The Hillhouse

The Journey of a Mother and Son

Lemonade Lockdown March 21, 2020

As of tomorrow night, Sunday, March 22nd, the state of New York will be on lockdown. Some folks are miffed at the order and see it as much too extreme (perhaps they also see it as an invasion of their personal freedom – and isn’t that what this great country is all about?), and some folks have just been wondering when the order would finally come. For the two of us, the news brings relief.

In my personal life I know folks on both sides, and while I usually keep silent about such rifts, this time I’m in a mildly precarious situation regarding a student. She is one of the most musically precocious and talented kids I’ve ever had – in over 25 years of teaching – and her parents pay me generously. Her MD father revealed his feelings on the matter when I told him I was going to hold off on lessons for two weeks (in my mind thinking – no wait, make that four...). The parents had been to Florida the week before, and the eight year old younger brother has a habit of sucking on his lower lip, and spit on the keys is a predictable byproduct. With three kids home all day and a medical practice to run, I can understand how frustrating this news is, especially when personally, this fellow doesn’t support the lockdown. (How is it that the MD doesn’t see the value of self isolation? Nothing is self-evident anymore. Fundamentally, I think this shit is driven far more by emotion than by science.) I offered the best olive branch I could think of; would he be OK if I took his daughter along for a walk in the woods sometime? His face lightened, and he agreed. So that helped to defuse the situation.

Last night I thought I’d double-down and do things right. I set out to load up our pantry. Having just organized it the week before (a huge project I undertake but twice a year) I felt empowered by knowing its contents, and by knowing the things we might benefit from adding to it. The stores – at six in the evening – were a bizarre sight: four aisles completely empty – not a single item left standing in paper products. (I’d kinda blown off stocking up, thinking the toilet paper hysteria would blow over soon. Apparently it hasn’t as of yet. We’re down to a couple of rolls, but I’m still considering this to be a first-world problem.) The aisle with the canned vegetables, soups and dried beans was a wasteland, with just a few cans of pickled beets remaining. And pasta? Only the uber-pricey organic stuff from Italy remained. (At this writing it just occurred to me – was this out of fear? Was the perception of safety tainted by the country’s sky-high Corona cases? Oh dear…) Though usually I am a bottom-of-the-barrel shopper, buying house brands and no-name products, the situation sort of forced my hand and I ended up grabbing the remaining lone boxes – things I otherwise would have passed up. My $250 grocery bill – much more than my usual biweekly tab – attested to the boutique items in my haul. Pasta made from chick peas, wild rice, prepared rice side dishes (tasty, but so much crap and sodium in ’em), “theater style” microwave popcorn (we almost never have popcorn – but I have this romantic notion that Elihu and I just might watch a movie together!! Almost unheard of here in this always-busy household). Sadly, the two main things I’d come to get were both completely gone. Meat and toilet paper.  I guess I can finally scrap any hopes of going low carb this spring.

Wearing plastic gloves as I shopped, I was in the minority. And when I asked a clerk, frantically re-stocking cans of diced tomatoes if he worried at all, given his exposure to so many people, he answered “no” without any hesitation. “See the way I’m moving and sweating? I wouldn’t get it – I would sweat it out right away!” Hmm. Of course I laughed and agreed with him… But I was taken aback; does someone really think they can simply sweat a virus out of their system? I guess a person might not feel symptoms as acutely as others, but I don’t think it’s as simple as sweating it away.

Many on the street are cavalier. There is a feeling here in our town’s local convenient store that it’s all made up, that it’s all hype. There is a divide becoming visible, and it seems closely aligned with politics. Folks of the blue persuasion are keeping safe, respecting the rules of hygiene and social distancing. Folks in the red population tend to think that this is all hyped-up bullshit and they enjoy sharing a good chuckle about it all.

If you feel, as I and so many others do, that Trump is not only erratic and unintelligent, but most importantly dangerous – then you will likely be keeping that social distance, staying at home and practicing vigilant hand washing. But if you feel it’s our patriotic duty to fully stand behind everything that 45 says, you are likely still not convinced that Covid19 is your problem. Yeah, there might be lip service now, but Trump supporters are still stuck somewhere behind his original, flippant rhetoric. No matter what Donald might say going forward, deep in their hearts, the true Trumpers – at least the good ol’ boys who live all around me here in the hills – will continue to live life as usual, while complaining loudly about the imposition in hopes that the rest of us will overhear.

And me? Elihu? What are we feeling and thinking right now? There is a deep sadness at all of the things that are gone in an instant. Elihu was on the brink of litigating his team’s way to the winning spot in our region’s mock trial competition. Elihu was preparing for his tuba concerto with the orchestra on May 2nd. Elihu was looking forward to a tour of South America with the symphony, to studying at MIT in August, to traveling to Europe with his father. Elihu was at the very doorstep of an incredibly thrilling summer, and now… He has none of it. All of it cancelled or postponed.

When the reality sank in, I cannot tell you how deeply crushed my heart was. But a mix of stoicism and an innate positive attitude turned Elihu’s thinking away from the heartbreak, and instead toward a new future made possible by this sudden window of opportunity. Last night, when I returned from a day of errands, I found a young man who was now able to string together simple sentences in Japanese. It is a safe bet that by the end of May this kid will have four languages under his belt. And he’s started to compose music, he’s building new planes, he’s keeping his Instagram and YouTube accounts full of fresh material. He’s sharing his compositions with other young musicians who are themselves learning them and in turn posting their performances. Elihu’s even started to figure out how to teach tuba lessons online.

How do I feel about all of this newly-instituted isolation? I am thrilled. THRILLED to have nowhere to go. Thrilled to pause my exhaustive mom taxi service (remember, Elihu is legally blind and will never drive. Most moms begin to experience a little break from shuttling duty about now, but my job won’t cease until the kid’s away at college). I am thrilled to have a window of time in which to simply live. Thrilled that my son is close by, thrilled that this will give me an opportunity to see what a structure-less life feels like (before it descends on me in the fall of 2021). I’m thrilled to have this chance to actively shape our own life, and I’m relieved that for a short while we are mostly off the hook.

Facebook, the modern-day well at which the community gathers, is a tumble of chaotic chatter lately. Everyone is all aflutter about everything from the impending isolation to new bread recipes. People are apprehensive about being cooped up, and our feeds are endlessly stocked by fear-inducing images and news clips. Lines of people in their cars, waiting to have their nostrils swabbed to test for the virus, photos of iconic plazas and sites known for shoulder-to-shoulder crowds are now vast and vacant, video clips show people in Italy leaning out of their windows and singing to each other…

I admit that I spent the past few days (our first days with NO tuba, NO tutor, NO rehearsals, NO excursions, NO students) in bed. I just treated the abyss as a couple of full-on sick days. I propped myself up so perfectly with my favorite down pillows, grabbed a pair of reading glasses and pulled the phone to my face, joining my virtual tribe at the well until my poor phone got almost too hot to touch. I’m a bit embarrassed at how eagerly I too threw myself into the Corona-fray. I unintentionally hosted three redundant watch parties in my newbie enthusiasm to participate in the new online culture. I posted way too much, and way too frequently. I even joined Tik Tok in an effort to add variety to my amusements. (Elihu told me soberly, and out of love for his mother and in protection of her integrity, that people my age who engaged in Tik Tok were kinda looked at as losers. Just so I knew. I will be deleting my account shortly.)

When things are new, when they are novel (pun intended, sorry) it’s easy to see the possibility, to imagine what it feels like to live in a new and improved reality. But we humans all know that what follows behind the initial breath of hope and promise is usually nothing but a pale shadow of the inspiring first vision. My hope for this initial two-week quarantine is to 1) organize and clean my mudroom and kitchen, 2) take a hike on a local trail once a week if not more (yeah, right…), 3) get up and going with online lessons, 4) shovel out the coop and mend the fences, and finally 5) assess the winter’s damage on the property and begin to make piles of downed branches.

This may all seem easy enough – but everything takes gobs more time and energy than one might think. And I, late in my 56th year and missing some core strength I had only a few years ago, simply can’t do a lot of the heavy lifting I once used to do by myself. But thankfully Elihu is eager to help. It seems his increasingly strong young body needs and wants the physical work, for he bats not an eye when I share with him the tasks on our list. In fact, he cheers me on and tells me how easy it will all be. Could I be a luckier mom?

At this very specific moment in time I am as content as is possible. Somehow it feels like things will be alright. Hardly seems logical though! The list of things ever-running in the back of my mind is enough to make a sane woman weep…

I am fat (again) and have very few clothes into which I can still fit, my hair is thinning and my arthritic fingers continue to get thicker and more painful… I’ve had a sharp pain in my left breast and armpit for over a month, but I don’t want to look into it for fear of making a fuss over nothing, especially at this delicate time for the health system… There are fallen trees and enormous branches crisscrossing our property, mature and substantial weeds have grown up after last year’s absence of lawn-cutting, a huge pile of winter’s garbage flayed open by ravens and now wind-strewn across the grass awaits cleanup, there are bags upon bags of containers waiting to be shuttled to the recycling stations, there are cobwebs on every inside wall of my house and the basement is now taking on water with the melting of spring. And I have no income.

But what we do have here at the Hillhouse is space – blessed, wide-open space in which to move and breathe. We also have our freedom, our health, opportunity, nature, fresh air, fields, woods, chickens, grandma next door, great neighbors close by, a reliable internet connection, a full pantry and 150 gallons of fuel oil.

And now, to make some lemonade.

 

 

Ushering In December 31, 2019

When we arrive at a milestone, I think it’s human nature to offer up proclamations about the event’s significance. It feels restorative and hopeful at the conclusion of one chapter, and at the dawn of another, to identify the things that have happened, to acknowledge the lessons we’ve learned from those experiences, and to posit an improved vision for the future that awaits us.

I too feel the urge to summarize, to identify my overarching life themes of the past decade. A quick look through my personal journal entries from the past several New Years Eves shows that although I’ve lived through many, many adventures over the past ten years, my hopes at this time of year are nearly always the same. And each year my failings are also nearly identical. I have likely been wrestling with the same private demons for my whole life. While I do seem to get some purchase onto new ground each year that passes, sadly it seems to be at a much slower pace than I might have envisioned a decade or two ago.

This is not to say that I am the same person as I was in 2009. Good Lord no. Not a one of is, I should think.

It was in 2009 that I first called New York my home. And it was in 2010 when I first began to refer to our little homestead here as The Hillhouse. Shortly after that, I found I could no longer tolerate the emotional turmoil in my life without an outlet, and so my inner life found its way into an outer expression in The Hillhouse in Greenfield. I had no idea what I was even doing back then – all I knew is that I had to write, I had to get what was in me out of me. My objective was not to “have a blog” – I’m not even sure I quite knew what a blog was back then – all I knew was that I was starting my life all over in a new part of the world and I felt very alone. Heartbroken and hopeless. It was too much for me to bear, so I looked for expression and connection through the only means I had available.

Although it may seem far too obvious, I can see that today is a perfect marker, a perfect delineation between my then and my now (and beyond)….

The very first and most obvious piece of evidence I think of is that of my advancing age. At 56 it might not seem that aging should be foremost in my mind – but it is. And it’s more than just vanity. Yes, a great deal of it – if I’m to be completely honest – is about vanity, but more disturbing are the physical changes that are occurring that will come to adversely affect me at some point. There’s the stuff that’s to be expected: weight gain (one must become vigilant about careless food and drink after 50, I’m convinced of it now!), there’s the loss of height, but most alarming is the rapid change in my hands and my joints. My spine is succumbing to gravity, my hips are so much tighter than they’ve ever been, and my fingers seem to lose their grip on something daily. At age 18 I broke my neck, and in the past few months the injury has come back to cause me some concern; I now feel slight electrical tingling in my arms and even my head itself, and from this new reality I don’t know if there is any retreating.

This is tolerable when I think on the few things of value I may yet add to the planet. One thing, of course, is my son Elihu. He is what motivates me to get out of bed in the morning, and I know for sure he is the main thing that keeps my almost 85 year old mother going too. There are a few things I still need to do (doesn’t everyone feel that way?) and if I can conclude this personal business then I believe my growing impairments will be slightly less frightening. I have a list – lest you think I’m just wishing for a few more good nights on the town and a couple more singing dates – and I will henceforth take care to clearly map out the steps and check them off in a timely fashion. First thing on the list: get the kid into MIT. In the coming year all else will be a sidebar. My job now is to support my son in any way that he needs. Once he’s launched, I can turn my attention to the rest.

I look so different, so much older, than I did when we moved here from Chicago. And I kinda wished someone would’ve given me a heads up. Maybe then it wouldn’t have come as such a surprise. But is anyone ever truly ready for this? For me, things were pretty much ‘business as usual’ until I hit 53. Then stuff just kinda started to change really fast. I look at my friends through the lens of Facebook, and I can see the witching hour making itself apparent in their countenances too. Protestations are silly. I am SO not a fan of people talking about “internal beauty” or “80 years young”. Fuck that. Seriously, fuck all that bullshit. The bloom is off the rose already. There is no going back. No 60 year old is more beautiful to gaze upon than a 30 year old, and reduced flexibility and mobility suck. Sure I’m smarter, more experienced and more insightful than I was even a decade ago – but that aint gonna stop my hands from dropping the last wine glass on the kitchen floor or finding my limbs painfully stiff after a half hour on the couch. Sure, I workout regularly – and plan now to workout even more, and yes I will be increasingly mindful of the things that I need to do in order to stay at the best of my physical abilities, but the march of time – the physical declining of my body – this will not ease up as time passes. And this is a reality that is only just now truly settling in. I feel that the more deeply I can make peace with this aging thing, the easier it’ll be to move through it. To move through the next decade, more specifically.

And then there is my mother. She too is proof of the big changes that have transpired over the past decade, as her own physical situation has deteriorated quite a bit in just the past few years. I can look at her and get a fair idea of what lies ahead for me. I have her hands, her bad and scoliotic back, her bad right knee… It doesn’t worry me as much as it might have if I’d had no warning; at least none of this will come as a surprise to me. What is a tad surprising is the way in which my mom has recently begun to make offhand remarks about her death. We were looking at a reclining chair for her a few days ago and she said something about choosing a color that I liked. And I can assure you there was no hint of humor in her voice… While a year ago she would talk about living to see Elihu graduate from MIT (yes, we do like to put this particular cart before the horse), now she has amended that to say that she would be happy just to live to see him be accepted at MIT. And that is a different thing. Her heart is in continual Afib these days, so as a result she’s very easily winded and finds her energy gone after simple tasks. I can understand how she’s losing the resolve to envision things she once did. Her talent and gift to the world has always been that of superb cook and host; with that role diminished to only a handful of dinners a year, and hardly the energy to see those to fruition as things are presently, I can imagine this hits her hard. We Conants don’t really talk about feelings as a family. Never have. And so as we find ourselves in this new territory – on the verge of a decade that promises to bring change upon us more dramatically than ever before – deep inside I think we are feeling the sorrow of imminent goodbyes and major shifts in our reality…

I’ve spent a good deal of time wondering at the things one must do in order to find resolution and conclusion in life. My feeling is that if one takes all the chances one can, if one makes strangers smile and occasionally rescues spiders from the vacuum cleaner, if one is generally a kind person who does things to the best of their abilities – then there should be no regrets, no nagging feeling that their life has somehow missed its mark. I have very few regrets – I might even be so bold as to say I have none – because I know that if I were presented with the same choices in the same time and with the same emotional tools as I had at the times of those choices – then I would most likely behave in the same way. If one simply acts as a good person in their own sphere of influence, then I honestly believe they’ve done a fine job at being human. And I should think that believing this would help a person to accept the changes and losses that life inevitably brings. Of course my ending is not showing itself to me in an acute or obvious way at the moment, so it’s easy for me to say this now. We shall see.

When we moved here just over a decade ago, a majestic beech tree stood in the yard. It was enormous, and right after the view, it was usually the first thing one noticed on the property. A few years into our residency here the tree began to drop its topmost limbs. Where once we could see only branches, now the sky was showing through. I was told by many folks that the tree was in the process of dying. At first it was alarming; we really loved our beech tree and couldn’t imagine the space without it. Maybe it was dying – I mean, after we’re grown and have physically matured, are we all not in the process of dying? – but yet it was still so beautiful. It never ceased to be stunning. It’s probably lost a third of its volume in the past few years – it is not the tree we first knew. But this does not stop it from being regal. It does not prevent us from loving it as we did. These days I can begin to imagine how the space will look when it’s finally gone. Where there once was shade there will be a great patch of light. It will be a huge change on the property. And then, one day, it will not. When the reigning tree has reached its limbs to the sky and then finally dropped them all onto the ground, it will have been the completion of a tree’s perfect life.

And that resulting patch of sunlight will usher in a fresh new chapter.

 

 

Crossroads October 2, 2019

Elihu’s big brown eyes looked at me from across the tiny kitchen table. His eyes don’t meet mine much; having limited vision and a ticky disposition, his eyes often dart around, glancing low and to the side, seldom directly at me. “I’m at a crossroads”, he said. I waited for more; sometimes he just says something as a setup with a punchline to follow. I saw no smile beginning on his face, and he said nothing. “You’re at a crossroads?” I asked. He waited another moment. “Yes. And it just hit me tonight”.

It was already past eleven on a school night, and we’d just returned from his weekly rehearsal with the Empire State Youth Orchestra, the highlight of his week. It was a place where he’d finally found his brethren, a place where he had finally found his joy – one that other peers could share with him. A solitary child, this was a revelation and a relief –  for both of us. Last night he’d had a sectional rehearsal with the other low brass players. Elihu had never worked with anyone like this coach before. The session was less about playing, and more about discussing the conceptual aspects of being a musician. Elihu revealed his mathematician’s mind in his answers to the coach’s questions. When no other kids spoke up, Elihu would proffer a response. He was a year younger than the others there, and he was the only one who wasn’t planning on pursuing a career in music, and yet he was more engaged in the conversation than the rest. Elihu said that he could see the thought passing through the coach’s mind: Why wasn’t this kid going to study music? Elihu said that all of a sudden he sort of popped out of his body and viewed the scene from a third person’s perspective. “And the question became obvious to me too: Why wasn’t I going to study music?”

When I’d arrived to pick Elihu up after rehearsal, the teacher who’d led the sectional slowed as he passed me in the parking lot. He turned to me, his horn cases hanging there at his side, and he seemed to be forming a thought. He seemed to want to say something to me, but then after a beat he turned and walked on. I’d noticed this, and had wondered if there hadn’t been some observation he’d wanted to share with the kid’s mom. Perhaps.

Elihu and I began to talk about this idea. Sometimes, when one has a talent or an affinity for something, one feels an obligation to honor it formally. And this was why, I reiterated to my son, I was adamant about finding him a school with a strong music program. He didn’t have to major in music, he just had to keep playing. At the end of the day, we knew where his passion lay. Aviation consumes his thoughts (when he’s not thinking about tuba!) and it has since day one. Ok, so he has picked up the french horn in the past month, yes he can play any recorder extremely well, he can get some sound on a trumpet now too, but that is all stuff that he can continue to do on his own. He’s so naturally talented that it creates in each of us the temptation to just go for it. To take it and excel. But at some point one has to choose. And so we sat together at that tiny island in the kitchen, the silence heavy around us, reviewing the case in our thoughts. Music was important, but aviation was more important. “I think I feel a little sad”, he said. “Yeah, I know what you mean”. But what can one do? Only so much.

This morning when we were talking in the car about his last two years in high school, mapping out the landmark events and making mental notes, we came to realize that next year, his senior year, he won’t have the time to play in the symphony. There will be no concerto audition next year; this year was it. “This is my music year” he said quietly, but confidently. “Yup, this is your music year sweetie. So enjoy the hell out of it.” We turned on the classical station and listened with running commentary until we arrived at school.

It has been months since I’ve written about our lives. A half a year, more specifically. And this mystifies me – how is it that I can’t cull a few hours from my schedule to write a silly post? Partly it’s due to a lack of time and a full life, but it’s more than that. It’s that phenomenon of having so much to do, not doing it, and then falling even further behind. So much has happened that it becomes more and more daunting to try and catch up. Where oh where could I even begin?

This past spring we had Leevi living with us, the exchange student with whom Elihu lived last year at this time in the south of Germany. He became a part of our family, and we had a crazy-full life. His room became a recording studio, and I took on double the mom taxi duties. Feeding another body was a challenge too; I ended up putting groceries on my credit cards, something I’m still feeling the weight of. But this was an experience I could not refuse. The past year was about language and travel, and debt be damned, we won’t remember the bill, but we’ll always remember the experiences.

On the heels of Leevi’s departure, I had Elihu begin private French lessons. My thinking is this: Elihu’s schedule will never be as open as it is now, and his brain will never be as plastic and adept at taking in new skills as it is now. I noted to him that I made the most pronounced advances in my musical skills – learning techniques that continue to serve me now – between the ages of 14 and 18. He concured, and so, taking this to heart, he threw himself into the language lessons and he is now comfortably trilingual. For many other folks from around the world this is nothing to write home about, but for an American kid, I think it’s a tidy achievement.

On the last Saturday of summer this year, we finally buried the old rooster Bald Mountain and Austin, our goofy guinea fowl. We’d spent the sunny hot day harvesting grapes on the vineyard that now lives on Martha’s farm. When we returned home, we collected the frozen bodies from the chest freezer where they’d lain for almost two years now. It was a perfect day; warm, sunny, the air full of tiny flighted creatures buzzing off in all directions. Elihu carried Austin, and I carried Baldie. We set them down, side by side, in the hole that was dug beneath the flowering quince bush, where the old flock used to rest in the afternoons. We stepped back, but it wasn’t quite right. I kneeled down and scooched them together, so that they were spooning. “That feels better, doesn’t it?” I asked Elihu. “Yes, it does feel better”. We stood there, saying nothing, looking at our beloveds. This was to us like saying goodbye to a dog or cat. “We had them both for eight years”, Elihu said, looking down at the two birds. I said nothing, as I wanted to leave space. And then, Elihu started to cry. At first the edges of his mouth curved down in an alarming way, and soon he was sobbing. My son so seldom cries. This was hard to see, but necessary for him. I had already had my cry, but he hadn’t. I touched his arm to offer some comfort – knowing how he disdains physical contact – but what else could I do? He continued to cry, and I waited. And then he turned, and he put his arms around me.

“This is the end”, he said through tears. The late afternoon sun was still warm, but it seemed that a chill was waiting to take its place. “It’s over. My childhood is over. It just came to me. These guys were my childhood. And now, they’re really gone. And so is my childhood”. I could not disagree. Truly, this was the end of that chapter. I’d often felt ridiculous for not having buried them sooner – but life just never presented a window. Now I could see that it was perfectly timed. In the time since the fellows had left us – two years this coming December – we took a small comfort in knowing their familiar bodies still resided with us. Seeing them again after all these months was also somehow comforting – it presented us with a sweet opportunity for closure. We stroked their beautiful feathers one last time, we marveled over Baldie’s enormous spur, over Austin’s helmet. After a few moments more, looking down onto our old friends, we each threw a fist of dirt to begin the farewell.

And then the young man took the shovel and filled the hole.

 

 

 

Embedded February 10, 2019


Elizabeth singing with David Amram at Caffe Lena in Saratoga Springs, New York

There’s no time to write, no time to think, no time to plan. Life at the Hillhouse these days is just running from one fire to the next, one challenge to another…

I refer to my spiral notebook of to-do lists so that my heart will remain hopeful at all of the items that are now crossed out. With so many items checked off the list, why is it that life still feels like a fruitless, Sisyphean maze without a happy destination? Centered folks with a handle on their shit will tell me it’s all about the journey, the process. Yeah, well there are times when I enjoy the ride, yes, but for the most part right now I’m feeling compressed, broke and apprehensive. And honestly, there are so many things I’d rather be writing about than how stressful things are. But I have a hunch that a whole lot of my friends are also feeling the squeeze of life right now too.

I know one day I’ll miss this time. I do, but still… Sometimes, when I realize that I’ve been standing at that same stupid kitchen sink washing the same goddam dishes over and over for a fucking decade, I am overcome with a profound sense of frustration. But then I’ll remember in an instant that Elihu will be in college in two short years… There will be plenty of time then to arrange programs for the Studio, cull the crap from the garage and fix the chicken run fences. Plenty of time for all that domestic shit that just takes time and muscle. (But then I worry all over again; will I have any energy or muscle left by then to deal with it all?)

A week ago I had the good fortune to sing with my old pal David Amram. Elihu and I went to hear him at Caffe Lena, and he invited me up. For that one moment I remembered how it used to feel… Man, there is nothing like it. It felt like I was flying, weightless through space, supported by a warm, loving cloud… It reminded me of the same way I felt when, at 17, I recorded in the studio for the very first time. That feeling of hearing myself through the headphones, lifted by reverb into a starry, endless universe… It was enough to remind me that there is more to life than the to-do list and the dishes. But it’s still not quite within reach. Not quite yet.

I hadn’t planned on writing a post this morning, but now that I’m here at my desk I may as well catch folks up on the current doings here at the Hillhouse…

Elihu is continuing to amaze me; he’s on the mock trial club for his school (they have real trials in a courtroom presided over by an actual judge), he’s learning French now (I’m guessing by June he’ll be considered trilingual), he’s building gorgeous planes and continuing to post his builds on YouTube, and he’s kicking some ass on the tuba. On Saturdays Elihu is a tour guide at the local military museum, a post he enjoys – something that I could never have seen coming a year ago. There is a lot on his plate these days; homework often keeps him up until past midnight, and as a mother, it worries me. It’s always been my goal to keep my child’s life under-planned so that he might never feel undue stress (that will come in time!), so recently I apologized to him for having let his life become so full of commitments, but he assured me that he liked it that way (in his own words he describes himself to be an “aspiring overachiever”!). I’m deferring to his judgement on that. His life is really on his own terms now.

Last week, while driving Elihu to the military museum for his afternoon shift as a docent, we were accosted by an inebriated and angry young man (there was an outdoor festival in town) who, while crossing the street in the middle of the block, screamed as us that I was driving too fast. I waved to let him know I was aware of him, that he needn’t worry. He yelled at me again, and in my endless quest to be understood by everyone, I opened the window and told him not to worry, when in a better version of the universe I would’ve kept my mouth shut, and moved along on my way. My protest enraged him even more, and so as we drove off he swung his hardshell guitar case at the car. There was a loud cracking sound, and the car rocked. Sensing there might truly be damage, I pulled over, assessed the door and then followed him as he tried to retreat, yelling at me that “the pedestrian was always right”. The impact of his swing did make a dent, and the paint was chipped too. A small mark, but enough to compromise the finish and create a crease in the line of the door. To say that my heart sank is an understatement. (Keeping things in check I reminded myself that this is a first-world problem.) I’m grateful that his mother was there too; her peaceful energy was like an eye in the storm. She offered to pay for the repairs and gave me her cell number too, and so after I dropped Elihu off at his job, I visited the police station to file a report. This past week I’ve had to add body shop appointments to my list, and the issue is still likely weeks away from resolution. Ah well. Just gotta keep going.

Not long ago Elihu and I learned that his father was having another baby. It kinda threw us for a loop; Elihu had settled on things as they were (he and I had enjoyed a surprisingly lovely visit in London this past November with his half sister and her mother, and on that front things were very good indeed). Elihu said that it was hard news for him to hear, but suspected it would feel more normal as time went on. It was strange how hard the news hit me. I’d thought all that pain was gone, resolved and for the most part over. But there it was again, fresh; a reminder of how I’d never gotten the chance to have another child, how I was robbed of the possibility of a true family, how my partner had vanished without my consent. All at once the contrast was in my face; I myself was beyond menopause now, and somehow my ex’s wife was still in that youthful window of fertility. The wound opened up all over again. For a few weeks my stomach ached in an old and familiar way. But thankfully, in the month or so that’s passed, it’s subsided. My life won’t change much for this turn of events, and likely neither will Elihu’s. Crazy how stuff happens, and how one must shift one’s thinking to understand it all. Once again the landscape has changed in a way we never could have expected.

Our exchange student Leevi is coming from Germany at the end of March, and the house is topsy-turvy in preparations for our guest. A resident barred owl has picked off several of our hens; a plastic great horned owl sits atop a perch that we must move daily in order to appear a plausible threat to the henhouse predator. The weather continues to present challenges with flooding in our house and frozen pipes at the Studio. I can’t seem to get back on the diet train and feel fat and rather unhappy with it, but for the time being I simply can’t fret over it. There are too many other things to set right first.

So there it is friends, a rather hastily penned update.

Embedded below are links to websites which I recently created in order to hang ourselves a shingle out in the virtual world. Thought I’d try splainin to people what it was that we did in a more succinct fashion. Peruse Elihu’s site, won’t you please, dear friends? A lovely Valentine’s gift might be your subscribing to Elihu’s YouTube channel… (A mother’s thank-you in advance.)

ElizabethConant.com  (The main site to which all the others are linked.)

Copterdude’s site

Copterdude’s YouTube channel

Not Your Mother’s Piano Teacher site

Singing70s (and more) site

Elizabeth’s Instagram (hillhousewoman)

Elihu’s Instagram (copterdude)

The Studio in Greenfield’s site

 

Chameleon August 13, 2018

big hat 2

I am not a fan of change. Not at all. I pretty much like things the way they are. I like things simple, and I really like routines. I fairly thrive on the predictability in my life. But I’m also big on wild, serendipitous romps, and those who know me well will understand I’m not terribly keen on rule-following, which can make for some fun life adventures. These two approaches to life might seem at odds with each other, but for me they’re not. It’s not terribly hard for me to slip into other people’s worlds, observe, participate as if I belonged there, and then retreat back into my own private universe when the party’s over. I’m pretty good at wearing a bunch of different hats. Seriously. You should see my closet.

Recently, I enjoyed an unexpected foray into the horse racing culture here in my town. I’d had a good look at it from the inside the year before, so this year I had a much better idea of how to dress, what to say, what not to say. I was thankfully in the company of pals from back in my high school days on Chicago’s Northshore, so my edit function was a bit softened. But not so much so that I didn’t ask questions, that I didn’t pull out my small notebook and jot down some observations. And when my friend shouted, “Liz, winner’s circle, now!” after a race, I readily dropped my phone, bag and journal and followed the entourage down the stairs and out onto the side of the racetrack, where we lined up for a group photo of the owners and trainers. My host’s girlfriend refused to join us, maybe because the whole affair was intimidating. I can see how it could be. But me, all I could think as I looked back up at the grandstand was “once in a lifetime”.  And although the cheap fascinator clipped to my head had seemed a weak choice all afternoon, it turned out to be just the ticket for the photo op. I could just imagine my mother saying to me as she had all throughout my youth and young adult life: “Kid, you live right”. Yup, I admit it. Sometimes I’m lucky.

If it weren’t for the fact that I’ve been raising poultry for almost a decade now, I might still not believe that I myself really am a country girl. It flatters my ego to pass insider small talk at the feed store, and especially at the livestock auction house – where for goodness’ sake the workers always remember me and ask where I’ve been after long absences! – but secretly I almost always feel like I’m pulling one over on everyone. I’m not posing, not at least at this point in the game, but deep down, I always feel as if I kinda am. My muck boots and brown felt farmer’s hat guard against anyone being the wiser, but me, I always know better. Am I a country girl? Yes, and no…

When you play piano for three hours at one sitting in a busy restaurant, you never know who’s listening. Sure you can eye the crowd, get a good feel for the demographic, overhear a conversation or two to help inform your musical choices, but at the end of the day (or the end of the night as it were) you really can’t know. A couple of weeks ago an unassuming middle-aged foursome left the room after tucking a tip in the jar. “I really enjoyed Where Are You? ” one of the men said, smiling and waving as he exited. That was a tune very few would’ve known, and the generation that did was getting a bit too old to be making their way to this downstairs dining room. Musta been a musician, I’d guessed. You just never know the hats that folks are wearing which you just can’t see…

At the age of seventeen I was hospitalized for depression. I guess. Back then folks didn’t know the nuances of mental illness; panic attacks were simply lobbed into the mix with bipolar disorder and anorexia and any other possible affliction of the mind and spirit. We who suffered from any of these ailments were all sent to live with each other in close quarters, and made to push our chairs together in a circle each day to unburden ourselves to the room. It was there that I met a very drugged up man in his late twenties (all ages from teen to elderly shared the unit) whom I’d been quick to dismiss as all but lost. I remember his round, balding head, that he shuffled about, unable to lift his feet individually, and his lips were always shiny due to a constant drool (which I knew he could not control but which did not stop me from passing an unfair judgement of him). He and I were talking once and I had lamented how no one could understand me. How I just plain felt different from everyone (yeah, I know this is the song that every 17-year-old on the planet sings, but please just go with me here). Tom said he knew what the problem was: I was a chameleon. He’d observed how I’d changed my way of speaking to different people based on what I thought would make them comfortable. He said that he’d watched as I’d become someone completely different with each interaction. Immediately, it hit me. Yes, I did that. Yes, he was right. This man, so terrifically slowed by his meds, so dulled by his interminable residency there, he had observed me as no professional had. “You’re a chameleon” I remember him repeating, to make sure I understood. He wasn’t just saying some shit inspired by antidepressants. This guy saw all the hats and knew that none of them were mine – and all of them were, too.

Wearing so many hats can be thrilling, but it can also become a tad burdensome. The hats that I present to the world here in my writings can give some folks the illusion of having a personal relationship with me, when in truth, there is no such relationship. Recently I’ve been getting a little insight into what being familiar to a lot of people might look and feel like in real life (I hesitate to use the world ‘famous’, but well, you know what I mean). Mostly I’m pretty thrilled to get private messages from folks, and I’ve even made a few friendships through this platform, but wearing so many hats – and wearing them so publicly – makes it easy for folks to think they know exactly who I am. As a friend once said so candidly about my writing: my words are ultimately self-selected. One might take this to mean: how would you know if I was making it all up? How would you know when I embellished or when I omitted things to skew the results, to make you like me better or sympathize with my plight?

The answer is: you cannot know. Because I simply have too many hats in my closet, too many dresses in too many colors. I am, after all, a chameleon.

 

 

 

Morph August 1, 2018

Waiting. Waiting three weeks for my son to return from China. Waiting to muster the resolve to stop drinking empty calories in wine and light beer to help make it through. Waiting for the renewed oomph to workout regularly again. Waiting for the hope, the inspiration, the vision. Waiting for the skills to run this silly arts venue. Waiting not to be afraid. Waiting for the arthritis in my body to cease its progress. Waiting to play more interesting solos. Waiting to learn how to earn a livable wage. Waiting. Waiting for something, something to change inside of me…

I suppose that’s not completely accurate. I’m changing alright. Without my understanding – and before I could gather my wits and fully understand that it was truly underway – my body joined that population of the fading. Of those past their physical prime. Past their mental prime too. It feels like very little prime overall is left in my own personal pump. But I need to make what’s left last just a while longer. I’m bitching, whining, doing this passage-of-time thing without a lotta class, and I know it. Searching rather desperately for ways to age without losing me. How do I do this? Waiting for the answer. Reading essays of those who’ve gone through this themselves, remembering how my ancient father lamented that as a little boy he’d watch men like him and think that he would never become a tottering old man himself, and yet there he was… Watching half a dozen monarch caterpillars turning into butterflies in my kitchen. Posting a pic of the glorious new creature perched on my nose. Noticing the vague new contours of my face. Realizing that the changes that await me are not like the those of the caterpillar. Thinking back… just when exactly was I a butterfly? And when I was a butterfly, did I fully understand how glorious it was to fly? Not completely. But now, of course, I begin to get it.

When I awoke early this morning, at around 4 am, I checked my phone and saw that my son, who had not texted or called me anytime in the past few days, had arrived with his father and the ‘other’ family in China. I have a friend in Beijing who told me not to expect communications of any kind, so this was a surprise, and a relief. But with this news a queer and foreign feeling entered my consciousness and made me feel almost weightless and sick: my only child was without me on the other side of the planet, and I had no control over a single thing that would happen to him. I felt as if I were in a dream, I felt untethered and all of a sudden, without a distinct purpose.

You may say that my child being half a world away is the reason behind all of this self-sorry nonsense. And goodness, Elizabeth, we all age. Mine are first world problems, are they not? I suppose if I knew how it was that I would make a living for the remaining several decades (something tells me I’m not off the mortal hook for a while) I might rest easier into this shift. But facing growing old and having no substantive source of income is a huge stress to me. I suppose I could get a job as a clerk at some shop in town – but the last time I did, upon moving here ten years ago, it did not end well. I have never done well at traditional desk/cashier/clerk-type jobs. But I have enjoyed moderate success at hundreds of unusual jobs; I’ve been everything from Tony the Tiger (yes, costume, paycheck from Kellogg’s and all) to deckhand on a boat. I’ve also typed, answered phones and fumbled at cash registers, I’ve taught classes, I’ve hosted radio shows, I’ve raised chickens, sung a cappella in front of thousands of people… Oh so many jobs, hats, achievements, and yet… These days if you ask me what it is that I do for a living, I do not know how to answer that.

Folks are fond of telling me that “I should write a book”. Yeah, I dunno. Isn’t that what this blog already is? And who needs another memoir on their bedside table? I would like to pen a Wikipedia page for my father, but even that seems just insurmountable from where I sit right now. There are too many things to do, too many administrative tasks that need my attention. (How on earth would I manage to organize my content into a book when I can’t even keep my website updated in a timely fashion?) So many ruminations thread through my brain in the long hours of the night when I cannot sleep, but retrieving them while sitting at the keyboard just isn’t happening even as it used to a year ago. In real time I forget words and names which I know I wish to use, yet cannot retrieve from my mind. Things are indeed different now than a couple of years ago. It seems I am truly entering into a new personal age. I just don’t know what the fuck it will be about.

I also worry that there will be no one with whom to share it with. But is this not a choice? I see my mother and several other older friends who deeply cherish their independence and solo lifestyle – just as I do – and I see their individual worlds contracting. My mother tells me she has so much work to do, and then I see her at her desk attending to a stack of solicitations from Native American groups and alley cat rescues. A pile of dream catcher key chains and return address labels with cat photos attest to her main business these days. I can’t begrudge her this; it is her role at this late stage of life. These are the tiny reasons that drive her, that help to give her a purpose. I get that. And she funds much of The Studio’s ongoing needs too, so she derives her sense of purpose through this as well. If only I could.

The Studio, the few students I have and the even fewer gigs, none of it serves to define my reason for leaving a carbon footprint. I have three more years to shepherd the kid into college – and that alone will be a part-time job, with all the scholarships and such that we must hunt down – but when he is launched and out, what then? I have told Elihu that I intend to follow him. That I will not be a burden, but that I will also not allow myself to live far away. I want to know his wife, my grandchildren. I wish to be solitary, but not. Kind of like my mom and her son. Just enough, but not too much. So this plan lingers, somewhere in the not-too-distant future, and that helps. But the space in between now and then is still fuzzy. Waiting. Waiting…

A couple of the chrysalises in the kitchen have stopped in the middle of their process. While one hatches, the neighboring package turns darker still; no patterns begin to show beneath the papery outsides. For some unknown reason, the change has ceased. There will be no butterfly, there is nothing more to wait for. It’s tempting to see this as some cryptic sign from the universe, but I scold myself that it is not.

For these creatures, stopped in the middle of their great changing, the waiting is over, the most exciting parts of their lives are history. I wait, and I wonder. Will another change arrive for me? I am fairly sure the most exciting parts of my life are over too, and I am certainly not going to grow wings again, but I hold out hope for one more chapter, just one more adventure… I await one more chance to morph.

________________________________________________________

 

Dear Readers: Although I thank you in advance for your sincere love and concern, please do not send me private messages suggesting I seek professional help, do not suggest that I take a 9 – 5 job, that I hire someone to do the admin work for me (with what money?) or offer solutions. If you have a good house sitting gig in Saratoga, or wish to simply underwrite my low-key life in the country, that’s fine. Otherwise, don’t fret. (Also, haters, please, don’t share your hate or contempt for my feelings. There is nothing productive that comes of all that nonsense.) This too shall pass, and please remember that this blog has always represented my deepest, most uncensored expression, and if we all took an honest look inward I’m pretty sure our revelations wouldn’t always appear as the bright and shiny aspects of our best selves that we might wish them to be.

 

Two Days’ Time June 28, 2018

 

“It happens to you about two days out of every two weeks” my son said as we sat together at the kitchen island, me with my face in my hands. “A couple days in a row, that’s all”. I don’t cry often, but hot tears were welling up without any effort. It’s not possible to describe it in words, but the pain is real. So real, so acute. The feeling of despair and hopelessness is so complete in those moments that it’s impossible to envision life feeling otherwise. But at least it helped to have a number. I considered the data. Four days out of a month. One day a week. Yeah, I guess that wasn’t so bad. If that’s really all it was, I guessed that I could deal with that. I was so glad my son was there with me, because he helped to take the edge off, to give me a ray of hope. Sometimes I wonder what I’d do without him. No, I would never kill myself, if that’s what you’re thinking. No, I couldn’t. Too much is riding on me in this lifetime. But therein lies the main issue. This is precisely what pushes me over the edge. It feels like it’s all on me. The Studio, my falling-apart old house, the chickens, my kid’s needs, the arthritis in my fingers which gets worse all the time, the bills that are never, ever paid in full… It’s all of that, and also perhaps a smidge of my family’s genetic predisposition to mental health issues. It’s a good thing I can express myself, that I can identify my feelings and issues and put a voice to it all; it’s essential to my sanity and my ability to soldier on.

My brother and only sibling is an alcoholic, a hoarder and social hermit. Hasn’t had a job or a girlfriend in over twenty five years. Without a diagnosis one can only guess at the problem, but that’s not important. His reality is all the evidence needed to indicate his deep distress. My brother is paralyzed by his illness, and angry at the world for it. My mother plays her own role in this drama too; she pays all of his bills and allows him to use her car. She opens her house to him so that he can prepare food and use the internet. A heavy hush falls about her household when my brother is present, sulking and tapping away at his laptop in fruitless labor. She cannot speak freely with her son about this unhealthy situation – the only conversation that passes between them is small talk to fill the space, if even that – and it’s my suspicion that my mother feels guilty about his inability to function in the world, as if it were all her fault. It isn’t, of course, because dysfunction has many moving parts, but I don’t think she’ll ever truly feel it’s not all on her. And so to assuage her guilt and provide her son the best life possible, she gives him all the support he needs to get his booze, eat, do his laundry, live and continue the unwell routines of his life.

This, as anyone can see, is helping to perpetuate the dysfunction, but as long as she lives it won’t be any different. The two have a mutually beneficial relationship; my brother’s needs are met as he continues his efforts to numb the pain that can never go away without proper attention. And my mother enjoys her solitude without having to be completely alone. They are each others companions, whether they talk to each other or not. Whether they even realize it or not. It’s not my place to rock the boat that sustains them, and so I don’t try to fix things anymore. My mom likes to boast of her generation’s frugality and prudence, but along with that gift has come the burden of secrecy and an innate discomfort with speaking aloud deep truths, thereby exposing vulnerabilities and shortcomings. Hopefully I’ve managed to create a much healthier and self-aware future for my son. If Elihu makes it into adulthood with some optimism and skills to identify the things that trouble him, then I feel the Conants have made it out of the woods.

But for now, three of us are still trying to find our way through the forest of life, each dealing with our own situation the best we are able. I can’t fault my brother for self medicating, and I can’t fault my mother for putting her head in the sand. Everyone behaves according to their abilities, experience and insights. Some folks desire a deeper and more honest understanding of their lives, and some don’t. Hopefully I will find a way to keep my panic attacks and bay and my spirits uplifted as I move into the challenges ahead. Maybe I can still get some new insights, some new skills, new confidence… In the old days it took good old fashioned muscle to get through panic attacks and depression, but at least these days I have the power of pharmaceuticals. By whatever means necessary I say…

Elihu will be leaving in a week for a long summer away. He will visit his father and half brothers in Chicago, and then that family will be traveling to China. He’ll return at the end of August for a week here at home before he then departs for a three month-long school exchange with a host family in Germany. He has a lot on his plate. Internally he’s switching gears, getting ready. He shares my propensity for anxiety, and when he reaches a certain threshold of stress, behavioral ticks can begin to arise. And so I don’t bother him with extra tasks or house rules. He’s a good kid, he’s a kind and thoughtful person. All he desires is to make airplanes and learn more about aviation, how to conjugate verbs in German, play his recorders and tuba. He helps when I ask him, and helps keep me from falling into despair when life feels bleak and relentless. And so I give my kid space, time, freedom. I can’t think of anyone who’s earned it as he has. Elihu will be fine. Me? Still not so sure…

Sometimes I get excited about all the possibility ahead, but sadly that spark doesn’t last long. But on the other side of the coin, that dark wave that crashes over my head every so often doesn’t last long either. I just have to keep going, just have to make it through that tunnel. Just gotta make it thru the tough days. Two days at a time, that’s all. Makes me think of a bumper sticker I saw once: “Just remember, in two days, tomorrow will be yesterday”.

 

________________________________________________________________

 

Post Script: How strange it is that I should write this post and only moments after I finished the draft, my mother called saying that my brother had taken the car and hidden it? The keys were there in her kitchen, along with a cryptic note from him. My suspicion was that the recent landscaping job at the Studio had put him in a rage of jealousy, and that in order to let his feelings be known, he’d stashed the car somewhere nearby and walked home to return the keys, knowing that mom in her limited mobility wouldn’t be able to find it. Never let it be said that my brother isn’t clever. He had parked mom’s Prius on an angle at the foot of the shared driveway, making entrance to the venue (as well as both her house and his) inaccessible. Well done, brother. Well done. Before we knew the location of the car, my mother had called the sheriff. The sergeant remembered my brother well from previous incidents and encouraged my mother to call if she ever felt she was in danger. (I was satisfied to know a report had been filed, because documentation will help me at some future time when I need to have him removed from the dilapidated farm house, which is legally property of The Studio.) The writing is on the wall, but who cares? In a metaphoric “two days’ time” this too will shift, and the new normal will assert itself. For the time being however, the resting state of “normal” around here is anything but.

 

Lean to Green May 28, 2018

Apparently, I didn’t think this through. Many of the things that I’d wished for over the past several years are becoming a reality now, but it seems there’s a catch to it all. Really? Must there always be a catch? I suppose that’s the way this earth is designed. Two steps forward, one step back. But I remind myself yet again, it’s still progress..

A couple of years ago, when my son still needed me at every turn, when dinner had to be made and chickens had to be tended, I was desperate to leave the years of unending servitude and mundane chores. Although he was old enough then to take some things on, I didn’t ask much of him, but rather encouraged Elihu to live as idyllic a childhood as was possible. Sure he’s always helped when I’ve asked, and he’s always been upbeat and compliant, but still, I have never wished to ask too much of him because I knew his time would come soon enough. Before long the world would ask of him the same repetitive and thankless tasks, and I wished to protect him from the inevitable drudgery for as long as possible. Until now. Elihu has told me that he feels good when he can help out, and now with him being taller than me and having core strength that is fast superseding mine, he is more than capable of carrying 50 pound bags of chicken feed from the car to the coop, relieving me of one task that is becoming just a tiny bit more challenging as the years pass. So I now delegate this and other chores, something for which I am deeply grateful. No longer must I feed and water the chicks in the barn, stooping under the poultry netting, threatening a back injury. No longer must I interrupt my work to get my feet wet in the evening’s dewy grass closing in the flock and collecting eggs in the dark. Now I am freed up to spend more time at the piano, more time getting the kitchen tidy after supper, more time to go through the endless inbox, culling the cream from the crap.

Two years ago at this time, I had yet to play a piano single job here. It had been 13 years since I’d sat at a piano in a hotel lobby. And even back then, when I had piano singles, I hadn’t sung. I hadn’t combined the two. Plus I’d always used real pianos – the technology of a good-sounding, portable piano with ‘real’ action no less – that didn’t exist yet, nor did lightweight, good-sounding PAs. So in May of 2016 I had only just acquired a new keyboard and PA with which to get jobs. I gotta be honest – for as many years as I’d played, for all the experience I had under my belt, and for as eager as I was to get going – I was nervous. Back in the day I’m fairly sure that getting work was influenced by my youth and looks. And maybe even my famous then-husband. The latter idea always bugged me. I tried to silence the concern, but it always followed me; I hated the idea that I hadn’t gotten work on my own merits, but rather my association with someone whose ass many people strove to kiss. But now, all these years later, I was finding that my lack of anyone to vouch for me – starting over, absolutely on my own merits, and with completely new gear – all of it was much more daunting than I’d expected. But I was tenacious, and in the face of full on panic attacks, old fashioned nerves and the challenged sense of vanity of a fifty-something woman, I muscled on. I put in time at the piano, I got a couple hundred tunes in my book, I had new promo shots taken and business cards printed. Starting slow and easy, I got a couple gigs at the Greenfield Farmers Market. And then I was off…

The Studio too was something I’d pushed to the back of my mind over the past several years. There has always been forward movement, but the destination was fuzzy. I’d scolded myself in years past, thinking I needed to simply set aside ten minutes a day to envision the future, to help clarify the picture. But I seldom did. The whole prospect just scared me. I knew what I wanted the big picture to look like – that was easy – but the shit between here and there was beyond me. And in some ways, it still is. But it’s getting clearer now. Kinda crazy the way in which The Studio adventure has panned out. It’s been forward progress in fits and starts. Things look really good, then a pipe breaks. An event feels like a great new era, then a patron sues us (me) for falling on the ice. Deep down, I don’t sweat any of it too much, even when it looks bleak (as it still does from this moment!) because I have a hunch – I call hunches the “God voice” – that things will work out in a surprising fashion. That’s pure faith, I tell you, because at present there’s little evidence to support that reality. But if I were to listen to some of my friends (one more strongly than the others, and yes, G, that’s you!) who give the Universe/God/Creator all the power, and see us as merely passive vehicles to such a power, then I have no reason to fret. But I’m human, so fret I do. But thankfully events are coming to me that shine some light and offer some hope. Some tiny turns of fate are beginning to illuminate new possibility down the line. In a way this too scares me, cuz I’ve never thought this far ahead. It feels strange to see the future that I’ve talked about so much over the years slowly becoming the present.

All this is good, right? I’m working steady piano singles, the kid is able to make himself dinner and take care of the birds, and The Studio is still with us, in spite of lightning strikes and law suits. So what’s the problem? Well, here’s the catch… I’ve got jobs, but they’re all on the weekends. I’ve got events booked at The Studio, but they’re mostly on the weekends. I’m not making money from the place yet (mom’s still spending down her life savings on its monthly operating costs) so it’s not like I can hire someone to run or manage the place, so I find myself in a new, completely unforeseen quandary. So far folks have let themselves in and ‘self-hosted’, but that can’t last much longer with the events coming down the pike. Man. Who knew? I’m kinda surprised with myself that I didn’t see this coming. And I’m hoping that a solution emerges. I’m fairly confident that one will, but from here, in this moment, I don’t see it.

Funny that sometimes we get what we asked for, but when we do, it’s not exactly what we’d thought it would be. It’s a good problem to have in my case, but it’s still a problem. And although I’m making more money, I stand to lose my food stamps and heating oil assistance, and likely my health insurance too. So then I’ll need to make a good chunk more just to come out even again. I call it the ‘dreaded wedge’. That piece of the pie one needs to traverse from poverty to just above poverty. It’s kinda crazy that when one finally makes money, it becomes even harder to make a living. This too is a new situation I never anticipated. I’m earning more, but as a result it’ll be tougher to get by. Talk about irony! I just never thought things through I guess. I still have to fight the desire to cry into my hands sometimes. I’m tired, I’m getting older, my body is changing faster than I’d thought it would, my arthritis makes playing the piano painful, and there’s no reversing any of this. But I can’t stop. There is no option. No other choice but to continue along the path I prepared for myself.

On Saturday night, after a tip-less and quiet night at the restaurant, a complete stranger talked me into coming out and dancing to a local band. In spite of my inner grumblings and initial reservations, I had a fabulous night. A couple in their late 80s danced along side us, as did 20-something couples. All of us laughed and sang out loud together as we danced. We enjoyed an oasis of joy in this relentless, physical world. And when this new friend and I parted at the end of the night, he thanked me for taking a chance on a stranger and coming out. He left me with these words: “Behold the turtle; he makes no forward progress until he sticks his neck out”. Indeed.

_____________________________________________________________________________

Post Script: My deepest and most heartfelt thanks to all who donated to the recent GoFundMe campaign to replace the broken power line at The Studio. It’s a trial not included in the above post, but a milestone I did not want to let go unmentioned. The success of the drive was due entirely to your love, support and belief in me and in this vision of a community gathering place. The Studio would be dark today and completely stopped if it weren’t for all the donations. So again, thank you, dear friends, thank you so very much. xoxo

 

May Bird May 7, 2018

Today is my birthday. Spent most of it in the windowless basement, at my desk, bravely muscling my way down the to-do list. But I know that it’s sunny outside. It is a fine spring day. The pic at the top of this post will attest to it. (Our late friend Ace, a Vietnam vet who returned from the war with a distant look in his eye and a ceaseless need to create art, he made this lovely bird. It’s a fine piece, and easily overlooked as its rusty patina blends in so well with the woodland setting. Today however, I sure did notice it. And how lovely a thing it is! I feel so lucky to have such a piece of work.)

It’s in my nature to bitch and moan about all the crap before me, all the stuff I never seem to get done, all the events that happen as if they were scripted by some omnipotent prankster… But my wise young son would remind me that all of this stuff – good and bad – is in and of itself the very essence of life. The serendipity, the monotony, the endless to-dos, the hitches and pitfalls, the windfalls. It is no one’s spiteful creation, it is no one’s gift, it simply is. My taking anything personally – the challenges, even the rewards – is as unwarranted as are the curses my mother directs towards her iPad; none of it is personal. It just is. Perhaps energy and intention can help to guide events, but I can’t think of life as actually having it out for me. Yeah, some unpleasant shit has come down on me, but at the end of the day I am not working twelve hour days in a sweat shop making clothes I could never myself dream of owning… For the most part, I have it good.

And although I know it was serendipity at its finest, it still feels like I got a little knowing nod from the heavens just now…

Having accomplished more administrative tasks in one day than I can remember, I treated myself to a quick walk outside in the sunshine. As we do often around here, I heard a small plane in the air above the house. Sometimes we run for the binoculars, but it was approaching too fast. I stood and watched… It banked, more sharply than I’m accustomed to seeing small planes turn, and it intrigued me. The plane got closer and closer, and then, when the plane was directly above my head, the engine noise changed and – the nose of the plane turned completely downward! What? I’d experienced stalls in small planes, but I guess I just didn’t expect it, and it truly frightened me, until I realized the pilot was crafting a lovely, controlled corkscrew pattern. I gasped. It was so thrilling and beautiful… Then the plane pulled out of the fall and turned west again, out and over the woods, leaving me there on the ground, full of adrenaline and joy.

A few months ago the Studio’s underground power line broke. Everything stopped. For a moment I freaked out, I wanted to just run away from the whole thing. Then one day I pulled myself up and I created a GoFundMe page. It was deeply humbling to see such love and support from friends and community, near and far. What had seemed like a targeted assault on my good intentions was now transformed into an expression of support and hope.  After a good deal of post-construction red tape, we will be hooked up again this week. What a ride. The last year has been rife with good news/bad news scenarios, and it has been exhausting, but it’s also helped toughen me up. OK, so now someone is suing me for a fall on the ice this past winter, but hey, it doesn’t scare me. Well, maybe a little, but seriously, this whole life thing is just one crazy illusion. One crazy game. You hope it goes well, but in the end, you can’t take it personally. You just gotta get through.

My oldest childhood friend lost her father this past week. Paul meant a lot to me, and to Elihu too. I always called him my second father. Thankfully Elihu and I both had some very lovely visits with him over the past few months, so we don’t feel too many regrets gnawing at us over things unspoken. (In fact, Paul called Elihu “one of his special people” on our last visit, and that meant a lot to my son.) This man, dearly beloved by his large family and the community in which he lived, had enjoyed a productive, long and full life. His death is something that shocks me when I remember it all over again, but what helps bring me ease is knowing how beautiful a life he led. He lived simply, he played the cards life dealt him (some of them would seem quite unfair indeed), and he did it all with gratitude, a sense of humor and lots of love. This is the way I wish to live out the rest of my game here on earth.

Whether it’s serendipity or divine providence, I dunno, but something about double fives feels lucky to me today.

__________________________________________

Dear readers, would you please consider subscribing to Elihu’s YouTube channel? He has put such a lot of work into both building the aircraft and the filming an editing the videos; what a wonderful birthday present it would be to his mother if you would just tick that subscribe box…

 

Book’s End December 31, 2017

Bald Mountain, the old rooster whom we shall always love and remember.

 

Dear readers, are you still there?

I have never let so much time pass between posts in the past seven and a half years of this blog until now. It seems that finally, life has taken me over. I have experienced so many intense and challenging events this past year that I can hardly believe that it all actually happened. From the predictable (my young son finally growing taller than me in only a few weeks’ time) to the unimaginable (the Studio being struck by lightning) and so very many more things that I cannot hope to recall at this writing.

In January of this year, I, like many of my friends, watched with heartbreak and profound disbelief as our nation’s finest first couple surrendered the office to a narcissistic madman. Facebook blew up, friendships blew apart, and I learned early on that I had too much on my personal plate to lose myself in the fray. What was once a valuable tether to my previous life in Chicago became a drain on my heart every time I visited. When early on – even during the election season – I’d asked my Republican friends to please explain to me how Trump would benefit – and not hurt – the common man, I found myself falling down a rabbit hole. There was no insight to be found, no ground to be shared. I still maintain that the vast majority of people on this goddam globe all seek the same things: safety, health, and the love of family and friends. I can never understand how these simple things have become so micromanaged, and in the process, become so utterly unmanageable.

The single digit temps of last March highlighted for me just how unprepared The Studio was to maintain indoor temps of 65 degrees – let alone a cozy 70 or higher. A huge group had booked the place for a long chunk of time, and they moved in. It was challenging to continue to run our own regular yoga classes alongside this program, but everyone cooperated, and in spite of my utterly freaking out in flat-out fear when I saw that our baseboard heaters and new mini splits were all “going to 11” but the room was hardly improving, the host was kind and forgiving. Again, everyone did what they could, we added space heaters til we blew circuits, tried new configurations until finally the room was livable. But stress, man, talk about stress. Add a good snowfall (as also happened concurrent with the heating issue) and then there’s the plowing situation. That’s its own ball of wax, believe me. It takes finesse to carve out room for 50 cars on the yard – without going over the septic tank! – and in spite of all that space lost to the piles at the property’s perimeter. We got our new guy now. Building the posse, one crisis at a time. !

Then more shit started happening. Quite literally. During a long-term rental of the venue the toilets suddenly stopped flushing. Although the building had only been used seasonally since its construction in 1974, the septic tank had finally reached its limit. Nothing was going down. The timing wasn’t great, and it was a stressful situation, but I knew that the job itself was fairly straightforward and simple. Either locate and clear a blockage (hoped for) or learn that the tank needed pumping (oh no, please, no). With no time to lose and a full house expected the following day I had no options but to call the local plumbing company for whatever help they could rustle up at 5:30 in the afternoon. Before long, two ambitious twenty-something plumber’s apprentices arrived and began poking and digging their way across the yard for several hours (at outrageous after-hours rates!) with not a single find. As a last resort tactic, they pulled out these flushable doo-dads which would emit a signal by which they could then be located with a receiver, thus showing us the exact point of the blockage (at that point we were still hoping it was a simple routing job and not a pump out.) Great idea! How clever! How practical! So the guys flushed all their doohickies down the toilets and began to wave their gieger counter thingees over the likely pathways. Not a signal was found. Not a blip, not a squeal, not a nothin. By this time it was getting dark, the mosquitoes were taking over, and there was nothing to do but shelve the mystery for the day.

The mystery continued for a while. To help fill in some missing clues, I pulled out a square, white-framed snapshot of me as a young, bucktoothed girl, standing by my mother’s rock garden which I knew to be above the site of the septic tank. I knew this well because mom would never let anyone forget that this area was NEVER TO BE DRIVEN OVER. The plumbers and I walked off what looked the right amount of paces… and no luck. Finally I got my local pal Al to come out with his bucket excavator, and his plan was to start digging on the spot where I had stood in that photo. Al is a good old local boy. Been in Greenfield his whole life. And he is a lot of other things too: clever, inventive, a pilot, a dog lover, an active, healthy guy – and he’s just plain got a good heart. He remembers coming to our house in the 70s when his grandfather did the stonework for the fireplaces here. I like that Al has those memories. I like that he flies, that Elihu loves flight. I like that he always charges me less than anyone else, and I trust his results without question. So I needn’t have panicked the morning I pulled up early and found Al and his assistant just about finished revealing the mystery tank: it had been buried six feet below grade when it should have rested a mere few inches from the surface. Wow, no one saw that coming. No matter. Live and learn. Forward we go. Tank located, then tank pumped. Job done? Kinda, but not.

Second phase: Open hole in front yard remains so all summer long as local excavators (Al included) are all tied up on jobs that actually pay real money. And it’s not as simple as back filling the hole. Nope. I need to construct a custom sleeve through which the top of the tank can be accessed for future pump outs. I spent hours on the phone with dozens of folks in all sorts of stone yards and metal shops, I learned deep shop talk and came to learn a lot about infrastructure and materials. But all I really wanted at the end of it all was a cheap, durable 4 foot sleeve. Al proposed a solution that sounded too simple. And our dear neighbor Zac took the time to actually make a mold and then pour the perfect concrete sleeve – but Al insisted it would be too heavy. I hated to refuse the custom, artfully made piece, but in the end, after a handful of cancelled showers, weddings and graduation parties (why, oh why did this happen at the height of our rental season??) it was Al’s plastic, 55 gallon drum with the ends cut off that saved the whole operation and allowed us to finally back fill our gaping hole and regain the venue’s dignity. (Toilets all still flushed, but for many it was the hole in the ground that was the deal-breaker. Not for everyone, but some folks were quite unhappy.) Hey. I’m just one person, and I’m always doing my best, but there’s only so much one woman can do. I can’t say my ego isn’t a bit wounded when people get angry that I can’t fix things in time, or that things aren’t as they should ideally be, but after this year I’ve grown thicker skin for sure. I can shake it off. From this chapter I learned that it doesn’t matter if you can’t please em all, so long as you’re doing the best you can with what you have.

Now the lightning strike – that happened somewhere in the middle of the gaping hole chapter. The two projects overlapped, and for a minute there sometime at the height of the summer, I was feeling mightily tried by these incredibly tedious and expensive setbacks. I might have lost all hope but for the fact that I had, during the cold months, lost three dress sizes and was now spending some child-free afternoons at the gorgeous Victoria Pool – sporting the very bathing suit I wore the summer before I got pregnant. Hoo-haw! Who cares if there’s a cesspool in your venue’s yard and the AC units are fried? I was lookin good! Gotta say, the summer – aside from the Studio crap – was magical. An old friend and guitarist invited me to the jazz fest at SPAC – and man it felt so good to hear good music again. Then by some miracle (the miracle is called “one seat only”) I got a front row seat for Earth, Wind and Fire. Mm-hmm. And that particular evening, I had it goin on. Even got backstage and had the privilege of meeting bassist Verdine White. I floated home that night.

While all this was going on, Elihu was becoming, to my heart’s lament, a young man. He is now in high school. The character and quality of his face transformed in a few months’ time, his height and voice, too. He didn’t always like it when during breakfast I’d go to the piano and try to find his new lowest pitch, but now we both run to the piano when we think he’s sounding lower, different. We marvel at this change together, and I am deeply grateful that he still values my input on these changes, physical and social. And it goes without question that he still enjoys my company. But ah, these are the teen years, and I have readied my heart for a while now; when the door clicks shut without a greeting, when silences stretch on and on, when he is off and gone to his workshop as soon as he is home – I let it be. After all, in less than a year Elihu will be studying in Germany for a semester. My work now is to learn how to let go. Elihu will do just fine. The low vision thing worries me, but he’s got technology. And smarts. His profile info on his Instagram account (Copterdude) says simply “aspiring overachiever”.

The Studio has hosted an ongoing high school open mic which has really helped the place to grow in the community. We’ve also hosted dinner concerts, middle school music jams, rock concerts, dances, yoga retreats, yoga classes, art exhibits, and finally we held a holiday brass concert in which Elihu played tuba with a quartet. I was beyond impressed with how they sounded. I’d told Elihu that after this he’d be off the hook – he’d satisfied the deal. He’d learned to play bass and tuba with proficiency, and now he was free to pursue aviation with all of his energy. But man, he just sounded so good. I told him how blown away I was (please, no pun) and it reached him. “Really?” he asked, as if it was hard to believe. I told him that a deal was a deal, but it made we want to weep. “If it makes you feel like that, I won’t quit. I won’t.” My kid is not one to go back on his word, so I’m fairly sure he’ll stay on the low brass path a while longer. I had told him that when you’re talented, you can’t take that shit lightly. Not everyone gets that gift. Another lesson for both of us. Do what you do, and do it with integrity. Yeah, and definitely have some fun while you’re at it.

I suppose I could’ve just summed up this past year by saying 1) infrastructure challenges at the Studio 2) first calendar year of continuous operation 3) kid’s taller than me and 4) kid speaks German and builds aircraft that blow my mind. Yes, it was an amazing year for us both. It’s always tempting at the end of a year to say that a chapter has been definitively closed, when in fact, an arbitrary date certainly, in reality, means no such thing. But it is possible to find demarcations along the way unrelated to any calendar – usually they’re easier to spot with a few years of hindsight – which do seem to signal the end of an era. Many folks have suggested I compile some of the Hillhouse writings into a book (oh so much easier said than done) and I’d always struggled with a time at which this book might close. When would this ‘journey of a mother and son’ actually end? Well, of course, it never truly will. However, the journey of a mother and her young son has ended.

Now I can identify with clarity what the ‘early’ years felt like. When there were no houses in the field, when Elihu and I would go to the coop at night and just sit there, sometimes for an hour, listening to the gentle cooing and gurgling sounds of our flock. The days on our tummies in the violet patch, the Easter Sunday walk to the stone wall in the woods, the out-of-time quality of it all. The this-is-how-it-always-will-be of it all. But even then, even in the midst of that idyllic childhood we were sharing, I began to get my heart ready. Just a year ago my imagination struggled to conjure an image of my son, taller than me. And now here we are. A piano student once asked me why I still had bath toys in the bathroom. I gasped a little, and paused… Some part of me, I suppose, really didn’t quite believe that the bath days weren’t coming back. I was shocked at myself. Shocked at how difficult this change might actually be.

Regular readers may remember our dear, goofy guinea fowl, Austin. He invited the neighborhood children to chase him in circles around the house, flying up to the roof for breaks, shrieking that singularly piercing call that both annoyed and charmed us so. He engaged us, he truly interacted with us, and if you will just believe me here, we have always believed that Austin honestly enjoyed our company. Just three weeks ago, before the snow fell, he and Baldie evaded a Cooper’s hawk attack and were found huddled together in the underbrush. I only found them because Austin responded to my calls and followed me at my heels all the way to the house after I freed them from the thicket. Only a week later he was stricken with some virus or infection (this is what we can now know in hindsight) and his behavior became strange. He spent his nights in the nesting boxes, and Elihu noted that he was no longer the first bird to fly from his perch in the mornings. Then one day, he disappeared. Thinking he’d gone off to die, I made several trips around the property calling for him, crying, calling… It broke my heart to think of him dying in the bitter cold, alone. And then at our Christmas party our neighbor boy Brandon (knowing Austin was missing) ran in and announced that he was back! Yes, he was, but hardly. He was a huddled clump at the bottom stair of the coop, frozen and unable to move. I wrapped him in my arms, so grateful that I finally got to hold him to my heart as I’d longed to, and we got him a cozy setup in the mudroom. He was acting strange; nearly paralyzed. We nursed him through two days. He would accept sips of water and in a flash he appeared to be himself again, but in our hearts we knew. Last Sunday morning we found him dead. Bald Mountain, also in the house due to his inability to hold his own against the drake, he spent a few hours beside his dead pal. He seemed to be waiting. Usually animals sense death, regard it for a moment, then move on. Not Baldie. This was even hard for him.

Now it’s Bald Mountain’s turn. His arthritic legs can no longer support him. In so many ways, his aging process reminds me of my father’s. He has taken to merely moving his food around more than eating it. He needs help to stand or sit, walking is almost impossible. Even grooming himself is a chore. Now he must be propped up otherwise he tumbles on the ground, his feet helplessly sticking out into the air. But when he is nicely settled into his bed, he looks serene enough, doesn’t appear to be in pain (how would we really know? And so I give him a baby aspirin each day just cuz) but as with my own aged father, he can startle or become suddenly agitated for no apparent reason, and then can be calmed relatively quickly to a point where he begins to nod off. I’m trying to keep him alive until Elihu returns from his father’s on Wednesday morning. I try to convey this thought to Baldie. I hope his heart understands me. Yeah, I kinda think he knows. He really is a tough old bird, and he’ll do his best to wait for Elihu. I thought I’d offer him a little inspiration this morning, so I brought a hen inside. The two of them chortled and shimmied side by side and she ended up creating a nest of rags next to him – where she proceeded to hunker down and lay an egg! Ha – a fresh egg right there in the kitchen. This really seemed to please dear Baldie, and if a chicken can experience a good mood, I’m pretty sure he did.

All afternoon I’ve been weepy and deeply, deeply sad. I couldn’t bring myself to clean and tidy as must be done, for each task brought me closer… I stalled, looking at the setting sun through the trees… this time of day seems to make all things so much sadder still… Elihu and I agreed that if he didn’t die on his own, we’d make arrangements. And so on Friday, the 5th, a kind vet from a neighboring town is coming to help us set our dearest Bald Mountain free. I sure hope he finds his buddy Austin to show him around when he gets where he’s goin. I will always have the image in my mind of the two of them, only weeks ago, walking a few paces apart, each one waiting to make sure the other was keeping up. Pals forever. We’ve had both of those dear birds since I began this blog! Elihu has grown up with them both; to him they were as his dogs. Every kid in the area knows (and has feared!) Baldie, as well as all of my piano students – in fact there’s nothing quite like a robust crow to mark the end of your lesson! There’s no need to embellish the story – this rooster ruled the Hillhouse for almost eight years along with his sidekick guinea fowl, and with the loss of these two beloved characters, things here are forever changed.

Our adventure began without warning, we had no idea what we were doing, what we were in for, or how any of it would turn out. There has been so much to worry over, there have been so many obstacles to surmount, so much crap to wade through, and yet it’s all been so much more than worth it. What a wonderful childhood my son has had, what a blessed time it has been for me, alongside him the whole way, and how lucky we were to have known and loved some amazing birds. Dear readers, I think that our book “The Hillhouse; the journey of a mother and young son” (and two very special avian friends) has come to its end.

But remember, with every ending comes a new beginning…

                                                                             Our dear, goofy guinea fowl, Austin.