The Hillhouse

The Journey of a Mother and Son

And… Scene August 14, 2016

It’s taken me thirteen years to get back on the horse. Until day before yesterday, I hadn’t played piano and sung since before my son was born. Even so, regular readers and friends will know that the past decade has not been idly spent; I have learned so much and come so far. And it’s not as if I haven’t played piano over the past years, I’ve done plenty of that. Accompanying kids’ plays, choruses, dance classes, talent shows (and tonight you can add something new to my resume: Vacation Bible Camp. Oy!). It’s just the solo thing has been elusive. And I’m not kidding myself to think that playing one little date at a farmer’s market changes everything, and yet somehow, symbolically, it does. Plus I recently learned that the songs I enjoy playing (which heretofore I’d been labelling my “Guilty Pleasures Book”, sounding way too much like a condom ad for my comfort) are actually part of an identified genre. It’s called Yacht Rock. Those who know me from my ‘past’ life may know that I have crewed on boats, spent lots of time sailing, and yearn for the water like nothing else. Finally, something that marries my love of Pablo Cruise with the sea….

This past month I’ve also performed as a jazz singer for the first time in a long while. I’d been searching for a chord-melody style guitarist for years now, without much luck, and finally found my new pal Dan. Ok, not a glamorous start to our career perhaps, but a nursing home job is better than nothing. Plus he’s hipped me to a couple new tunes, some even with verses that were new to me – and that’s always like finding treasure. We rehearse once a week (in the Studio! Nice to have a joint of my own in which to work!) which gives us a nice momentum as we work on our book and our arrangements. I had forgotten how much I love to sing, and how natural it feels. As they say in showbiz: it’s good to be back. !

So that metaphoric hump has been traversed. I’ve got my gear, my book, my gameplan. All good. And today marks four years since I quit smoking. Nice. The Studio has a full calendar of rentals, including recording sessions, meditation workshops and weddings. Yes. My bedroom has been painted for the first time since the house was built in 1970. Whew! Elihu has been gone for one month, and I have been busy, busy, busy since he left. It’s a great relief not to have to make food three times a day, not to have to keep track of another person – and not moving that silly tuba every week is pretty nice, too. I’ll welcome the routines when they start up again in a few weeks, but for now I’m using every moment to its fullest and ticking the boxes off as best I can. The list, however, never, ever ends, and I’m realizing (have I not realized this before?) that I must somehow make peace with that reality of life. One project wraps successfully, and then something new pops up. One issue resolves, and another beckons for attention.

Like my weight, for example. It’s a damn good thing I didn’t toss my ‘fat’ clothes a year ago – cuz I’m back in em again. When I’m busy, I tend to eat crappy, carby, salty, fatty foods. Who wants to nibble on kale when filing? A bag of potato chips is so much more motivating! And my reduced-fare membership to the Y ran out, requiring a new application process that will take a month til I get in the system again. So that’s kinda fallen off the map. I have never been this large before in a non-pregnant state, and it’s really, really disheartening. I don’t know how I’ll find it in myself to find the discipline it’ll take to drop twenty-five pounds. I’ve done it half a dozen times before, I know I can do it, but each time it gets just a little harder to summon the oomph.

A week ago we Conants lost our eldest cat, Mina. That too was a major change in life for me. Mina was originally found in a junk yard in the Hyde Park neighborhood of Chicago, and she’d come with me from Evanston to Dekalb to Greenfield. She was a tortie with tiny tufts of black whiskers on the top of each ear, and she always had sort of an annoyed look on her face, which was part of her charm, really. She was a sweetie to be sure. Not a big cuddler, but she always purred when you were near. She lived next door with my mother, as Elihu’s allergies are just too dire for us to share space with a cat. But in spite of the different address, she was a part of our life. I really think she resisted leaving us; it took her a long time to die. Finally, after a vigil of several days, and with no energy left to sit, she lay on the island in mom’s kitchen as we talked to her, soothing her as best we could, telling her how much we loved her. She would occasionally meow, something very uncharacteristic of her, and we knew she was in a disquieted state. (Mina also meowed twice just seconds after my father died. You can think what you will, but for me, I knew that she sensed his departure.) Finally, at 6:45, I bent over and looked into her glassy, tired eyes… I told her that she needed to leave us by 7 o’clock. I told her that it was ok, we’d see each other again, and that it would feel like no time had passed, I promised her that everything was honestly going to be fine. I thanked her for being such an important part of our lives, and I told her we loved her. Five minutes later her heart finally stopped. Mina was a living link to my past life. And now that link is finally gone. We buried her under the flowering quince bush, next to Thumbs Up.

The other night I finally spoke to Elihu. I’ve talked to him only three times since he left to be with his father. That’s ok though. He himself says that he’s fine until he talks with me, and then he starts to miss me and get a little homesick, so it’s just easier not to call. Which I totally get. It is hard to switch gears. While he was speaking to me the other night, I went to the piano and tried to match the pitch of his voice…. “You’re trying to figure out how much lower my voice, is, aren’t you?” he asked. I confessed. He laughed. When he left his eyes were level with the bridge of my nose. I almost dread how tall he’ll be when he comes home. Sometimes I wish that just for one moment he could be a five year old boy again, and that I could scoop him up in my arms and hold him tight…

There are just a few things left on my list. Then Elihu returns, and the new school year will start with many new elements; the eighth grade will now reside in the high school building, the Studio is now up and running as a real business, I have a duo partner for my jazz gigs and I’ve finally found a way to brand my solo act. That’s all got me feeling pretty hopeful for the future. Ok, so the arthritis is still an issue, so is my weight, and man I don’t know if I’ll ever get on top of the clerical crap that goes with life. But hey. Things are, from a wider perspective, much better than they’ve been in a long time.

And…. Scene!

 

 

 

Bothering To April 1, 2014

“Ask yourself this,” Elihu suggested as he paused at his breakfast, “What wonderful thing or possible surprise am I excited about having happen today?” I let a moment go by as I took in his words, and then let him continue, “Just imagine for a minute, what things might happen today? Will there be surprises for you in your day? Things you couldn’t have expected?” He stopped talking for emphasis and let some silence pass. “I mean, if you don’t think so….” He shrugged his shoulders and raised his hands in the air,”Then why even bother?”

We were having one of our existential conversations at sunrise which had come about as a result of my morning mood. I was unusually tired upon waking and so was a fair bit grouchier than usual. Most times when I’m feeling a bit like pouting I keep the darker stuff to myself – or at least under my breath. Today I was shuffling around the kitchen talking to myself at full volume and just radiating doom and gloom over a day hardly yet begun. I felt put-upon, I felt alone in my plight, without peer to share my load, misunderstood and underappreciated. I was singing the self-sorry single mom song, and God bless that young boy, he took a moment to turn things around and rope me in. He repeated his coaching, “Really, Mommy, I mean it. Ask yourself this: Might some amazing things happen today? Think this way. Otherwise, seriously, why bother?”

I know he’s right. I also know that some days I am just plain out of steam, out of inspiration, out of reasons – other than that GD to-do list that never stops – to do things, to keep on going. Don’t get me wrong, this isn’t a passive-aggressive cry for help, this is not code for planned suicide – nothing so dire as any of that. It’s just life-business as usual. Chef, cleanup crew, administrator, counselor, taxi driver, instrument mover, musician, worker bee… all of it. Sometimes it’s just too fucking much. So sometimes it’s a wise question to ask myself: might amazing, surprising, unexpected things happen to me today? I have to believe they will, otherwise….

So what does keep me keeping on? I wonder that myself, the introspection inspired by this morning’s ministry… I suppose, at the end of the day, I might say that I do things for my son. I do things that I might make his life less stressful, more joyful. I also live because if I didn’t, it would break my mother’s heart. And yeah, it would break Elihu’s heart too. And honestly, aside from just sticking around for the sake of my mother and my son – I can’t just check out. I’ve got work to do here. I’m pretty sure of it. (Not entirely convinced, but fairly sure.) I have my father’s legacy to continue, I have love and compassion to contribute to the world through this vehicle of the Studio, and through teaching and playing…  Yeah, I guess. It’s just that there’s so much crap to slog through first… “Ya think I’d be happier (read here ‘less bitchy’) if I knew I was going to work at the Studio all day – doing things I really loved?” I’d innocently asked my son. “Oh yes” he answered most emphatically without missing a beat. “You’re going to be doing the things you love the very best. So of course.” No sooner had I asked the question I was feeling some shame over having even said it out loud: because not only do I really love my current job and appreciate it daily, but I realize it’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. I see my son each day, I’m around all those wonderful children, I get to play a variety of music which I enjoy, I learn new things daily. The very school itself is like a large family. It’s a joy to have it as a destination every day. So why the mood? The questions? The doubting?

It’s just that this school has become such a committment of time – both there and at home learning new music – that I haven’t any time at all to build this new dream of the Studio. Makes me wonder what my plan is. Or if I’ll ever get to that next chapter. But when I pull back and relax a bit into the moment, I can understand that even this very day – the chapter I’m living here and now – that this in of itself is important in the evolution of the subsequent one. Each builds upon the other. My son will be in this school for three more years (and then four more in the high school). These are the Waldorf years. I may as well just hunker down, learn all I can and savor the moments, because all too soon I’ll be looking back at it in nostalgia the way I do to my younger years as a musician in Chicago. I have to remember that each era has had its own time and place and its own gifts; each era of my life has served its own unique purpose.

So for now my time and place is here. It’ll shift again one day too, as everything shifts. And as I sit and watch my son’s fifth grade class rehearse their class play, I can feel the supreme loveliness of this window in time. The children still seem small to me; the boys still with voices to match the girls. Their limbs are all long and thin, and all of them are still shorter than me. But one look into the sixth grade class (which, as an added metaphor for leaving their youth, move into a downstairs classroom for the first time) will tell you how much will soon be changing. The sixth graders seem so different, so much older, bigger… Such a different sort of tension too between the boys and the girls. The qualities that these fifth graders yet possess become exquisite, precious; something to be savored, and remembered for always. While the truly tiny years – those of the tooth fairy and Santa – may be behind us now, somehow these children are still our babies. So there’s no doubt, I am savoring this precious time for sure.

It’s just the logistics of life, I suppose, that have me in a bit of a funk. Just plain living takes so much work. But when I stop to realize that I have a child wise enough to be so contemplative about things, a child who daily expresses his love for me, who sees the beauty in nature, who lives as gratefully and thoughtfully as he does – then I remember. Then I get it. This is why I put up with all that other crap. Because joy and hope live in my son, and with the right sort of thinking, joy and hope can live in me too. Thank goodness the kid takes the time to remind me. ! Ok. So the dishes still won’t wash themselves, but somehow, things look a little bit brighter now. Because at the very least, now I think I know why I’m bothering.

 

 

Threshold March 7, 2014

March has historically always been a jam-packed month for us. And yesterday we’d both kinda reached our limit. By the end of the night Elihu had shut himself inside his bedroom, where he cried and screamed out his frustration… He had said that he was upset over a perceived transgression of mine… I’d picked the bed covers up off the floor and put them back onto his bed, and in so doing had ‘ruined things’ as he’d had his bed ‘just the way he liked it’. Mm-hmm. Crazy talk, and I knew it, but there was no reason to press the point. Instead I left him to cry, sulk and in general get the residual crap out of his system. No point to counter his mood with volume, anger – or reason. I knew what it was about: this had been one incredibly busy and stressful week and it was finally manifesting.

Late winter is always a bit busier for us as I play piano for (among other things) the traveling Missoula Children’s Theater group, which produces a musical at Elihu’s former Elementary School. I love doing it, it revives for me the skill of light sight-reading, it always has a cute musical theme and is fun to play – and of course seeing all the kids (63 of em this year!) rising to the challenge of singing, dancing and reciting their lines – all in these incredibly inventive costumes – makes it more than worth it. But it’s an investment of time for sure, and our rehearsal days begin just when the school days leave off – and since we’re on an earlier schedule at Waldorf, it adds a bit of a challenge. Elihu just doesn’t get enough sleep during this week, plus the poor kid has to sit through hours of rehearsals (and it’s microwaved pasta for supper all week long too. Ich). He’s a trooper, and once again at the end of it all, I realize how much of a team we are. By the end of the show he knows all the songs, even offers me notes, and ends up having a ball watching the final production. (He was once in the chorus a few years back, and while he had a good time, he didn’t enjoy the overall experience enough to do it a second time. His performance skills shine in other ways…) Yeah, just about anywhere I go – teaching, playing, working – he comes along with me. It bonds us in a way I can hardly describe.

Today, as we left the school post-show, post-picture ops (with kids he’d known since Kindergarten all those years ago), we entered the cold, clear winter night with joy and relief in our hearts. Finally, finally, finally….  Finally we were over the hump, finally we could go home and just do nothing. I took one last look at his old school with a deep feeling of nostalgia. It was the last time he’d be there for Missoula while still a peer of the cast. Next year both he and his old classmates will be middle schoolers. I sighed, and tried to remember the moment, to capture it and lock it away in my memory bank… the sounds of the kids laughing, yelling, running and playing, shouting their goodbyes, and one by one finding their way back to their family cars. We all drove off into the night and within minutes we two were pulling into our long, beautiful country driveway. As we came closer to our little house, we mused that we’d always be part of the family we’d just left, and how lucky we felt to have a home in both Greenfield Elementary and Waldorf too. It made us feel included, safe, happy. And as we walked across the moonlit snow to shut in the birds, we both stopped for a moment to admire the exceptionally crisp and bright stars (one of which Elihu corrected me was Venus) and velvet-black night sky. How lucky we were, we marveled over and over to each other. That this quiet, lovely oasis was ours. We lived here. Every so often we’ll share a pause like this, and we’ll just sit in the stillness as we take it all in. And tonight, with this crazy week – and even crazier day – behind us (including a quick visit to the urgent medical care unit – more on this later), we really were present for those stars, the moon, the sparkling snow, the deep, beautiful dark woods beyond.

There is much more to come, more than I myself can even truly understand at this point (The Studio is but one item on the full menu of projects and commitments before us), so I realize that tonite’s respite might not be quite enough time for us to recharge our batteries for the next phase, but hey, sometimes ya just don’t have any choice but to keep going. I suppose one could simply throw in the towel and retire from all meaningful existence (and don’t think I haven’t considered that option a time or two!) but that really isn’t the responsible person’s option now, is it?

So on we march, over the threshold and into our future adventures…

 

Resuming the Resume August 30, 2012

Have an informal audition of sorts tomorrow at Elihu’s school. They need another accompanist for the Eurythmy classes. It actually sounds right up my alley. Music, kids, some improvisation, a sense of play about the task at hand… but I need to remember it is a job, and I have to nail some things just so. Gotta listen, gotta be flexible and need to wait on instruction. Lots of stops and starts to the job. It’s tricky to get twenty little bodies all to move in a certain way. And the music keeps it all goin. Never done anything quite like this with little ones, and truthfully I’m just a bit nervous that I won’t be a fit. But I’m turning out to be a bit more excited about it than I realized at first. It sounds like fun. Is that ok that a job appeals primarily because it sounds like ‘fun‘? Yes, I think so. At least here, at Waldorf, it’s certainly an environment that would welcome that kind of thinking.

Then of course, I might be just a little jacked about it because I just threw a rather impromtu resume together and I got a kick out of seeing it all on paper. Well then. Seems I’d forgotten how impressive my life can appear in list form. We all know the resume game – and yes, somehow it always reads better and sounds more impressive than it usually was in real life, but as I read my list of jobs through the years and think back on them, I can say with some pride that they’re represented truthfully. And they were all fun, challenging, and each one in its own way helped to create the person I’ve become today. Maybe I pushed the envelope a bit when I added some of my interests, including flying, homesteading and being a good mother. Does anyone really care? Maybe it sounds a little pretentious. But it’s the truth. And these days, that’s how I want to represent myself. The days of super-slick strategizing are behind me.

But hopefully, more working days lay yet ahead and may resume again soon…