling very close to the mood of last night. Yeah, somehow I’ll come around. Just being with my beloved son usually does that on its own. But still, I’m looking off more towards the horizon of my existence this morning, and I’m not sure what it is that I have to look forward to there. I need more for sure. A quest, a purpose. I try to bring joy to everyone I see during my day, I try to be kind, cheerful when I can. All that sort of stuff. And that helps the world, I’m sure. And it helps me too. But today I feel like I could use a little extra bit of something. Not sure what. Just something. It’s probably the time of year that’s making me feel like this. Smack in the middle of the calendar year, the relentless cold, and tired, matted-down snow don’t do much to enliven the spirit. But isolated as I might feel here in my tiny country house in the middle of a sky-wide winter, I’m pretty sure that I am by no means the only person feeling mid-winter doldrums. Certainly not. So… breath in, chest out, foot forward. Buck we up, and on we go…

Lest I forget, tonight is the Waldorf School’s open mic night (in support of the 11th grades’ upcoming annual trip to Ethiopia) and I’ll bet you can guess who’s playing piano for a bunch of folks. ! And it’ll be a hoot, I know. Right now it’s got me grousing about having to leave the house again and drive back into town – but I know once we get there it’ll be fun. Plus Elihu will play drums with me too. Not sure folks at school are aware of how good he is. They will be soon. So he’ll have a little moment to shine too. Guess I gotta just take these little moments and count em as precious. Cuz it’s those little gems that keep me coasting through life until the next big adventure comes along….

Post Script: My father died four weeks ago tonight. I recently added the story of his final moments as an addendum to the post entitled “Vigil” (12/27/13). It was written a few hours before he passed, and it seemed to me that the post was incomplete without the full story. Dad left us crying… and laughing too. If you’re gonna go, this is the best way I could ever imagine….

 

Bad Bird January 22, 2014

It has been a long day. Started early and cold. When I went to let the birds out I found Bald Mountain, our three year old resident rooster, upside down and wedged in between a milk crate and the wall, his back end almost bare of feathers and covered in blood. It took a good struggle to free him without hurting him further. Shit. The goose had done it again. Maximus had recently led the flock in pecking two hens – one to death, one to the point of a mercy killing – and this time he’d taken Baldy on all by himself. I’d seen him tugging at the remaining feathers when I arrived, and while I really yearned to give him a good scolding whack, I knew it wouldn’t fix anything. Remorse is not something a goose can feel, and lessons are short-lived. Besides, I was on chicken medic duty once again. My heart sank to see several frozen trickles of blood hanging from the crate. I wasn’t even sure the rooster’d make it to the house alive. But he did, so I began my now-familiar poultry-saving regimen.

The first order of business was to get the poor fellow in the kitchen by the radiator. Next, I provided him with some water and a bowl of my custom mash of high protein feed, nutritional supplements and crushed baby aspirin. Then I waited, hoping he had enough steam left to eat and drink. It took him a while to adjust – he even had a hard time standing at first. All I could think of was my son and how much he loved this stupid bird – we’d done in dozens of gals we’d named, we’d eaten em too, but above all, Baldy meant the most to him. He’d fathered the whole flock, he himself was born of two of our very first chickens. I myself don’t hold a lot of sentiment for boy birds on the whole; they are so fundamentally motivated by the need to procreate that they become a nasty pain in the ass at some point in their lives. That goes for geese too. That damned gander leaves me alone cuz he thinks I’m his gal. (Actually, that’s not entirely accurate. He has tried to ‘get busy’ with me many times, but I won’t put up with that sort of behavior. I just swat him away and tell him ‘no’. I feel bad for the guy; he’s just frustrated and lonely, but I do have my limits!) I’m spared his wrath, but no one else is. The poor UPS guy always honks his arrival before daring to exit his truck. Piano students run from the goose, and the rooster too… Yeah, I’m not a big fan of the boys. But we need Baldy around if we’re to keep the flock going in the spring, and he means a lot to Elihu. So I wait around for the injured bird to make a move. Thankfully, within a few minutes he’s going at the bowl of mash and shortly after he’s drinking. Hope that helps. He sure looks bad. But he’s a fighter. I think he’ll make it. But the question then becomes, what do we do with him after he’s better?

Yeah, this throws a monkey wrench into things. Can’t return him to the coop cuz Max will lay into him again. So we need to quarantine him until the warm months return. Crap. That means one more chore on mama’s list. Gotta put the rooster in the brooding pen in the garage. Get him good and strong. Then, when spring comes, we can try him in the flock again. Either Max will have forgotten, or his cabin fever will have abated (I strongly believe that his behavior is a result of close quarters and cold weather). I consider the additional work load. I’m not thrilled with it, but I see no options. I make a note to discuss this with the kid later on.

Meanwhile, I have an appointment with the family attorney to go over mom and dad’s affairs, I have recess to monitor, an annual physical appointment with my doc, a chorus to accompany and a string bass to pick up. All these things go relatively smoothly but for the fact that I left something behind at the doctor’s office and had to return the twenty-some miles round trip to pick it up, plus Elihu admitted rather apologetically to me (as we were leaving school) that he had ‘a project on Egypt due tomorrow’. Really? I’d seen the email at the beginning of the month telling us of the project but had myself forgotten the due date. Half my bad too I guess. So then were were off to Walmart to buy some clay and paint. Also stopped in at mom’s to rehearse a couple of tunes for Friday’s open mic night at school (he has a set of congas there that grandma got him for Christmas). Still had to make dinner, clean up and begin the sculpture of Horus, which yet needed to be baked, cooled and painted. Time was escaping us, and it wasn’t until nine that Elihu was finally in bed. Not bad, really, when you consider all that we got done. I’d pushed the cooking temp up a bit, and then super-cooled the bust in the freezer. The whole thing was a bit on the sketchy side – Elihu’s own words – but hell, at least it was done.

As we lay in bed recapping our day, we came to the dilemma of the birds. I pitched the idea of butchering Max. While Elihu was an enthusiastic consumer of all the hens we’d done in, he told me that he would never consider eating Max. Ok, fair enough. A new home? Only if it was a good one – a humane one. No bird auctions, no unknown destinations. Ok. Then what? Elihu agreed that keeping the rooster apart til the weather warmed was about our only option. He agreed to share the duties, and we left it at that. I’m not looking forward to keeping up two bird camps, and I must admit that while I’ve shared some very special moments with Maximus, I’m quite a bit less thrilled with our goose at the moment. I’ve had enough bad birds in my life and I’m not keen on keeping company with yet another. But for the time being, Max is lucky. Our goose isn’t cooked quite yet.

Post Script: You can see Baldy in one of the three photos on the lower right of our home page here. This pic was taken almost two years ago. Elihu’s affection for his roo is easy to see. I can report that three days later Baldy is doing quite well – crowing loudly in our tiny kitchen, strutting and scratching in the manner of a chicken on the mend. His back end is mostly bare, and in near-zero temps we just can’t put him outside quite yet. As he is a fouler smelling fowl than any others I’ve ever had inside my house before, we’re going to move his digs to the basement this weekend. Out of sight, out of smell, but definitely not out of earshot. ! No alarm clocks needed here!

 

Beautiful January January 18, 2014

At first, it’s just another dark morning. Your mind, for the briefest second, is blank. You are in neutral, the commitments of the day haven’t come to you yet and the lack of light in the room offers you no clues. For a moment you hang there, out of time and place. But after a short window of nothingness, you remember again. And that dull, sick sort of feeling comes back into your body. In sleep there’d been relief and forgetting, but upon waking, you return to your new reality. Crap. Yeah, that’s right. I remember now. I recognize that strange thud in my gut. I wish it weren’t so, but it is. Dad is gone. 

I tempt myself with possible regrets, but I try to ignore them. No point to it. I lie there in bed for a few minutes, digesting it all again for the umpteenth time. It’s not so bad, really, I suppose, I think to myself. A lovely end to a good, long life. I shouldn’t be so goddam nostalgic. It’s old news by now. But yet I still count the days. Three weeks and a day since he died. It’s not acute, but it’s still heartbreaking in a quiet, inward sort of way. As I lie in bed, I go over the last few weeks with dad, those final days. I remind myself of the peaceful and gentle nature of his passing. I remind myself how lucky we were to be with him. Then I relax just a bit. I collect myself, make a short inventory of the day to come, and take a breath. Then after another moment I get out of bed and make my way to the kitchen.

The last couple of days it has been snowy here. Not just snowy, but that most gorgeous of all kinds of snow – the puffy, sparkly kind that mounds itself high on each and every branch and twig, the kind that distills the entire landscape and all its earthly objects into a crisp, poetic vision of dark and light. In this world one can easily imagine what it is to see as my son does. There is virtually no color visible, yet the world is all the more breathtakingly beautiful because of it. I drove to town yesterday at half my usual speed, mouth agape, eyes scanning the whiteness above my head as I passed through the woods on a winding country road. Stunning, stunning, stunning. And behind it all, I hear in my head one of the last sentences I ever heard my father utter: “When beautiful January comes….” He’d said it with a smile on his face, in a happy, almost trance-like way. What on earth had he meant by this? His and mom’s birthday was on January 6th, but he certainly wasn’t going to make it til then. Did he mean his relief would finally come then? Did he mean that things would start anew? And if so, for whom? Although I’m pretty sure dad didn’t choose his words with all that context in mind, I do think that he, as was natural to his expressive and artistic nature, was trying to convey a certain feeling, an impression… What I’d felt in that moment was that he looked to the future – ours and his – as a happy, natural progression of things. That life, here or there, was a thing of beauty and wonder.

Driving through the almost surreal snowscape, I repeat dad’s words over and over to myself. When beautiful January comes… I think of all the things that a new year brings. I think about the beauty of winter, even in its starkness and cold. The possibility that awaits… I begin to give my father’s words all sorts of meanings, none perhaps intended, but all of them little insights nonetheless. We will begin our lives anew in this beautiful month, we will learn a new way to be on this earth. We will see new challenges, we will find new ways to meet them… We will see the world in a new way, we will consider things never before considered… Somehow, we will come to know that everything will all be ok. Somehow, someday soon, all this will come to be.

As I mull over all the possible interpretations of my father’s words, a memory comes to me. It was New Year’s day, many years ago. It was a gray and snowy day like it is now when I’d walked in the woods and heard the music. If I hadn’t experienced it for myself I never, ever would have believed it. But I heard it; the purest tone I’d ever known (Bells? no, voices? no, horns? no… A sine wave of some sort, yes, but what it was that created the sound was ever-undefinable). It was contrapuntal, perfect, gorgeous. And if I were to try and define it, given what I know of music, I’d say it was closest to Bach. I’d heard the music – from no fixed point that I could identify but rather from all points surrounding me – in the woods very close to, and perhaps on the very spot where my parent’s house is located today. Back then, the house was hardly a dream. I consider that it might possibly have been a real-world foreshadowing of sorts, pointing to the events that would one day take place there. I think of my father, and wonder if maybe, just maybe, I’d been standing on the very spot where he would die some thirty years later. Nothing to do but wonder…

Wonder is all I can take from my experiences. Hearing my father speak shortly before he passed, I truly do know and understand that when one departs from this existence, there is another experience awaiting us. I don’t begin to suggest that I understand what our roles become then, nor where it is that this place exists, or how it intersects with our known physical reality. I feel a bit like I’m going out on a limb here, because I know full well that not all my friends will agree with my thinking. Some might even write me off as being lost to reality. And I get that. I myself might have thought the same thing once upon a time. But just like hearing the otherwise unbelievable music as I did so many years ago, I have come to learn that there is a world that exists beyond our ability to measure and quantify. And while I still cannot know exactly what my father meant when he spoke those close-to-final enigmatic words, they inspire a tiny germ of hope that begins to grow inside…

Not much but time can offer me the solace I’d like to fully feel once again. But my dad himself has helped me just a little to move ahead into the life that awaits me with an open, expectant heart. Now that beautiful January has finally come.