The Birth of Death

The Birth of Death

Although I find the expression “passed away” a weak and distasteful euphemism for the term “died”, I admit that I myself have used it many times, when deep down I’d much rather have not. Hard to say whether I acquiesced for the comfort of my audience, or because on some level I’m a coward and lack the integrity to put my money where my mouth is.

This needs to stop.

I am so weary of the ways in which this current, first-world culture regards death. I am weary of the way in which we neglect the subject. I am weary of the trepidation with which most of us approach death. It drives me nuts. No, I take that back. It doesn’t just drive me nuts. You know what? It makes me angry. Seriously.

Here is the point at which I must express myself through a mild rant….

Do we not all understand how cemeteries pollute the air and waste people’s time with all that goddam lawn-mowing and weed-whacking? Do we not understand how embalming is horrible for the environment, and how it will not keep your loved one ‘as is’ unto eternity? And why do we just assume once a loved one is dead, that their body must be immediately whisked away from the premises, as if it was now a loathsome thing to be avoided?

You’d be surprised how many things around the experience of death are either taken for granted or are never even questioned in the first place.

Funny how you plan the shit out of everything in your life, yet when a family member dies, you’re all of a sudden thrust into the middle of an administrative vortex, making decisions with no prior information – and no bargaining power whatsoever. Death deserves as much planning as anything else. After all – this could well be one of the biggest ticket items of your life.

Depends on whether or not you’ve made some plans.

Once, while I was sick and confined to my bed for a few days, I set out on a little research project. I’d long had a list of unanswered questions which I could never justify carving out the time necessary to address. This was at the top of the list: Is it legal to be buried on your own property? There simply wasn’t enough online information at the time, so I found a couple of funeral directors and got them on the phone. I called different states, too. And I took notes. The consensus was “yes”.

When my boy was about eight years old, we’d had a conversation about death and where the bodies of dead people go. He’d accompanied me many times to the town cemetery on the hill, following along as I meandered through the headstones, matching up family members and imagining aloud the details of life back then. He’d understood that these were people just like the two of us, whose homes had been right here in Greenfield. He’d understood the concept of once-living people now lying in repose under the sod. And, as we’d seen a whole lot of dead animals at various levels of decomposition on the side of the road or even in our chicken run, none of this death talk was inherently unfamiliar to my son. In fact, I think it was precisely because he’d grown up like this – with a mom like me, and on a farm where creatures often die without warning – that he came to have his own feelings about death and what to do with a body once it was no longer living.

My young son told me that he himself wanted to be laid out in the woods. He told me that he should be put into a slight depression in the ground, and covered with leaf litter. I admired his thinking. We never wished to waste anything here; scraps always went to the chickens, paper and such went to the burn bin, and the resulting ashes were subsequently shoveled onto the garden or into the woods. (We called this method “going back to God”.) I told him how much I loved the idea, but that strangely, it was likely illegal. He protested adamantly, driven to the point of tears. He insisted it was the right way to put your body back into nature. He told me that it was the only way he wanted his body to end up. I calmed him by saying that I would do everything I could to make sure it would happen.

A dear friend of mine saw to his own burial in advance of his death. A craftsman and a farmer, he built his own casket and even dug the hole with his backhoe, right there on his property, not far from his house. In his mid-thirties he had been diagnosed with Leukemia, and after a couple of years it was clear that he wasn’t going to live much longer. While he still had enough physical strength left, he set about to make his final arrangements. My life at that time was in Chicago, and he was then living with his wife and three children in the hills of upstate New York, so sadly I wasn’t able to be there. I heard he hosted quite a party. And afterwards, he began his decline in earnest. Then he died, was put into the casket he had made for himself, and was buried in the grave he’d dug. His friends backfilled the hole. Can you imagine anything more perfect? Me, I cannot.

I hold this man’s ending as an impeccable model of closure.

It seems simply crazy to me that we in the first world are so forthright about every last goddam detail of our lives, broadcasting our dramas on public platforms and rushing to share our every insight and opinion, and yet when it comes to the only experience which we all have in common – aside from being born – we are virtually silent as a collective. Sure, there are groups – there are always groups – who come together to discuss death and its related concerns – but as a society on the whole we are not very comfortable with the subject.

I’ve hosted a handful of Death Cafes. Just the idea that there is an international group founded simply for the purpose of providing places for people to convene and talk about death is proof enough that the need for such a forum exists. And yet still, even among the most progressive populations, this is just not a well-discussed topic.

In future, I mean to change this if I can.

Many years ago, after my first job playing music for essentially forgotten and dying people in the most low-budget of nursing homes, it occurred to me that many of these people were the last of their clan, and they faced dying alone. I began a little inquiry, asking the workers when people usually died – what time of the day or night – and how they went. Was someone there with them? (There is such a thing as “active dying” and health care professionals can usually tell when a person is entering that phase.) Almost every one of these residents died alone, many in the wee hours of the night. Few were ever accompanied by another human. I asked if there was such a job as sitting with someone when they died.

They told me that there was not.

Well, as it turned out, there actually was such an occupation. And while I had experienced a short moment of elation in thinking that I’d just invented the new vocation of “death doula”, I soon learned that there were folks who’d already navigated this terrain. Turned out a “death doula” was actually a thing. But there was a punchline: it wasn’t a thing for just anyone. It was a service available only to a privileged population. There was no money to pay someone to sit with a dying person in a poorhouse of elder care.

This is such a heartbreaking reality, and it’s long had me wondering what I might possibly do to help improve the situation. As I see it, the best contribution I can make at present is to share my thoughts on death and the dying.

I do believe that one day things will be different. That one day our culture will place more value on frank and open end-of-life discussions. But personally, I think it’s going to take many decades. And it’s going to take folks like me who are ready to help start the conversation.

So friends, please consider this post to be the birth of a discussion on death.

The Rights of Spring

The Rights of Spring

When people say to me “Happy Easter”, I feel a bit conflicted. The “Happy Passovers” don’t bother me, nor do the “Happy Ramadans” I hear from my Muslim relatives. But I can understand why it bothers me; I was born into a Christian family, one which conveyed mixed signals about the religion, let alone the origin or meaning of the holiday. We were a secular family who went to church together maybe five times, tops, during my childhood. The subject of religion was never spoken of in my family; we were one of those educated, white, liberal households who hung their cultural hats on the Episcopal Church, but who seldom actually went there.

In that my parents were music lovers, and in that classical music – more specifically Baroque music – was their thing, a lot of religious texts went along with the territory. And that always confused me greatly. They would sing along with choirs, lifting eyebrows and swaying with great emotion, yet the words they sang were completely counter to anything they espoused to believe in real life.

My mother is fairly foul-mouthed person who would often loudly chastise religious folks for being “goddam Christers”. There was a strong implication in my household that anyone who believed in Jesus – or who was loud about their beliefs – was tacky and ignorant. This message, however subliminal it might’ve been, was delivered to me loud and clear. So when I was 12, I decided that I needed to learn for myself what this religion thing was all about, and I asked my mother to please drive me to St. Augustine’s for service every week.

Sunday school and the occasional youth group events went along with the experience. And, after noticing peers serving as acolytes, I asked if I might not be one too. So began my five-year stint as an alter “boy”, attending the 8 a.m. services with the ancient and unintelligible Fr. Lightburn and sometimes, with nerves present, the high services for Christmas Eve or Easter with Father Mazza himself.

I loved the ritual, the mystery, and the notion that I was performing actions that had been done by so many before, for hundreds of years, in the very same manner. I felt the essence of reverence in the pouring of the water over the priest’s hands before he prepared the sacrament for communion. I loved the very name of the container into which the water spilled – the lavabo bowl – its Latin-derived name just reeked of antiquity. The service – in particular the smaller, less well-attended one – pulled me in. I loved the silence (no music accompanied these early services), the robes we wore, I loved the lighting of candles (there was a slightly stressful moment when you held the long taper up to the candle and waited for the wick to take the flame), I loved the way we two acolytes stood during the service, motionless, flanking the alter. I loved the language too – I relished the recitation of the Nicene creed. (For me it was never the same after the church later modernized the text.) All of this motivated me to try and better understand the meanings behind the pageantry. It seemed disingenuous to be part of a service, the reasons for which weren’t entirely clear to me.

For several years in my adolescence, I struggled with the concept “God is everywhere”. How could this be? And how disturbing was this? I knew He was supposed to love me, but really? Did he also watch me as I undressed? Was he in the shower with me too? This I never liked.

One day in youth group we’d baked little heart-shaped dough pieces onto which we’d painted the words “God Loves Me”, and I remember a moment in the green, wet grass outside in the church’s courtyard when I got it. I had been holding this small thing in my hand and thinking very hard. If God was everywhere, then God had to be… energy! What else was everywhere? Energy was present – latent or active – in every single thing in the universe! Finally, I had figured it out. I was giddy. I was ready to accept this religion thing now. The Jesus-coming-back-to-life thing would still need some work, but at least I now had some sort of reliable footing onto which I could build.

And so I passed the next decade thinking that yeah, there was merit to the basic tenets of Christianity. But of course, the more one learns about the world, other cultures and other religions, and about how power works in general, the more one grows understandably skeptical about the whole concept of organized religion. By my mid-twenties I was pretty sure that the truths that Jesus et al were trying to share with the world had been corrupted by the filter through which the information was given; the messages were coming to us through a lens of privileged men (I’d say “white” men, but there are more races implicit in the re-telling than just the white guys). We were not getting the unadulterated truth. The message – as well as the terms and conditions which the religion laid out for its believers – had become mainly a vehicle for power and suppression. And it was not always easy to know where the truth ended and the falsehood began.

My mother-in-law was the first person to introduce me to more metaphysical ways of organizing the world. She was a bit wacky – and she never really liked me much – but she taught me a lot, and I can credit her for expanding my ways of thinking. A lot of the stuff she turned me on to was, especially at the time, very “woo-woo” and would’ve had most mainstream folks rolling their eyes and passing judgement. But it was material worth considering. After all, we humans have an innate need to quantify and qualify our existence, and every little bit of information helps us along the path. Even if we choose to be atheists or agnostics – that in and of itself is a choice. Like the old Rush song goes, “If you choose not to decide, you still have made a choice”. Me, I’ve always chosen to keep my thinking open.

When my husband left me, it threw me into an existential tailspin. I spent hours upon hours reading all manner of material related to spiritual thought. I meditated, I visualized, I learned about ancient texts and beliefs in energy. At the time, I was desperate to learn why my husband had treated me so badly, how he could possibly have justified his behavior, and how it was that he simply didn’t care anymore. The concept of past lives was the only thing that supported my new reality. This idea held the possibility for a definite cause-and-effect phenomenon which helped to explain things. And for a very long time I was fully invested in that belief.

Now, I just don’t know.

A few months back, I started speaking aloud Nichirin’s Buddhist chant “Nam Myoho Renge Kyo” every day. I’m no closer to allying myself with the Buddhism thing than I was before I started chanting, (and I do think many Buddhist folks I know are just as fanatical about their beliefs as are super-devout members of any religion) but I do feel very much in agreement with the way in which all sects of Buddhism champion a continued effort towards a higher level of peace and acceptance. Plus, I am growing more comfortable with the concept of impermanence. And I’m not chanting for religious reasons per se, but for the mental focus it brings to me. The way in which it offers clarity and specificity to my goals. For me it’s a vehicle for good and productive living rather than an expression of any belief system.

And it has me thinking again.

Are we part of an individually, soul-based continuum – or a more general, energy-related, molecularly described continuum? Either way, we are unquestionably made of stardust. We are, on a purely physical level, made of the cosmos, and to that physical cosmos we shall return.

I’m sure that Jesus lived, and I know he was a great teacher of love, and although I’m not convinced, I think he even might’ve come back for a minute. I’ve had plenty of my own metaphysical and unexplained experiences, so I can’t dismiss this high-profile event out of hand. And while I’m questioning such things, I might also ask: Did lamb’s blood painted on doorways really prevent the deaths of newborn babes? Did the angel Jibreel really visit Mohammed and impart to him the teachings of the Koran? Did Siddhartha really banish the evil Mara?

What seems to matter more than the verity of any of these historic claims is that they provide us with belief systems, something we humans crave. We want to know that waking up this morning was necessary. We need to feel important, validated and purposeful. And all of these teachings, at their heart, are about the very same things.

Spring is a time of renewal. And it doesn’t much matter what we call it, or how exactly we got here. A renewal by any other name is still just that. All of it is correct. All of it is right.

Happy Spring to us all.

Making Music

Making Music

It’s come to pass now. I’ve just been to New York City for a rehearsal. It was my first time playing with other musicians in almost two decades. And it was fun.

But it was also work. I had learned my parts, yet I’d still missed a few details. The music director and the leader were kind about it though and helped coach me as best they could. But in the end, there were a few nuances I couldn’t get in the moment, and which I promised to make good on by the time we met in Chicago for our first show.

I know I talked too much. I’m accustomed to being the funny one, the one in charge, the most colorful character in the room – but it wasn’t so in this situation (nor was it really appropriate for me to add my unnecessary commentaries). For as many times as I scolded myself during the rehearsal to please stop talking, I failed at that effort. It had been so long since I’d been in the company of professionals that I felt downright provincial, and it threw me off. I felt like the chicken farmer from upstate who couldn’t stop chittering about how exciting it was to be in a big city and playing with a real band. Sheesh.

But all in all, it went well. And it’s going to feel like heaven when we’re all assembled on stage and playing (we have some guests for the upcoming date in Chicago who are joining us – it promises to be a night of gorgeous sounds). How perfect is it that our first show will be in my hometown? It seems like something from a dream. And yet it’s real. Very real. When it’s all said and done, I will have driven a few thousand miles and moved a whole lotta gear. I will have spent hours upon hours learning and practicing. Man, it’s just such a lot of work. But strangely, that seldom enters my mind. It’s just what one does in order to play music. It’s a challenge, but it’s also a joy. And not everyone can do it, so I’d be foolish to waste such a gift.

It does make one wonder, though, why in hell would anyone go to all this trouble and invest all this time and money only to end up barely breaking even? Any sane person would question the whole thing. But musicians, we don’t tend to focus on the effort or expense. If we did, I can promise you there would be no live music! So why do we do it? For me, honestly, it feels like I’ve never had a choice. And look, I know, no one made me do this. But I’ve always felt that playing music was so naturally a part of my life that there were no other options. I did go to college and I tried to do things the “right” way, but it simply wasn’t my path. Learning, rehearsing, loading in and loading out, it’s been part of my life ever since I was sixteen and my mom drove me and my suitcase Rhodes to rehearsal in our powder blue ’65 Valiant.

This new situation is more than just about the opportunity to play music, it’s about the opportunity to work with people who are very good at what they do. Over the past fourteen years I’ve been so musically lonely. When I lived in Chicago there were so many excellent and talented musicians with whom to work that I never experienced a shortage of projects, and I was always challenged. But here in my country life I haven’t had any musical relationships at all. Of course I’ve been busy raising a child, but still….

So this is why I bought a new keyboard, spent hours learning material and just drove four hundred miles for a rehearsal.

So I could get back to making music.

Imposter’s Roster

Imposter’s Roster

All in all, things are going so well these days that I’m starting to become suspicious. I’ve had such a challenging run over the past fourteen years, I can hardly believe the recent and rapid cascade of events.

Firstly, I have been welcomed into a new band under the leadership of one very intelligent and creative individual, a man whose work has been known to me for many years.

There was a time when I’d held him in such high esteem that he seemed altogether in another league. And I still assert this to be true; the guy is super-prolific and uber-talented. But, if I will remember my own sentiments from a recent writing, he is still just a man. I get this. I’ve spoken to him on the phone and very much enjoy his energy from those conversations alone. And after having watched a few interviews and having begun to read one of his novels, I’m feeling much more familiar. I can feel the love and sincerity present in him, and frankly, I’m beside myself with happy anticipation at our first meeting in just two days’ time. I so seldom meet individuals whose energy comes close to mine, and this time I think I will definitely have met my match. I cannot wait.

At this writing it is Thursday, and my very first rehearsal with the new band is on Saturday in Brooklyn. I’m hoping to capture my experience as it unfolds, because this, the “time before”, will be an interesting thing for me to look back at some day. It feels a bit bold to be revealing this part of the experience; is it not cart-before-the-horse? Is it too much like a flat-out diary entry? Perhaps. Nonetheless, I shall continue to document the process.

I keep telling myself to be realistic; things could still change. I might not be a fit. I might not be good enough. Oh, but man. I know I am. I just know it. But wait. Do I?

There is a constant feeling living in me these days which I must combat. And having learned recently that it’s an identifiable “thing”, I feel a bit better. Perhaps I’d heard the term at some point in my life, but previously it had meant nothing to me. “Yeah,” my friend had said as I described the unpleasantness I was experiencing, “You’ve got ‘imposter’ syndrome.” “Yes! That’s it!” I’d shouted when she named it. What a relief! She told me that as a working architect she too often wondered if she hadn’t been fooling people all along. “I think to myself: Why am I here?” she said, “There’s got to be a mistake, do they understand it’s me?“. Exactly. That was how I was feeling too. Somehow, I musta fooled someone. Right?

Likely not.

It’s just that is has been nineteen years since I’ve played in a band with other musicians. That’s a very long time to be on hiatus, and it makes me wonder if it’ll be just that easy to get on the horse again. And I can’t say that I don’t write that with a bit of inner animosity; curse those musicians who had supportive spouses to share the load of a household. Curse all of those people whose lives didn’t change with the advent of children, whose music didn’t come to an abrupt halt. I admit it, it makes me jealous. But keeping in mind the wondrous result of my almost two-decade hiatus – a successful, creative and thriving child – I can temper these thoughts and instead focus my energy on the adventure that awaits.

As some readers may know, I recently had a piece of writing published in a very public way. It happened so very quickly, and with no foreknowledge whatsoever. I’d been upset at the headlines surrounding the death of drummer Taylor Hawkins and immediately set out to express what I was feeling. When I finished, it was 1 a.m., and as an afterthought – I have never once submitted a single piece of my writing to anyone before – I decided to send it to a couple of newspapers. I perused their requirements, amended the piece accordingly, then sent it off to the Boston Globe, New York Times, San Fransisco Chronicle, and lastly, from my hometown, the Chicago Tribune. I had a tiny voice inside my head saying that the Tribune would pick it up. Ages ago I had written a grant proposal and mailed it off, never thinking of it again. Turned out I was the winner. The grant had been from the Chicago Cultural Center. So, I had a feeling.

I slept very little the night after I’d written the piece, and by the time I arose and checked my inbox just a few hours later, there it was. A rejection from the NYT, but a letter of interest from the Trib. I was excited, but I was conflicted by the subject matter. Seemed strange that I should revel in a success made possible by a man’s death. I smiled to myself all morning, but then would scold myself for doing so. Just how was I supposed to feel? Within two days the paper’s syndicates had in turn published the piece for their weekend papers, and shortly after that my inbox was filled with emotional letters from people all over the world. This time, however, there was no imposter thing going on. These folks all just wanted a witness to help them process their grief. I set aside several hours to respond to all of them. It was the necessary and right thing to do. For once, I knew that this was my job, and I was good at it.

I’ve got some exciting but rather intimidating challenges ahead in my immediate future. I suppose just meeting the fellows in the band and spending an afternoon rehearsing in earnest will be the first thing on the list. Then comes the show in Chicago. And then comes a photo shoot. And finally, on my 59th birthday, I’ve agreed to perform some absolutely on-the-fly, improvised and through-composed songs as part of a storyteller’s program. When the host asked me, I didn’t allow myself to say no. Many have been the moments I’ve wanted to call her back and tell her to find someone else, but I can’t. These days my life is about saying “yes”. Even when I am fairly certain there must be some mistake, I need to behave as if everything is just fine.

I’ve got to trust that people know what it is that I am capable of, even if I myself am still not quite sure.


Visit my future bandmate Wesley Stace (formerly known as John Wesley Harding) here.

Death of a Drummer (Original Post)

Death of a Drummer (Original Post)

After giving birth to my son almost nineteen years ago, I pretty much checked out of pop culture. Being essentially a single mom from day one, I didn’t have the time or energy for anything else. So yesterday, when I heard of drummer Taylor Hawkins’ death, I wasn’t hit hard the way so many of my friends and fellow musicians were. What had bothered me were the headlines that told us “10 different substances” had been found in his body. The implication was tawdry and disrespectful; it was sensationalistic language that didn’t demand a backstory. It basically left readers with the takeaway that this was just another sad and perhaps unremarkable casualty of rock ‘n’ roll. Who needed to read further? Not having any previous sentiment for the man, I was surprised at how offended I was by these cheap headlines. There had to be more to the story.

Indeed, there was.

I read the Rolling Stones interview with Taylor from June of last year. Despite his expletive-rich conversation, he revealed himself to be soft and vulnerable on the inside. I recognized in Taylor an aspect of myself. I saw this tender fallibility in many of my friends, too. This man was simply trying to do his job, just trying to get through. Imagine a musician playing huge arenas who must fight his fear to even be on that stage! There’s no place to hide. All he can do is power through it. Or medicate through it. A human does what he or she must, simply in order to get through.

It’s so easy to be star-struck. I’ve met a number of famous people in my day, some who inspired me to offer up some inane fan-banter, and some who later became known to me in human and intimate ways. At first, you feel their energy, their focus, and perhaps you sense that they are existing in something of another world. And there is no doubt that their hard work and rare talent should be respected, and it is often true that their thinking takes them elsewhere. But at the same time, one must always remember that people of elevated visibility are not gods or goddesses. They are humans. And they are also just doing their best to get through.

My father was a harpsichordist of some note. His esteemed career took him to many stages in many countries. As a child, I would see him as two different men; the fellow who shuffled around the house in his slippers and bathrobe, doting on his beloved cats, and that other man – the one who wore a white bow tie, tux and tails, who warmly received us backstage, the gentleman who greeted fellow musicians in French or German. When I visited people in the early music circles, they would often ask if Robert was my father. It was a point of pride for me, but it also gave me instant credibility, and just a hint of my own star power by proximity. What I did not know about my father til just a few years ago – was that he struggled with stage fright. He may even have dealt with panic attacks. From what I know through my experiences, and what I’ve pieced together from anecdotes told about him many years later, I’ve come to suspect that I may have inherited my genetic predisposition for depression and panic from him. My famous yet fearful father.

For many years I was married to a well-known musician. Although I did enjoy most of the experiences that came with the territory, I’ll admit that I had very little tolerance for the super-intense fans. They seemed somehow clueless to the fact that this man also shuffled around the house in his robe and doted on his cats. (There is one thing to be said for people who achieve a certain level of fame: they become quite adept at graciously interacting with fans. I’m not sure I could successfully cultivate this important skill. My ex was, and still is, expert in this area.) These people didn’t seem to get that he was just a guy. I know that it’s what being a star is about – cultivating an other-worldly aura – but still, that fan behavior never sat well with me. It seemed such an unrealistic burden to cast upon someone. Whenever I meet someone of high esteem, I try to relate to them as honestly as I can. My goal is to bear witness to their humanity, not their star power.

It’s the humanity of this fellow Taylor that endears him to me. It’s the fact that he was not an irresponsible or reckless person, but rather a man dealing with recovery, with fame, with stress. Such a potent mix of things – a situation that few of us can understand. That this man dealt with insecurities and fear – even when he was at such a high level of fame and accomplishment – is a testament to the emotional frailty that is present in all of us. Human beings are all just doing the best they can, just to get through.

None of us is the person we would have the world believe we are.

Let’s try to realize that there is so much more to every story than we will ever see. We must trust that no one is having an easy time of it; this is a hard planet.

Be an attentive and forgiving audience; everyone is putting on the best show they possibly can.

A Greeting

A Greeting

This is an unconventional post for me; I should like to briefly introduce myself – and in some way, qualify myself to a completely new and unforeseen audience.

My name is Elizabeth Conant. I’m a 58-year-old woman, originally from Chicago, who has recently concluded a 15-year run as a single mom in rural upstate New York. Although I’ve worked mainly as a piano teacher and accompanist in this past chapter, in my previous city life I was a working musician.

This blog began in earnest some ten years ago when I desperately needed a conduit to the word in the wake of a traumatic divorce (I know, what divorce isn’t traumatic?) and cross-country move.

I’ve dealt with depression and panic attacks since adolescence. Thankfully, these issues are currently much less acute than they’ve been in past years. That may well be because I now stand at the threshold of a curiously inviting time of freedom and possibility.

In some respects this collection of writings might be construed as an online diary, but I hope that readers may find contained within the 650+ posts some substantive content which pleases or inspires them.

Welcome to The Hillhouse and thank you so kindly for stopping by.


For a peek into our life here at The Hillhouse, please visit our Instagram page.

Link to the Chicago Tribune piece on the death of drummer Taylor Hawkins