I love maps. I can spend hours looking at a map, imagining the topography, envisioning the reality of being in those places, and trying to more fully grasp the relationship between here and there. Landmarks are, of course, essential to figuring out where you are – and how to get to your destination. These days I feel as if I’ve arrived at another one of my life’s landmarks, and the time has come to plot my next course.

In an ongoing effort to distract myself from the realities with which I now must live my life – an eye injury which challenges me daily, extra pounds which do not come off my frame as easily as they have in the past, and a clinging sense of sorrow that my best days may well be behind me – I am trying to keep moving. I am trying to keep busy.

Of course I continue to teach piano, and in spite of a recent heartbreaking setback, I am still looking for a musical partner. I run the Studio’s Airbnb. These things are routine and familiar parts of my life. But they have not been enough to keep my spirits from sinking. This, I can now see, is going to take some effort. And while I can honestly say that I’m not pining for my son, and while I deeply appreciate not having to make a full dinner every night and drive a twice-daily shuttle to and from school, I have to admit that I do miss him. The house lacks a certain energy now, it lacks a certain animation. My son challenged me, he taught me things and encouraged me to think more critically. I sorely miss our wonderful daily conversations. Somehow, for as much as I treasure being alone, it’s not feeling quite as blissful as I’d previously imagined it might.

When I look at my mother’s life as it is these days, it saddens me. I see the parallels between our lonesome lives, and it makes me sadder still. Mom lives by herself, and she doesn’t have the benefit of students and their families coming and going. Her world has grown smaller as her strength and mobility have diminished, and now her only companions are the wildlife she feeds outside her window, her television and her emotionally dysfunctional adult son who speaks very little and almost always leaves her guessing as to what’s on his mind. But even so, he is her son, he is the one who gives her a reason to keep daily rituals in place. She pays his bills, buys him food, makes him dinner, and often speaks about the goings-on at her place using the plural pronoun “we” – when in truth my brother is hardly her companion in the true sense of the word. Sure he fixes things around the house on occasion and he joins her most nights for a meal – but he is moody, unpredictable and often angry about something. Many days he utters not a single word to her. But he is her son, and somehow that is enough. Yeah. I get that part.

We’re all fond of saying that life is short, and that you must live life to the fullest because you never know… And of course this era of covid has brought that message to the fore of our collective mind, yet how often do we actively heed this way of thinking? How often do we challenge ourselves because we know tomorrow isn’t promised? Me, I’ve usually been the one to try shit out. I’m usually the one to take the dare, the one who’ll do the crazy stuff. On some level I have always felt like it was now or never. So I get it, and I’ve tried to live it. But I admit I’ve held back. Especially during my tenure as a single mom. I put a lot on hold, and justifiably so. But now that there’s space and time before me, I feel an urgency about getting back on the horse.

I can honestly say that there is some bone-deep, existential shift taking place inside of me these days. I’m thinking much more seriously about the stuff that I have always thought I might do “one day”. And my new awareness is born of two things: the deaths this past year of several peers (who were also dear friends), and the magic of reaching this certain age. I can’t consider myself middle-aged now. That’s not really accurate. Even if 50 is considered to be the new 40. Fuck that. OK, so maybe our current culture affords us a slight advantage – after all, do your remember how a woman in her 50s just a few decades ago seemed like a dried-up granny? That’s certainly not true now – but the possibility of dying still looms, undeniable and ever-present. Cancer is everywhere. Covid is real. And accidents happen. For me, these days, life feels like a roulette wheel. So I gotta get going.

A few days ago I saw a neighbor’s post on Facebook. She and her family – including two young boys – had climbed a mountain. She’d raved about the gorgeous view, and stated that it was not a difficult climb. The day that I saw the post it was midday and sunny. I had no students coming, no side jobs, no Airbnb turnover. My day was wide open. I did a quick search for the mountain, downloaded a trail app, and within minutes I was pulling on my hiking boots and filling a backpack. Inside of an hour I was at the trailhead (if I’d known ahead of time how long and narrow the wooded road to the mountain was, I might not have gone. I’m grateful to now know about these ancient carriage roads; they won’t put me off in the future). I was off to somewhat of a late start in the day, but I was comforted by the sight of a full parking lot when I arrived. I’d be safe, at the very least, if something should happen.

The ascent was a challenge, inasmuch as my heart was pounding so hard I began to wonder if it wasn’t actually dangerous, and I was virtually gasping in air through an open mouth for much of the upper part of the trail. When I reached the summit, I was drenched in sweat. But as anyone who’s climbed a wooded trail can attest – the sight of light from above and the expanse of rock that meets you when you reach the summit restores your body and your spirit as few other experiences can. I think this is why people get hooked. I think it’s why I climbed another mountain a day later. And, in spite of how horrible I feel when the ascent becomes almost torturous, it’s why I hope to climb again soon. Tomorrow, in fact, if all goes well.

Not too long ago I began taking a Tai Chi class. It’s an expense that some might find imprudent when my means are so modest, yet it’s something I feel that I have to do. I love moving. I love dance. I love working on balance. One day I hope to teach a dance class at the Y – but for now this is how my love of movement is going to manifest. I don’t know much about Tai Chi, but I can’t let that stop me. What I do know is that it feels good.

And speaking of getting back on the horse – that’s on my list too. I have a few friends who ride, one of whom, like me, is missing her daughter and companion, and so I hope to go riding with her. It’s been decades since I’ve been in a saddle, and I remember how sore it made me when I was young, so I have no illusions about how it’ll feel. It’s gonna hurt, I know. But how many things that are truly worth it don’t require some discomfort at the start? I can’t think too much about it. Yeah, things can go wrong. And you can get hit by a car crossing the road to check the mailbox. No reason not to try.

When I crewed on a sailboat in the Atlantic many years ago, I also decided to go without a whole lot of mental preparation. I mean, how can you prepare for open-ocean sailing when all you’ve ever known is sailing a dinghy on calm, summertime waters? It kinda amazes me now when I think back on it: the captain had emailed from a port and asked me to please bring some baking supplies with me, so my modest rolling suitcase contained huge zip lock bags of flour and sugar… No one in security so much as batted an eye (different times to say the least). I had in my pocket a scrap of paper with the name of the harbor where I was to find the boat. I did not understand a word of Portuguese, nor was I fully understanding the logistic challenges required to get from the airport to the tiny coastal town. But somehow, in a pre-cell phone world, I made it to the boat after two days of travel. And before I could quite comprehend the scope and nature of the adventure before me, land was long out of sight and I was taking our bearings and writing them down on a chart. In spite of my inexperience, I was soon piloting a large boat and plotting courses. I just had to go step by step. I knew close to nothing when I began, but I’d learned a lot when the trip was over. Through some pretty rough storms, torn foresails and stalled motors we’d made it to our various destinations.

Whenever I hesitate to try something new, I try to remember the boat. I recall how not overthinking was key. I also remember how important it was to know where we were – and to know where it was that we wanted to go next.

I know where I am. I know that my body is not what it was. I also know where my body will go if I live long enough. No one can evade the physical reality of aging, no matter how healthy they may be. So while I’m alive and able, I owe it to myself to get on the boat and go.

I owe it to myself to check the map, chart a simple course, and head for the waypoint.




Elihu’s Music on YouTube

Destiny, Manifest

There are those who believe you get what you believe you will get. It seems a bit too simple to be true, but sometimes I’m not so sure…

My son drew the picture that accompanies this post when he was six years old. We had moved here only a few months earlier, and had impetuously bought ourselves a handful of chicks at the local farm supply store with the thought “how hard can it be?”. My child had been through so much (as had I) when his father and I parted, and we were both in need of some light, some relief… Something to distract ourselves, to give us hope, to give us something to look forward to. Raising these tiny, adorable feathered creatures didn’t seem a stretch to us then – after all, we had lots of room, no neighbors close-by, and no one to tell us it wasn’t allowed. It was completely up to us. In bringing home those chicks on that April day in 2009, we embarked on an adventure that was of our own choosing. It was a vision that we shared – and one that we ultimately made real.

That was the day when our adventure began in earnest here at The Hillhouse.

A box of six tiny birds came home with us, and I believe them to have first lived in Elihu’s bedroom closet (truly I cannot remember, as we’ve raised hundreds of birds since that time). But that seems right. Soon thereafter they moved to the garage; that I do know and remember well. (Back then I had no idea how much waste these small creatures left behind, nor how their dander daily covered every nearby surface with a thin film of dust. One season in the garage left us with years of cleanup afterward.) Jump ahead on the timeline twelve years and we find ourselves true farmers, well-seasoned and experienced in the world of avian husbandry. From hatching to growing, treating and medicating ailments, finishing and even butchering. Over that time Elihu and I have raised not only many breeds of chickens (as well as our own custom hybrids hatched out right here in our living room) but we’ve also been a home to parakeets, parrots, pheasants, quail, geese, ducks and even homing pigeons (King Louis and his bride Lily were a delight; they’d accompany us in the air as we walked the property.) Suffice to say we’ve both learned a lot.

Shortly after we acquired our very first birds, Elihu drew a picture of a coop and a pen and twenty chickens. He told me that this is what he wished for. A proper coop with a proper run, and twenty birds. Without money to spare at that time, and only a handful of chicks, this seemed a highly idealistic dream that would likely never come to be. But within a year we graduated from garage-as-coop to a wooden shipping container which his father had brought us as a gift. Next, Elihu’s grandfather gave us an incubator, and so in late winter of the following year we stocked it with what we hoped were viable eggs. Turned out they were.

And then somehow a few years later I was able to commission the building of a proper coop, a right impressive structure that had the charm of a small cottage. And a few years after that I myself cobbled together a fenced-in enclosure with materials I’d either scavenged or been given. It wasn’t very pretty, but it did the job, and it seemed to bring a certain completion to the homestead.

One day, as I was looking out of the window at the pleasing site of coop, run and birds therein housed, it struck me. We had truly achieved the dream – the very thing before me looked exactly like Elihu’s drawing of years earlier (an image which had been affixed to the refrigerator ever since.) Even the gable of the roof – a design not terribly common to most chicken coops – it too was identical to the one in the picture he’d drawn!

That evening, when all the birds were nestled on their perches, I counted. We were up to exactly twenty. I counted twenty birds in the drawing. too. I noted the roof which Elihu had drawn, and the run to its right. Exactly as it was here, now, in real life. It was the exact same thing which Elihu had so dearly wished for all these years – even down to the same number of birds. But it hadn’t come on a lark, nor as a matter of luck, nor had it come overnight, certainly not, but rather it had been the product of a long-held vision, one which we two had shared and worked toward together. Yes, we’d hoped for this outcome on some level, but it had never been a specific plan.

The similarities between the drawing on the refrigerator and the sight outside my window had me a little stunned. Man, this kid was good.

Elihu has been fascinated with how things work since he was a toddler, and when he first saw creatures flying right before his eyes, he had to know more. It wasn’t a case of simply being enthusiastic; he was possessed by an all-consuming desire to capture the miracle and beauty of flight itself, and then to share it with the world. You could see it through his art, the books he read, the facts he collected, the birds he so lovingly tended, and then later in the craft of his own design which he built, and the videos which he painstakingly produced of those planes in flight. He has built hundreds of planes over the years: passive fliers, motored craft, wooden craft, paper craft. All of them can attribute their existence to our very first chickens.

Today my son’s love of flight continues. The world of aviation has provided him with adventures, educational scholarships, opportunities and new friendships. It’s all pretty remarkable. He’s gone from having a simple admiration of birds to choosing a field of study in college, one which will very likely provide an interesting career beyond.

A dream and a drawing made manifest. Who knows, maybe it’s all just part of his destiny.