The Hillhouse

The Journey of a Mother and Son

Crazy January 1, 2016

Last night I spoke with Elihu. He’s in Florida with his dad and his dad’s other family, and for the most part, he’s loving it. He’s got a racoon tan around his eyes and sand lodged in his sneakers. Aside from the occasional all-American family gatherings which he must endure – replete with football-watching menfolk and salads that contain marshmallows – it’s been a happy time for him. Which makes me happy, too. Yet it’s never easy on this end when lil man is absent; our family if rife with dysfunction, depression and a deep apprehension for the future ahead. My son can be a lovely, shining distraction in such times. But these days, even Elihu’s presence might not have changed things, cuz they’re dark. I know, that doesn’t sound like a nice way to kick off the New Year, but hey. It’s true. I’m always ready and eager to find the hidden silver lining in any crappy experience, and I’ll broadcast my good findings when I discover them, but I will never shy away from telling my experience the way it is, no matter how it looks.

Last night, New Year’s Eve, was my brother’s 50th birthday. I know how deeply he blames me for his rotted-out, stinking life. I know he thinks mom gives me all her resources, that she favors me over him, that one day she will leave her entire estate to me when she goes. That none of this is true is beside the point; Andrew is ill, and simply does not posses the ability to see things outside of his own highly personal and paranoid perspective. For years and years I’ve fought this impediment to his potentially thriving life, but now, in this brand-new calendar year, I am choosing an entirely new tack: I am finally going to let it go. Nothing can be done for Andrew unless he chooses to do it for himself.

A lesson I myself would do well to live by – I keep waiting for some mysterious exterior force to enter into my life and help sweep things into a shining new order… Hoping for a savior to come and assist me, to uplift me, enlighten me, tell me how it is that I should proceed with my new business, someone who will see and share my vision and throw herself into the ring along with me, full of fresh ideas, vigor and business savvy. I keep thinking that somehow, this magical missing element will find me and make it all better. It’s a nice fantasy, and you never know, shit happens in mysterious ways, but still… I need to get moving. I need to make connections. I need to get my ass out of the goddam house and do things for myself already. No one but me can get the ball rolling.

Last night I’d planned on attending a bonfire and maybe meeting some new people, but between my running out of fuel oil (no matter how many times you see it, it’s always a bit disheartening to see the needle begin to visibly drop each minute) and it being Andrew’s birthday, and his being drunk and storming out, and my not wanting to see my mother sit alone, I bagged. Plus the idea of coming home from a bonfire in the cold, snowy dark woods to a cold and dark house was too much for me to take on. So instead I sat with mom, drank a couple of beers and watched TV like a good American. But that’s ok – because I’m lucky enough to have been invited to join some local musicians tomorrow night for an informal jam. Just the sort of thing I’ve been missing these past years. It won’t be too long before I’ll be back out into the world and making my new way.

During the day I’d been messaging back and forth with my brother’s only remaining friend on the planet, a fellow, who as far as I can tell, is living in the Bay area and is doing well for himself and his family. He spends hours on the phone with my brother, as much chatting about nothing in particular as he does conducting a covert attempt to draw out my brother’s feelings as a means of getting to the bottom of it all – and maybe even finding a fix to Andrew’s grim situation. However sane and successful this guy might be, sadly this fellow seems to have bought my brother’s skewed story, which is this: I, Andrew’s sister, am the cause of everything that is wrong with his life. He has been profoundly abandoned and unrighteously neglected by our mother. Mom pays my way, and leaves him out. I get all the accolades, he gets no respect. I live for free in a house she owns… You get the idea. What my brother doesn’t understand is that while yes, I do live in a home our mother provides for us, he too lives in a home provided for him. The difference is that I pay my own bills (while also raising a child), and mom takes care all of his expenses. But he’ll never see this. Because he can’t.

The truth of the matter is that my little brother has always been sick. In first grade, he came home from school reporting in a screaming rage how much the kids at school hated him, and that the whole class had “pulled machine guns on him” (I remember this specifically because as a 3rd grader I had never before heard this curious use of the word ‘pulled’). Last night, Mom recounted to me that when she’d gone back to work when we were young children, Andrew had asked her if he got a tummy ache in the middle of the day, would she be at home for him? She was honest and told her small son no. But she promised always to be there when he got home from school. And she was. So here we have a kid in whom something’s already a bit off (ie raging how kids ‘pulled machine guns’) and then you have growing feelings of abandonment on top of it: a cocktail for emotional trouble. But back then the signs were likely cast off as crazy kid’s talk, the behaviors chalked up to routine issues of childhood. My brother was quiet, funny and hyper-intelligent (when I described him once as ‘Rainman smart’ to my mom, she had a fit. “See?” she’d said, agitated and getting louder, “You think he’s crazy! Why can’t he just be smart?”) and if he brooded, it was considered merely part of his personality. It was a different time. We weren’t on the lookout for children with mental illnesses.

And while our culture is thankfully changing its feelings towards mental illness, I can tell you that it’s still not without stigma. I do think my mother’s thoughts about mental illness have changed over the past few years, but in her world it’s still not a comfortable subject. Yeah, I do think that personally she feels shame, maybe embarrassment, and even responsibility. Likely, she sees it this way: Mentally Ill Child = Crazy Child = Failure of Parent. Even I myself – dealing daily with panic and anxiety issues – have only just discovered a metaphor that allows for a deeper understanding of what it is to have a mental illness: If someone felt nauseas in their stomach – would you try to tell them they didn’t? Furthermore – you wouldn’t expect them to simply turn off the bad feelings, would you? Mental illness is the same as a tummy ache. It’s physical and it’s real, and it cannot be changed through will and desire alone.

Every now and then my brother’s friend will reveal a tidbit about Andrew heretofore unknown to us, and last night came this bombshell: Andrew remembers mom once saying that she ‘regretted ever having him’. Where the hell had this come from? Never once in mom’s life has she said or done anything that would have implied such a thing. Not even in the heat of an argument. Never. It shocked me to hear that Andrew thought this. And these days, in this crazy world, nothing much shocks me anymore.

I joined mom and Andrew last night, birthday gifts in tow, and tried to assimilate myself into the kitchen quietly. But I suppose I spoke too candidly, too animatedly, too something-or-other, and before ten minutes had passed, my drunk, brooding brother stood up and walked out. I followed him out into the snow, calling after him, begging him not to leave. He stumbled in the frozen ruts of the driveway and mumbled something unintelligible. This, by now, was sadly nothing new. I stood and watched, to make sure he made it safely to his house, some 200 feet down the driveway. The year that dad died, Andrew had fallen in the snow, and we were worried he’d pass out and die there. It’s always a concern in the cold months. On Christmas Eve, my 80-year-old mother had been worried enough to walk the rough terrain around his house, tapping her cane on the windows and calling out to him. Finally, he came to the window and barked at her he wasn’t leaving his house. Usually his rages are brought on by an event or a comment, but this was new – it was unprovoked, and as such, more unsettling than usual.

Among his concerns for his future, Andrew is worried that I will get everything when mom’s gone, and he will go the way of the poor house. Frankly, the way the market is, I expressed to mom that I personally held out no hope of a dollar being left when she died. She took immense offense to this, even though I protested – the markets were continuing to dive, and after all, she had her own expenses to pay. It was simple math! She’d been smart about her estate planning, yes, but no one can outrun a horrible market – this in no way reflected badly on her! Try as I might to de-escalate her emotionally charged reaction, I couldn’t. Maybe it was because my lack of trust showed a lack of respect and acknowledgement for all of her hard work and forethought. Her generation does things ‘the right way’ after all; they take care of their own, they don’t take handouts, and there’s great shame if things don’t work out that way. But things can change in unexpected ways, I tried to explain to my mom. And in light of my own experience, I thought it was prudent to be prepared for the worst.

At one time in my life I thought my husband had my back – emotionally and financially – as he had always promised me. Many times over the years my ex husband assured me I had nothing to worry about. He said his own mother had worried all of her married life that her husband would leave her unsupported. My fears were just as unfounded as hers, he had told me. But as it turned out, that wasn’t the case. I went from fancy restaurants to food stamps almost overnight. I reminded my mom of this. Shit can change in unpredictable ways!

I tried to assure mom that I was forever indebted to her for taking care of everything I couldn’t – tuition for my son, heating oil and injections of cash when there was no income in sight – but that didn’t assuage her agitation. I wanted her to know that I was being practical here, not personal; at the end of the day, no one really had my back. And it didn’t bother me. It was better to be emotionally prepared for lean times than to count on help. I tried to assure her that I wasn’t worried – and besides, the key thing here was not my future, but my brother’s. The issue at hand was that Andrew needed to know he would always be taken care of. I assured her that when she was gone Andrew would be cared for. I promised I would intercede, that I would not let him go without a home, without food or heat. And if there was no money left, then social services and governmental support would always be there for him, and I would always be able to advocate for him. I had hoped to ease her mind, but I don’t think it worked.

As long as my mother is living, and my brother too, there is nothing I can do to change their dynamic. The best thing I can do is remove myself as far as possible from the mix. I’ve spent countless hours on the phone, writing letters, emails, standing in lines, filling out forms – all to help Andrew get better. But with this new year has come a new realization – I cannot do anything for him. I cannot repair anything, and I can’t change the way he lives or thinks, nor can I change the way my mother behaves or thinks. While I may think the short and easy answer is a little tough love from mom – if she cannot bring herself to do it, then it’s not an answer. I explained that she was ‘an enabler’, but judging from the look on her face, I wasn’t sure she’d gotten my meaning. When I suggested that she withhold payment of his electric bill until he agreed to see a counselor, she moaned in classic passive-aggressive tones “I know, I know. It’s all my fault. You’ve made that perfectly clear.” So around and around we went with no real meeting of the minds.

I had simply wanted to remove a burden from her load, but it had backfired. She was not thrilled when I posited a long life of continual, low-grade poverty for myself (sorry, but I don’t see any gleaming opportunities from where I stand today). Honestly, I’d love to have money, and if I did, I’d use it well and wisely, and I’d share it too – but if that never happens, I need to be happy with what I have. Lowering one’s expectations softens the blow of reality. Hell, even years ago – when I had all the money I needed – I’d often say ‘lower your standards and you’ll be happier with the results’. Cuz seriously, it’s so true! Because then, any good that comes your way is lovely and unexpected icing on the cake! Yeah, I prefer to avoid disappointment by moderating my expectations. Crazy? Meh.

As I’ve been writing this, coincidentally, I’ve been talking on the phone to a friend of mine back in Chicago who is enduring her own battle with addiction. She’s an alcoholic, and last night, on New Year’s Eve, she had decided she would admit herself to the rehab program at a local hospital. (Like me, she is, although intelligent and accomplished at many things, living in poverty. Sadly, Medicaid offers very few options for inpatient recovery addiction programs. To my great relief there was a good local hospital available to her.) My thoughts were partly on her last night – was she there yet? Was she trembling yet? How crappy did she feel? I had told my mother about her. “Why does she need to go back to rehab if she’s already been through it before?” my mother asked, honestly confused. I promised my mother that rehab was very, very hard. That it might take several tries before someone had the strength to follow through all the way. And that even then it was not a fail-proof solution.

And as I explained this to my mother, inside I came to a new, deeper understanding about Andrew. He needed to want it, to crave it, to be willing to fight for it – all on his own. If a professionally successful mother of three had a hard time mustering the focus and will it took to get clean, how on earth could my brother even begin? In that epiphany I was no longer convinced that recovery was an option for him. Certainly it would never happen as things were now. Later on my friend called me from intake. We chatted a bit, laughed a bit, and I felt hopeful for her. She too knows that this time it still might not take; that this is a harsh and unkind world, and it will be difficult to go it without a drink. Her road will be hard. But I’m so grateful that she’s at least back on the path. Not everyone gets as far as that.

New Year, new game. I can’t play that old one anymore. I’m letting go of Andrew and his burden, I’m going to move into my future with focus and fortitude. The YMCA approved my reduced membership fees, so I’ll get back on that path. Haven’t moved in a long time, so my body will appreciate it. I’ll devote to my new business the time it requires, and I’ll figure out how to improve those things that I’m currently doing my best to avoid. Sometimes it might seem pure folly to use some arbitrary mark on a calendar as a reason to undertake great changes, but hey, if not now, then when? This will be a good year for me and my son, I just kinda feel it. At least I’m reasonably hopeful that it will be. One never knows. Serendipity and unexpected blessings are just as crazy and unpredictable as the scary stuff. Truly, it’s a mixed bag, and you’ll never know until you go.

So like I said, I’m going forward into this New Year with guarded, modest and humble expectations. That way, the little successes along the way will appear huge and thrilling! Imagine how wonderful it will feel when happy, unplanned-for events fall into my path when all I meant to do was just get through the day! Now that’s my kind of crazy.

Elihu with tanI’ll tell ya what’s crazy… Dad talked Elihu into cutting his precious hair – which he’d been intentionally growing, with my support for a year now – all because the family was having professional photo portraits taken on the beach. My kid felt duped, and he’d held back tears. He was deeply sad when we spoke this afternoon, but he’s a good kid, and he accepted it without complaint. We’ll be back on the quest for long locks upon his return. Love my boy so deeply it hurts sometimes.

 

 

Snowy Valentine February 14, 2015

Elihu sits beside me on the couch. We’re both engrossed in our own activities, but stop now and then to say “Love you” to one another, just because we can. We’re content to be snug at home after another full week of activities. Tomorrow he leaves to be with his dad for winter break, so me, I’m a bit sentimental today. But Elihu’s just plain happy. He’s looking forward now to seeing his father again. As good as our relationship is, I still think it’s important for him to have some time and space apart from me. And I’ll make good use of the time too; his time away will give me the chance to file the massive piles in my office, do my taxes, prepare lesson plans and tend to the Studio. Lots to do, few pauses in the ongoing agenda. Don’t get me wrong, I might be busy, but I’m grateful for it all. Still not sure how the coming years will pan out; from where I sit tonight, my future is one big unknown. But whatever happens, I’m so happy to be sharing it with my dearest Elihu, my one true valentine.

IMG_1936Pulled into the grocery store parking lot and saw this outside my door. Sweet.

IMG_1710It’s not hearts I see each morning when I start the car in sub-zero temps, instead it’s lovely geometric designs in the frost on my windshield.

IMG_1237We visited mom’s place so Elihu could fly helicopters with Uncle Andrew (he lives down the driveway). Mom’s working on the New York Times crossword puzzle and watching the opera. Classic weekend stuff.

IMG_1239The two of them talked endlessly about accelerometers, flybars and swashplates. It’s “Geek” to me. !

IMG_1254Here’s the old craft that’s back in the air again thanks to some new replacement rotors (a thank you to friend Gene for assisting with that!).

IMG_1160Elihu and Andrew enjoy the vertical space of the great room.

IMG_1269Look what mom sees routinely outside her kitchen window. Turkeys and deer side by side.

IMG_1325Mom tells me the snow is even deeper today, one week later; she says it’s up to the deer’s bellies.

IMG_1277The Studio can be seen off to the left outside of the same window.

IMG_1336Drama erupted as I accidentally knocked a glass of water onto Andrew’s bag. He flew into a frightening rage, violently knocked over a chair and left for a few minutes. He came back and behaved as if nothing had happened. I guess that he had a restorative nip of booze to help him keep his cool. In his tirade he had screamed that I did everything I could ‘to fuck him up’… His situation is so sad, and we’re all powerless to help. Mental illness – and the self-medicating that goes with it – is a tricky thing. Laws that are meant to protect individual’s rights end up preventing others from helping those who can’t help themselves. Elihu’s heart is broken to see his uncle like this. He loves him anyway. Good kid.

IMG_1339And so our visit ends and we take our leave while mom sets about fixing the busted stool. Sigh.

IMG_1415Back at home we make a go at sledding the big hill. A no-go. It was way too deep. Shoulda started grooming our run before all this snow fell.

IMG_1531After some major effort, even lil man threw in the towel.

IMG_1510Then he tried his hand at something that he’s always been good at – catching birds. Here’s our dear Austin, the goofy guinea fowl. Both boys are red-cheeked!

IMG_1720While Elihu’s at school, I pay a visit to my friend Ken. Here’s the view from his current digs. Classic Saratoga.

IMG_1724Another fine Saratoga home.

IMG_1723One more view. Saratoga Springs often reminds me of a little HO train set village.

IMG_1742Ken shows me his current project.

IMG_1741I guess snowy weather is good for staying inside – and painting. But of course, you have to know what you’re doing to produce something like this. Seriously, how talented is this guy? Amazing.

IMG_1948After school we check out the logger’s progress.

IMG_1939Look at the size of the tires on this skidder! And the chains are just massive.

IMG_1963Every year we host these folks when they perform at the Flurry – a dance festival in town that is now in its 28th year. Musicians and dancers come from all over the East coast. It’s one intense and immense event.

IMG_1967Sherry baked this gorgeous bread for us!

IMG_1971They also brought us some homemade maple syrup. !!!

IMG_2070Packed up and ready for anything.

IMG_1984Here are John and Matthew – aka the Swing Peepers – doing their thing for the kids. It’s entertaining for all (see a short video clip at the end of the post).

IMG_1997Elihu sat in on his djembe with an Irish jam. Some purists might not have dug it too much, but no matter, he played just fine.

IMG_2027Playing his drum was fun, but he was really jonesin to fly. Dylan stops to check it out.

IMG_2031Dylan introduced us to his dad, Amadu, who’s from Senegal. He made this enormous kalimba himself.

IMG_2034Dylan and Elihu check out a concertina.

IMG_2038Here’s Paul Rosenberg, one of the Flurry festival’s founders. He calls and leads community trad dances throughout the greater Albany area. I guess you might say he’s a local treasure.

IMG_2056This is why Elihu’s here; an African drumming workshop led by Ubaka Hill. She made it a fun experience and it left Elihu in a fantastic mood which lasted all afternoon.

The Swing Peepers sing for the kids and their parents.

Elihu plays his djembe with the Irish jam session.

Ubaka Hill leads a room full of percussionists in the final number (check out the dynamic changes near the end).

IMG_2076After all of that we were starting to get hungry… a special day requires a special meal. To the Indian buffet!

IMG_2114Finally, we’re back at home on a snowy winter’s night. Me and my little Valentine.

 

Curve Ahead July 31, 2014

Where to start? The cast of characters is growing, from Log Cabin Joe to Hillbilly Al and a handful in between, and the sub-plots are multiplying. A house is being built to the great heartbreak of all who live nearby, another beloved house which we all had hoped might stand is going to be torn down, people will be moving in, and people will be moving away. A ghostly visage was spotted, serendipity threw in a few hard turns, neighbors popped by unannounced and set to framing out a new step in front of my house (because I’d asked to borrow some scrap lumber to do so for myself), and a potential blind date turned into a new and interesting friendship. Neighbor Chad, a former professional speed skater and dad to those cutie boys Ryan and Brandon, faces surgery to repair a torn ligament he got from falling out of a tree while deer hunting last year, my new met-on-an-almost-blind-date-but-not-quite friend must wear a heart monitor for another week and remain in the company of people at all times, lest he pass out while alone, with no one to call for help (hence his staying on as my house guest.) A couple more art classes to go at the Studio, some concrete being poured and set, a wall going up in the basement, the lawn to be cut and a coop door yet to be hung, the various comings-and-goings that all of this activity entails, including the requisite gear; earth movers, spinning concrete trucks, tractors, trimmers, boxes of tile, great, heavy balls of clay, five gallon buckets and rags to clean up… All of this is chugging along, plus a small group of family and friends is planning for an intervention with my brother at the beginning of next week. A few days later, Elihu comes home. Whew!

The past three days have seemed almost like a week with all the chaos and activity. My guest, Ken, erupted in laughter at it all (as I casually pulled a dead mouse out of a drawer, dumped it into the trash and continued to start the morning coffee without missing a beat), just imagining the highly entertaining cable series he absolutely insists my life should be. “I’m just wondering where we should put the camera” he’d said, smiling, shaking his head… I’ts not often that friends get a view from the inside here at the Hillhouse. Yeah, I’ve had guests before, but somehow life here has never been quite as animated and unpredictable as it has of late.

Night before last, as Ken and I sat on the couch enjoying a rather deep, existential discussion, I saw behind him, approaching from the kitchen and through the short hallway, a rather healthy-sized bat. Living in the country as I do, you might think this has happened before. And indeed it has happened in every other place I’ve lived – but not here. Until the other night, that is. I was watching with great concern that the poor beast not knock over some precious breakable as she continued to encircle the room, but soon realized that this creature was deftly missing – with room to spare – every obstacle in her path. I was impressed! My friend, himself a pilot, must surely have been sharing my amazement… maybe…. I glanced over at the couch. Ken was clearly not bearing respectful witness to the miracle of flight taking place right before our eyes… Humor me if you will; picture a black Mr. Clean; tall, built; a take-no-prisoners kind of physique that lends itself well to the military and police work (he’s retired from some twenty years of exactly that) – and now picture that same gentleman covering his face with my over-sized pink velvet throw pillow, ducking down and shrieking like a girl every time the bat made another pass around the room. One had to laugh. Thankfully, he had to laugh too. We both did. I admit, that lil creature was movin fast, and to us it felt like a random, unpredictable flight that might easily have ended up in someone’s face. I was finally able to catch her by trapping her in between two frog nets, but then she hooked her way out, and flew off to the mudroom. The door to the mudroom remained closed, while the backdoor to the outside stayed wide open. My second house guest eventually left and did not return. So far as we know.

And there was the apparition. And the change in my route. Why had I chosen to double-back and take Locust Grove instead of 9N as I’d intended? Having just given Ken a brief history of my folks and the Baroque festival, I figured I’d use my mistake as an opportunity to point out soprano Ruth Lakeway’s empty house. When we crested the hill and I indicated the house, Ken told me he saw a woman in the porch. I gave him a look. “White hair, lavender colored, long sleeved top” he said. “Wait, you’re not shitting me?” I asked, in almost a panic. He insisted that as an officer of the law – not to mention an artist who painted and drew landscapes, people and animals, he was trained in observation. He knew what he’d seen. That was enough for me; I turned around and made my way back to the house.

There were in fact people at the house. They emerged from the garage – on the other side of the house – when we pulled in. Still, none fit the description. It didn’t matter at this point, and it was soon forgotten as I re-acquainted myself with the new owners, who were in the middle of a project. They were removing items from the house, preparing it. I kinda knew what was coming next. It was known that the house had done nothing but take on water since Ruthie’s death eight years ago, and that the mildew and moisture had finally won. Although the woman who now owned it had known and loved Ruth as I had, and had herself dreamed of one day living in the sweet house, it would never come to be. The house now had to be torn down. I looked at Karen to see if this was the truth, and her eyes teared up. She insisted they’d had every manner of professional opinion on the matter. It was coming down. I made no attempt to be stoic… I began to cry. It was clear that she was just as heartbroken as I was. Thankfully, I wasn’t alone in my grief.

In her day Ruthie had created a wide sphere of influence through her loving presence in the community and her unique, gentle demeanor. With no husband or children of her own, she had given her time and energy to her church, her voice students and so many more. This house was for me a sacred place, as it was to many others as well. I marveled over our being there, in that moment. Over the circumstances. Had I not made the ‘mistake’ of driving down her road, had Ken not spotted that visage in the porch – I wouldn’t have known this was happening. I wouldn’t have been able to take the lamp from her back porch so that I might use it in mine, I wouldn’t have been able to remove Ruth’s windchimes and then hang them on my own porch in remembrance of her. Did Ken see Ruth? Yes, I believe so. I believe she was helping as best she could to gather me into this event of closure. As we all stood on the front lawn, talking and comparing stories, Ken told them what he’d seen earlier. The consensus seemed to be that this was all meant to be, we had all found our ways there in order for this to happen. There were tears, hugs, prayers and goodbyes. And for me, there was gratitude.

From the insane to the mundane, the silly to the serious, it’s been a crazy mix of life here lately, and yet the next week may hold still more… Mom has finally come around to understanding that Andrew will never, ever get better on his own (yes, we’ve been here before, but I feel this time it’s different) and she can begin to see that he has only good things to gain by taking part in a detox and rehab program, and he has only potential danger and harm if he doesn’t. Plus this heaven-sent former cop of a friend has brought to our attention how devastating it could be should a civil case ever be made against Andrew in the event of an alcohol-related death. This is some serious shit, and although I’ve been making my case for several years now, it’s taken this financial threat to bring it home. That, and a little magical aligning of the stars. We’ve got a great family drama scene on deck, and I’m eager to finally see it through to its conclusion. Which will in of itself be but a beginning to a whole new chapter…

I checked in with Waldorf today, and it seems I’m just about off the hook. They’ve covered nearly every class except for a day or two of the high school. There’s a slight chance they might need me to cover for a bit, but it doesn’t appear that it’ll pose a conflict with my new work at the Studio. This is beyond my wildest dreams, and the feeling of freedom and possibility has me a little giddy. It’s almost like I have too much oxegyn, too much space, too many options, too much opportunity. My unexpected house guest and the little surprise detours of late have stalled my progress for the time being, but it doesn’t worry me. We’re approaching a Great Change. Middle School for Elihu, and with it all the changes of pre-teen life. A new situation for my mom and brother, a new career for me, a new house in the neighborhood, two new families moving in, one moving out. A parking lot going in the woods for the Studio along with a network of roads into the forest, a new heating system and myriad other upgrades. Networking, meeting people and growing programs, seeing plans become real…. I’m at the cusp of a whole new chapter in my life. I’ve been riding it out on a long, slow straightaway for the past few years, and finally now I see a big curve up ahead.

Breathe in, hands at ten and two… I’ll give it just a little more gas, and we’ll be taking that turn before we know it.

 

 

Setback July 15, 2014

Today I’m just exhausted. Yesterday I found out that my emergency water jugs had been leaking on the floor of my mudroom and required some immediate attention –  the sub floor there is the only floor there and it was getting soft and spongey. I dried it out the best I could, then at midnight began to paint. I’d been moving boxes and crap and dealing with stuff all day long and was fired up to get it done. Shortly before this project began, I got a phone call from Sherry, the one person on the planet with whom I’ve been friends with the longest. She called to tell me that our childhood pal Joey had died. We knew it was coming, I’d seen him this past Christmastime and he looked positively ancient. He suffered from a couple of fast-moving cancers and we knew he wasn’t going to be around much longer. So it didn’t shock me, but it did move me deeply. A heavy, sad weight hung in my gut all night long as I digested the news.

How crazy it is that one moment you can be feeling such joy, hope and new glimmers of healthy progress, and yet a moment later you can be consumed by total loss, total fear, total sorrow? I had driven out earlier that day to find a newly painted orange circle marking the post which described my property’s edge. Unfortunately, it was smack in the middle of my driveway. A silent marker that screamed ‘We’re coming for you’ by the new owners of neighboring lot. Well, maybe that wasn’t the specific message per se, but certainly there was an implied warning: Things are about to change. Don’t say we didn’t tell you so.

I called the town zoning guy again today, and in spite of having had several conversations with local residents who all seemed to agree one ‘needed once full acre’ upon which to build – and in spite of his not having denied that assertion at our meeting last week – he told me that wasn’t the case. That if a lot had been described as such before the current zoning laws – then it was fine. All they needed was to make sure the building was setback far enough from the lines – so of course, the smaller the lot, the greater that challenge. But apparently, they’ve got their setbacks met, as the newly planted stakes and red nylon tape will show.

I lost another hen this week too. Dear old Dinah – plucky gal she was, a beautiful glossy black and the first to peck at anything that moved. Like Madeline and Thumbs Up she had a fully loaded and very discernible personality. I swear I don’t know how I’ll take it if Thumbs Up gets it too. Even after watching three absolutely adorable baby raccoons eat up all the bird food (and enjoy the bird bath too) over at mom’s, I still understood that I had a task before me that I had to commit to, regardless of the conflict it created in me. They were cute, but they were predators. The battle wasn’t over.

In Vietnam-like humidity and heat I re-baited the traps, two humane, one designed to kill. Sweat dripped off of my forehead and deer flies paid no attention to the Deep Woods Off that I’d soaked my clothes in. It was a very unpleasant experience. I’m not a woodswoman, not an overtly outdoorsy person, but this was my job to take care of. Emboldened by my small successes, and now hip to how cleverly those raccoons have evaded my traps, I now came up with a more secure method of setting the traps. I tied food in cheesecloth and secured it deep inside the bumane trap with wire to prevent them from making off with it as they had several times in the past. I staked the cages to the ground, I covered the lethal trap more carefully and dripped the remains of the cat food can into the hole. A quick check this morning showed nothing, and I won’t be able to rest well until I see at least three more gone.

Even though it’s my goal, oh how I dread the squeal in the middle of the night telling me the conibear trap has finally snapped… In an effort to release the second raccoon I caught in this trap from his extended death and suffering, adrenaline and compassion helped me to leave my bed, find my boots and sledgehammer, make my way into a dark and rainy night and finally whack him in the head. I cannot convey how wrong this felt, even when its goal was to help, not hurt. But these are strong creatures, and even after four heavy hits (he uttered the most horrific shriek at each one, God forgive me) he wouldn’t die. Instead, he seemed to regain his composure afterwards and relaxed into a slow, rhythmic breathing, which I matched, breath for breath, waiting for the final one. After some five minutes he was still going, and so I said a prayer, asked his forgiveness, and went back inside.

I’ve killed only two raccoons, and it seems there are still another five out there. How long will this go on? I hate living like this – it’s like I make a small advance, and then there’s another setback. I get my house in order, then discover the floor is failing, my son is having a great vacation with his father, then he calls me last night from the doctor’s office, his third day into a high fever. I was beginning to feel hopeful and lighter recently, now all this. And now I have to steady myself for a possible drama with the new developers. I can neither afford to litigate nor to rebuild a driveway. I am in a strange, dreamlike state at the moment. Kind of a low-grade state of dread, which I’m trying to mitigate as best I can by reminding myself that everything happens as it should.

The other night Andrew got raging drunk again, told mom to ‘fuck off’ at some perceived injustice she’d helped mount against him, and then sped off in his car, absolutely poised to kill himself and easily take someone out with him. Tough love won’t come through here; whenever I call mom and my brother’s in the room with her, her voice is clipped and her words brief. It’s as if she’s being watched, censored, threatened. “Is Andrew there?” I’ll ask. She’ll always answer quietly, “Yes”. Yesterday, as I was meeting with an HVAC guy, Andrew barged in and told me my car was in his way. I moved it, and immediately he got in and screeched away again, clearly showing me once again that I had every benefit in life, and that he suffered in this world all because of me. That’s the story he always tells his few friends, Martha and mom. He won’t tell me as much though – because of course he won’t even speak a word to me – so driving off at top speed is the only way he can convey to me what a bitch he thinks I am. And how privileged my life is. If only.

The Buddha plaque I rescued from the used clothing bin the other day is now clean and painted, mono chromatically the same shade as the wall on which it hangs, and he reminds me that I cannot attach myself to outcomes. I must go with what is. I know this, and sometimes it makes me want to put my goddam fist through a wall in protest, but I know it wouldn’t accomplish much. Not only am I faced with acceptance, but now find my ego must withdraw from its zone of comfort as I begin a conversation with the very people to whom I gave a piece of my mind not four days earlier. I must negotiate with the people with whom I have already expressed my disappointment in hopes that they’ll show mercy on me. Ich. I feel as if I’m going through an accelerated life course on ‘growing up and dealing with shit’ these days.

A couple of health issues have appeared too recently, nothing crazy alarming, but it may require surgical assistance. So ok, universe, what in hell am I supposed to learn from all of this? It’s so tempting to feel sorry for myself, but I remember the potential ahead. The Studio is in week two of classes, and if we can just keep moving forward in baby steps like this, then maybe we’ll get somewhere good and happy in the end.

But again, I must remind myself: there is no end. Never a point of happy conclusion. Two steps forward, one to the side, and then a couple more in an altogether unforseen direction. In truth I know it’s about the journey – not the coveted, illusive ‘destination’. So I try to enjoy the circuitous route. And for the most part I enjoy the trip, even with some of its detours, because I know they all serve some purpose, whether immediately apparent or not. And I also know that progress doesn’t necessarily mean forward movement, or even positive, welcome movement. After all, cancer is progress too. Life doesn’t assign good or bad to the continued movement and change. It simply is what it is. As bitchy as I’m tempted to get with all of this self-administered spiritual assistance, I know it’s all true. Even though it would be so much easier to just get really pissed off about everything (I may yet have a private pity party), it’s helpful to remind myself of this stuff over and over again.

I also have to remind myself that most forward movement usually involves a couple of setbacks along the way.

IMG_8794At mom’s, just one property away, these three young raccoons feel totally safe coming out in daylight. Makes me very nervous. The raccoons have taken hens right out from under my nose in the afternoon. There’s no true ‘safe’ time now.

IMG_8790Apparently, the corn isn’t enough to satisfy them.

IMG_8802Adorable, innocent creatures of God that have as much of a right to live as any other creature – or enemy and thief that must be killed and stopped from making progress? Enigmatically, the answer is: both.

IMG_8749Here it is…

IMG_8750…the eye of the storm.

IMG_8881This guy reminds me to keep my cool even when things begin to heat up… I’m just not sure he’d be down with my killing raccoons. He was a pretty peaceful fellow. Oh the dilemmas that life here on earth presents us with. The duality of it all sure can be exhausting sometimes.

 

 

Holding Pattern December 19, 2013

I’m afraid my last post was probably too emotionally charged. It generated many responses and communications from people and had me wondering if I hadn’t made too much of a stink about things. Even though I expressed myself truthfully, I wonder if it wasn’t a bit self-indulgent. And I wonder if I may have stirred the pot too soon, as it were. I say this now because, after making a big deal of all that’s been going on, I begin to wonder if Dad won’t be here a little longer than I’d originally thought after all…

Why? Because he’s got a big, comfy hospital-style bed in the living room now. A bed which self-inflates and self-deflates in different zones in twenty minute intervals in order to prevent bed sores and keep circulation going, a bed which can raise him up to eat in a sitting position, and lower him down to sleep. He has been given – through this miracle operation of hospice – a full range of gadgets and accessories that promise to make his life cleaner, more comfortable and healthier than it has been over the past few weeks (if not months). All that and his lasting and evident sense of humor are telling me he may stick around for a bit.

I kinda wish I had a bed like that myself to hide out in right about now. Frazzled with a sudden influx of things going on at school and falling behind in a myriad of domestic chores, I haven’t showered in at least three days and my son and I haven’t had a fresh vegetable in nearly a week as I’ve had no time to catch up. I know it’s not just me; this time of year we grown-ups have a lot on our hands. With presents and parties and cards and driveways to shovel, I know I’m not the only one up to my ears in laundry and dirty dishes. Even the gal who drives my son to school in the mornings – usually a fairly upbeat and energetic woman – even she seemed a little worn and tired this morning. I thought I recognized that look, I certainly felt the same. So now that dad and mom are getting into their new groove, I’m feeling a bit of relief. This afternoon we finally have no commitments. No doctor’s appointments (Elihu had his braces put on yesterday), no car pool duty, no chorus to accompany, no students. So I’m taking the opportunity to go grocery shopping. Last night we ate the last of the pasta in the house and rounded things out with leftover party food. Ich. Can’t wait for a salad…

Elihu flies to Chicago this weekend too. I’m so very happy for him, he’s beside himself with anticipation. I’ve never seen him fill the Advent calendar so eagerly (ours is a series of pockets into which we insert a feather a day). I’m happy for him, and also relieved in that I don’t think dad will go while he’s gone. Never know, but I have a feeling. Having the house to myself is most welcome, but at this time of year it can be bittersweet, too. Last year was my only Christmas with Elihu here, and it wasn’t exactly a success. Santa found him alright, but a household of just two can be lonely on Christmas morning. So my heart is lifted to know he’ll be with his baby brothers, grandma and full household. On our end, it will be strange. Dad in his big bed, Andrew wordless, silent, unreadable, and mom chattering away to fill the space. And the tv on behind it all. I’d say jokingly that alcohol is a welcome buffer, but is it then fair to drink in front of Andrew? I don’t know. I really don’t like this situation. Likely I’ll drink. Most likely.

Mom and dad have the same birthday, January 6th. Epiphany. Imagine that. I still find it fascinating. I mean, what are the odds? They’re seven years apart, and their total years always add up to an odd number. A quick tally tells me they’ll be 165 this year. I find myself wondering if dad might wait til then. I wonder. Nothing is certain. How we’ll handle it, how I’ll be able to keep my professional self together until then, and after then. How life continues. I realize I’m sounding like the first person ever to have gone through this, but until an experience is personally yours, it kinda feels like it has no relevance at all to you. And really, it doesn’t. You pay so much more careful attention when you are living through something. You just don’t fully notice or appreciate things until you’re dealing with them. Like buying a car, or getting a haircut, or having a baby. As soon as it’s on your mind you start to seek out information. You want to hear other folk’s take on things. And then when that’s done, it’s off your mind again. And the time in between events is sort of a coasting, a living on auto pilot sort of thing. At least for me it is; it seems I travel through life from one heightened sense of awareness to another, with great wafts of less intense time in between. I feel a queer mix of both right now. With the house soon to be empty, and this great not-knowing going on, I don’t feel I’m really anywhere. Strange place, this nowhere.

The weather might be a bit blustery for travel this weekend, so part of my attention is going to that situation too. I think of my son’s plane, being de-iced, sitting, waiting on the tarmac for the opportunity for departure. Here too is an uncertain situation. He’ll be bringing a good book, a bottle of water and his DS. So he’s prepared for a long wait if need be. Never once in his years of travel has he ever been re-routed on account of weather, and I pray things remain thus. Nothing I can do about the outcome, so I’ll just have to wait and see.

There’s a lot of wait and see these days. Like an airplane in search of safe landing, we’re all just in a holding pattern for now.

 

Wake November 29, 2013

My ex used to say that I spent more of my life’s energy looking backwards than I did looking forwards. In part, I would tend to agree. Ever since I can remember – at around the age of eleven or so – I’ve always felt a low-grade, persistent sense of melancholia around me. (Maybe it started with my Grandma’s death, I don’t know. But an awareness of things becoming irreconcilably gone seems to have become part of my thinking around that time.) In writing this down I’m struck by the irony of it; I’m a fairly humorous gal and never shy about being vocal. I keep things light, and I always try my best to make a connection of some sort with every person I come into contact with. And yet… and yet I do a lot of things in life on my own, solo. I did as a kid too. Of course I’d play with children as a kid, and of course I interact with folks easily as an adult. But beyond the cursory and cheerfully polite interactions throughout my rather average, ‘small’ days, I don’t spend much time with friends. And this I suppose, is mostly by choice. Mostly, I enjoy being alone. I have a handful of friends in my life whom I love dearly yet only see them infrequently (that’s mostly logistics!). And that’s fine for me. But what is not so fine – what has me waxing melancholic at times – is the absence of some folks who have simply disappeared from the landscape of my life altogether. Having moved a thousand miles away from the town my heart still feels is home, I understand well how life changes, how it comes to pass that you may never again see some people who were once virtual fixtures in your life, but it’s still sad to know you’ve lost some forever. However, this is a connected, info-drenched world in which we live, and it’s that which gives me hope. In the back of my mind, I am comforted to know that if I try, I stand a pretty good chance of getting back in touch with the folks I miss.

This past week a Chicago-based bass player died. He’d been one of a handful of folks I’d tried to locate after losing touch, so hearing of his death just floored me. This man had a great sense of humor and he always had a twinkle in his eye. His passing has shocked a lot of friends who also hadn’t seen him around for a while. He’d just about dropped out of the music scene over the past couple of years as he’d had his hands full battling some personal demons. He was a relatively young guy too – but no matter, in the end he couldn’t get ahead of em. Seeing the Facebook posts popping up all day yesterday, I could feel the community’s need to share their sadness with each other. And precisely because so many of us live in far-flung places now, there can be no wake – no one gathering of friends to say goodbye to provide a healthy sense of closure we’d all probably like. And as I understand it, his family does not want to hold a memorial service either. I guess I can understand. It might be far too painful for them. I don’t know. But I do know that his death has got me missing my old friends, longing for those long-gone idealistic years as a young musician in Chicago, and feeling the added sorrow of living in a world where old friends don’t necessarily live in the same physical communities any more. It’s at a time like this when I lament having left my heart-home. But then I think of the dozens of dear friends who themselves have since moved on, away, some of them even living on the other side of the globe…

And it starts up again. Rob’s dying reminds me of other friends who’d also died too soon. And I realize I’ve lost a lot of friends. And I think of my parents – how must it feel to routinely hear of the deaths of their contemporaries? Just what is that place in one’s life like? To know that very few who remain are older than you, that most are in fact much, much younger, and that you are one of the few remaining of your age to still be here? Man, just how does that feel? If one goes into the experience, is it frightening as hell? Or does one just accept it, with a gradual dimming of the senses, a dulling of the heart in order to protect itself from such deep sorrow or fear? Or, perhaps (as is definitely not the case with many of my agnostic friends) does one take a certain relief in knowing that those who have left us have themselves gone to a much easier, happier place where we too will one day see them again? Either way it doesn’t change the fact that your friend is not here anymore. So our sorrow for their departure is honestly just about us. Our being sad is our being selfish. Which I think, from time to time, is actually a necessary thing. Crying it out is healthy and right.

But to live with a constant, low-grade sense of the sorrows of this world, to have this mist of melancholia float around you while you go through your day, that’s probably not terribly healthy. Yet I find myself haunted, as if by the merest vapor of a thought, throughout my days, by the faintest tugging… a vague, undefinable sensation of things not being as they should – and thereby not being quite as happy as they might otherwise. I can’t say that I’m sad, per se, but I can say that I do not always live in a heightened state of happy alert. Having said that, I readily admit to being a person who’s quick to find the humor or irony in a situation; I’m quick to turn a mishap into something useful. A lemonade from lemons sort of approach. But still. I suppose you might say that I’m a cheerful person – who knows better.

And I know better than to think Rob – or any of my friends who’ve passed on – would want me to mope around in a tearful funk over them for very long. Sure, I’d kinda expect my friends to cry at my own death, but by all means I want them to move things along when they’re done… Shake themselves back to life with a little Richard Pryor or Monty Python or Louis CK. Something, anything. Keep going. Cuz it’s gonna be alright. Somehow, it will be. But we just all gotta keep moving.  After we say our goodbyes, and dry our eyes, it’s time to wake up and get back to it.

In Loving Memory of “Jazzman”

Rob Amster

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Link to a performance of “The Waking” with Kurt Elling

 

Ponderous Planet July 25, 2013

Life on planet Earth is certainly not for wimps. And while I may know only the mildest of challenges when seen in the larger scope of this immense world, the tiny events in my own life keep me ever-engaged in an unending process of disbelief, resistance, learning and acceptance. I try not to give my power over to these challenges of mine, but oh it’s tempting. Arthritis sneaks into my hands and begins to cause discomfort, an injury from some thirty years ago blossoms into a full-on nerve problem, low-grade poverty still makes it hard to sleep some nights, and of course, there are the familial concerns. The last Facebook flare-up of my ex and related responses has finally died down just in time for life to present some fresh, new dramas. Like my brother, who when faced with a family intervention for his alcoholism, bled the water line in my house dry, puzzling helpful neighbors and costing my mother several hundred dollars in plumber’s fees. Then there’s my father, who has in this past week decidedly turned a corner. Although he speaks in well-constructed sentences (and highly entertaining ones at that – his use of language still beckons an audience to listen) there is simply no point to his speech. He speaks in a conversational cul de sac, leaving even me feeling confounded and at a loss as to how to respond. Then there’s my mom, whose mobility is so much worse this year than last, and whose work load does nothing but increase – in spite of her having recently retired. And there’s Martha. The other matriarchal figure of the extended family who requires my brother’s help each day to assist with the most basic of tasks. She is not happy about this intervention of my brother’s. After all, if he goes to the hospital (which is highly unlikely at this time), who will tend to her?

This is a good month for my son to be gone. I’m not sure how it all would have played out if he’d been here. I even locked my doors last night for the very first time in my five years here – on account of my brother, and how enraged he became at our suggestion he admit himself for detox. Gotta give him props for his method of retaliation. He simply opened up both hoses and bled out the water line. Pump lost its prime, and without some serious manual intervention of said pump, no water was coming into the house any time soon. Good one, Andrew. It mighta made me laugh if it weren’t for the fact that it inconvenienced two neighbors and ended up costing our mother. Clever though, very creative. Better than a busted window I guess. (Yes, I did move the sledgehammer to a more covert location.) Now the clock starts. In a week’s time, if he still chooses not to be admitted to the hospital, mom will no longer let him use the car. Sure, she’ll ask him for the keys. That won’t do it, of course. So we’ve got our own means of enforcement, which I won’t go into here. Suffice to say the car won’t be starting for him.

Meanwhile, my house and garage are being painted. Which is fine – it’s great, actually (God bless my mom, once again she comes to the rescue) – but the folks doing the job must dodge a cranky goose and fresh chicken poop as they work. They’re a nice bunch, and really, they’re kinda like family. The dad of Elihu’s pal Keithie is running the show. But there’s a decidedly ‘Bad News Bears’ feel to the outfit; cigarette butts lay all over the driveway, and work in general seems a bit stop-and-go. But in the end there’s more ‘go’ than ‘stop’, so it’s all good.

Yeah, I don’t have it bad by any stretch of the imagination. But each day has its hiccups. And I know that for all of our sunny and polite on-the-street greetings, each one of us is a damn lier more than half the time when we answer ‘good’ when asked how we are doing. Are we really doing ‘good‘? Are things all just going swimmingly at home? Ok, so maybe they are for the most part, but there’s always that other part. We humans are so adept at keeping up fronts. I suppose we can’t all just go into it everytime someone asks us how we are, but a part of me wishes we as a culture were a bit less undauntingly cheery about things. Not that I think we should all carry our burdens forefront in our thoughts, but rather that we should all aknowledge that while things might be going well for the most part, not everything is exactly easy. We are all such troopers here on this planet. So much to do, so much to learn, such challenges yet before us. And some days, just too much to ponder.