The Hillhouse

The Journey of a Mother and Son

Lucky Eleven April 28, 2014

Eleven years ago this very minute I was standing in my bedroom in a mild state of confusion. Water was gushing out of me as if someone had turned on a faucet. Nearing two weeks past the due date in my pregnancy and this night truly unable to get comfortable, I’d only just fallen asleep minutes earlier. That night my husband and I had just finished a dinner of pasta and wine while watching The Producers before going to bed well after midnight, both of us figuring we’d be getting a good night’s sleep in before any action began. Wrong. Before long I was stuck in the middle of a searing, non-productive back labor at home, with no good end in sight. Some seventeen hours later, after giving it my best and ending up with blood spots all over the whites of my eyes from five hours of pushing to no avail, I was on Lake Shore Drive being driven through rush hour traffic to the hospital for an emergency C section. Nothing about my beloved son Elihu, from start to present, had been what I’d planned on. Including his gender. I was convinced I was having a girl. Wrong again. And so it was that my son was released from Chicago’s Lincoln Park Hospital as “Baby Boy Conant”, now over a decade ago.

And what an adventure has ensued… We love our little tradition of birthday parties here, from hatching out chicks to jamming in the basement (well, kind of) to silly string on the trampoline to poker-like pokemon action at the table to the ancient model T driving the neighbor kids back home. It all comes together one day in late April and nothing, not even a brief downpour, can dampen the joy of the day. (After all, our parties go to eleven.)

IMG_2206Some intense gaming at the top of the afternoon

IMG_2236then the action migrates downstairs to the music room for a bit… but still, kids are constantly on the move

IMG_2241they do stop long enough to try to get something together

IMG_2285let’s not forget the trampoline… it’s just getting going (pre-silly string, that is) Look who surprised us by coming! It’s the twins, Cora and Sophia! That absolutely made my kid’s day. And my mother just kept admiring all the red hair present.

IMG_2289Annabelle is daddy’s girl. That family’s a brainy, techie bunch.

IMG_2225our beloved Thumbs Up entertained everyone. She allowed herself to be picked up and set down anywhere. Here Sam and Eva get a good chicken-smoochin in.

IMG_2316And Miss Coco’s bringing the chicken back to the party

IMG_2296kinda fuzzy, but can you see? Babies and chickens in the kitchen. Fun!IMG_2210Recognized immediately by his Pokemon peers. Charizard. I think. ?

IMG_2248the closest we’re gonna get to having all twenty-something kids in one shot.

IMG_2303the little kids hear the frantic peeping coming from inside an egg in our incubator… this chick worked hard all afternoon

IMG_2325With mom watching over from the steps, our neighbors get ready to load up on Zac’s Doodlebug. Stephanie has three little ones to bundle up and get ready. Let me not forget our other neighbor mom Casey – she has three little ones too, only her oldest can do it pretty much all herself.

IMG_2332Loading up six little ones for a ride home

IMG_2335Good-bye! Thanks for coming!

IMG_2343Out of twenty-four eggs, this lil gal’s the only one to have hatched on her own so far….

IMG_2338This little one struggled valiantly for seven hours, and then I realized that like me, she too needed just a little help. We very carefully peeled her free of her shell and laid her there to dry and rest. A chicken C section!

IMG_2351The end of night selfie. Thanks everyone for coming to Elihu’s 11th birthday party!

A Happy Birthday Post Script: The little C section chick, although still a little scraggly-looking, is doing just fine in the brooder tank with her/his only other sibling. A third chick died mid-hatch, and no other eggs have shown signs of life. Such is the chance one takes when breeding your own chickens. 

 

Time Game April 24, 2014

For a few months now I’ve been toying with the idea of drawing up a timeline for my life. To make a visual representation of it, sort of like a roadmap from the known into the unknown. I’ve been, as regular readers may know, in sort of a sentimental funk recently, and having made a near-complete inventory of my life and its landmarks, as well as having become more familiar with those of my parents and their parents too, it seemed both a sensible and tangible way by which I might begin to better comprehend and really understand what my own finite life might look like. It might seem a strange project; trying to posit the year in which I might possibly die, maybe it might even sound a bit morbid to some. But I think not. I need to get a handle on this mortality thing by whatever means necessary.

I’m not a person who can simply tally things up in my mind with ease. I’m just not great with numbers. In math class, word problems had me wanting to chuck the book over my shoulder like the characters in a Peanuts cartoon, and if anyone ever asks me to count change back, it takes me a minute to wipe the glassy look from my eyes before I can get down to business. I’m hard-pressed to tell you how old I’ll be in thus-and-such year, because I was born in a ‘3’ year, which prevents sums from rounding to a tidy 5 or 10. (Yes, I could simply take away three or add seven – but this is precisely the kind of stuff that rattles me.) I do know that my son is 40 years younger than me (minus 9 days, but who’s counting?) so thankfully I always know where he and I stand with respect to each others ages. But exactly how old will I be in 2045? That just sounds so Jetsons-ahead that I cannot begin to comprehend it. It makes me think of my dear old father. How in hell must he have felt to hear that it was the year 2013? Dementia aside, anything past the year 2000 – even for middle-agers like me – always felt like some far-off futuristic land into which we would never enter in our lifetimes. Even though we knew that in all likelihood, we would. I don’t know about you, but ten mintues to midnight on New Year’s Eve, 1999, I still didn’t really believe where we were. (I had the honor of counting down the new year to a very high-brow and refined crowd at a tony downtown Chicago restaurant; the smattering of muffled applause at the event was a bit underwhelming after all the hoopla working up to it. Woo hoo.) So imagine a cat who was born in the 1920s finding his daughter informing him ‘Dad, it’s the year twothousand thirteen‘…. How crazy must that have sounded? How does a fellow who’s losing his memory deal with that unlikely-sounding date? Myself, I don’t want to be caught off guard. And so this morning I made myself a map.

At this point in our futuristic present, I suppose there’s probably an app for making such a timeline. (If there isn’t, you’re welcome.) And given the enormity of this world, I must remind myself that the chances are pretty great that something like it has been done before. (I remember thinking at dad’s ‘living wake’ how novel that was – but I didn’t kid myself to think we had been the only ones to do so. Anecdotal stories poured in shortly thereafter confirming my suspicion.) I made my timeline by parceling off a hundred and fifty years in five year increments, noting the births of my parents, my birth and my son’s, and then the death of my father. I made a bracket that spanned the eighty-five year lifetime of my dad, and then I took that eighty-five year measurement and used it as a measure for a possible projected lifetime for mom, Elihu and me. It was interesting to see actual dates to represent our potential years of death. Even though my mom is now seventy-nine and likeliest the first of we three to go (I still don’t actually believe my mother will ever die), I’ve still never found myself literally considering how much time she has left. And me, of course, why I’ve always just envisioned my own life trailing vaguely off into the murky and unseen future without ever really coming to any definite conclusion… (Because I too, in my heart of hearts, will never actually die, you see.) Ah, but even though I do in fact understand that I shall be dying one day, I’ve never stopped for even so much as a minute to envision how, where… or when. You can see the insight this exercise provides, right? Now I have number. A target to be mindful of. A bit arbitrary, sure, but much clearer than no idea at all. And my son? Well who in hell ever stops to ponder the time in which one’s own child might leave this earthly plane? Me, apparently. So, you may wonder, what is the data? What do those numbers show?

Well, if we were all to live as long as grandpa, then mom will die in 2021, I’ll die in 2048, and Elihu in 2088. Man, that last year just sounds off-the-hook wrong. Two-thousand eightyeight? That sure seems far-off. But aside from the shock of seeing that distant-seeming year in black and white, I am just a bit stunned at what I now see before me. Damn. Ok, so this may not seem groundbreaking or revelatory; I realize that I can easily just add 85 to anyone’s birthyear and arrive at the posited year of death, but to see it all in a linear form in front of you on paper is something completely different. At least for me. One thing that caught me a bit by surprise was how small the area was in which my father’s and my son’s lives intersected. Dad had this long, full life, but only a tiny portion was shared with his grandson (and to make it ever a bit more heartbreaking, Elihu hardly knew his grandfather as the elegant and eloquent man he once was). And if I pushed the timeline out a bit to encompass the births and deaths of my grandparents, what struck me then was how far apart our generations were. My grandmother had my dad when she was 45, I had Elihu at 40, so already you can see how wide the space becomes. Also, my son was born exactly one hundred years after my maternal grandmother; on both sides we’ve given wide berth between generations. To give it an even more surreal touch, my great-grandfather (dad’s maternal grandpa) served in the Civil War! He was young, 16 or so, when he as a drummer boy lead the troops into battle. (Obviously he came back safe and sound, because here I am.)

But for how much longer am I here? And once again the largest question of all comes to the surface: just what the hell is it that I am supposed to be doing while I’m here?

I’ve suffered with panic attacks since the age of fourteen, and can say that a contributing factor to panic is the sense of this world being too goddam and overwhelmingly big, and me, the experiencer of panic attacks, so goddam small and powerless within that big world. In large part panic attacks are about control – or more accurately, lack of control. It comes from being acutely aware of just how immense the world is, how limitless the options, how daunting the task of finding that one reason you’re here, that one thing that only you can do… My most difficult challenge in life has always been to truly feel that I’m ok at what I’m doing. That I’m not just existing for naught. Spinning my existential wheels, so to speak. I don’t have the tenacity or desire to be truly outstanding at anything, but at least I’d like to be comfortable just being here. I might not set any records, but I still want very much to feel like my tiny life added to the value of the planet. Having never paid much attention to the constant escape of time, I’m all of a sudden feeling a mild level of panic rising inside… is it too late? And if it is too late – for what exactly is it too late?

In my job at the Waldorf School I am blessed to have personal relationships with a great number of children, from first graders to twelfth graders. Having been there for two years now, I can begin to see how it is that children grow from teeny to teenager. I can now look at an eight year old and begin to guess what she’ll look and act like as an eighteen year old. Sitting at the piano looking out at the second grade class, I realize they’ll be freshmen in high school when my own son is a senior. These tiny babies will be lumbering, smelly, adult-sized humans by then. Truly unfathomable for me only a few years ago, before I came to know what it was to have a child of my own grow older, but now, today, I can begin to get it.To truly see it in my mind’s eye. Seeing the process up close like this fuels the fire and once again the nagging question burns; am I too late? What have I not done yet that I need to do before it’s no longer possible? Until only a few years ago, I had all the time in the world and nothing seemed impossible…but not so now. Now I know about things like arthritis and bad knees. The concerns of old people are becoming concerns of my very own, and it’s got me feeling the heat. Now I can finally hear the ticking of the clock…

At the time of this writing I have 2,050 subscribers. I look at the number and no longer think of two thousand and fifty people, instead I think: how old will I be in the year 2050? Now I know. I will be 87. If I make it. And if I do make it, what will I be doing with my life? Will I be doing good work on the planet, or merely existing? To have an end date in mind really does wake one up. It renews a sense of urgency where there was once nothing but exhaustion, frustration and run-of-the-mill complacency. I may still be a bit crabby about being here, I might still feel I have more on my emotional plate than I’m capable of successfully dealing with, but at least now I have a better idea for how much longer I might even have the opportunity to be such things at all. Maybe, with an ending in sight, I’ll find the resolve to get down to business. To write more thank-you cards, smile more at strangers, tell more people how much I appreciate them… And maybe I can find the courage to give myself a list of the things that I’d always thought I might do ‘one day’…. The days ahead may well be fewer than the ones behind. If that isn’t enough motivation to square away the proverbial bucket list, I don’t know what is.

To make life seem a bit easier and a little less daunting, I sometimes like to think of it as a game. You gotta play by a handful of rules, you get to use your natural talents when making your moves, and if you apply a little clever strategy you can accomplish things beyond the ordinary, expected outcomes. I’ve got a modest bag of skills to play with, but more importantly, I have an eye on the clock and I’m ready to play the second half. Ready, I suppose, as I’ll ever be. Yeah, guess it feels like game time now…

Post Script: It’s amazing how quickly my math skills have improved since I linked them to this little age experiment! With each handful of new subscribers I find myself easily computing my corresponding new ‘end age’. It’s motivating, for sure. I’m fairly sure I won’t make it this far (Elihu and I have agreed that 90 feels about right for me – but tell that to me when I’m 90) and at current readership, I’m now 96. Yikes. Goodbye dear world! I enjoyed the ride and learned a lot… hope to see you all again some new day….

 

 

Center April 20, 2014

IMG_8983

My beloved old home, my one-time center.

This past week I’ve spent dozens of hours going through old photographs and documents and projects and letters and recordings and videos and doodles and poems and journals and mementos and, well, stuff. So much stuff. Each single piece represents a project that was once upon a time the perfect center of my universe. A decade all about The Aluminum Group, two decades singing with my ex-husband, a few years of radio programs, a couple of years with this band or that, a short, intense relationship with any number of one-off deals; demos, sideman jobs, showcases… Each long-forgotten recording brings me back into a tiny universe unto itself, with its own cast of crazy characters, with its own sound, its own feel…

Here, in the country, in the middle of ten acres with chickens my only current companions, I can easily begin to feel as if my past lives were just as much a dream as last night’s. But they weren’t, and there is something inside that compels me to document it all, to acknowledge it, to remember it, maybe even to relive it. Thanks to Facebook I can share some of my re-discoveries, and that helps bring some resolution. But what of all this material? What to do with it? And at the end of the day, after I’ve re-visited much of my past life as a musician, why is it that I feel less like I know who I am – and not more of who I am? The problem is, I guess, that I feel I’m all of those people. The jazz singer, the accordion player in alt country bands, the hard rocker with the hair, the white R&B queen with the steps, the one with the vintage keyboards singing the middle harmony part… even the gal playing her dad’s harpsichord on a track here and there… And of course part of the problem too is that these days I do none of what it was that I used to. So naturally I feel its absence more acutely.

I guess what feels strange in looking back, and what also felt a little isolating even at the time, is that I belonged to so many different musical circles which seldom intersected. I remember always feeling a bit like an impostor in each world. And now, when I have no real musical identity but that of years past, I find myself searching through old boxes to rediscover who it is that I most miss being. Who do I most identify with – where was my musical home? It’s just not possible to answer. Also, a handful of my fellow musicians are gone now, and that leaves me feeling even more at sea. This has been a long week holed up in my basement, trying to organize and in some fashion catalogue all the ancient material. Man, why should anyone even care? I find myself wondering. But then again, why not? What if? What if one day… one day my son wonders what his mom did when she was his age. What if? I’ve only just discovered a wonderful cache of dvds of my father’s concerts here at the Studio… Having a window into that time is priceless and precious to me now. And so, with that sentiment still clinging to me, I put the endless boxes of tapes back onto the shelves to sort themselves out later. A girl can only do so much.

I find photographs too. And some of them have me crying. I just kill myself with what-ifs sometimes. I see a photograph that captured just perfectly the feeling of our old home in Evanston, and I miss it so much I post it on Facebook, hoping old friends might offer some comfort, some sense of familiarity, of family even. Of center. Problem is, in each memory I uncover, I remember how it felt when that was my center. Of course I can know where my home is now (and it finally feels it) but on this holiday weekend when everyone’s talking about new beginnings and happy Easter, happy Passover, happy Spring…. It doesn’t feel quite right. My father’s not here; our family is unbalanced. My brother is a mess, and who knows, maybe my mom misses my dad as much as I do now. So who, what or where becomes home? Where now is the center of my world?

I had some errands at the mall today. Usually malls make me panicky; the large, open spaces, the constant drumming of background noise, the energy of all those people… but today it made me sad. I saw old, overlooked people pushing cleaning carts, limping grandpas pushing walkers, lost and lonely-looking souls everywhere, just walking ahead, vacant gazes on their faces, just going, going, going…. but to where? And when they were done with their search for satisfaction, where to then? Home? What was for them, I wondered, watching these displaced loners, the center of their lives? Was it a cozy chair, a bedroom, a corner of the kitchen at home? Memories of loved ones now long-gone? Just how lonely and isolated were these people? Did their center exist years ago, never to return? Hell, did my center exist years ago, never to return?

My son’s been gone over a week, so maybe that’s helping me think like this. Maybe that’s partly it. I don’t know. But today I’ve been unusually wistful and everything – everything – seems to have a grinding poignancy about it. Everything from a seagull wheeling in the sky to an old man shuffling through the mall… all of it seems loose, free, ungrounded, without destination. Comfortless, centerless.

Maybe I’m also feeling this way because  tomorrow a local chamber music group is holding a concert of Bach in dad’s memory. Mom and I are going. Andrew, being rather a wild card, is not. It feels sad that mom didn’t feel it ‘safe’ to include him. But I can agree. So there the center erodes even further. And one day my mother will follow my father, my brother will be lost to me in his illness, and my son will move away as children are supposed to. Then what? What defines me then? Where will my center be then? I can’t seem to get any true and clear vision for the future, and my past can’t stop reminding me that I’ve left it behind. My dad is gone, my husband long gone, and my family as I’d always thought it would be is gone as well.  But photos and recordings remain. Maybe that’s why I can’t let em go. As much as they might seem at times too weighty an anchor to keep around, when I do have the time to investigate them for a moment or two, re-discovering these tiny treasures restores my hope. So I guess I’ll hold on to them a little longer, because it seems the evidence of my past might just become the centerpoint from which I move into my future.

 

Twin Bumps April 15, 2014

I have never been a fan of the expression ‘baby bump’. I don’t quite know when it became commonplace in our pop culture, but all of a sudden, it seemed to be everywhere. I’d thought it would pass, but no. All of a sudden, bumps of all kinds began to appear in rags all types. Something of a snob when it comes to certain word use, I myself had no plans to use the word ‘bump’ for anything other than describing a flaw in the pavement, but eventually I succumbed. It just seemed the perfect term for whatever it was that both Elihu and I came to have on the very same spot on our noses one week in August of 2008. The month in which our twin bumps were born.

IMG_1795Not sure if they’re evident here. We each have a spot on the right side of our nose, about level with the tip. His is clear (the same way in which mine started out) but mine has gotten a bit out of control. It’s large, bright red and may even have its own postal code by now.

Feb 2013 nose eggs dad 075 Here’s Elihu’s bump sometime last year.

Feb 2013 nose eggs dad 061Here’s mine – I can definitely see it. (Man, I can also see the weight loss of last year. Sheesh. Gotta start that all over again. A great disappointment. But I digress…)

Feb 2013 nose eggs dad 020We found two eggs with bumps too!

Feb 2013 nose eggs dad 042We kinda match up!

IMG_1797Just makin sure you know where they are.

Ok, I wouldn’ta made a big deal of this – as in looking up a local dermatologist and paying out-of-pocket to have the thing removed – only I kept nicking it and it would bleed a bunch, and then heal just a tad bigger than it’d been before. And I saw it all the time, right there, in my range of view, and it was becoming very annoying. Plus it was taking on a decidedly witchyesque sort of vibe. And in the end, it was the frank and uncensored comment made about it by a fifth grader that made the decision for me. Without a moment’s hesitation I picked up the phone and made an appointment to have it removed. I’d threatened to do so in the past, but Elihu was strangely sentimental about it and always asked that I not.

The back story on our bumps – take from it what you will – is kinda interesting I think. When I tell the story in front of my mother she likes to ‘ooooh’ and ‘aaahhh’ as if poking fun at its implication. Hey, all I know is this: in August of 2008, a couple of weeks before we planned to move to New York, I was giving my then five-year old son a bath and I noticed a new, translucent spot on his nose that hadn’t been there before. No big deal – gave it not a second thought. Not until a little later that week, as I examined my face in the mirror after a shower, I too noticed a small, translucent bump on the very same spot. ?? I immediately went to look at him again – and felt a small shock when I saw it again. We had identical bumps – in the very same place! I shrugged it off, but I can admit that deep down I wanted to believe it was some sort of physical manifestation of the bonding that was going on between us. Even at that time in our lives his father wasn’t around too often, and Elihu and I spent a good 90% of our lives just we two. So the bumps felt like a tiny physical reminder of our deep connection. Not like matching tattoos or anything, but the evidence was there for anyone to see.

During the time of our new ‘twin bumps’ I was experiencing the most frightening conclusion to the strange year that had come before. My husband was making plans with his girlfriend and their newborn son; now it was my turn to step up and be proactive on behalf of myself and my son’s future. The following week Elihu and I fled Illinois, never to return. Bonded in a new life to be sure. Of course then I had no idea how the future would turn out, but five years later I have a million reasons to be grateful for our second chance. Not the least of which is getting this crazy thing off my face! Neither Elihu nor I are the least bit sentimental about it any more – and mine has become a nuisance. Sheesh. We’re bonded already… now can we get this silly thing off of my nose?

mid April 2014 576So poor Bruce, the guy doing the procedure – he had to endure my ceaseless chatter the whole time. I hate things like this. Much rather watch a surgery on myself (done that) or see my wisdom teeth come out (that too), but this needles-and-electrodes-in-your-face thing just kinda freaked me out. He was kind and gave me a topical which he says he doesn’t usually do first. But I guess he acquiesces for wimps like me.

mid April 2014 578Not digging the preliminary topical shot. But I appreciate it for sure.

mid April 2014 587

Now he’s doing the cauterizing, which as I understand it is done by electricity. ? Medical folks, please correct me if I’m starting rumors here. You can smell your flesh burning. Kinda crazy.

mid April 2014 579Ah,  Bruce’s done. Phew. I can’t believe how worked up I got – I’m covered in sweat! Took less than three minutes. And thanks Lesley, for taking the pictures! Very sweet of both of you to put up with me. Yack, yack, yack.

bump gone 2014 002Here I am a few hours later. Some scabbing at the site (he zapped a second, budding young bump as well – 2fer Tuesday!), so I’m off to a good start. I no longer see a large red sphere out of the corner of my eye which makes me quite happy. Yeah, I’m a grateful gal. Whew! Glad to have this chapter concluded.

 

Prime April 13, 2014

Being the mother of a young child – and especially so as a single mother – means living life in an almost constant state of ‘game-on’. Daily your child is learning and doing things for the very first time ever, so your main task is one of great finesse; you want to teach your child in such a way that they get it – plus you want to make sure they feel inspired and encouraged and can build on what they’ve learned without your help. Sometimes this task requires great restraint (especially with an admitted control freak like me). Parents on a schedule will agree it’s often easier just to do something yourself than to wait around for your kid to get it and then do it himself. Thankfully, most times when I feel the urge to step in, I hold myself back and allow Elihu to figure it out himself. These days especially. He’s reaching this new age now – and together we’re discovering some unknown territory that has us both in an active, ongoing conversation about how best to strike a balance. He desperately wants to do more, and I really want to empower him to do so. There are also emerging issues of modesty and sexual awareness. I have learned to give him privacy, yet step in when I’m needed. We’re in a strange in-between sort of place these days; one minute he wants to be alone and needs no help, soon after I hear him calling “Mommy!”… I admit that I probably step into his world more than I ought to because of his vision issues. I still don’t quite know what he sees well and what he doesn’t, so I admit that I might be more in his face sometimes than I should be. It’s also a challenge for me sometimes to keep my dramatic, passive-aggressive, oh-I’ll-just-do-it-myself expulsions of air and eye-rolling to an absolute minimum; my kid is doing his best and I need to support him. I remind myself often that I’m giving him all the tools I so wish I myself had had when I was young. I want to empower him to be independent and capable. To be the best he can be.

The new surge of capability and independence I’m seeing now in my son has me thinking about myself a bit differently. I’m seeing him grow, and can now begin to envision him as an older kid – I can see him as a high schooler, maybe even a young man leaving home. A short time ago I couldn’t have begun to see it, but now I can. And that, somehow, has changed how I project my own image into the future. I guess you could say my son’s helping remind me of my mortality. It’s easy to forget such things when you’ve got a tiny child and you spend your life nose to the ground, making sure you never leave the house without a bag of goldfish, a matchbox car and a sippy cup… But as life moves on and your child gets older, your vision lifts again, and you make your first scan of the horizon in quite a while. And in the time you’ve been gone, you discover some things have changed. I realize my son hasn’t been truly tiny for a few years, but it only seems that now I’m beginning to lift my gaze to the world beyond and the future yet ahead of me…

I suppose a sort of shift took place recently when my father died; if my age itself hadn’t convinced me I was middle-aged, his death did. And while I’ve certainly wrestled with issues of vanity over the past couple of years more than I’d thought I ever would, I thought I’d been handling it alright. Until lately, as in the past week in particular, during which things have been hitting me harder than usual. I readily cop to having spent several valuable hours of my life over the past few years agonizing over ‘then and now’ pics of friends and celebrities, yet through it all I’d felt some queer sort of distance from the process of aging. But now that false sense of immunity is beginning to crumble, and it’s got me wondering how I’ll make it all work. Yesterday, while plucking my eyebrows (in the car’s rear view mirror as that’s the only place with enough light to do a proper job of it with my middle-aged eyes), I saw my image in the mirror as if I were a stranger. I no longer looked with the familiar, forgiving awareness that this was me, that this was normal, that this image was the same one I’d seen looking back at me for decades… In one instant, I saw a complete stranger. I saw an older woman. It was a mere flash of insight, but it jarred me. It passed almost instantly too; perhaps an on board self-preservation instinct or something, I don’t know, but a second later my image seemed to return to a more normal state. Nothing had changed. And yet… everything had changed.

My mom’s been going to Weight Watchers for months now, she started even before dad died. She’s succeeded in losing some thirty-plus pounds and is for the first time in many years, skinnier than me. By a lot. At first I thought she’d been losing the weight in order to have her knee replaced, but it appears it’s not a current goal. I can understand her wanting to maintain her new weight (unlike her daughter who promptly blew her successful weight loss with one season of home-baked pies and bread), but she seems so vigilant, and I can’t help but wonder – why? What is the end goal of all this dieting? I suppose that’s not really a fair question. Who enjoys carrying around an extra thirty pounds? I know it’s got me puffing and cussing under my breath… But sometimes I think that maybe I still have a shot at dating, meeting someone, maybe again one day. And for me, vanity is the driving force for diets and weight loss (call me shallow, I accept; I just don’t feel good enough in my current state to even consider anything resembling a romantic relationship). Could some form of vanity also be a motivator for my mother, a woman who we can probably assume won’t be dating again in her lifetime? This has me pondering the power and makeup of self-image, of what makes a person feel they are looking the very best that they can, and how important (or not) it is in the overall scheme of things. It seems that the concern never really ends.

Vain though I may be, I find mobility and flexibility are probably most important things to maintain as one grows older. What has me scared is that I see these things already eroding in my own body lately. In chatting with folks about when they began to feel a marked difference in their bodies, I’ve heard a few cite the window of 46 – 50, while others (my mother in this group) felt a noticeable decline in their abilities towards their late 50s. Some folks just experience a barely perceptible decline which never quite slows em down all that much. Hell, either way, it’s coming. I wish I felt more empowered to do something. Instead I feel like a deer standing in the middle of the goddam road. I feel so zapped by life’s commitments that I have no oomph left to shape up. And I remember when I worked out six days a week… I remember a 10K in Bermuda that had me going up and down the steepest grades in tropical humidity… I remember when riding my bike to downtown Chicago was nothin but a thing, when I loaded and unloaded hundreds of pounds of gear in and out of my trunk all day, from rehearsal to show and home again… No one helped me, nothing hurt, and I didn’t think twice about my abilities. But now… Seriously, isn’t this shit the stuff that’s supposed to happen to everyone else but you? Well, me, I’ve always been vain enough to think so.

Because of her months-long deprivation, recently my mom’s been craving a good, rare piece of red meat. Planned for weeks now, Elihu, mom and I finally went to Cliff’s on Saturday – the local joint known for its steak. I myself hadn’t had beef in a long time and I enjoyed every last bite of my gorgeous (and rare) filet mignon. (Mom was so jonesin for rare/raw meat she first asked if they had steak tartare. This is a hometown steak joint in the US of A. Mom’s disappointing but predictable answer was ‘no’.) When we first walked in I saw two enormous chunks of meat on a table and had to stop to inquire as to the type of cut they were. “Prime rib” they answered, “the twelve-inch”. I’d never before seen such a thick cut of prime rib, and there were two thicker cuts yet available. The slices were nearly the diameter of the plates and stood an inch and a half tall. Prime for sure. It had me considering the true meaning of the word. Just a few days ago I was discussing the definition with my son, and even more recently one of his classmates and I had used the word… Yeah, the word ‘prime’ was kinda loaded for me right now.

Elihu and his fifth grade class had gone this past week to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. Thanks to some schedule-shuffling and calling in of small favors, I was able to go along too. Can’t begin to express how needed such a trip was; it was soul-restoring. The first faint image of the distant skyline, the great chunks of graffiti-covered rock that grow up on either side of the expressway, the first blocks of relentlessly unending brick apartment buildings – all of it finally giving way to the glorious and elegant upper East Side, with its mature elm trees and bustling streets… It’s been a while since I’d seen humanity like that. Not even Chicago comes close. Nay, there is not a city in the world like it. I imagined my parents, some sixty years ago, the beginning of their courtship here, their first jobs as young adults, here. I remembered too my ex-husband and our many cherished moments in the city, I remembered performing here, eating here, exploring here… To think of it all makes me feel young, invigorated. For just a brief moment, I feel anything is possible. For the electric kind of hope I’m feeling inside my chest, it’s just as if it were thirty years ago, and everything is yet before me…

In the lobby our docent stopped in front of a large, Egyptian sculpture of a seated pharaoh. Shirtless and buff, she meant to use him as an example… “What age does this man appear to be?” she asked the group. There were varying answers – from seventeen to twenty-nine (a reflection of our modern, expanded idea of what constitutes youth and its vigorous appearance). While depicted as a young man, this king lived to be quite old. “Why did he have a statue made of him like this? Do you think he should have had one made of him as an old man?” she baited the kids. “NO!” they all screamed, and the adults all smiled knowingly at each other. “He’s in his prime” I leaned in and said to Ben. “Yeah, I know.” he answered. “And you’re past yours!” he added, perhaps a bit too loudly and while smiling with great enthusiasm. It didn’t hurt, it didn’t zap me, but I did feel something. That little tug that I keep trying to push away. Ben is a bright kid, and not insensitive, but I didn’t expect an apology, so I was surprised when he turned back to me and leaned in close, saying “No offense” with great sincerity. I assured him none was taken. Call it a defensive response if you like – but my mind drifted to all the ways in which I had become such a better person since those days of my heavy lifting. Really, I had so much more together. I pondered how I might relay this insight to my son’s classmate, but in the chaos of the echoey Great Hall there was really no point. He’d know it for himself one day.

The other morning, as Elihu and I lay in bed talking about everything from incubating eggs to making delta wings, we struck upon the idea of growing up, and growing old. I told him about my experience with Ben. He was quiet for a moment. “It’s just not fair”, he said. “What’s not?” I asked. “That you have one thing but not another. That you’re either young or you’re old. Why can’t you have it all at the same time?” “I guess that’s just God’s way of keeping it all even.” We lay there, looking up at the origami cranes hanging from his ceiling. “I guess.”

I get a kick out of asking kids what age they think they’d like to be. Which age seems to have it all. It’s fascinating to me the times that we choose to round our ages up or down. In the beginning it’s all about the weeks. Then the months. And then, something happens… Young children can’t wait to be one year older…. it’s always about the older kids, their freedoms, their abilities… and then… What the hell happens? It does seem that kids these days are pretty realistic at least when it comes to matters of age. What then is the ‘perfect’ age? My very casual observations is that elementary school kids seem to think it’ll be in their mid twenties. Yeah, I can get that. Certainly a more realistic answer than ‘seventeen’. But what of the behaviors and emotional maturity of a twenty-something? I read some of my writing from those days and I want to hide under a rock. How self-absorbed and ridiculous. Ok, so maybe I’m still fairly self-absorbed and only just a bit less ridiculous, but the blog doesn’t make me want to cringe the way my twenty-something journals do. So when I take in the whole mix of all the elements in my life, I guess I can feel ok about it. Not great, but better when I think of my personal progress. I’m definitely a more insightful human than I was a couple of decades ago.

It might sound like sour grapes here. Yeah, maybe in part it is. I would by lying if I said I was good with this aging thing. I’ll figure out how to adapt as we all must, but I’ll probably always think of myself as a thirty-five year old woman in my heart. And the next time I hear someone say that ‘age is nothing but a number’ I might just tell em that’s bullshit. But hey, what can I do? Gotta retain a little dignity here. I’ll go along with the program and consider myself lucky to have the opportunity to grow older. After all, we can agree that a truly outstanding cut of beef must be properly aged before it can reach its prime.

 

 

Golden Touch April 7, 2014

We’ve been crazy-busy lately, but in spite of that, we both have enjoyed something of a golden touch this past week, starting, of course, with Elihu’s wonderful performances as King Midas in his class’s annual play. (Many times he made sure I knew its true title was The Masque of Midas, with a ‘q’ and not a k.) I cannot relate to you how robust a performance he gave, how clear were his lines, how his understanding of their meaning (in spite of the flowery, archaic language) translated so easily through his speech and gesture… His voice was as crisp, bold and commanding as was his character; his body moved so much like royalty too… I personally loved the part where he admits the fickle nature of humans, and concedes how quickly we forget the small miracles of the everyday. As he eats a grape (which previously his spell prevented him from tasting) he admits that in spite of the lesson he’s learned through having – and then losing – his golden touch, even now the precious fruit was losing its ‘ambrosial taste’. And beyond that, Midas expected that in very little time he would revert to his old ways and completely forget the lessons he had only just learned… I loved the way Midas – and Elihu too, in his understanding and appreciation for the meaning of his lines – had the clarity to recognize that through his human ways he would likely in the end lose the ability to recognize the true value in the everyday. This was a kid who got it, and who conveyed it. The whole cast was wonderful, and many children were able to play their instruments in the production, everyone of the children sang beautifully, and a handful of them enjoyed playing some very animated and funny scenes. The play was a beautiful ensemble piece that will live long in the memories of these children, their beloved teacher, and all their proud friends and family who were there to share in the experience.

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Please forgive – or overlook – the donkey ears. They come out at the end, and we forgot to stash em for the photos.

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A fitting instrument for the king to play, I think.

Things weren’t entirely golden at the start, but we persevered, looking for that unanticipated golden ending… Had a coupla goodnews/badnews scenes of our own play out this past week. Elihu’s bass broke. I went to tune it for one of his plays, and the strings just weren’t responding. I took a closer look at the tuners, and glad my attention was there, for I saw the giant headstock just fall over forward. I caught it, thankfully, so no more damage was done. And the break itself wasn’t a clean one. Worth a look-see at the shop, but deep-down I kinda knew Elihu’s days with this instrument were over. Sad, I thought. My father had seen him first play on it. He’d learned a lot on it – we’d enjoyed making some good music together with it. But then I caught myself, and reminded myself not to get too sentimental. There will be many basses yet to come as he grows. This is a rental, and only a quarter size at that. But still. It was his first. We prepared for a good month without an instrument when good old Ed called from the shop and told us he had a new one in for us. Huh? Really? That only took like a day! Here’s the good news/bad news part. The endpin just wouldn’t come out. Had to be pounded back in when we did finally pull it out with some pliers. Nope. Wouldn’t cut it. Besides, the action felt bad, and I think it sounded like a box. We really had lucked out with that first instrument. (Glad we took down the maker’s name… may try finding him again.) This generic rental was made in Romania, and while we’re pretty sure some fine polkas likely come from this country, this instrument itself was sure not serving as the country’s best calling card. Elihu saw far more promise in his new discovery of a Bajnolele as we awaited the fate of this new rental… Last visit he had his first sit-down with a mandolin, and now this…. Perhaps his problems with these basses was helping to open doors to new adventures… Elihu’s eleventh birthday is in three weeks… He may have another instrument (or two) in his bag of tricks by then…

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Ed ascertains that there’ll be no easy fix here. Time for a new rental. Too bad, this one sounded and played great.

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So in the meantime, Elihu picks up a mandolin. Hey, they’re strung just like violins. Hey, Elihu can play a violin…


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Ed really helped us by getting a new rental in ASAP, only the silly end pin’s stuck. That’s ok, the thing sounded like a box anyhow. Hope the next one sounds and feels better than this. He’ll use his upright electric tomorrow in orchestra – that’ll be kind of a new adventure. Make him a rock star at school, too.!

IMG_1432While Ed tried to work on the bass, Elihu discovered a Banjolele – and now it’s Mama who knows the tuning here and can show lil man a couple tricks. Wow, this thing is fun! Hmm… this might be a lot of fun to add to the collection….

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The culture of fifth grade boys: a renaissance of Pokemon

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Thankfully jamming holds some solid interest. Drums, Wurlitzer, Melodica and Clarinet. !!

Yes, we’ve had some golden moments in the past few days; the class play, the trying out of a couple new instruments (and getting along with em just fine), a couple of long play dates with his two buddies, one of which was outdoors in the new warmth of Spring (and which also included some making of music, video gaming, Pokemon trading, trampoline hopping, woods exploring, plane flying and chicken chasing). Then there was the day we’d waited for for a long time now. We went to visit an old family member. We went to see (with our breath held and hopes not too high) our beloved goose Maximus in his new home. We’ve been told he’d keen on a certain gal, and that he’s found his place in the large flock. That we even saw him at all was a bit of a surprise to us. We’d come expecting the worst – we’d thought he’d likely be deeply embedded in his flock, that he’d turn and run the other way, aloof, wild, anything but how we’d once known him. Thankfully, he was close by when we arrived, and in spite of Elihu’s advances and Max’s slight protests, in very short order Max had allowed Elihu to pick him up. How our hearts warmed! And I got to hold my beloved Max’s sweet head in my hands and kiss his cheeks and head as I had always done. I swear that bird recognized us in his heart. I swear he knew it was us. That we were there – not just any crazy humans trying to pick him up and smooch him – but us, his first family. Elihu spent some alone time with Max, talking to him. Saying things I didn’t need to ask him about – as they were between a boy and his bird.

The folks who took Max in have taken other sad creatures in to live with them. They’re angels who are giving a handful of God’s creatures a better experience on this planet. Good people, good work they do. And we’re eternally grateful that they were able to give our Max a wonderful, full-goose life here on their side of the mountain. My goodness, they even have a pond! Heaven on earth! I think of that tiny pond I’d made here last summer – and remember Maximus doing his ‘up tails all’ move in that tiny triangle of water… Such joy he radiated, and yet in such tiny confines. Can you imagine the goose-joy he’ll feel when finally in a real pond for the very first time? We hope that we can be there to witness it… we hear that when they pull that winter fencing back and open the pond to all the critters of the farm for the first time each Spring – it’s a BIG deal  – an event of sorts. The birds all know and wait at the edge…. Like patrons at a concert waiting to stake out their spot on the lawn… The geese all hang about, nearly frantic to get on that glorious water… The fence goes back and the geese go forth…. A golden moment for sure.

 

IMG_1434Now it’s off to visit Maximus in his new home

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Elihu spotted him right away.

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And had him in his arms just about within seconds.

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After an ‘enforced’ smooching (I got to kiss him too), Max regards us from a distance.

Probably the very most important thing we did this weekend was to stock our incubator. These twenty-four eggs are worth their weight in gold to us… Each year we put them in the machine such that they’ll hatch out the day of Elihu’s birthday party. I can hardly believe it, but this will be our fifth year doing it. It has truly become a tradition on his birthday. What a lovely way to remember his childhood birthdays, too… We were given eggs from our friends at Elihu Farm (I know, right?) and also from Max’s new family. We added some of our own, and between all three sources hope for a good hatch out in twenty-one days. Ya never know. The sound of the small, table-top incubator clicking along, day and night is for us a sound of Spring. From within those tiny machine noises comes a certain kind of hope, of excitement for the future. It gives us a refreshed sense of happiness and possibility…. So much potential, so much unknown…. such a metaphor for life itself.

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Mary Pratt of Elihu Farm. She kindly gave us some (hopefully) fertile eggs to raise up a new flock.

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 Here they are today going into the incubator. They’ll hatch in 21 days.

Ah, such a hopeful time of year. Snow still lingers, but each day there’s less and less of the stuff. Just today Elihu and I both heard some Redwing blackbirds (haven’t seen one yet – that will have me pulling over to the side of the road for sure). This morning the air was absolutely filled with the sounds of nearly a dozen new arrivals – all of whom were heard for the first time today! It’s as if some threshold has been crossed now. How do they do it? we shake our heads in wonder each year, but more unimaginable still is that they all seem to arrive at once. We don’t even try to understand. In this world of 24/7 illumination and patches of untouched nature so few and far between, it breaks our hearts to attempt to comprehend their task. So all we can do is revel in their return and let them know how much we love them, how glad we are to see them. “They really are like family, aren’t they?” Elihu asks me each year as we lean on our elbows and watch the visitors on our platform feeder. “Yes, they are”, I always answer.

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Elihu has loved and consulted his audio bird books for half his life now. They come out again this time of year.

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One of our many daily visitors

IMG_1399My mother hates these sneaky cowbirds, but hey, they can’t help how they’re engineered….

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 The most precious gold of all in our world is the brand-new Spring plumage on our little goldfinch friends…

 

Bothering To April 1, 2014

“Ask yourself this,” Elihu suggested as he paused at his breakfast, “What wonderful thing or possible surprise am I excited about having happen today?” I let a moment go by as I took in his words, and then let him continue, “Just imagine for a minute, what things might happen today? Will there be surprises for you in your day? Things you couldn’t have expected?” He stopped talking for emphasis and let some silence pass. “I mean, if you don’t think so….” He shrugged his shoulders and raised his hands in the air,”Then why even bother?”

We were having one of our existential conversations at sunrise which had come about as a result of my morning mood. I was unusually tired upon waking and so was a fair bit grouchier than usual. Most times when I’m feeling a bit like pouting I keep the darker stuff to myself – or at least under my breath. Today I was shuffling around the kitchen talking to myself at full volume and just radiating doom and gloom over a day hardly yet begun. I felt put-upon, I felt alone in my plight, without peer to share my load, misunderstood and underappreciated. I was singing the self-sorry single mom song, and God bless that young boy, he took a moment to turn things around and rope me in. He repeated his coaching, “Really, Mommy, I mean it. Ask yourself this: Might some amazing things happen today? Think this way. Otherwise, seriously, why bother?”

I know he’s right. I also know that some days I am just plain out of steam, out of inspiration, out of reasons – other than that GD to-do list that never stops – to do things, to keep on going. Don’t get me wrong, this isn’t a passive-aggressive cry for help, this is not code for planned suicide – nothing so dire as any of that. It’s just life-business as usual. Chef, cleanup crew, administrator, counselor, taxi driver, instrument mover, musician, worker bee… all of it. Sometimes it’s just too fucking much. So sometimes it’s a wise question to ask myself: might amazing, surprising, unexpected things happen to me today? I have to believe they will, otherwise….

So what does keep me keeping on? I wonder that myself, the introspection inspired by this morning’s ministry… I suppose, at the end of the day, I might say that I do things for my son. I do things that I might make his life less stressful, more joyful. I also live because if I didn’t, it would break my mother’s heart. And yeah, it would break Elihu’s heart too. And honestly, aside from just sticking around for the sake of my mother and my son – I can’t just check out. I’ve got work to do here. I’m pretty sure of it. (Not entirely convinced, but fairly sure.) I have my father’s legacy to continue, I have love and compassion to contribute to the world through this vehicle of the Studio, and through teaching and playing…  Yeah, I guess. It’s just that there’s so much crap to slog through first… “Ya think I’d be happier (read here ‘less bitchy’) if I knew I was going to work at the Studio all day – doing things I really loved?” I’d innocently asked my son. “Oh yes” he answered most emphatically without missing a beat. “You’re going to be doing the things you love the very best. So of course.” No sooner had I asked the question I was feeling some shame over having even said it out loud: because not only do I really love my current job and appreciate it daily, but I realize it’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. I see my son each day, I’m around all those wonderful children, I get to play a variety of music which I enjoy, I learn new things daily. The very school itself is like a large family. It’s a joy to have it as a destination every day. So why the mood? The questions? The doubting?

It’s just that this school has become such a committment of time – both there and at home learning new music – that I haven’t any time at all to build this new dream of the Studio. Makes me wonder what my plan is. Or if I’ll ever get to that next chapter. But when I pull back and relax a bit into the moment, I can understand that even this very day – the chapter I’m living here and now – that this in of itself is important in the evolution of the subsequent one. Each builds upon the other. My son will be in this school for three more years (and then four more in the high school). These are the Waldorf years. I may as well just hunker down, learn all I can and savor the moments, because all too soon I’ll be looking back at it in nostalgia the way I do to my younger years as a musician in Chicago. I have to remember that each era has had its own time and place and its own gifts; each era of my life has served its own unique purpose.

So for now my time and place is here. It’ll shift again one day too, as everything shifts. And as I sit and watch my son’s fifth grade class rehearse their class play, I can feel the supreme loveliness of this window in time. The children still seem small to me; the boys still with voices to match the girls. Their limbs are all long and thin, and all of them are still shorter than me. But one look into the sixth grade class (which, as an added metaphor for leaving their youth, move into a downstairs classroom for the first time) will tell you how much will soon be changing. The sixth graders seem so different, so much older, bigger… Such a different sort of tension too between the boys and the girls. The qualities that these fifth graders yet possess become exquisite, precious; something to be savored, and remembered for always. While the truly tiny years – those of the tooth fairy and Santa – may be behind us now, somehow these children are still our babies. So there’s no doubt, I am savoring this precious time for sure.

It’s just the logistics of life, I suppose, that have me in a bit of a funk. Just plain living takes so much work. But when I stop to realize that I have a child wise enough to be so contemplative about things, a child who daily expresses his love for me, who sees the beauty in nature, who lives as gratefully and thoughtfully as he does – then I remember. Then I get it. This is why I put up with all that other crap. Because joy and hope live in my son, and with the right sort of thinking, joy and hope can live in me too. Thank goodness the kid takes the time to remind me. ! Ok. So the dishes still won’t wash themselves, but somehow, things look a little bit brighter now. Because at the very least, now I think I know why I’m bothering.