The Hillhouse

The Journey of a Mother and Son

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.

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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”.

 

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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.

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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.

 

Cinderella Story November 10, 2017

It’s Missoula Children’s Theatre time again in Greenfield, although the production isn’t happening at its regular spot in the year. For the past eight years it’s been held at the end of winter. Small islands of crunchy snow on the grass, early robins and MCT always told me warm weather was coming soon. Now, it’s the opposite. We’ve only just had our first week of pre-winter cold and there are still some leaves left on the trees. This year, the production comes at the start of what will likely be another seemingly endless winter. Truthfully, I’m happy to have it done and out of the way earlier in the school year. There is so much work to be done, so many things I haven’t had proper time to attend to. This Studio thing really needs my full attention, and side projects can zap me of what little energy I have. After this week there will be no more detours. Maybe.

Clearly, things never go exactly as planned. But sometimes that can be good. Serendipitous mistakes and last-minute plans have led people to The Studio for the first time. They see the property and the venue and they are almost always surprised, sometimes truly delighted. Now new ideas are being born and plans are emerging. It’s an easy sell, really. Those who get it, get it.  I don’t need to waste energy worrying about the people who don’t get it. I also don’t need to fret that the money isn’t coming in as we need it, and I needn’t fret that people don’t know we’re here. Everything will happen in its time and place if I keep going. I just have to keep reminding myself that these are the early years; a long adventure lies ahead – an adventure which I’m fairly confident will continue on beyond my lifetime. I am going to savor this chapter, because there is still a homey quality to the place. It still feels much as it did when my father held his concerts here. The hall even smells about the same. And as Elihu says “the screen door still makes that sound when it closes.” Yup, these are the early years and I’m not taking them for granted. One day, when this place is bustling with programs and people are daily coming and going, I will think back on the early years with a smile on my face and quite likely a pang of nostalgia in my heart.

I recall the simplicity of my folk’s Baroque Festival some thirty years ago. I marvel at how they filled the seats in a pre-social media era. In a day of mimeographed programs, hand-set type, phones attached to the wall and typewriters without even so much as a correction feature – how ever did they pull it off? Could it be that my father organized all the musicians, the program, the rehearsals (never mind the hours in practice at the harpsichord) and then went on to handle all of the publicity, advertising and administration, all while working throughout the school year as a professor and continuing to concertize? Apparently the answer is ‘yes’. And all very successfully too. Of course my mother made up the other, indispensable half of the equation: childcare (for my brother and me), the running of a household (and the moving of a household as we lived in Chicago and only summered here in Greenfield), plus she worked a job too, and she also fed and housed all the musicians and their families when they were here at the Festival. As a child it seemed to me that in the summers my mother was either always making beds or making food. The whole idea of a true mom and pop operation like that, ‘back in the day’, it just amazes me.

Last night a low brass quartet rehearsed in the space for the upcoming program of  holiday music in December. Elihu and I stood in the room, bathed in that amazing blend of tones. I even saw Elihu’s face break out into a smile. He remarked that you could even feel the sound in your body. Yeah, you could. I too couldn’t stop smiling. I was beyond thrilled. I’d had this concert in mind for a couple of years now, and to see it come to life was more than gratifying. It was vindication. A tiny victory. The background static of all those folks who found our spot too rustic, too far from town, too much of this, not enough of that – it all faded away. It didn’t matter. Those who didn’t love the place, or get the beauty of it didn’t need to be here. This space is special, and all that happens within its walls is magical. (But lest I get too romantic about things, I have to remind myself that after the wrap party on Saturday I must sweep and mop the whole place and set fans to dry the floor in time for Sunday morning’s yoga class. It’s still real life, after all.)

This year’s Missoula Children’s Theatre production is Cinderella. And how fitting! I feel like a real-life Cinderella myself. I think of this space, this empty room with nothing on the walls, no decorations…. And me, late at night with no one around, mopping the floor, vacuuming up spiders and wiping down walls. But then a few hours later, a few magic mice and promising pumpkins have turned the space into a grand ballroom! I’m a lucky gal too, cuz it doesn’t all end at midnight. There will always be another ball…

Bare bones for now (pun intended)… I’ll report back when the magic happens. The room will be transformed.

Visit our modest website here and take a peek at what’s been going on at The Studio recently.