The Hillhouse

The Journey of a Mother and Son

Split July 30, 2017

For the first time in a year or more my son is resting in my bed on a Sunday morning as I sit in my favorite chair, writing. This had been our routine for most of his life until one day, it wasn’t. Last times are evasive; there is so seldom the awareness that one is experiencing something for a final time, but it has to happen sometime, right? I try to be as mindful and grateful of all the little everyday routines that bring joy to my life because there is always a tiny voice in my head which whispers “this may be the last time….”

I can remember the last time my father was downstairs in this house. It was a delicate procedure to get him down the steep cellar stairs in the first place, but I’d just painted the main room and installed a large carpet, making it truly habitable for the first time ever, and Elihu and I had wanted to share our triumph with his grandparents. I can remember watching dad’s laborious ascent of the stairs at the conclusion of our visit, and thinking distinctly “this is the last time dad will ever come down here”. It wasn’t a sad or overly nostalgic thought either, it simply was. In this case, the last time was pretty obvious to spot. But most of the time the ‘lasts’ are not always so clear.

With adolescence come many ‘lasts’. Elihu’s spending a weekend night in my bed was a routine event when he was small, but of course the dynamic between us has been changing this past year as he has become a young man and no longer a small boy. Things that felt effortless and natural just a year ago don’t feel quite the same these days. Late last night (I now retire before the kid, cuz he stays up til all hours fabricating airplane models) he came into my room saying a large bug had gotten into his bed and it freaked him out so he wanted to sleep with me. I was half asleep myself, but the significance of the moment wasn’t lost on me. I knew that it would mean one more lazy, sweet morning with my son next to me. One last morning in which he’d reach out to me and say ‘mama’ before falling back asleep, one last time when I’d rise early to let the chickens out and return to my chair with a hot cup of coffee. We would have one final morning the way it had been for so many years. As I sit here in my chair, my heart finding relief upon hearing the breath of deep sleep coming from my son, I am savoring this window in time, knowing that it may very well be the last of its kind.

Most times there are no single defining moments to mark the end of an era. Often last times aren’t known to us until we look back in time and identify them. We look backwards and can more clearly see where trends slowed and new ones replaced them, we can understand in hindsight how interests and passions waned and new ones emerged. In retrospect we may even find the dates and events that mark these changes. But for the most part, change is gradual, beginnings and endings are undetectable, invisible. But sometimes, they are not.

When I was eighteen, I broke my neck. In one split second the whole trajectory of my life changed. Many times I’ve reflected on how curious a mix of life events that near-tragedy provided me: I can surmise that without having broken my neck I never would have met certain dear friends, experienced the life of a musician, fallen in love with my ex-husband, given birth to my son. That was an obvious moment; and obvious ending of one era and start of another. Of course at the time none of these positive outcomes could be guessed, but certainly life as I may have envisioned it had been redirected in an instant.

When I was eleven or twelve I experienced a moment which also became a marker in my life. The smallest, most mundane thing had become transcendent. I will never forget that feeling, the enormousness of the revelation, the way I fairly weakened at the dawning, the way I knew, in that moment, that I was a changed person.

It was a summer evening, and I was walking home along the road on which I now again live, some forty years later. As usual, my glance fell just a few feet ahead of me on the gravel, keeping watch for my footing. In the damp of the June night a small red eft had crawled out of the grass and was heading perilously for the road. I carefully allowed the tiny creature to crawl to the safety of my hand, where I would inspect it, marvel at it and then return it to the wet overgrowth. I looked down at this creature and was smacked hard with a profound realization: we were related. I saw his four limbs, his tiny fingers, his eyes, his mouth… I marveled over the symmetry – in both of us – and was simply stunned. I guess I’d always known that each and every creature on this planet is of course in some fundamental way related, but this just got to me. I remember standing at the side of the road in the waning light and thinking “We are all related. We are all of the same family.” I remember standing there a little longer and literally thinking “We are all one.” It almost frightened me, but for some reason I remember laughing out loud. I can’t explain this moment any better. It was huge, it was tiny. Miraculous, mundane. And it was also a last. And a first, too. And I knew it.

Elihu was with his father in Chicago for six weeks this summer, and I enjoyed a great stretch of useful, solo time. Determined that I would finally expunge my house of all the physical objects that we no longer needed, I embarked on the enormous task of sorting, culling, organizing, boxing and bagging. If my son had been home the project would have been impossible. Exhausting as the project was, midway through I could see a new life emerging on the other side. My very being was feeling light and changed; I sensed a fresh new life awaiting me upon completion…

On the fourth of July I closed the chickens in shortly after the sun went down, then got myself cleaned up before heading downtown to watch the fireworks (my goal this year was twofold: one, I would finally wear earplugs so that I could actually enjoy the visuals without the horrible explosive noise and two, I would plant myself downwind so that I could savor that uniquely summer smokey scent.) Recently I’d learned a new trick to accommodate my changing vision needs; I wore a contact in just my right eye, leaving each eye its own focal length. This made it possible to both see the road ahead as well as focus successfully on things at close range, without the need for reading or distance glasses. As I wound down the hilly dark country road, I felt that my contact needed adjusting, and so leaned in to the rear view mirror to take a look…

Crack! The car hit a boulder, a log, a tree – something – which made a sound as loud as any firework… My body was immediately flushed with the cold, electric sensation of adrenaline. What had happened? It was darker out than I’d thought, and as I pulled to the side of the road it was hard to see…. And when I did, everything changed. Instantly I felt nauseous. I’d done what I so many times had cursed other, more careless people for doing. Oh no. This was horrible. I couldn’t bear to look… My mind raced through the implications. I knew I’d done something terrible, but perhaps could something good come of it? Certainly, it would change the way in which I pointed an accusing finger at others. Now I was the selfish, insensitive human I’d blamed others for being. I had hit an ancient creature of the woods. I had caused immense pain and suffering to an innocent animal who was quietly doing what she had been doing for years and years. Not only that, but if she wasn’t dead already (which at this point I prayed she was) she would be soon, and therefore I had ceased the creation of more of her kind. I had ended her lineage. Maybe even ended the existence of her kind in our quiet woods. My car had struck a snapping turtle.

Many of us who live in the country have carefully re-directed a snapping turtle or two; we all know to keep well away from those frightening jaws, we all understand how lightning fast they can spin around, how easily they can break off a finger… And yet compassion moves many of us to pull over, search for a good sized stick and begin the process of saving the creature from the dangers of the open road. Mostly, these animals are mothers seeking to cross over to the adjacent pond (why in hell they can’t just stay put I’ll never understand) in order to lay their eggs. In my experience, turtles do this in the daylight. I had never thought to be on the lookout for such a migration at night. But then again, should I not be mindful after dark of bolting deer, lumbering porcupines and other occupants of the forest?

As it turned out, she was still alive. For a moment I considered running over her again in order to bring her a more swift and humane death. But then I considered her shell, and my tires. It could make for more trouble. And besides, there was no guarantee I could do the job as I intended. In the end, I chose to move her as carefully as possible to the side of the road to allow her to die. Her shell was, as I feared, completely split up the middle of her underside. I prayed that her body had gone into shock, and I prayed she didn’t hurt as badly as I believed she did. I placed her in the grass, and then drove into town.

The fireworks took on a whole different feel to me now. I walked through the crowds in a daze. I’d forgotten my earplugs and the shocks were loud. From where I stood in the wake of the smoke clouds, the fireworks appeared in the sky over the roof of the historic casino building. Instantly, these munitions were not entertainment; I saw and felt them to be the explosions they symbolically recalled. Each explosion birthed a wave of fear for my life, for the lives of those around me. War, I felt, must sound just like this. The experience was transformed by this new perspective. I imagined the casino itself to be hit, with bricks and stained glass crumbling to the ground. Deeply frightening as it was, I forced myself to stay in this experience for a few moments. I felt the need to grab the nearest humans and hold us all together in safety. How strange it was, I thought as the sky lit up the park like daylight, that this should be held as an entertainment for we of this modern, Western world. Easy, I supposed, as we here in this culture know nothing of war firsthand. I wondered how citizens of currently war-ravaged countries in the Middle East would feel about such a display. Would it bring on symptoms of PTSD? Would it throw children into tears, would it make mothers cry out for their babies and grown men shrink in terror? I thought it surely would. So strange, this mix. Triumphant and celebratory, menacing and evil. At every cracking sound I relived the moment when I’d hit the turtle. One moment I was thrilling to personal victory on a beautiful summer’s night, the next I was dumbfounded and heartsick. This time, I had known the precise moment when things changed.

These days my fingers are hurting more. Usually the first thing I’m aware of when I awake is that my fingers hurt. The irony of a musician losing her fingers to arthritis tempts me to indulge in self-pity. I lament that I haven’t played with other musicians since my son was born, and the way life is going at present, I’m not likely to again. I think of the ‘time before’ and my heart aches. When was the last time I played in a band? Who were the last people I played music with? It saddens me that I can’t recall. Just when did my decolletage become crepey looking like those other, older women (whom I was never supposed to become!)? This doesn’t just sadden me, it angers me. Just when did my left pinkie begin to bend out in a bizarre and unnatural way at the far joint? Just when did this trend towards jowls and sagging neck actually begin? Many of my thoughts these days are an effort to come to terms with aging. With the process of saying goodbye to the way things have been for so long… I tell myself that the process has always been molecule by molecule, cell by cell. That, thank God, it happens gradually. Kind of like pregnancy. You get a whole nine months to adjust to the new reality. But there’s also something silently disturbing about slow change: you can’t stop it, and you don’t quite know when it’s coming or how it’s happening. Your past splits away from you without your even realizing it. And then one day you get it as you didn’t get it before. Oh shit. It’s over. And there’s no going back.

A few years back I played the music behind a student production of “Tuck Everlasting”. It’s the story of a family who is stuck in time; no one ages and life for them stretches on and on without end, while life and death continue on as usual around them. I’d never thought too deeply before then about life from the opposite perspective. But it certainly struck me as a hell in which I’d never care to live. It gave me consolation about the aging process: we all do it, and pretty much all at the same rate.

Troubled as I am by my mortality, I still continue to fully enjoy and participate in the experience. Admittedly I am vain, convinced that most of the time I am right, and often full of pluck and bravado. But at the same time I am also timid, unconvinced of my talents and deeply fearful about my future. I am a mix of these things all at once. These qualities all wrestle for power as the reflective side and the reactive side continue to fight each other for dominance. It’s fascinating how humans can be all of these seemingly contradicting things all at once. Yet truly, we are all things at the same time. Our lifetimes are spent swinging from one awareness to the next, from certainty to uncertainty in the blink of an eye. One minute we are whole, and the very next – we are split.

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Post Script: Feeling that this post was already verging on way-too-long I omitted these two recent incidents which further expand on the idea of life circumstances splitting in an instant: The happy day when Elihu returned home from his father’s, I tripped on the suitcase on his bedroom floor and broke a toe. A week before, lightning had struck The Studio and fried the just-out-of-warranty AC units, resulting in three thousand dollars worth of damage. Thankfully, the IRS just granted us our official status as a nonprofit entity after a three-year application process. Split indeed.

 

 

 

Summerella July 1, 2017

There is a tree frog peeping loudly outside my kitchen door. Likely she is close by, and if I were so gifted, I might see her for myself. Surely, if my son were here, low vision child though he may be, he would locate the tiny amphibian in an instant. She is surprisingly loud and I consider looking for her, but I know that it would be in vain. For a moment, I am reminded of my child, and I miss him. I realize that I’ve spoken to him only once in the nearly two weeks he’s been away. It’s summer, and as always, he is with his father. Although at present I feel his absence very sharply, for the most part his time away is part of a schedule that works very well for me. When he is here during the academic year and life is fully underway I cannot stay on top of the maintenance required by a home with chickens, frogs, fish, basement and garage (never mind the arts venue), so this is the season when I turn my full attention to matters domestic. What is different this summer is that I am also making an effort to get out a little. To visit the world beyond my driveway, to hear some music, to meet some people, play a couple of new gigs, and shake off the antisocial mode which I find more comfortable and natural at this time in my life. There’s much to do, much to do. And thankfully, finally there’s some time in which to get it all done.

A jazz guitarist I’d known two decades ago through my ex husband was kind to reach out and invite me to the Jazz Festival here in Saratoga. (He may not have known that I wouldn’t have been able to afford a ticket on my own, so this was a doubly special surprise.) Having spent the last couple of months dieting and living a fairly boring, house-bound life, this was a perfect chance to welcome summer, enjoy some music and have a little interaction with people other than piano students. Truly, standing backstage and hearing such great music once again, feeling the kindness of my host and taking in all the wonder of such a perfect summer afternoon, I felt like a real-life Cinderella. I’d be back to feeding chickens and scrubbing baseboards soon enough, and so I allowed myself to fully sink into one absolutely glorious afternoon. We all wait a long, long time for summer, don’t we? Sometimes it’s hard to comprehend that it’s really here again. We must savor every moment, because the magic sure doesn’t last long…

Backstage at SPAC at the jazz festival. A Cinderella moment.

Resetting the stage.

This is a familiar sight for any Saratogian.

My friend, Dave Stryker’s quartet opened the fest. That opening spot can be a little less glamorous than it sounds. But they was swingin right out the gate. Mm-hm.

Mid-day it was Jean-Luc Ponty! Furreal, I wasn’t even sure the cat was still alive. ! Sorry, JL. They relived the Mahavishnu years. Nice.

Fish tacos. The best I have ever, ever had. Will be trying to duplicate this recipe for a long time. Lunch and a cold beer in the hot sun with Mr. Ponty’s band playing. A moment of summer perfection.

Next I followed the guys to the gazebo for a much more intimate show. (I am bummed to see myself looking so ‘thick’ in this shot. Ah well.)

The band. I almost forgot how good it feels to hear music that swings this hard.

Mr. Stryker. He’s got a new release out soon. Waste no time, get it for yourself. You will be happy. I promise. I’d asked Dave if he still enjoyed what he did, and immediately realized the ridiculousness of my inquiry. That was not really what I’d meant to ask. Instead, I’d wondered to myself how on earth he had the energy to continue to do what he did. But I guess if you’re really good at something that you love doing, you find the energy. I feel overwhelmed and just plain pooped so much of my life these days, that it’s kinda hard to imagine what that might feel like. But I do remember what it was like in my 20s and even my 30s; playing, recording and touring in bands wasn’t overwhelming, it was just what we did. Yeeks. These days I’m exhausted just thinking about it. !

Soon after the set I followed Dave to the shed and got a chance to hear a set from the wings.

I heard Danilo Perez (piano), who I had also known a few decades before, early in my ex’s career. Crazy, but Danilo didn’t look any older – and his smile, his energy and spark – all there. Wonderful to witness. That’s Joe Lovano in the hat to the right of the trumpet player – hadn’t seen him in years either. A nostalgic feeling to hear these sounds and see these people.

The end of the set.

I took a little tour of the grounds…

…and ended up sitting with Diz, (in the blue shirt at right) the local banjo/guitar/mando teacher at Saratoga Guitar. Diz and Liz. Cute, yes?

Ever heard or heard of the Suffers? If not, you’d like em. They’re from Houston – and that singer made sure we all knew it. Good on these guys – a couple of years ago they all had legit day jobs. Now look! Sweet.

This is Jacob Collier. WOW. Since he’s still only a babe in his early 20s, his vids from just a couple of years ago look like those of such a young boy… Hard to comprehend that he’s got honest-to-goodness jazz chops, can play so many instruments, that he sings so well and has such a positive personality and is so good with an audience. Mind blown. (Guess that was his melodica waiting on the stand in that first pic I took backstage…)

Closing out the night…. Miss Chaka Kahn. !!!

Sistah! Damn can she sing. And she is friggin gorgeous. What a glorious way to close out my Cinderella night.

…Cuz before I know it, it’s back on the farm. Dear Bald Mountain is aging rapidly now and gets a lot of tlc.

I stay inside, cleaning and culling our crap while the fish enjoy a rainy afternoon in the pond. I swear, they are joyful when it rains. They frolic. Furreal. I am not kidding. They love the rain.

The grosbeak visits again. (So does the dove – look to the far left!)

Up close.

And now the mourning dove. My mother hates them, swears at them when they linger in the road and calls them stupid birds (but notice, they never get hit. I think they know exactly what they’re doing.) How can you hate something with ‘love me’ eyes like this??

A few years ago I dropped a beautiful antique bottle which made me very sad, until I bent down to pick up the pieces and found this little bit… Magical.

Now shit’s gettin real. I have decided that rather than continue to put the crap (scuze me, the hand-me-downs) that friends have kindly given us into more and more and more bins, I will finally make a careful assessment of said bins and cull all that does not serve us. This is NO small feat.

Like with like. That’s how the sorting process starts for me. It can take 10 hours easy to get through this much stuff.

Refining the ‘like with like’ method. Hours and hours have transpired since the last pic.

And now items have been photographed, inventoried and put in bins to go out. All of it will be listed on Craigslist and if no takers, it’s off to the local church depository box. (Notice it is dark out now. This job started at 7 am. !!)

Elihu also wishes to lighten his load. He’s given me these items to sell. If he doesn’t get the $30 he wants for it, I believe I will finally have to put it in a box and give it to the Salvation Army.

Elihu and I are big fans of the crazy, bad English on ‘Chinesey’ things. Just look at this gem: Hot/Power/Invincibility/Thunder Burst/Speedy

Delight/Blazing/Top

Powerful/Deluxe…. and our very favorite: Make haste    !!!

I can’t touch his bird collection. In fact, I’m not sure this thing will move until the kid’s graduated from college. Taking this down would be the end of an era. Certainly it would signal the end of Elihu’s childhood.

His collection even includes a dead stuffed parakeet of ours named Seamus. Famous Seamus, that is.

Outside, the wild turkeys pass by our homestead without a chicken or a duck so much as flapping a wing.

The pantry is next. How does this get so out of order when I start out so clean and tidy?? Dang.

Ahh. I will sleep so much more peacefully tonite.

Using a flash, you can spot many a wing-ed thing in E’s densely packed room.

Before the planes, it was all about the birds. Naturally.

But this is how E’s room really looks. Dark and chill.

Finally, a moment to enjoy my favorite room in the house.

How sweet is this? A clean, quiet house and a freshly tuned piano. Girl’s gonna be sheddin a little before bedtime I think. It feels so good to have an organized house and a to-do list full of check marks. Now for a little Phoebe Snow, some Joni too, and maybe a couple of prog rock faves and hair band ballads to round it all out. My summer day comes to a perfect close.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

53 and Me May 3, 2017

Shortly after Elihu and I moved to upstate New York from the suburbs of Chicago almost nine years ago, I became profoundly afraid of the unknowns that awaited me. My previous life had been laid out pretty well, and my future had never been a terribly big concern. I would be a wife, a mother, a teacher, a part-time musician… the rest would take care of itself. But upon arriving here – with no job, no students, no husband, no friends, no music, no connections, no money, no health insurance, no savings – and the rest of my life stretching out vast and empty before me, I was overcome with fear. Core-shaking, nausea-inducing fear. Marlboro reds and red wine were not enough. And so one day I did the only thing left to do. I called a psychic.

Yeah, I know. But still… I remember not feeling like I’d exactly gotten my money’s worth at the conclusion of our meeting. I am not a fan of readings in which they tell you what you already know; instead I want proactive advice; situations to be on the lookout for, and actions to avoid. Practical stuff I can use. I’d like some guidance on my way back to the path. But the reading left me with just the usual sorts of things; a couple of insights, some advice – and what that advice was I certainly can’t recall now – but I do remember that this fellow had become repeatedly aware of the number ’53’ during our session. At the time it meant nothing to me, but he told me to keep an eye out for it, and that he sensed quite strongly that it had – or would have one day – some real significance in my life. I filed it away in my head, and before long it was forgotten as the survivalist years began in earnest.

Since that first summer here, so many incredibly valuable, challenging and life-changing events have transpired that I would never in a million years have expected to know firsthand. However for great stretches at a time I had my plate so full that I didn’t have the time – or the perspective – to consider what it was I might have been learning from my new situation; instead my main concerns were simply getting through a day with enough food, heat and a happy child. Occasionally I would catch glimpses of a promising future that might one day emerge if I just kept moving… But those moments of insight and clarity were few and far between as days, weeks and months passed in a depressing, stressful and exhausting blur. Sometimes though, my mind would often go back to that particular number. Fifty-three did not speak to me of anything significant; a humdrum number with no promise or hidden meaning. What on earth could 53 possibly mean? I wondered over and over.  How might this number change my life? If this 53 pertained to my age, then it would likely prove to be a letdown – middle age would be firmly upon me by then, I’d think to myself, looking elsewhere for its significance. At the end of my periodic ruminations I would always come up with nothing. Fifty-three was a wash. Just another number or just another year. Whatever.

Not too long ago, as Elihu and I sat at the breakfast table, the number 53 floated into my thoughts, and so I posed an innocent question to my son: Had this year in particular been much different for me from all those that had come before? Without hesitating Elihu said “Oh yes. Definitely.” My eyebrows went up. “How so?” Sometimes the answers I seek from my son try his patience, as either they are so obvious or they are simply set up to reassure my failing ego, something for which Elihu has little sympathy. My gut was tightening at the prospect of him scolding me and letting the “obvious” answer go unspoken. Thankfully he answered with a straightforward list of reasons. And as I heard the reasons spoken aloud, I began to wonder if we weren’t perhaps in the very midst of the mysterious 53 right here and now… My son and I are forty years apart in age, and while this, his thirteenth year, was an easily identifiable landmark in his life, my own age of 53 hadn’t really appeared to be a milestone. At least not at face value. But digging deeper, I realized that this had been a hugely significant year for me…

After he’d finished, I asked him please to indulge me, and to repeat what he’d just said. I was grateful that he did. “This is the first complete year The Studio has been working as a business” he started. “It’s a real thing now. You played your first solo job since I was born. You’ve had singing gigs with a jazz guitarist. You have friends. You’re even working out again.” (And, little did he know, I’d lost seven pounds and was facing the thrilling prospect of wearing my favorite clothes again.) I stopped for a moment to consider what he’d said. Damn. The kid was right.

I did a quick review in my head of all the months of the past year, all the tiny landmarks, all the firsts, all of the milestones reached. I created bylaws, held board meetings, drafted contracts, learned dozens of new songs, met lots of people, gotten new gigs and developed new skills – and a bit more confidence, too. It was easy to forget the progress when my nose was always to the ground, my mind only on the present day’s to-do list… But when I lifted my gaze it was possible to see that I really had covered new ground. Wow. I was actually in a better place than I used to be. Crazy. Whoda thunk? Certainly not me!

I’m still fairly surprised to notice that things feel pretty good at this moment in time. I feel that finally, finally, I’m getting some traction here as I move into this next era of my life. Finally I can see the future taking shape and my once far-off goals coming into sharper focus. So as I wrap up another year of residency on this planet (my birthday is May 7th) I can truly say that 53 has been good to me. Mystery solved. And just sayin – I’ll be ready for more at 54…

 

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Would ya just look at what’s been going on at The Studio? Night and day from a year ago, right?

 

 

 

 

 

Witching Window February 21, 2017

middle-age-now

It is late, and my son is in his room watching aviation videos. And I am in my room, reading about death. Yeah. That just about sums it up I guess.

It’s not as if my interest in death has come all that recently, but it is only of late that I’ve begun to actively search out books on the subject, and to think of it so much more personally than ever before in my life. My son, however, at thirteen, is about as far from thoughts of death and mortality as any one human could be. His thoughts are consumed by flight, by what makes it possible, by how me might build a craft to fly so successfully himself. He is also about numbers, about math, about language (German mostly, but some Japanese and Vietnamese, too – and French, if you press him), and he is about the tuba parts in the polkas he loves. He is about his birds. He wishes our rooster Bald Mountain goodnight in a sweet little voice that still sounds more boy than young man most of the time. He is only just about to embark on his young adult life. I however, am trying every single day to call up the nerve to say goodbye to my younger years with some small amount of dignity. It’s not as easy as I’d thought it would be, and I’m not going about it with a lot of class. Of this I am sure. For one, I still color my hair. For another, I still think my son actually enjoys my company… Sometimes he still does, but I can feel the curtain of adolescence descending between us, and it reminds me daily that I really do need to start to figure out how the next part of my life will look. How to embrace this growing older thing. Cuz as of this moment, I am still not down with it. Somehow, I still cannot believe it is happening.

After returning from a short but lovely evening of music at Caffe Lena (we heard Golfstrom, a talented group that plays Jewish popular music, mostly European, from around the early part of the last century, to put it succinctly) we retired to our rooms. In chasing a tangential thread from a Facebook post, I came upon the Obamas dancing their very first dance as President and First Lady. The first thought I had was: how young Barack looked. OMG. Truly, he looked like a young man. I have always been keenly aware that he was elected to office shortly after I moved here – and that he and I are very close in age. In fact, until just a few weeks ago, Obama had been president for the entire time we’d lived here in New York. (I remember well the night the counts came in; the sound of the cheering crowds in Saratoga – most likely from Skidmore College – was audible from three miles away. Even individual shouts carried across the forest to reach my ears as I stood, so deeply thrilled and full of hope, on my porch here on top of the hill.) Back then we really did look much younger, Barack and I. Often it throws me for a loop and leaves me in a mild state of panic when I see his head so much grayer, his face etched with such deep lines. As a woman I can play the game a little longer, and dying my hair is one of the main tactics I use. But my face has begun to change, and of course, my neck as well. And try as I might, I can’t ignore it. At every turn a reflection is available to me. At every glimpse my mortality faces me, and leaves me no possible way to pretend that things haven’t changed.

Tonight, in surveying the room I was struck by one thing: these were essentially my peers. And man, they look old. Yes, perhaps, most of them may have been older than me by a couple of years, maybe even a generation ahead, but by and large, they were ‘my age’ – that is to say ‘middle aged’, and the majority of them were gray-haired. A very few of the women had boycotted their changed appearance by dyeing their hair; one woman even had a head of brilliantly bright red hair in a blunt, modern cut. Still, I could tell, she was older than me. So what was the answer? What determines ‘real’ age? Should one not go ahead and present to the world how they felt on the inside? Just how was one to age gracefully and with class? Go with it? Fight it? Deny it with a head of bright red hair – or celebrate it with a head of bright red hair? (My mother-in-law went with fire-engine red hair into her 80s!) My dark hair almost made me feel like a poser in that room of silver. Like a complete fraud. My face told the real story though. The ‘smile’ lines that ran from the corners of my mouth to my nose now created an honest-to-goodness triangle. They weren’t likely to invoke friendly, truth-softening comments like ‘oh  it’s not so bad. No one else notices them the way you do’. No. They were as deep and age-revealing as the facial contours of any other women in that room. I was not a forty-something anymore, for sure. I was whatever the hell it is that comes next, goddammit.

Watching images of the elegant First Couple dancing, my mind wandered, and I began to wonder what it might be like if I’d never left Chicago. Part of me began to happily envision a scene at The Hideout, or the Green Mill perhaps, where certainly I’d see dozens of people I knew – and who were happily my peers. But then I thought again, and realized that most of my clan had grown up too. They no longer spent their weekend nights at alt country clubs or jazz joints – they, like me, were busy shepherding young children into middle school or high school – some might even be seeing theirs off to college. (Few children of my peers are married yet. Some are, but more still are not. And that somehow comforts me. But it won’t last long.) Today’s lively nights of jazz at the Green Mill might themselves prove to have me feeling old and past my prime for similar reasons. My peeps aint there no more. My scene is gone, my day has concluded. That chapter is past. Young folks can party, middle-aged folks are too busy to party, and old folks have the time to party, but the energy? I’m not so sure.

Just today, as we drove home from school after a special delivery of duck eggs (Mrs. Duck is really producing now – perhaps in anticipation of Spring…) Elihu and I both mused on how fast time seemed to be passing these days. I remarked that time didn’t feel so fast when I was a kid. I was surprised that he – a kid himself – also perceived time to be moving faster than ever before. “It’s a provable theory of physics” he told me. He promised that this wasn’t just some new age theory about the speeding up of time – it was a viable, measurable fact. “I’ve been thinking about time a lot these days” he mused from the back seat. “I mean, time is just change. So if time didn’t exist, would nothing change? Or if nothing changed, would time cease to exist?” We batted this idea about for a while, but by the time we were turning into our snow-drifted driveway I’d already decided I really didn’t care either way. Because whether fast or slow, some shit in my life was definitely changing, and quite honestly, I wasn’t a fan.

When I was in my early forties, I remember being caught and successfully reeled in by a made-for-tv commercial in which actor Victoria Principal extolled the brilliant, natural and effortless products in her new skin care line. As prudent a consumer as I had thought myself to be, even after some lengthy internal debates on the subject, I’d finally chosen to buy in. But first, I engaged in a little due diligence, calling the customer service rep to get a little more specific information on their products. How old was I? the woman had asked me. When I told her, I remember hearing her hesitate for a moment. As a woman at the dawn of her fourth decade, she’d advised me not to purchase a particular set of products, because women didn’t usually start to need “that sort of help” until they were in their late forties or even early fifties. Hmm, I’d thought. There was a timetable here that people had agreed on? There were actual landmarks I might look for? There was a timetable that might help me to anticipate – and emotionally prepare for – certain changes? Nobody had ever told me this before! No one had ever gone so far as to break down the aging process into stages. But clearly, some people, somewhere, had agreed on this stuff. (Granted, this was a pre-internet world with less information available to the armchair consumer). It did also occur to me that this particular Guthy-Renker employee might have been a bit too honest for her own job security.!

After my chat with the rep, I ended up buying a few products. I can’t say that a one of them made any noticeable difference in my appearance (however I grew to love the very subtle scent of the lotions which I have not been able to find again, as they were discontinued several years ago) but shortly after that experience I did come upon a ‘miracle’ cream which promised to firm skin as nothing before. This product, I can report, did exactly what it purported to. But at the age of 42 I had no idea what ‘real’ aging skin looked like, and the mild tightening this cream provided was just enough, and under makeup, sometimes it really was like a sprinkling of fairy dust.

About five or so years later, I remembered the product and thought how it might really benefit me in my new state of sinking skin, so I tried it again. But this time, rather than gently pulling my face together in a smooth, tighter version of itself, it pulled my skin together like a bouquet of tiny wrinkled lines, all gathered at the point of the cream’s application. My neck skin bunched in horrible lines where none had even been before; it was a situation made much, much worse. But also, it gave me an idea as to how my neck might look a couple of decades hence. Crap. I’d always thought this shit was for everyone else. Somehow I knew that I was just too cool for that sort of old lady thing to happen to me. That shit was for clueless losers who somehow didn’t care. Or not. Man. Really?

These are the days when things start to change in earnest. No more ‘almost’, no more ‘you look fabulous’ as in you really do look fabulous. Ok, I suppose if you shift your frame of reference from a forty-something mindset to a sixty-something mindset you can say those things and mean it, but if you’re like me, and you’re stuck in your head at 44, unable to fully comprehend that 44 was now a decade ago, then maybe you’re not ready to accept ‘you look good’ means just that, only within the context of a whole new framework.

Oh how I wish we didn’t pretend this stuff doesn’t bother us the way it really does. Mech, I suppose there are some enlightened souls out there for whom this process is interesting, new, fun, exciting and a welcome challenge. It’s a challenge all right, and I am eager to learn how I end up meeting it, but I’d be lying if I said this was a process I was enjoying. Nope. Not so much.

Yesterday I woke up with an unusual sensation: Nothing in my body hurt! I was in a joyful mood all morning because it was the first time in months and months that my pulsing, arthritic fingers and stiff hips weren’t the first things I was aware of upon awakening. I took it as nothing short of a small miracle. Plus it offered enlightenment; not feeling my body all these years until now had actually been a blessed and wonderful thing!! A miracle of sorts unto itself. Ah well, better I suppose to be thankful at this point than never at all. I mean I know what’s happening, and I’m bitching and moaning about it most of the way, but at the end of the day I have it pretty good, aches and pains aside. Yeah. I do. But still…

My young piano students are always talking about how much they can’t wait to be older. They can’t wait to be 8, to be 10, to finally be a teenager. I remind them that older people at some point start to wish they were younger. A crazy kind of predicament. “So what is, from your perspective” I’ll ask them, “the most perfect age to be?” Most have answered from 18 to 23. Which I think is interesting. Yeah, that was a good chapter. But the truly golden chapter? Want my answer? From 25 to 45. Yup. That would be it. And maybe, if I were to commit to one perfect, golden year, it might be 32. Good times. !

I remember in my mid to late forties thinking “Hey, this isn’t so bad! I still look pretty good!” (I hadn’t yet put on the extra 20 pounds I live with now, so factor that in too…) And in truth, I still looked pretty much as I had over the past couple of decades. At least I was recognizable to friends I hadn’t seen in years. And that’s often the main ‘test of time’. We all know the importance of name tags on the gentlemen at our 20th high school reunion. Those poor guys either lose their hair or succumb to the gray. The women, on the other hand, have the culture’s permission to color and highlight their hair, augment its volume or length too; they are encouraged to whiten their teeth, they wear beautiful dresses and use makeup to augment their fading beauty. Men have so few tools with which to make up for what they’ve lost. Men must bear the progress of time in all its daunting honesty. Then may get off easy in so many other ways – but when it comes to aging, most of ’em can’t hide.

Allow me to advise those who are behind me in their progress… The magic years are, in my experience, from the mid 20s to the mid 40s. By 48 or 49 one begins to change, but it’s subtle. As with all organic changes of life, it seems to happen slowly, and the one day you notice something that wasn’t there the day before. This sort of thing seems to happen more and more frequently after 50. Hell, even 50 wasn’t all that bad. But over the following three years shit has just seemed to change in all the wrong ways. All the stories I’d heard uttered from the lips of my ‘older’ friends is now becoming my own personal experience. And this, I think to myself, is likely only the beginning. My chin is strange and saggy, my face looks older for reasons I cannot quite pinpoint, and my so-important fingers are now routinely dropping things and can no longer grip into fists. They throb, they ache, and they do not bend as they did even one month ago. Last night, when I sat at the piano to enjoy the final brisk measures of the Italian Concerto just for fun, I realized that my fingers did not posses the dexterity or strength that they had only before Christmas. My physical abilities had waned in just weeks. Strange, and hard to really understand.

And so another chapter closes, and a new one begins. Mr. Obama does not look older because of the many stresses and challenges over the past eight years of his presidency, no. He looks older because he is older. And I look older now because I am too. It is a hard thing to come to terms with. When I was a singer and presented all those great torch songs from the early part of the last century, I’d often remind my audiences that the topics of love, jealousy and revenge were nothing new or exclusive to this generation. In fact, the only reason we were all here today was because – wait for it – our grandmothers got laid! Maybe it was a little forward, and maybe it made people squirm a bit in their seats, but whatever. It’s true. Every generation is as hip as it gets. And if we live long enough, we then ourselves become no longer hip. Doesn’t mean we don’t remember what it felt like to have all that power –  oh, we do. That’s precisely why it’s so challenging to release the past and so bittersweet to remember it.

Please take this to heart, all my young and beautiful friends: there is an end to it all. Savor the moments as they unfold, for one day your sexy and exciting present will be just a memory from long, long ago. You too will pass through the witching window, and find yourself on the other side, a mere mortal with crepey skin, graying hair and a treasure trove of memories. Know it, but don’t linger too long in the thought. Instead, let it inspire you to take some risks, put yourself out there and grab all the life experiences you can, while you still have the strength to hold on tight.

rock-shot

Link to our YouTube channel: The Hillhouse

 

Rounding Corners February 4, 2017

It’s my hope that this blog doesn’t end up languishing in the virtual ether. Some weeks it seems there’s hardly time enough to take a shower let alone upload pics and cobble together some content…. I asked Elihu why it was that years ago, when my mother duties were non-stop, when I taught far more students than I do today, when farm chores and household repairs were mine alone – why in the face of all that, was I able to write more frequent posts, and to be more reflective about them too? These days it seems a month goes by and I find myself all of a sudden in a cold panic that I’ve let so much time pass; by one week’s time so much has happened I don’t know where to start, by three weeks’ time it seems as if a whole year has passed and the temptation exists to just forget the whole silly thing altogether.

I recently heard Fran Lebowitz say that just because everyone could write a book doesn’t mean everyone should write a book. I felt guilty when I heard this. Man. Was I one of those lame-ass, self-aggrandizing folks who thought their story was so compelling and insightful that I just knew everyone would want to read it if given the chance? A Facebook post of a high school friend recently asked friends for advice regarding the fate of her angst-ridden journals from years ago… Most advocated a toss into the fire, as Ms. Lebowitz would likely have endorsed. Me, I told her not to toss them, but to read them from her current perspective. To read them with compassion and curiosity. But that’s just me. I want to hear everyone’s story. (Maybe that’s why deep down I think that everyone secretly wants to read mine…)

Ms. Lebowitz also chides those who would write for the sake of writing alone.  She posits that one needs ‘something to say’ in order to write. That a person who would write must have a thorough knowledge on her subject. Those things, I might argue with some degree of confidence, I do have. Ms. Lebowitz also stresses the quality of writing, as well as its uniqueness. Hm. Do I possess a unique voice? A distinct style? Do I write prose of certain quality? Not so much, I’m thinking. There are times when I read my old writing and I think “Man, how naive this person is. This writing is so generic! And man, how self-involved (and likely young) this person is!” And I’ll say this not even realizing it’s my own writing. Proof positive that I don’t have a handle on any of that shit. Alternately, I might read some of my past material (again, not realizing at first that it’s me doing the talking) and think, “Damn, that’s exactly it! This person has nailed it… Why doesn’t anyone else make these observations?” But then again, it’s content alone that I’m responding to. Not style. Cuz really, I’m not sure that I actually have one. The only telltale sign that it’s me might be the reflective use of “but still”…

Indeed I digress, as I don’t intend to delve into literary criticism here but rather get to the action that’s been going on in our lives since the last post. Proof that this blogging effort is really about content, content, content! Quality be damned. Let’s get caught up, shall we?

Between The Studio, The Hillhouse, the aviation endeavors, the performances and the critters, there’s been enough to keep us super swinging busy. As Elihu comforted me the other day, after I’d asked him one too many times why it was so hard to get things done these days, “The Studio is a real thing now. Things are the way they are supposed to be. You’re busy with real things now.” Real indeed. An electric bill that exceeds my take by four times, a property that needs constant plowing and attention, insurance bills that don’t stop, and a roster of piano students that has dwindled to the lowest number since I moved here eight and a half years ago. Some things promise growth, but many others are still in flux – and the next era, while showing some signs of being just around the next corner, is not quite upon us. Not quite. But still…It’s getting closer…

country-roadsThe Studio sign is on the right, at the bend in the road.

scrambledSynclaire is a pro host, rapper and producer. Thanks to her, Express Yourself has become a scene.

img_3829Charlotte’s a favorite.

img_3895Ava (a Waldorf School kid) moved the crowd deeply, reading from her journals. Truly awesome.

express-1Rapping is more a part of this culture than I would have guessed. And let me tell you, it takes real talent to rap “off the dome” as the kids say.

sound-checkFrom Open Mic night to a full-on rock show. Things change a lot in 24 hours!

sangerGirl’s feelin it.

young-crowdNow it’s a younger crowd.

m-and-mdNext week it’s a chill evening for an older demographic.

blwLight shows play nicely on the angled ceiling. This was a really enjoyable event.

light-showA whole new look for The Studio. I think my dad digs this from wherever he is now. Yeah. He’s smiling.

close-upBleak Little World sounded great. A fun night.

self-portrait-hpschdLate night self portrait in the office. John Cage fans: note the HPSCHD poster in the back left. !

morning-at-the-studioJust six hours later after I left, cars arrive for the next day’s event.

yoga-classI had to have the floor mopped and dried in time for yoga at 9 am the next morning. Phew!

smiling-kKristin is a wonderful yoga teacher. Kind, gentle and in-tune with what her class needs.

chaosBack home our house is fairly chaotic. I do NOT enjoy this state of being.

e-makes-bfastBut thankfully, Elihu is learning how to take over some domestic duties. It makes us both feel good.

miss-e-at-the-pianoNow it’s time for Jesus Christ Superstar. Last time I played this challenging score it was with a band. And, I was 9 months pregnant with lil man. It came back fairly easily, but still, playing this book for an hour and a half straight (sans band) had me a little wiped afterward. Plus I had to keep a couple bags of frozen peas around to ice down my aching and arthritic fingers during rehearsals.

elihu-and-eThe kid still comes along with me most of the time. He’s pretty good about it, and always I tell him how much I appreciate it.

ms-carp-and-coThese kids worked their butts off. Gina, at left, is the most inspiring teacher and director. !!!

last-supperThe Last Supper.

ambulanceSadly, our friend – the light/soundman – fell from a ladder and needed attention ASAP. As of this writing he’s doing well – which is nothing short of a friggin miracle. We all loved our time with Chuck. He’s what you’d call a Really Good Human Being. Hard to imagine, but he returned the next two days to see us through our shows.

jsc-holding-handsChecking in before the night’s performance.

jsc-ready-to-goYeah, I’m pretending I’m a rock star. In case you were wondering.

friendsAfter the last show we went to Compton’s, the local diner on Broadway. These kids are all so comfortable with each other, so kind and generous. I’m so thrilled for their incredible performances.

waldorf-rocksLook! I got in the paper twice on the same page! For Express Yourself and our most rockin performance of Jesus Christ Superstar by the Waldorf School Seniors! (At the equally rockin venue Universal Preservation Hall.)

goodbye-sg-on-westEnd of an era. Saratoga Guitar closes its West Ave shop. For every chapter there has always been a certain guitar store that acted as a hub for my life. This location was that central hub for my life here in New York. Saratoga Guitar has now moved to Weibel Avenue. As I like to say: ‘Weibel is the new West’.

packing-upSad to see this room of so many memories now almost packed up.

field-house

Ah, but there are more changes afoot too. The house in the field is built and ready. There is still no light, but any day now that will change. And that will be the most profound and saddest change yet in a very long time.

tree-sky-1On a walk to the field I looked up and had a hard time comprehending the size and mass of the trees.

tree-sky-2Then I saw the tiny fingerlings of seedpods, so small, so close-up. From this contrast I gleaned the idea:    Incremental becomes monumental. (Let this notion inspire me as I contemplate yet another diet in my life. !)

awesome-lunchA perfect lunch followed the perfect walk in the woods.

img_6972Which was then followed by a quiet evening at home.

later-nightIt’s been a very busy month. We’re not depressed here, just kinda run down. Bedtime is always welcome!

penny-plane-3The result of a quiet night at home is this “Penny Plane”, so named because it weighs less than a penny.

May many more pennies find their way to us in the future!! Financially things are still pretty rough these days, but with the help of friends and family, we’ve made it this far, and to all of you who’ve helped us to stay afloat, we thank you with our love and deep gratitude. Honestly, I do think the hardest days are past. It really does feel like we’re about to turn a huge corner on our way to the future.

But still, there are a few challenging hurdles ahead. The photos we post here don’t always tell the whole story. Even so, they do reflect the lovely variety of happy events that we’ve been lucky enough to experience over the past few weeks. Both Elihu and I feel very fortunate to be living this varied and interesting life, right here and right now. And we hope that all of you reading, all of you, the friends we have yet to meet, will also come to meet your own bright futures very soon. Thanks for joining us on our continuing adventure, and we’ll see you around the next corner.

 

Snail’s Pace November 16, 2016

Filed under: An Ongoing Journal...,Growing Older — wingmother @ 8:47 pm

baby-and-mama-snail

It’s all hitting me again. We’ve lost so many beloved musicians, poets, dancers, artists, writers and journalists this past year that I can’t even begin to count them. The sense of loss I feel at their departure has me turning to look inward, to contemplate what was, and sometimes, to contemplate what might have been… To put it bluntly, their departures leave me feeling deeply bereft of hope for the world yet ahead, as well as feeling acute heartbreak for the culture and world we’re leaving behind.

The present is doing things to me tonight. In this moment in time I dearly miss my husband, the man I remember him to have been, the times we enjoyed together, the music we made, the friends whose company we enjoyed…. I miss that certain, specific life very deeply. I miss the chance we lost to be a family – all three of us; mother, father and child.

I wonder at the familiar things lost to us; a growing up, a journey, a shared story… Even now, years later, I can’t fully understand that he is gone, that he is a different person. That he is not coming back.

Elihu and I enjoy a full and rich life, yes we do. But somehow, the sorrows of the day have amplified that tiny, mostly-dormant voice of regret and loss that begs for some witness… a leaning, that, on most days – on healthy, vigorous and forward-looking days – I easily dismiss as a momentary weakness. Hopefully this week’s melancholy won’t last, as I’m feeling far more nostalgic and weak than is good or productive for either one of us.

My past may be gone, and my current weakness may leave me soon, but the Trump term will remain our new reality for the next four years, whether we voted for it or not. Just gotta get some sleep I suppose, some exercise too, and then re-boot for the months to come. At first I was merely sad. But now… I am scared, too. I’m scared for my son and for me. And beyond that, I feel a deeper, much realer threat for the citizens of Korea, and for those in the Middle East. And for we US citizens, too. And for all the innocent people in between who have nothing to do with the egos and agendas of a couple of narcissistic fellows in power trying to broker deals. My neck is beyond tight and my gut tells me I might have the flu, but both are simply physical manifestations of my deep concern for the state of the whole goddam world. Tylenol and Alka Seltzer don’t do much good when I’m feeling like this.

Trump and his cadre won’t take away our food stamps and heating assistance, ya think?? I can’t even entertain that idea right now; I’d collapse under any other outcome. Hopefully, in a year’s time The Studio will be my generous employer, and my son and I won’t spend another year in lack and apprehension for the future… Damn. Everything felt safe until now. Now it’s sad, scary and frankly, absolutely unpredictable. But I suppose in complete truth, that could be said of life on any given day. I’m fully aware that as natural-born citizens of this country we’ve still ‘got it good’. For now.

So never mind. Forget about it. We’re good. Shit – I’m even overweight! Is that not a signature problem of the middle class? Yeah. That helps calm me down. Honestly, forget it. I’m cool. We’re cool. Really. Don’t worry. Just venting here. Let’s all check back in a year from now and see how our realities have changed. My guess? Things won’t be all that different for those of us who live at the bottom of the pond… We snails move pretty slow, after all. It’s the minnows and the sharks that get all the action, not us. Snails are integral to the holistic profile of the environment; they’re low-maintenance and cost very little to feed and for the most part, no one notices them. And no matter how large they get, their curves – and their no-nonsense, keep-going attitude – are what make them the beautiful, resilient creatures we know them to be.

So onward we lowly snails go, eyes on the horizon (or safely retracted inside our heads, whichever), sure-footed yet cautious, and ever-moving into the future…

 

 

More Perfect November 8, 2016

Filed under: An Ongoing Journal...,Growing Older,Pics — wingmother @ 8:05 pm

tattered-flags

Mel Ziegler’s Flags at A More Perfect Union, Tang Museum, Saratoga Springs, New York

 

This time it doesn’t feel like business-as-usual. This time, this election, things feel very different. Or at least that’s what I had thought to myself a few minutes ago. And then I re-read my post from election night four years ago. Seems there were many more similarities to this time around than I’d remembered. But still… even taking into consideration how much this season shares with the one four years before – I’d still say 2016 is a different ballgame. The very least bit of evidence to support that is that one of the candidates is a woman.

Looking for a bit of humor to lighten our collective emotional load, I unearthed some long-forgotten material on Pat Paulsen. This comedian had run – legitimately – for president on numerous occasions. (I’d also learned that comic Gracie Allen, among others through the years, had also run for President in 1940 as a member of the Surprise Party, whose mascot was a kangaroo, and whose slogan was “It’s all in the bag”. Ha!) Elihu and I pulled up some videos and to my surprise, a lot of the material was just as funny all these decades later. I particularly liked Paulsen’s slogan “I’ve upped my standards, up yours too!”. For real, that’s some good shit. Right?

But what was altogether mind-blowing and wrong about that era – for as insightfully as those comics may have mocked the process and the politicians – it was still a time in our culture (not all that long ago to my 53 year-old mind) in which a girl was never even considered a possible future president. In fact, when we heard a bit of video in which narrator Henry Fonda speculated that every boy in America (at the 50 second mark) had likely imagined at one time what it might be like to be president, I had to replay it. What? I mean, really. What? My mind flashed to something my mother had said once about being pregnant in the 1960s: you pretended that you weren’t – up until the very end. There was no pantyhose made for pregnant women, instead you cut up the middle seam to accommodate your belly. To put it simply: it was not a women’s world. I’m still not sure it is, and even if Hillary does win tonight, I’m still not sure it will be a woman’s world anytime too soon. But thank God we are making some progress towards that universal goal.

Ok. Nothing to do now but go to bed. I’ll need a good night’s rest, because tomorrow morning I’m driving some of Elihu’s eighth grade classmates on a field trip to Albany, our state’s capital, as part of their government study block. Such timing, huh? It’s times like this when I’m grateful to be self-employed and able to participate. I want to be there, taking in the majesty and promise of those grand buildings and massive foyers… That feeling of hope and wonder one gets when standing in the midst of two hundred marble stairs a half-block wide… Oh how I pray the day is augmented by one of our nation’s most historic victories.

We know that good things come to those who wait, right? I mean seriously, how about them Cubbies? It wasn’t something any of us Chicagoans could’ve truly believed until that glorious moment. And so, as I go to sleep tonight, I can relax in knowing that victory is possible. Girls have the same rights as boys. And a really great country can still become even more perfect.