The Hillhouse

The Journey of a Mother and Son

Storm of the Eye June 12, 2021

Today my son is a high school graduate, and I am free.

One year ago today I injured my eye, and I have found myself a prisoner of that event ever since. Today, standing in the bright morning sunshine of a fine spring day (floaters still clouding my vision and an ever-present feeling of a foreign object still being in my eye), I find myself wavering between elation and terror at the future ahead. What will describe this new chapter? My opportunity or my injury?

I cannot convey the depth and breadth of our experiences over the past year, for they have been many and mighty. And today, as I sit in a house filled to the brim with the mess of one final week of tumult and year’s end chaos, I panic slightly at the idea that nothing will right itself on its own. All of it rests on me. I realize that my son and I have just concluded, and very successfully so, this era in our lives, so I should take heart. I just need to do this one final time. In the future there will be no such messes, no such disorder. All I have to do is muster the fortitude to do this once more. Somehow, however, this doesn’t seem to make it any easier. This time I don’t know where or how to begin. And so I nibble on the leftovers from last night’s graduation dinner, I pick at the frosting from the cake, I take a sip of the last dregs of a can of Mike’s hard lemonade I found in the door of the fridge. I feed the chickens, refill the suet, make the coffee. I begin a new post. I look over my Facebook feed. I stall.

Inside, the house is a riot of unwashed dishes, half-cut onions, piles of unopened mail, schoolwork and artwork and piles of musical charts to be filed, dirty clothes in heaps in nearly every room, and pair upon pair of muddy shoes, too (how do two people amass such a mess?). Clean laundry that languished too long before I could dry it (and now smells slightly funky) confuses the system in my mudroom and will force me to start the whole shebang all over again. The lawn is knee-high and rife with land mines of fallen branches and rocks that must first be found and marked before the grass can be cut. (And this is five open acres, no small task) The coop looks like a right proper hillbilly homestead with traps set, both humane and lethal, retired kiddie pools, garden tools, a few pumps and pond paraphernalia, a wheel barrow full of plastic junk and two metal grain bins, knocked on their side by the white whale of raccoons (who evades me still), their contents now fermenting and turning rank in the wake of recent rains. All a girl can say is oy.

This day is further loaded, as I think on it. Funny how June 12th used to mean different things in different chapters in my life. In my married years, it was my parents-in-laws’ wedding anniversary. Many years later it became known as the birthday of my former husband’s out of wedlock child, the day that changed everything for Elihu and me. The day that launched us on our voyage here at the Hillhouse. For years I was conflicted about the day: should I curse it or thank it? I certainly cannot curse any child, for his birth is not his own choice. But you can understand that it was a shocking time for me, all those years ago, and were it not for the miraculous way in which our lives turned out, I might still be nursing my wounds over it. I can’t say that June 12th doesn’t bring a bit of reflection. I have never before felt such acute emotional pain as I did on this day, thirteen years ago.

And now, the date has yet another meaning. Another change of plans that I must somehow accept. An injury that I must see as a catalyst to a yet unseen future that awaits, one that otherwise would not have been possible. Thinking back over the past year, I realize that I sought out new experiences as a means of distraction from my discomfort, and I can clearly see what the injury has offered thus far: my first forays into relationships with men since my divorce, a new awareness of physical health and fitness, a bad outcome with a relationship which offered an opportunity for me to step into a better sense of self-worth (the caveat here is that this is, sadly, still a work in progress), and lastly, a host of music performance videos and the small victories that I achieved as I learned how to organize and present myself in a new format. Overall, it’s been a good year. Every time I started to sink into self-pity, I used a new goal to pull myself up and out. Yeah, for the most part it’s worked. Mostly.

As friends and regular readers will know, I tend to indulge in excessive amounts food and alcohol to take the edge off when the shit just feels relentless. But somehow I managed to pull up and out of the habit last summer. I began to see an opening, a time when life would be mine again, and so I wanted to prepare myself, to lean in… I wanted to forget this troublesome eye injury and set my sights on the future… While I did get leaner and became increasingly dedicated to my physical improvement (and really came to look forward to my workouts), I suffered a bad muscle injury, and within weeks of a diminished routine, I fell off the fitness wagon entirely. This in turn had me newly depressed and brought along with it a resurgence of daily episodes with panic attacks. I kept up with the challenges as they arrived, but it was a struggle.

Added to the frenetic pace of Elihu’s final year and all that went on with me personally, stress began to mount… I lost a good portion of my hair inside of a few weeks in late winter (whether due to stress or changing hormones, it’s an alarming experience to say the least), the arthritis in my hands became significantly more advanced in a short amount of time (my doc said it was one of the worst cases of OA he’d ever seen in the hands of someone my age), and I saw a dear friend through a year of health problems which ended in her death two weeks ago. It’s definitely been a trying chapter. So naturally I fell back on the self-soothing mechanisms that I always have. The pendulum began to swing back, and I just let it. Knowing that I was creating a situation that would have consequences down the road, I continued on anyway, savoring the hell out of those carbs which I’d fastidiously ignored since last summer. Watching as one glass of wine with dinner easily turned into a whole bottle. I jumped into the pool, right into the deep end. And so here I am today, treading water, wondering how I’m gonna make it out again. I know I will, but the side of the pool still looks to be a long way off.

Things ebb and flow, and today I’ll just have to take it easy on myself. This day has become a strange landmark in my life, and I should pause to take stock: what does June 12th mean this time around? Might I look at it perhaps as a day of hope? Today is the first day I’m not the full-time mother of a high school student. The first day in which I have nowhere to be, no one to answer to (let’s forget for the moment about the some two thousand emails and two full voicemail accounts which must be gone through on Monday). Today I’m not waiting for the other shoe to drop, it already has. It’s what happens after that which intrigues me, and keeps me from giving up and crying into my hands. How can I give up? My son is about to launch himself into the world – a prospect which is nearly as thrilling for me as it is for him. I have my book to look forward to (yes, friends, I am going to set about the task of editing and formatting content from this blog for a publish-on-demand book) and there is the business of getting healthy and fit again. Lots to do, lots to do.

Once I can get this house in order again, I’ll begin to figure out what this new game’s gonna look like. If I can just hold on to that feeling of hope again, if I can just remember that out of chaos comes order, that a catalyst is necessary for growth, that growth, change and evolution are what this whole silly planet is about…

If I can just get myself there again, it’ll be a perfect storm of possibility, and I’ll be right in the eye of it.

 

Ganga’s Bones (or Death in Three Parts) June 7, 2021

Part I

I have a dear friend who is dying.

In and of itself it’s not really anything out of the ordinary, however what brings some irony to the situation is that my friend once wrote a book about dying, and how to lose one’s fear of it. And she is not approaching her death as she herself has counseled so many others to do.

Back in a time when generous book advances were more common than today, she’d made a pretty penny from her work even before it had hit the presses. The book was written a few years after she had begun what was to become her most important gift to the world, the creation of a non-profit organization called ‘God’s Love We Deliver’, an operation which daily delivered fresh-cooked meals to sick and homebound people in metro NYC (in its beginning it delivered several hundred, today it’s upwards of seven thousand a day). Ganga had garnered some major street cred back then from ‘God’s Love’ which no doubt had something to do with the book advance. GL had also caught the eye of some well-known folks who had either chosen to sit on the board or give the gift of their time, money and visibility: comedienne Joan Rivers, socialite and philanthropist Blaine Trump (yes, that Trump family – by a former marriage – yet I personally believe her to be cut of a far different cloth), designers Calvin Klein and Michael Kors, among many others. When Ganga began to teach classes to men dying of AIDS on how to approach the end of life, it raised her profile in the culture of death awareness. She was a guru of sorts on the subject. Her teachings on acceptance of death were a perfect compliment to her mission to assist the victims of the AIDS epidemic with home-delivered, high-quality food, delivered with love. She advocated for both a loving approach to a person’s final days, as well as a practical approach to the death that was to follow. In fact, she encouraged people to lose their fear of death and accept it as a potentially wonderful experience.

She and I met late one night in line for the pharmacy at CVS some six years ago. It was her adorable Maltese dog named Bobby McGee who pulled me into her orbit, (she used to waitress at Max’s Kansas City in Manhattan back in the day, where Janis Joplin was a customer of hers, hence her dog’s name) but it was the conversation about death which we stumbled upon so organically which called me to her friendship. I told her I had wished there was a book that addressed death in a simple, pragmatic way – and she told me that there was; she herself had written just such a book! I recognized in her a fellow human of similar energy and drive, so when she told me, I didn’t doubt her for a moment, and I eagerly awaited the story that was to follow. And so it was that she gave me the thumbnail of her life’s work. After hearing about her experiences, I knew that this was a woman I had to know better. How lucky was I that this special woman lived right here in my town?

That night when I got home I ordered her book, and read it cover-to-cover shortly after it arrived. In the wake of my surprise divorce a few years earlier, and in an effort to preserve my sanity and understand how better to make sense of the experience, I had dived deep into the study of things philosophical, spiritual and metaphysical, and so the main idea which she posited of an existence beyond this physical world was not foreign to me or without serious merit and consideration. I liked what I read, and I was relieved to find someone for whom the topic was so easily discussed (and especially so as it was examined outside of any religious constructs).

Ever since we met, death has been an easy topic of conversation for the two of us to continue. In fact, there has never been a subject we two couldn’t discuss. We always enjoyed deeply candid conversations; it was the main reason we two felt so connected. (I wrote on my kitchen white board something she had said to me this past week: “Your conversation is nourishing”.) But now, whether it’s due to her severe lack of memory or her primal, instinctive fear of the finality, she has come to completely deny that her death is nearing. Actually, it’s not so much that she denies it, for the subject never even arises. She simply carries on as if it were life as usual. She behaves as if her life is now the same as it has ever been, when any other person in the room can plainly see that it is not. And for some reason which I cannot identify, but respect nonetheless, I am uncharacteristically unable to address the subject with her. It just doesn’t feel as if there would be any real benefit from the discussion, and so I leave it be.

Recently she broke her left hip (she’d managed to get somewhat better and at least ambulatory after she broke the right one plus a kneecap two years ago), but after this second surgery she has simply gone downhill. And at this point, all the signs are there; she weights a mere seventy-six pounds, and hasn’t the strength to move her legs or adjust her position in the bed. She can’t even put food on her own fork, and beyond that just getting the food to her mouth has become a challenge. And tonight as I was tucking her in and trying to get her comfortable (this is hard to do at this point as she’s so very skinny and pressure on her bones hurts), we both noticed how purple the tips of her fingers had turned, and how cold they were to the touch. She assured me that they didn’t feel cold. Another sign…

Yet somehow she can’t even see this for herself. The past few days she’s rationalized that her current condition is the exception to the norm; today she is unusually tired, or she ate enough at the previous meal, or maybe it’s that she’d rather enjoy my company that waste our visit by eating. A few days ago I brought a chopped liver sandwich (her father made chopped liver and she often waxes nostalgic about it) and she ate with enthusiasm and delight – but a mere three bites. That was all she could take. All the logic in the world couldn’t convince her that this was hardly enough caloric intake to maintain her health, let alone make up for the twenty-plus pounds she’d lost since she’d her surgery.

The hospice nurse and social worker (the latter is truly an absolute bitch, how or why she came to this career choice is beyond my comprehension) arrived while I was visiting a few days ago, and I was asked to please leave the room. I waited outside while they told my friend of the change in her care from rehab to hospice. It didn’t seem that my friend understood. When I was invited back in, something had changed. It seemed that Ganga had made the case for my being family of sorts; she wanted me there to hear the information. The women gave their spiel again. I interpreted it for my friend in the gentlest way I could. “Oh no, I don’t want hospice!” she said adamantly. I explained that if she gained weight, if she showed an increase in strength and if she made some overall progress, that her status as a hospice patient would be changed back to that of a rehab patient. This new change in care was just a measure of relief for her; she wouldn’t be made to adhere to a strict diet (she always complained about choices being made for her), and she wouldn’t be made to endure physical therapy (through which she screamed in fear and pain the whole time). She could enjoy the break she so often asked for. Still, it didn’t seem to matter. The word hospice is loaded, and as lacking as my friend may be in memory and physical abilities, this was not lost on her.

I realize that it’s not important that she be completely aware of her patient status. And anyway, having her truly understand the situation is not really possible; her lack of short term memory prevents any new information from sticking. And whether she knows that her death is coming before long or not – it doesn’t change a thing. What does matter is that I try, as her friend, to maintain a certain level of joy, satisfaction and physical comfort in her remaining experience here. I will continue to bring her her favorite foods, whether she takes one bite or not. I will play the chants of Muktananda from her days in the ashram in India, and I’ll hang his picture on her wall. I will bring her my favorite down pillow and comforter from home. I will do everything short of burn her favorite incense (I’ve already been spotted as a rule-breaker on the floor, no need to tempt complete banishment from the place) in order to keep her as content and happy as possible. We will simply have to live each moment to the best of our ability. From here on in I will do my best to keep her life worth living.

I too might have to employ this approach with respect to my own life these days. We’ve lost fourteen birds – some dearly beloved and deeply important to us – over the past six weeks. My mother is eighty-six now and her health and strength wain visibly as the months go by. My own body has continued to change in unpleasant ways that break my vain heart daily, and behind all of this is the knowledge that my son and only life companion will be leaving me forever in just a few months, sooner even, when one considers he will pass much of the summer with his dad. How I will manage, as a single person in the world with very few friends? This I do not yet know. I will simply have to continue to witness the joy and beauty in my life as it appears. I can do no more, and I realize that it won’t serve me to do any less.

I understand that everything is transitory. I have worked for years on getting this knowledge to live inside of me. Yeah, I get it – and yet I don’t. There is the intellectual aspect of me which is well-informed and trusting, but then there is the deeper, more animalistic feeling that I just can’t shake. Yes, I do believe it to be true, as my old family friend Martha always used to say, that ultimately “everything always works out”. My head believes it, but on some level my gut doesn’t quite trust it to be so. Elihu will often defend Ganga’s seemingly strange behavior these days by reminding me that we are physiologically wired to stay alive, and that that drive is strong. Primal. Instinct wins over intellect here, he tells me. Must be what’s going on in Ganga’s experience. She knows it’ll all work out. And yet she can’t quite bring herself to accept it. Understandable, because the next thing on her to-do list is to die. Easy to rationalize when it’s someone else’s experience I guess. I certainly can’t know for sure that I myself won’t behave in the very same way when my own death shows itself to be coming soon.

Part II

Ironically, the day that Ganga died I had successfully made my online reservation for a visit at the rehab facility, and even had the screen shot to prove it (the online system didn’t always print out the time I reserved, so this time I thought I’d beat the system). Elihu and I went to visit Grandma after school, and after that I was going to go make my visit (feeling certain it would be my last). As I was getting in the car to leave, I received a call from her sister. Ganga has died peacefully at 4 pm, less than an hour earlier.

In my mind I played back last night’s visit. A dear friend with whom she’d started God’s Love We Deliver and her husband had made the long drive from Maryland to hold Ganga’s hand and be there with her in the time that remained. I remember seeing all three of them there in the gentle light of the small table lamp, her friend reading poems to her, holding her hand… I remember thinking it would merely be selfish if I were to interrupt the vibe by wishing to hold Ganga’s hand once more, or to kiss her on the head… I had only ever kissed her once, a few days earlier. I had been so conflicted about doing so (it still felt awkward to offer such a tender gesture for a woman who, like me, spoke her mind and swore like a sailor), but I made myself do it, and for this I’m now very relieved. So as I took in the scene, and before I pulled closed the curtain between us, I simply said “I love you Ganga, I’ll see you tomorrow”.

I last saw Ganga on Tuesday night, the first of June. She died the following day at 4 p.m.

It is Friday night now, and tomorrow morning I will make the drive, early morning, to witness my friend’s cremation. Naturally, I had to take some action in order to learn where and when it was to happen. It still amazes me that our culture is just fine with the idea of a loved one’s body being whisked away in the night and returning a few weeks later in a small five pound box, no questions asked. Seriously, no one is sentimental? Curious? In need of closure? Sigh.

As I write this, my friend’s body still exists. Ganga still exists in corporeal form. But in a matter of hours, she won’t. And this doesn’t matter at all, really. I can hear her in my head saying “Oh Elizabeth it’s bullshit. Don’t think for a moment that the body means anything.” At least I think so. That’s been kinda eating at me the last two days. I used to think I knew exactly what she would have said. But now I start to doubt…

It’s now Saturday morning. In two hours’ time I will watch the smoke rise from the wide-bore metal smokestack, carrying with it a portion of Ganga’s body upward and into the ether. Then I will pray, I will chant, I will wish her a loving and peaceful transition. I will probably cry too. And then her form as I knew it, the form which made me smile with its familiarity, the form that once served her so well and which later let her down so deeply, that crazy mass of now-decrepit cells will be nothing but bones and ashes, and smoke in the air. That which was.

It’s still super early. I didn’t wake up in a good place in my sleep cycle, so now I’m desperately groggy and trying on many excuses to see if I can allow myself to sleep in and simply miss the whole affair. But how often does one get this sort of chance to witness the final departure of a dear friend? With a mixture of sorrow, anticipation and a tiny bit of dread, I’m going to pack my bag and head off now.

Part III

I arrived at Albany Rural Cemetery a bit before 8 am, (as I’d been told that Ganga would go in first thing in the morning) and the kind woman I’d spoken to on the phone was there in the office. They were a bit backed up; Ganga’s cremation had first been moved from Friday afternoon to early on Saturday, and now it seemed as if they wouldn’t get to her until noon or later. It was time to elicit some more information to see if I might not nudge things a bit in my favor; I did my ‘thing’ and expanded the conversation as much as I felt her to be comfortable with (ok, I probably went a bit beyond that). She told me the guy who was working the crematorium’s name was Damien. “You’ll know who he is. He’s got a lot of tattoos.”

I parked in the shade just past the chapel, crematorium and mausoleum, all of which were housed in the same terra cotta-colored stone building. I walked around the perimeter once, and noticed that there was a large hall on the lower level with a door that was unlocked. It was a mausoleum, its towering walls made of smooth marble squares, some occupied, some yet awaiting their tenants. There was a table with a vase of plastic flowers and a guest book on it by the doorway. I stopped to read the entries. They were all family members come to visit parents and grandparents. Not a one of the messages was terribly interesting, and they all seemed to be desperate with loss and sorrow. I looked for something more personal or unique, but nothing stood out. We miss you Grandma, we love you Papi… Does it all just end like this? Not a lot of hope for closure or transition on those pages.

I decided I would leave a message of my own for Ganga. I sat down on the cool stone stairs, held the book in my lap, thought for a few moments, and then filled in a page. I took a pic, then returned the book to the table and stood back for a moment to regard the setting. All at once a bald man in a gas mask came running down the stairs at top speed, stopping short at seeing me – I believe I remember him even putting a hand to his heart, because it was clear that I’d scared the shit out of him. We both paused for a moment and I saw that his head was covered in vividly-colored tattoos. “Hi, are you Damien?” I asked, but he didn’t answer, he just offered a muffled “Oh I’m sorry!” from behind the mask and made a sort of slight bow of apology, and then ran back up the flight of stairs. It seemed as if he couldn’t hear me with the headgear on. I remained in the hall for a few more minutes, noting the fact that, as Sarah had told me, that because they were so backed up, the place wasn’t presentable to the public at the moment. Cardboard body boxes were stacked up in the common area, and a very industrial-looking apparatus used for holding caskets was parked in an adjacent hallway. At the end of the day, it’s a physical world, and there are physical jobs that need to be done.

Within a minute or two the bald man came back down the staircase, this time sans gas mask. Again he apologized, and of course I did too. Why should he ever expect a stranger to be here at 8 a.m. on a Saturday? I saw that he was indeed heavily tattooed (plus he had a thrice-pierced lip). Oh what a kind man he was; I told him why I was there, that it was important for me to be here when my friend was cremated. He said Sarah was right, they were a bit backed up, and it would probably be around noon by the time he could get to her. That was ok, I answered. I’d tour the cemetery and bide my time ’til then. So Damien left to get back to his job. But then a few minutes later he came down the stairs again. “I can get your friend in at 9” he offered. “You shouldn’t have to hang around here for so long”. I thanked him, this time I was the one offering a slight bow of gratitude. “I’ll get things going.” Damien offered. “And I’ll have your friend in at 9”. “Um… so which stack will she be in?” I asked, referring to the pair of metal chimneys. Without hesitation he answered “The one on the left”. I nodded. “Ok, thanks”. He turned to leave. I felt a slight rise in my adrenaline. “Wait!” I called out, and he stopped. In my mind I considered the things I might do as a symbol of our connection in this final moment – perhaps he could retrieve a lock of her hair? Perhaps he could take the flowers in my hand and have them burned along with her? In a flash I realized all of the legal and logistical problems that even a tiny request might create, and quickly said “Never mind”. No, there was nothing left to be done. He nodded, smiled kindly, turned and left.

I found a spot under a deliciously-scented flowering mock orange bush just twenty feet outside of the furnace portion of the building. I pulled out my phone to check that I had the chant correct. Om Namah Shivaya. I pulled out Ganga’s book, and then her small bible. I had brought a cushion to sit on, and was wearing her red beaded necklace from India. I tried to imagine that now tiny body, that white-haired dynamo of a woman, lying just behind that vent, behind that brick wall. That body was in lousy shape when she left it, and certainly it was less than that now. But being the deeply sentimental person I am, I couldn’t help but try to picture her in my mind’s eye. I could imagine her laying there, a mere shell of the woman she once was, and with that image fixed in my head, I said my own quiet inner farewell to that familiar form.

A few minutes before nine I heard some machinery begin to operate, and I saw the wavy heat lines of burning fuel rising from the stack (for me it was the one on the right; I was on the opposite side of the wall from Damien). Ok, I thought, it has to get up to speed first… And then, a moment or two after nine, there was one initial blast of sound, and one puff of black smoke… The smoke didn’t last. Within a minute the black smoke returned to the invisible waves of heat, rising, which continued for another hour and forty minutes. (Later I surmised that this initial burst of smoke may have been the easily-burned parts of the package like her hair, her nightgown, the dry skin, the box… the rest of the material was wetter and denser and would just be a low and slow process.) The initial plume stunned me into tears, as I realized the transformation was underway. I reached for her bible, the one with her initials embossed on the cover and which had been given to her at her first communion in St. Louis another lifetime ago, and I turned to a page in which she had once inserted a laminated card with the Saint Francis of Assisi prayer that begins “Lord, make me an instrument of thy peace, where there is hate, let me sow love…” I read it aloud, through tears. I took a moment to consider it more deeply, and I read it again. And then I set to chanting. I readily admit that I’m years out of any meditative practice, so the chanting went in spurts – as did my focus. I needed to relieve my joints too, so a few times I stood, I walked, I considered the vapors rising from the stack. I thought of my friend’s physical state by now, and how I was moving beyond my sentiment for it. I stood in the shadow of the wavy heat lines on the pavement, and noted how our forms were casting shadows together. Likely it was far more fuel than body, but still… It was us, together for one last moment here on earth.

My friend had wasted away to a mere seventy-plus pounds at the end of her life, so after about an hour and forty minutes I began to wonder if it wasn’t time. But how to know? Would there be some mystical sign? Did she plan on letting me know? And within seconds of my pondering this, I heard two short sirens go off, and then the engines let down and began to hum a little more quietly. Yeah, I was pretty sure that this had been the timer, and our dear Ganga was finally cooked. It made me laugh.

I got in my car and as I slowly pulled away I saw Damien, leaning against the arched entrance, smoking a cigarette. Passing more time while her remains cooled down before they could be processed. “Man, I bet a lot of this job is just waiting, huh?” I asked, elbow hanging out my open window. That began a ten minute conversation in which we covered a lot of ground; he’d taken the job as grounds keeper originally, as he liked being outdoors, but then the guy working the crematory needed a sub, and pretty soon what Damien had once thought an unthinkable task had now become his new full-time job. He said it was particularly hard seeing the kids and babies that came in. He shared with me that while he’d never seen a ghost, once he had been overwhelmed with the scent of vanilla while mowing the lawn, the summer air around him filled with nothing but dust and grass seed. I mean, it is a cemetery. Certain subjects come up. Ghosts and unexplainable events must be covered at some point I should think. And it’s always nice when you meet another soul who has shared similar experiences, and with whom censorship is not necessary. Natural candor is a beautiful thing. Hey, it’s what I had with Ganga.

Ganga would’ve really liked this nice young tattooed man who reverently loaded her into the furnace of evermore. I’m sure it woulda made her smile. And I’m sure if she could’ve seen everything with the clarity of her former self, she would’ve been pretty happy with the way in which the last few weeks went down. (On some level I’m sure she knew well what was going on; she left after all was resolved.) Ganga had made peace with her long-estranged son, her son’s father, spent time with her daughter and her sister, and saw once again her beloved friend from the old days, who’d journeyed far just to hold her friend’s hand at the end. Ganga asked after Elihu at every one of our visits, and she was deeply satisfied to know where he was going to school, and that he himself was happy with the choice (she was adamantly against him attending an Ivy League for numerous reasons) and the last time Elihu visited with her, he had held her hand for a long time and had told her that he loved her. He sobbed the whole way home, a behavior very uncharacteristic of him. I told her about this the following day, and told her that for reasons he didn’t himself even understand, Elihu loved her so very deeply. “I feel the same way” she answered.

In the end, everything really did work out. And I know that Ganga is doing fine wherever she is now. I know it. I can just feel it in my bones.

Ganga (Ingrid Hedley) Stone, October 30th, 1941 – June 2nd, 2021

 

The Varieties of 57 May 5, 2021

This past year has been full of extremes, both good and bad. Covid played its part, but there was so much more. And I understand more profoundly today, even as I didn’t just a few months ago, that there will be no letup anytime soon; this life of mine will continue to be a challenging go-round on the globe.

I lost a couple of friends to the virus, and that still feels incredibly surreal. The death of my town’s music store owner still feels like a bad dream from which I’ll awake before long. He had been a treasured friend ever since I moved here from Chicago almost thirteen years ago – and he championed all I endeavored to do at the Studio. He sponsored all of my shows, he lent me gear, offered ideas for programs and strategies to grow the business. We passed hours chatting in the store, talking about everything from music to relationships to parenting. I drive by his place every morning and still blow him a kiss, imagining him downstairs, behind the counter, ready to greet everyone who enters like an old friend… It’s strange how we humans eventually acquiesce to the most unthinkable outcomes. Slowly, it seems I’m growing to realize that he is gone. His death reminds me that life as we knew it is also gone.

This week – this moment, in fact – I am beset with an anxiety that is deeper and more complex than any I’ve yet known. Firstly contributing there are the mundane matters of aging (about which I shall dish shortly), and secondly there is the physiological aspect of my condition which is separate and apart from that. The panic and anxiety is its own thing, I can assure you. (Tonight it is acute, and writing is helping to distract and alleviate the symptoms. At the moment I am struggling to feel ‘in my body’; part of my personal experience with panic is a frightening lightness and separation from my corporeal form which is truly terrifying, and while I have developed some tricks to mitigate it, at the end of the day old-fashioned distraction works best). I am experiencing both concerns at the same time these days, so teasing out which portion of my discomfort is age-dependent and which is involved with panic and depression is not truly possible.

I wish I could tell myself that things will get better, but honestly friends, has not the hill been surmounted? At the age of fifty-seven – and add one more year to the tally on May 7th – is my life not all on the downslope from here on in? From where I sit right now, that appears to be the clear and honest truth. I look at my mother – whose badly deformed hands I have inherited, and whose U-curved spine I’m yet hoping to avoid – and I can’t help but wish it ends long before that becomes my reality. She tosses off passive-aggressive asides under her breath about wishing to ‘shuffle off this mortal coil’ as she struggles to make her way around the kitchen, holding on to the counters like a rock climber. She never comes out and says it directly though; her generation doesn’t do that sort of thing. That I’ve actually heard her expressing feelings aloud is rather unusual, and it further supports my claim that such an aged state of infirmity is no desirable place to be. Yet even as I continue to age, I wonder if there might still be some tiny thrills ahead, despite the changes already underway – perhaps even major insights that might yet enrich my life… I hang on to some hope for all of that, and I’ll certainly put in the effort to that end – but I’m not holding my breath. And please friends, don’t protest. Honestly. The way I feel these days, I’m pretty sure the majority of my life’s sweet spots are behind me now.

It hardly seems I have any right to be in such a condition… Do I not live a fairly rarified life here on this planet? Am I not at the very top of the existential pyramid? Have I not a list of projects I’m eager to do? Do I not have a beautiful home full of beautiful things? Have I not a son who is happy, successful and who loves me? Yes, I have all of these things. But it’s the things that can’t be properly explained, seen or quantified which really do throw a spanner in the works. It’s nothing new, of course; the mental health stuff has been with me, albeit just under the surface, since I was a teenager. I’m great at presenting to the world like everything’s working fine – and in fact, I’m a super-high functioning human being, no false modesty about that here. But no matter how I may appear, my depression and panic are real, and they can make certain patches exceptionally rough for no apparent reason. And the past month or so has been just such a patch.

My state of mind is subject to a few different influences, and I’m fairly sure I know what most of them are. The constant financial stress I live with definitely contributes (my income arrives in $40 doses through a handful of ‘side hustles’. That term taunts me, as there’s nothing ‘side’ about it; it’s my only income. But I agree, I sure do hustle for it). Some of my concerns come of vanity. Some are born of self-pity. Some are related to the despondency I feel over the neglect I show to many old friends with whom I just can’t seem to find the time to communicate. I shouldn’t wish to be forgotten by my friends, but I myself am doing just that with so many people. There are half a dozen folks whom I owe a nice long conversation, and many more who deserve a good catching-up via email, but I’m always just too beat at the end of the day to make any of it happen. And that makes me feel crappy.

There’s also the eye injury. It’s a 24/7 affair. It physically bothers me almost every moment of day of every day. In order to distract myself I learn music. I make videos. I do chores. I walk in nature, I take care of my chickens and my home, I cook for my son, I do errands for homebound friends and caretake for a few elderly neighbors. I do, do, do… The panic and depression which has returned is likely also due in part to the chaotic, frenetic nature of my average day.

The episodes come in waves though, and they’re not always perceptible to me. One morning, a few months ago, I came to the breakfast table feeling deliriously free of that low-grade shitty feeling that cloaks me most of my waking hours – and it felt simply wonderful. The sheer absence of feeling bad was itself so good! When I told Elihu that, he simply responded “Manic much?”. Hm. “Really, is it that bad?” I asked. He told me it was, and reminded me that I’d felt good last week, and that I’d be feeling really bad again soon. I was truly surprised. In that moment I couldn’t remember having felt this kind of relief in ages. “Wait, really? I felt like this just last week?” He told me that he was pretty sure I had. I don’t have much interaction with people save what I carefully select for social media, so who else but Elihu would know? I guess I’ll have to believe him. From where I sit tonight, I pray he’s right. If I’m feeling this bad right now, relief’s gotta come soon, right? Sleep doesn’t even help; I sleep so very little – three, maybe four hours a night – and often wake up mid-way in terror. It’s pretty brutal these days.

And there are all of the physical landmarks which I am fast-reaching (I suppose you could file these under both self-pity and vanity too). A musician whose arthritic fingers have doubled in size in less than a year? A hand that can no longer grasp the wheel of my car before I’m sixty? Dang. Then there is the lost jawline, the strange crinkly texture of my skin in areas of my body that I was sure had a longer life expectancy than this… An alarming loss of word recall, a new stiffness in my hips and hair that has thinned dramatically. What the actual fuck? I thought this shit would hit home in my mid sixties, certainly not before… I put in my time raising my son, turning down dates and saving myself for that sweet spot post-child when I could pick up where I left off, maybe even really enjoy myself a little before things went downhill. And things were looking pretty OK not too long ago; I’d lost seventeen pounds and was working out six days a week – I was feeling and looking good just a couple months ago until I injured myself and then absolutely tanked. I suppose the depression has built up since I fell off the fitness wagon – and I can say most assuredly that working out really helps keep panic attacks at bay. But somehow I’ve lost control of my life again – caretaking for everyone else, and finding no time left for me. It’s quite likely that the lack of control over my life has exacerbated my overall discomfort.

Fifty-seven started ok. The pandemic really didn’t change a thing for me. Errands continued to consume my life. While friends were staying home, ordering meal services and letting their hair grow long I was out doing the shopping and everyday errands for my own camp. By the time May rolled around I was back to business as usual (sans students I should add, and therefore sans any sort of meaningful income), albeit donned in a mask and using sanitizer after every stop. Life only came to a halt for me when I got hit in the eye with a log while attempting to clean up my property in mid-June. That forced my hand. For a couple of weeks the world went on without me as I laid in bed, healing. (At the end of the day I’m lucky. Less than a half an inch toward the center of my eye and I would’ve been blinded. But still, the never-ending discomfort and diminished vision suck. No way around it.)

Then came the adventure with Mr. High School Crush. Ow. That sure went from good to bad really fast. But hindsight and some online study showed him to be a classic misogynist. Knowing that his strange behavior was a real, definable thing was so helpful. The cycle he thrived on was “Idealize, Devalue, Discard”. His MO was to throw a ‘love bomb’ (intense and sudden displays of affection and desire, etc.), get me in close – and then berate me, finally showing himself to be the victor – and me the devalued loser. I still don’t know what caused him to turn on a dime the last time he visited. I asked him, but he never answered. And by not responding he retained the upper hand, so to speak. I had no information to work with, so I couldn’t even counter him, nor could I gain any insight. But frankly, there is no insight to be had; his process requires that he find an offense in order to make himself right, and me wrong. I’m sure he took something I said or did and built it up in his mind to be a major transgression.

In his final text to me he angrily called me ‘self-centered’ and told me that he had revoked my title of ‘Lady’. Sheesh. That’s crazy talk I know, but the even crazier thing is that in my weak emotional states I re-play his words and it brings up the hurt all over again for no good reason. (There does seem to be a little ‘Stockholm Syndrome’ thing going on here.) Once, after it appeared to have ended (on our last parting he had smiled, hugged and kissed me, then driven off, thereafter ceasing any form of communication for many weeks, leaving me to wonder what the hell had happened), I sat at the kitchen island, weeping into my hands. Elihu asked me what was up – and I lamented that I’d thought I’d been falling in love. He very soberly responded “You weren’t falling in love, mom. You were falling in sex.” Thank you, kid. You’re my sage, always. (Um, first sex since the ex. Can you blame a girl?)

And as for the minor rock god? Well, while we had fun (and recorded some music too, although not our best work to be sure), and I’m glad to count him as a new friend, it wasn’t what I might’ve hoped for. We’d already cultivated a playful, flirty vibe, so I’d thought we might’ve enjoyed some good physical chemistry as a result. But he too was mired in his own experience with depression – and his is far, far worse than mine – so the garden wasn’t fertile. We did get physical, but that’s all it was. Whether it was the dulling effect of the meds he was on or his own natural response, he simply did not offer any noticeable emotional connection. I suspect that even if he had been feeling whole and healthy, he and I probably still wouldn’t have had a thing anyhow. But I’ll never know for sure, and that too nags at me when I’m in this low sort of state. Kinda feels like I wasn’t good enough for either of these fellows – not even the one with whom I had music and good humor in common – and that hurts a little bit. And I didn’t even want relationships with them! Just wished for a moment of connection, pleasure and friendship. Seemed so simple, but it turned out be be so elusive. Then again, I was dealing with men who brought their own challenges along with them. I guess the playing fields weren’t exactly level. Shouldn’t bother me all these months later, I know, but it does.

This has past year Elihu has been a senior in high school (whaaaat? Just seeing that in print makes me a bit woozy), so naturally, it’s been a huge year for him. And by association, for me too. Despite his having a 4.3 GPA, being in the 99th percentile with his SATs, having both fluency and literacy in three languages and a list of credentials that is truly hard to fathom, all of the Ivy Leagues passed on him, except for Harvard and Cornell, both which have waitlisted him (we won’t know their decisions for another few weeks). But he was accepted at RPI with generous scholarships, and the appeal of a debt-free degree is strong, so it may even win out over Harvard. The case has been made to us that he can use his undergrad years to kick some academic ass, and then he can do his post-grad studies at a fancy shmancy school. Might be the plan. Still not sure.

Injury, romance, heartbreak, success, failure, stress and hope plus fifty more items somewhere in between. I’d say that’s quite a variety of life experiences. One wonders what can possibly lie ahead. I learned a lot at fifty-seven, let’s hope that I can leverage that new insight and cultivate a really great fifty-eight.

 

Middling March 8, 2021

In this first week of March, Elihu and I exist in an interesting and unique place in our lives.

Today we are at home, each of us ensconced in our own projects, each working in our own individual spaces, yet each of us knowing and feeling the other to be not far away. We are together, yet alone. Every so often one of us will approach the other to share our most recent achievement, and the other will bear witness. We offer praise, critique, input, advice. We share a moment together before retreating back to our respective workplaces. And I love this way of living. We two are so comfortable together, so attuned to each other’s nuances and ways of thinking. Elihu speaks aloud his newly learned Chinese vocabulary, and I repeat it to the best of my ability. I see that the tree sparrows have returned, and he joins me at the kitchen window to watch them on the feeder while we marvel together at their precisely timed arrival. Elihu references a beginning line from a Tom Lehrer parody, and I finish it. I play an arrangement idea at the piano for a pop song I’m working on, and then Elihu plays me a favorite passage from a Brahms symphony. Sometimes we’ll play a short improvised duet of tuba and piano. And after we’ve enjoyed the other’s company for a short while, the moment concludes most naturally, and we each return to our solitude. But it is a safe sort of solitude, as in the back of our minds (at least in the back of this mother’s mind) we both know that the other is but a room away. And this, at least for me, is the key element to this current state of domestic bliss.

March is a time which has always been both hopeful and trying; it is the time of year when trees begin to drip their sap onto the car windshield, assuring us that the cold will break before long, yet it is also the time of year when the winter can offer up its worst in ice storms and heavy snows, burdening our hearts with a desperate feeling that the green will never reappear. For me, March has always represented the flat and still center of the year. A day in mid March has a strange, etheric, out-of-time sort of feeling to it. Neither winter, nor summer, neither active nor passive. It is the still center of existence. This day in particular has felt just like that. Not only in that is is that time of waiting for Nature to shift, but this year it is also for the fact that Elihu and I have no idea whatsoever where he will be going to college. Having heard from only one school (which although a top-notch institution, is his last choice), we are left to wonder at the trajectory of his life, even at this late date in the academic year. While most of his peers have been accepted and are already shifting their thinking to what will be their new homes and lives, we are left unknowing. We are left with a great expanse ahead with no landmarks. It doesn’t bother Elihu though, as he is deeply embedded in his senior project, and spends most of his waking hours in his workshop. He is engrossed, he is focused. And besides, my son is a person who knows how to fully inhabit the present. So he’s ok. And me? Yeah, I’m ok too I suppose. But I’m also not ok. Like March, I’m somewhere in between.

Not knowing isn’t so bad, actually. In fact, it’s kinda fun. It reminds me of how I used to feel, when as a touring musician I’d wake up on the road in a strange new place and for the first few minutes of consciousness in the morning I would try to recall where I was. New York? Ohio? Georgia? Was I in a closet? In a living room? A motel? I would enjoy those first few moments of not knowing. It was a short suspension of reality. I was awake, and yet it was like being in a dream. A strange in-between. And so it is in a similar place in which I find myself to be these days. Existentially in the middle. But truthfully, it feels good. Today we had no place to be, no deadlines to meet. We had only to do what we pleased. Me, I was upstairs at the piano working out new arrangements and making videos, while Elihu was at his bench, wiring up the the innards of his morphing-wing airplane. We crossed paths a few times, laughed at every meeting (ours is a relationship filled with humor) and enjoyed the alone-but-not-alone way of life in our tiny cottage. It was a kind of heaven for us both.

I mentioned to Elihu this concept of not knowing. The idea that at this very point in time, today, March 7th, 2021, we had absolutely no idea where he would be living for the next four years. No idea where life would take him after the summer. I marveled over how odd it felt – after all we had always been ones for planning and knowing. This was an unusual phenomenon for us both. He stopped on his way back downstairs, pausing for a moment on the landing, and considered the idea more deeply. He agreed. It was rather a strange situation to be in. We both stood for a moment, feeling the silence, feeling the unknowing. Then we parted and returned to our workspaces. Before sitting back down at the piano I looked out of the east-facing picture window in our living room. I could see the thawing surface of Saratoga Lake some ten miles distant, and I saw the Vermont mountains behind in the waning sunlight of late afternoon. The poignancy of the moment was acute; this life of ours had always been so full, so busy, so relentless, so unending…. And yet now the end of it all was finally within sight. The late afternoon light gave me that sad, distant and aching feeling in my chest, adding to the gravity of this impending farewell. How many times had I looked out at this same view and felt content, secure in my heart that life was full and good? Sure, many times I have lamented the load I’ve carried without benefit of a partner, many times I’ve grumbled aloud about domestic chores and the drudgery of it all, but many more have been the times I have reflected on how full a life I’ve had, and how lucky I am to have shared much of this adventure with such a person as Elihu. Many times over the past twelve years I have stood at this same window, looking out at the expanse beyond, feeling so deeply fortunate to be in the midst of a pretty wonderful life.

This is a fascinating place in which to exist. If I’m to be completely honest, I fairly dread being without my dearest companion close at hand, but at the same time I am also eager for it to begin; I have so many projects and interests. It always amazes me when people find themselves bored after retirement. It also amazes me that my mother asks what I’ll do with “all of my time” after the kid is gone. How do I begin to answer that? There is always so much to do! So much to learn. Too much! I’m confident things will be ok, I’m fairly certain that I will find my new groove before long. My son will have some major adjusting to do as well. But he’ll do fine too. We’ll both be ok. Knowing that we have both been actively preparing for these upcoming life destinations, I can rest easy in this space in time. Oh and what a rare thing it is not to know where the future will take us! It is actually a pleasurable sort of suspense.

At this moment we are just where we’ve always planned on being. We are ready. Plain and simple, we are here. At the end, at the beginning, and, at the same time, right in the very middle.

 

Vanity Pandemic April 22, 2020

As I see it, and as I believe most of us will agree in our most private thoughts, humans become quite physically unattractive on the downward slope of their lives. The enlightened folks in the room will instantly protest this by arguing that true beauty is in a person’s wisdom, and in their soul (yes, but the packaging can be very off-putting, rendering that soulful beauty unknown), and that the best years are yet to come. Ok. You can think all that if you want.

Nature would work to support my feelings on this; a 56 year old woman is not designed to procreate, therefore she is not equipped with physical attributes that might attract a mate – or in base terms, signal to members of the opposite sex that she is a viable candidate for maintaining the species. There is just no point in denying it. The visage of a young person is magnetic, but an image of a person in their late 50s – honestly folks, not so much. I sure wish I would’ve taken the time to contemplate this more deeply in advance of my arrival at this strange place. I wish I’d considered that by the time my son left the house I’d be old – as in beyond my years of a strong jawline and a waist smaller than my hips, a time in my life when my hair would be as thin as my little finger, and my fingers would be twice their previous size and too arthritic to clutch a steering wheel. I’m not sure how that would’ve changed things, except that it might not have come as such a surprise.

Those of you who immediately react in opposition to my thoughts will likely be coming from an inspired and holy place that I myself will probably never know in this earthly lifetime. Those folks will scold that age is just a number. Uh-huh. Right.

All my life I’d never been able to imagine what things might be like beyond a few months into the future. Aside, I suppose, from a drawing I made in 4th grade projecting who I imagined myself to be at – gasp, 25 – where I sported a Mary Tyler Moore-esque flippy hair style and announced that I would be an “actor”. I think the choice was made based on my famously outgoing personality, and nothing else. (Of course what does a 9 year old know about job opportunities??) But how exactly would I get to be an actor? What was involved in that? No idea. Even a decade later, more than halfway through high school I had no idea what the future held, and actor was off the list after my grades tanked in sophomore year and my parents said no more auditions for school productions. So in junior year I had no ideas, no vision. Really. If I’d had my druthers I would’ve just been a musician. I have never been a good student, and since the age of 12 classrooms and panic attacks were closely associated. What I really liked doing however, what inspired me, had been playing music with friends – that was natural. And so it made sense that after I muscled my way through what ended up being a nearly wasted four years at college I made my way back to playing. (A sidebar here is that I made some great friends, met musicians, and got to play in some great groups – that was the value of college for me.)

Growing up I always thought of myself as fat. Might’ve been reinforced by my mother’s own laments about her chubby childhood (photos show no such thing), or it might’ve been the way my thighs always wore the whales in my corduroy pants down to shiny fabric in no time, or that my arms never curved in below my shoulders the way the athletic girls’ did – whatever it was, it had me confiding to my 5th grade diary that I was “78 pounds! Such a fatty!” Sheesh. The timeless lament of women – sad that it starts so young and runs so deep. True, I was not one of the slender ones, but by no means was I “such a fatty”. Regardless, I spent my teenage years feeling very bad about myself and trying in vain over and over again to lose twenty unwanted extra pounds. But I met with an unlikely fate at the end of high school which completely changed the course of my life, and gave me the chance for a complete re-invention of myself. I was literally given a ‘do-over’.

When I was 18 – and on my way to a band rehearsal – I broke my neck in a car accident. I wasn’t driving, but I had made the bad choice of accepting a ride from a friend who had been drinking. It was on a Sunday afternoon at the end of a village celebration. I knew when I got it that he wasn’t in good shape, but I didn’t relish a two mile walk home and being late to practice, so I got in. Before 30 seconds had passed I’d broken C6 and C7 (my shoulder too). I spent the next two months strapped to a Stryker frame bed in the hospital. A horrible event to be sure – but by the time I was healed and back at home, I’d lost nearly 30 pounds. I was given a jump start into a new body and a new life. I didn’t take it lightly either. Just being able to walk after such an injury was certainly huge, but being given a new body was inspiring. I began to workout and to run and surprisingly found that I loved it. I got fit and cut, and for a long time there was no looking back. And man, the shit I wore back in those days was amazing. Among hundreds of outfits, a lime green PVC catsuit and 4 inch platforms come to mind as I think back…

You gotta know that playing onstage is more than just talent and gear – maybe more so for a woman – but it’s there for all of us. It’s about how you read to the crowd, how you look. Really. It is. But getting a look together for a band was always fun, it was never a hardship. A challenge, definitely, but one I loved. Thrift stores and head shops with a rack of tiny tees, my grandmother’s leftovers – I’d cobble together a unique look that told the world it was just that easy to look so music video-ready. With chops from years of classical piano and ears informed by my dad’s jazz LPs, I had enough facility to play in a variety of groups. From reggae bands to alt country (the sparkly accordion added to my rootsy street cred) to Elvis cover bands – and then later (when I realized that by singing I could work with “real” jazz musicians) fronting 20 piece big bands – all of it represented an impressive repertoire of costumes. I’ve let go of most of it by now, but I have a few pieces left. A red and black horizontal stripe top from the early years (which matched my red and black Farfisa!), and a few gowns from the “Doris Day” years. Wow, those waistlines slay me. I actually zipped that shit up? I’m not even sure my current thigh could fit inside the waistline of one of those gorgeous dresses. Linda Ronstadt once said that she had no regrets because she had “a long drink at the trough”. I didn’t drink the way she did, but I’ve certainly had more than one woman’s share of glamour and adventure. Truly.

So now here I am, a country gal, closer to 60 than 50, and holding onto a half dozen silk sheaths. It’s almost as if keeping the clothes demonstrates to me that that life will one day return. That the body I identify with will return. That youth will return. I try to take stock, to let pieces go every so often. There really is no more size 8 in my future, this I know… But it’s a deeply poignant thing to say goodbye; it’s like another confirmation that the best times are behind me and truly gone… The turquoise suede duster with the fur collar that I netted from a lucrative commercial job in Las Vegas – I let it go for just $5 at a garage sale last summer. When the man sent his niece a photo and she texted back immediately that she really wanted it – that gave my heart some relief. It would have a new life, a young life. That made it easier. Step by step, velvet boots by beaded gown I’ve let most of it go, and with each separation I like to think that I’m increasing my OK-ness with this aging thing. But really friends, I’m not.

I’m grateful for the buffer of pandemic life because at least it gives me a window of time for some deep self reflection. I must remember that while I’m flitting about in this turmoil of vanity, people are fighting for their lives. This should not be the time for lamenting in my diary that “I’m such a fatty”, yet somehow that’s how it’s turning out for me. Let’s just keep this between us, shall we? I’m not proud.

The gift of time has enabled me to finally justify spending hours upon hours going through boxes and boxes of paper. Memorabilia mixed in with mundane crap. Lots of stuff mis-filed. Hell, lots of files themselves labeled “to be filed” – now that’s a hoot. I’ve just never had the stretch of time in which to fully face down this monster. And it’s actually producing results! Who knew? Finally I can put my hands on teaching materials and pieces of music that have been MIA for years. So it’s been productive, which offers my spirit some lift. There’s a lot of paper being tossed in the burn bin these past few weeks – and as each bonfire spirits away a few pounds’ worth of the past into the sky, I feel a small breath of hope growing for the future. It will be oh so different, to be sure. I will need some major redefining of my life in a year’s time. But thankfully I have a handle on it now, and I have time to prepare. I will make the most of my pandemic cocoon. File by file, and fire by fire, I’m already making progress.

I think back on breaking my neck, and how frightening it was; the uncertainty for my very life, my mobility, my health… And yet it turned into a gift. As I lose weight in paper – old files, long-useless owner’s manuals, receipts, set lists, to-do lists – it gives me a real sense of lighten-ing. And in these heavy times, that is something I can really use.

 

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.

 

 

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.

 

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

 

Split July 30, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

______________________________________________________

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

 

 

 

Witching Window February 21, 2017

middle-age-now

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

rock-shot

Link to our YouTube channel: The Hillhouse