We are put upon this earth without our consent. We are launched into a life incarnate without our choosing and by the time we’ve finally gotten our wits about us, many of us may come to realize that we might not have signed on for the experience if we’d been given an option at the outset.
This may sound deeply cynical, I know. But please understand that although I may often feel as if I don’t wish to be here, it’s not to say that I do not bear profound witness to the unfathomable marvel of this planet and the mortal life we share. Daily I am astounded by the complexities around me in the natural world. Daily I am fairly tortured by my desire to know more about my fellow humans and what motivates them to move through their lives and into their futures. Who among us is enthusiastically participating in life? Who among us is caring principally about advancement, who is working simply to avoid the pain, and who is altogether unaware that his or her own existence even merits examination?
From my privileged seat in a commercial airplane I can see vast tracts of land below me, all organized into human-sized portions. Suburban grids by day, cobwebs of light by dark, our handprint is ubiquitous. While I know there’s plenty of magic taking place here, I can’t help but feel the collateral despair. I imagine all of the strife, all of the heartbreak and loss. All of the fear, shame and regret. Perhaps it’s this way of thinking which has motivated me to live a more colorful life than some of my peers. I wish to avoid undue toil and discomfort in favor of the more pleasurable experiences. I am interested in reaching people and connecting. I am attracted to candor and insight. My goal is to bring comfort and witness to people. You can count on me to be the ice-breaker at a party, or the one who gets the silent old man in the corner to smile.
But sometimes, none of this is what’s appropriate or necessary. Today I learned that lesson again, and it has me stopped for a moment of reflection.
As I look out at the disheveled property that surrounds me, it cries out for me to surrender. This is the summer when it seems I will have to relinquish any illusion of control and simply let everything go….
The lawn is already up to my knees, the downed trees are becoming overtaken with vines, the retaining rock walls are tumbling down the hill, and my perennial garden looks to be nothing more than stinging nettles and goldenrod. The many hours of labor I spent tending to the garden last year appear to have been in vain. My arthritic hands hurt and my once-broken neck is becoming more of an issue each day; I just don’t see how I can wrestle the patch back into shape the way I’m feeling now. I honestly don’t think I have it in me anymore. And with a recent surprise turn of personal and professional events, my energy reserves feel even more depleted. As some might say, “I haven’t got the bandwidth” for it all. Truly, I don’t.
This will also be the final year for me at the helm of the Studio. It will conclude a decade of my hard and unpaid work. Work that was, at its core, a Sisyphean task. That’s not to say that it was a waste of time and resources – to the contrary, it was the birthplace of many great works and memories. Audiences leapt to their feet in applause at inspired performances, people of all ages danced, sang, acted and played music. Artists painted, writers finished novels, dance troupes worked out choreography, yoga teachers held workshops, kids enjoyed summer camps, elders convened to talk about death, people were married and neighbors drew into a circle to play drums together. There was even a workshop in which participants (of which I was one) walked barefoot over hot coals. Truly, a wide net was cast. I cannot say that it was not a success. In many ways it was an astounding success. But that era is over now, and I need to find something which better suits my waning energy and stamina.
I have to wrap while I can still feel the afterglow of the good things that happened there. If I stay at this too long, I’ll resent it. Time to stand aside now. Time to let things be.
What will come next is truly unknown to me. There will be music, there will be new gigs, new jobs. I know this. Just not sure where, or with whom. Not entirely sure I’ll even stay here at the Hillhouse. For now it’s where my piano is, so it’s where I am. But like the Studio, this place may have served its function in my life. Not sure. Much is yet uncertain.
The only thing of which I can be sure is that with or without me, the grass will continue to grow.
Even though the outside temps are pleasant and the cold hasn’t fully arrived, in this first week of fall, summer is certainly out the window. But it kinda feels like the whole year, the whole nation, maybe even the whole planet itself has gone out the proverbial window along with it.
For me personally, in this long stretch of time since I last wrote a post, both enormously great things have happened in my life alongside tiny tragedies. Where to even begin?
The pandemic took away some amazing opportunities for my son, who had won a concerto competition and was to have played as a soloist with a symphony orchestra. It took away a South American tour with the orchestra too. But in the space that a home-bound experience provided, my son was able to study in preparation for his hopeful college, as well as create some beautiful aircraft and a new website. He likes to be alone, he loves to learn and to study. He’s been in heaven with extra time to work on Japanese, on Mandarin, and on advancing his understanding of German. Frankly, this time has been a huge gift for Elihu.
And me? Firstly I’m back on the diet train. As with every time before, I assure myself that things will be different this time. That I’ll keep those goddam thirty-five extra pounds off my frame for good. I’d been going to the Y several times a week for the past few years, so things were good on that front, but when the virus hit and people were staying inside, sharing recipes and cooking up all those carby treats, I was already well ahead of them. I’d been eating like a teenage boy all winter, and by the time of quarantine my face was doughy and I was inching my way out of my wardrobe. Since May I’ve lost seventeen pounds, which feels great, but I’m only halfway to my goal. And it’s the second half of the process that always kicks my ass, and it’s often when the whole program goes, well, out the window. We shall see how I fare this time around. Existential angst, a fresh round of panic attacks and a desperation for a respite from constantly being on the hook for what feels like everything, all this propels me to break free and move onward into a better future for myself. Perhaps this time it’ll be different. Perhaps.
The Studio has experienced a renaissance during this pandemic, a true re-birth. It’s been a small miracle, and it’s been the happy answer to my now seven-year search for sustainable programming – and income. Until now the venue has rarely even paid for itself. Magical concerts and gatherings take money to produce, and net very little. As a single mom, teaching, keeping house and farm, I have never had the time to figure out the fundraising thing. And as a NFP, that should be the venue’s main source of income. Anyone who truly knows me knows that I haven’t got it in me to do all the insanely tedious administrative work it takes to get grants. Back in the day – a few decades ago – in Chicago I was able to easily get a couple of grants for my music, but the world is a very different place now, and arts organizations are fighting tooth and nail for every penny. And because there are already so many live venues in my area, I’m up against too many contenders. Hey, I’m fighting just to exist on this goddam planet, I ain’t got it in me to take on any other battles. But thankfully, I won’t need to…
Last summer a friend suggested I rent out the place on Airbnb. At first the startup costs had me stopped, and I wasn’t sure how it might work legally. My accountant advised me of the parameters; personally I could take some money for management and cleaning fees, but the income was for the Studio. Fine by me. And how would I tie it in to our mission? I billed it as a “midcentury artist’s retreat in the woods”. No wifi, but deer right outside the window, a great live hall with an in-tune Steinway, lots of instruments and gear, and trees all around. Perfect. There was a lot of stuff to buy in order to set the place up properly. But mom stepped in as she always has to cover the gaps, and I crossed my fingers this was the final time I’d ever need her help. I made a few tweaks and made the former green room into a very cozy little apartment. Bookings started soon after, and I have been dark for only 3 days since I opened. It’s been exhausting – I’m a maintenance and cleaning staff of one for a big space – but at least the place is finally making money, not a lot, but the building is paying for its expenses, which is huge. Next year I’ll raise my prices and who knows, it might even get into the black. Folks have recorded albums, finished novels and choreographed dances in the space. Soon I’ll revamp the website and direct folks to all of the work created there. It’s a whole new chapter, and a productive one, which pleases me deeply. You should see the guest book, so much love and gratitude expressed there. A miracle, truly.
But personally, I’ve been hit hard by a few things, one more literal than metaphorical, and I shall get to that in a moment. Friends may know I broke my neck when I was eighteen, and for years docs have warned me that arthritis would likely follow as I aged. But secretly I felt like I was somehow a badass for whom this fate was too pedestrian, somehow I just knew that that would never be my fate. However, it has finally come back to haunt me just as the professionals had warned, and tirelessly so. My neck aches nearly all the time, and it makes all sorts of gruesome sounds; grinding, popping… And occasionally there are tingling and electrical sensations down my left arm (I broke that shoulder too, so…) So far the feelings aren’t severe, but I no longer think that Nature knows that I am exceptional, and she will continue to mete out the consequences of my previous injuries according to her plan.
I also have nine nodules in my thyroid which are continuing to grow in size. Thankfully the growths are benign – and I know this as I had nine fine needle aspirations, one in every nodule. Oy! I cancelled my appointment twice before I acquiesced and did the right thing. (When I broke my wrist years ago and needed surgery while pregnant, I had to have local anesthesia administered in both my neck and armpits, and this was reminiscent of that scary and vulnerable procedure. Long-ass needles in very tender parts while you are fully awake are no fun.) My neck is almost always tight, tight, tight. I’ll even gag out of nowhere, and of course it’s downhill from there if I don’t just force myself to chill out immediately. I must breathe deeply and slowly and use great restraint so that the gagging doesn’t take me over. Not an hour goes by when I don’t have to physically pinch the tissue on my neck and pull it out to provide some relief. It’s nearly 24/7. It’s bearable, but I can’t see how I can live like this for the rest of my life, certainly not if it gets worse. I was to have had a contrast MRI a while back, but my panic came on in spades, even with three xanax in my system, when they locked me into the neck scan apparatus for the MRI. It’s even tighter than the tube, and we all know how small that bore is. I tapped my foot to help, but it ruined the images. It tried, I did. I just couldn’t. Those who live with panic know what I mean. So now ultra sound and x-ray happen this week. Hope they shed light. I’m a singer, I can’t fuck with my voice. This neck stuff scares me deeply.
So now to the event that has changed my life forever. I was hit in the eye by a log kicked back from a wood chipper in early June. What the hell was I doing loading a wood chipper without eye protection? I don’t know. Being a badass again. I hired a crew to help me clean up the downed branches after a long winter, and not a one of them was wearing glasses, so I didn’t have cause to worry I thought, and besides, I always thought the danger lay in the impelling, not the expelling. And subsequently I’ve heard that the new, current machines have safety mechanisms to prevent that. But looking for the cheapest outfit to get the job done, naturally the gear they brought was old school and just as sketchy as the band that did the work. In fact, I donned my work boots and gloves and joined alongside them cuz they just weren’t kicking ass. And I hired them to kick ass! I worked alongside them in the heat and humidity. After about the third hour I loaded a huge, thick branch into the machine, and wham! it kicked out and into my left eye. “I gotta go to the emergency room” I said, covered my eye, ran back to the house, grabbed the kid and hightailed it to the hospital.
So. Where do I stand now? I lost a chunk of my sclera, the white part, and I have not only crazy annoying floaters which have dulled my vision to a slight blur, but I also have now a constant feeling that something is in my eye. Or as if I had a contact in backwards. I damaged my sinuses and have a constant tightness in my left orbit, and sometimes it hurts. At night, when I turn my eyes to the right, I see a flash of white light, something similar to an ocular migraine, and while at first it was really creepy, now, thankfully, it is something I’ve come to expect and it’s somewhat easier to live with. But it’s still creepy. Daily, hourly, I lament this accident, my part in it, my stupidity. Again, I was trying to take care of everything myself. I am so disappointed in the choice I made that day, in my fate. And I don’t like that I’m always feeling so self-sorry. Cuz I am.
But in order to diminish my self-pity and to “make lemonade” of the situation, I decided to throw my focus somewhere else every time I’d start to whine internally. I memorized all 195 countries in the world. I learned each one not only by their location, but also by their shape. I learned most of the capitals. Ok. So that took a week. What next? I picked up a book in French and started to read aloud, occasionally asking my precocious, French-speaking son where my pronunciation mistakes were. With so little vocabulary this became too frustrating, and I was back to feeling sorry for myself. What next? I started to walk. I live on a fairly busy road so had never considered this simple activity. I’d had an old friend from high school come to visit mid summer (a deviation from my diet certainly occurred then!) and we had gone for a walk one evening. It had seemed so foreign an idea, but how perfect, how simple! And how good it felt to move…
I have misrepresented myself on Facebook as I’ve shared my recent physical activity. Yes, I can do a lot of miles now (nine yesterday – my own mind was blown) and yes, I go fast. Not the 5.5 mph I did ten years ago, but I move, I cover ground. But I don’t run. I can’t. My neck could never take it. I’ve been a tad too embarrassed to reveal it, both for the way in which it looks to most, and for the way in which it is greatly misunderstood, but I, dear readers, am a racewalker. Have been for thirty years. And I kick ass at it, this I know. And it feels awesome. I love it. And I don’t love running. When I run, my boobs bounce, my neck hurts and I can’t wait for it to be over. But racewalking? It’s sexy. Very. It’s elegant, it’s control, it’s groove. I could balance a teacup on my head and not spill a drop. The movement is about the hips taking the stress, and dispersing it by moving with it, not against it. There are no heavy footfalls; each step is exponentially less stressful than a jogger’s step. And I can groove. I get my music going, I find my form (which I must always tweak as I go, lest I get lazy and hang my neck down thereby defeating the purpose of keeping stress off) and I go. I fucking go. And it feels so good, cuz I’m moving, I’m sweating, I’m dancing. Really. That’s what it feels like to me, it’s like a forward-moving dance. And when I sink into it, and realize that it’s not the destination, it’s the right now, it’s where I am right at this moment – that’s when I’m in the proverbial zone. It’s what kept me going yesterday, up and down grades – that each take a shifting of gears and form – seeing not the end, but just the going, the going… It helps keep me sane, distracted, breathing deep. I still have to pull at my neck, sometimes I need a lozenge to keep my throat itself distracted and moving, but I do it. It’s been a long time since I’ve racewalked, but it definitely feels as right now as it used to. Even though I love the solitude, I wish I knew others who felt as I do about it. I don’t have a tribe, I’ve never in my life met anyone who also racewalked, hell I’ve never even seen another racewalker but for on YouTube. I’ve done 5Ks and 10Ks and never seen another soul racewalking. But that’s ok. I’ve always been good at being alone.
Although I do get fairly personal here in this forum (one friend even referred to my writing as “brazen” – my goodness that seems a bit extreme, does it seem so to you?) I have never once mentioned the subject of relationships. There have simply been none. These past twelve years here I have given my all, and happily so, to my son, who shall forever remain the brightest light in my life and my reason for being here on this globe. I have declined many a romantic overture over the years; many fine men have made attempts to woo me, but I have given none of them a chance – yet at the same time, I’ve always been completely frank with them. I simply have never had the energy to give. I gave it all to my kid. But now, as I contemplate a new life without my child at my side, I am beginning to yearn for something else. I’ve never missed having love, sex, romance, any of that – I’ve simply been too slammed with life for anything else. But now, my mind wanders. My heart hopes, and I wonder at a post-child life and what opportunities might appear. But I have mixed feelings; I love my solitude. Can one have both, I wonder? That window might open again. Who knows.
As a proud mother nearly ending her tenure at childrearing, I must also share an update on my son Elihu. I will clear up now the way in which his name is pronounced as I have been asked many times (hey, I wouldn’t know either if my dad hadn’t been a Yale man). It’s “EL ih hyoo”. Not “el AYE hoo”. Granted, in its original day (think Old Testament) it was probably more like the latter, but the accepted pronunciation changed a few hundred years ago. (Look for Elihu’s story in the book of Job, it’s very moving. Without even intending it, my son got the name that fit the man he would become. Sometimes the world truly is magical.) My son has his sights set on MIT. We visited the school last October, and it just felt right immediately. I had thought the city atmosphere and large scale of the buildings would be too much for my legally blind kid, but no. He was charged up, thrilled at every corridor, every turn, every lecture hall. He was home. And although I’ve been told by numerous friends not to get our hopes up, I’m sorry. They already are. Elihu was awarded the Rensselaer Medal from RPI, and should he choose to go there (he’s already in), it would be pretty much a free ride. Nice to have that in our back pocket, but MIT is the goal. Elihu has taken on the applications all himself (he knows his flaky mom can barely get her taxes together – I would’ve been a definite hinderance to the process!) and I just learned his final list: MIT, Stanford, Cal Tech, Princeton, Georgia Tech and Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. He said he might add Yale just to make grandma happy. Thankfully our financial situation waives application fees for all, so I say what the hell, kid. Add Yale. Elihu Yale and grandpa would both smile down on you.
As Elihu’s final years here at home come to a close, so too will our chicken-raising chapter. It may not seem a lot of work, but it’s yet another thing to do. Winters are long. The flock can’t be left for even a day, they need constant tending. Making arrangements to leave town even for a weekend is an imposition on neighbors who step in to help. I don’t know what we would’ve done without their amazing help through the years. Farming does not allow for vacation days. Even when you’re sick as a dog and can’t get out of bed – you must. For the past eleven years our process has been this: each year we’ve stocked the incubator with eggs precisely twenty-one days before Elihu’s birthday in late April (yes, all of them are viable thanks to lucky Jack, our one resident rooster) and we’ve always hatched them out on Elihu’s birthday, which has fallen several times on weekends, making our parties fun and memorable. In the fall we’ve butchered the roosters (only one rooster is needed for a flock of twenty-five hens) as well as the non-laying hens, thereby wintering over a modest-sized flock of a dozen or so birds, and generously stocking our freezer. This year we lost our first flock in one fell swoop by a raccoon who accidentally got closed in after our automatic coop door shut for the night. It was brutal. There was blood everywhere. Determined to raise one last flock, we re-stocked the incubator, not once, but twice, yielding some 40 new birds. What in hell were we thinking? My kid is a prudent fellow, and even he has no idea why we went overboard as we did. I guess we just felt the sting of our loss and wanted to fight back. You know, be badass at the chicken thing one last time.
This is the week when we take our roos to the Amish butcher. Even though we’re not personally doing the butchering (been there, not doin that again!) it’s never easy. Especially cuz now we’ve had them a little longer and we can see individual personalities taking shape (yes, chickens are people too) and we have to remind ourselves that their lives were good, and that their dispatch will be swift and humane. And for the next year we’ll have that most heavenly chicken stock ever. So. This fall is it. I took down the fence, scrapped the metal and cut down the weeds around the run. Soon it will be back to grass. We’ll let the hens live out their lives; some will die of old age, some will go out for the day and won’t come back. It may yet be a few years yet before the last gal leaves us, so it’ll be a gentle goodbye. I suppose by the time Elihu graduates from college we’ll be wrapped up for good. But that’s all fine, because we’ve learned so much from raising them, and we’ve so enjoyed the lovely energy they’ve added to our homestead. Elihu will be studying aerospace engineering ALL because of his close experience with our birds. I thank them for my son’s growth and transformation. Our flock has helped my own son to take flight.
That should bring you, dear readers. up to date on the goings-on at the Hillhouse. I’m tiring of preparing meals, of driving to and from school, of figuring out all things domestic. I’m tired, but I know I’ll be singing a song of lament one year hence when I find myself in a truly quiet house with all the time in the world to rest. I like being alone, but soon it’s gonna be a different kind of alone. It’ll be hard for me to see this chapter closed. You know. Out the window.
Most posts come to me almost finished. They’ve rolled around in my thoughts over and over again; pre-sleep, in the midst of sleeplessness, and often just after waking. A line here or there comes to the fore, something to hang my thoughts onto, a general framework which gradually etches itself into my memory while I go about the day. A few days of somewhat passive ruminations and I have it. Mostly that’s how a piece of writing comes to me. Mostly. But not always. And definitely not today.
I’d put it off longer if I could. Stalled a few months already – something which is not at all characteristic of me. Cuz I love to write. Folks who know me personally understand how I love to talk – anecdotes, stories, sidebars – the whole thing (no matter who’s doing the talking) is always of keen interest to me. Stories, I got em. And if you get me started, you’ll hear the story til the very end. God bless my little man, my son Elihu – I remember when he was just a wee one, and we’d lie side by side in bed at the end of a day in the dark of his tiny bedroom, and he’d ask me to “tell him a story that really happened”. Oh, I did indeed have stories “that really happened”. Stories the likes of which most mommies probably didn’t. Jumping off the caprail of the H.M.S. Bounty into crazy-deep water, jumping out of a plane (and surprising my jump master with a kiss the on last round before bailing), hosting a radio show (sometimes while nursing that same kid as an infant), playing to packed houses on the road, never knowing a soul there… Leaping from a moving train in Italy after throwing my belongings onto the disappearing platform, hitchhiking in Indonesia. I could go on, but you get the gist. I’ve been a lucky, lucky gal. Lots of stories. Lots of them – until it all wound down to a rather mundane existence in the suburbs north of Chicago. After giving birth to my first, and only child. (Yes, your life changes.)
Shortly after Elihu was born, I was still performing in a couple of bands. I’d worn the rocker chick/jazz chick/hard working musician badges as long as I possibly could; I was on stage performing in an ironic, tongue-in-cheek homage to the 70s when my milk first came in. My poor newborn babe was at home, hungry, waiting for his first real meal, and there I was at a club. Dressed in a red, white and blue patchwork pattern, floor-length dress reminiscent of something from Linda Ronstadt’s wardrobe, I felt it start. My milk-filled breasts had finally let down. I felt two wet spots begin to grow on my chest and I was grateful for the visual distraction of the patterned material. Immediately I recalled how my gut had begun a robust round of Braxton Hicks contractions only a few weeks earlier – when the band I was in soundchecked for a performance of “Jesus Christ Superstar” at the Park West in Chicago. I’d truly thought it was the beginning of my labor and that some 800 paying guests – not to mention the band and cast – were about to be sorely disappointed… Thankfully the painful spasms subsided long enough for me to get through the show. It was close. Up until that moment I’d kinda treated the whole pregnant thing as some sort of amusement – but on that night I was finally made aware of the seriousness of my condition. (I even took on the job knowing the performance was only a handful of days shy of my due date. !! I know, right? I really didn’t get it until then. And that’s the honest truth.)
Yeah, it’s usually the way it goes for me. And I’ll guess, for you too. Who the hell truly understands the real significance and meaning of an experience while smack dab in the middle of it? Few of us. Ok, so there are some moments of clarity, paradigm-shifting events and such, yes. But for the most part, we need hindsight to provide clarity and perspective, and truth. And that’s what I have a whole lot of right now, ten years in. Oh so much has changed in the last ten years of our life here at the Hillhouse. I have learned so much. So much that was once fuzzy is now clear, so much which was unknown is familiar to me now. And to use a writing technique I rather loathe but feel might make my point very well in this case: Oh. So. Much. Has. Changed.
There is no tidy way in which to summarize. I cannot possibly recount a decade of life with all of its drama and joy. Suffice to say, in the ten years since Elihu and I moved here, he and I have visibly aged. When we moved here (to the small white ranch house with a great view we lovingly dubbed “The Hillhouse”) in upstate New York from the suburbs of Chicago, Elihu was 5, and I was 45. He was tiny, and I still looked ‘young-ish’. Now he is taller than me, with a voice an octave lower than mine, and I can no longer hope to pass for forty-something.
There was a blessed island of time – say from his being 6 (and me being 46) and his being 12 (me 52) when all seemed easy, gentle, innocent. Sure, I grumbled under my breath about how hard it was to afford food (then came the food stamp era) and how much time it took to cook the damned stuff (it was only two people, why did it take so much time?) and then there were all those dishes (again, how do two people use so many dishes?) and yet still, in spite of the poverty, the domestic drudgery and even the loneliness of it all, there was a certain unmistakable charm to that time. And even when in the midst of my fresh heartbreak, all the chores and my near-constant grumbling, I had understood that. I knew that one day this time would be in our past. I surely knew it intellectually, but not so much emotionally (that would be the understanding I’m achieving now, in these reflective days).
There were the bathtimes, followed in the earliest years by playing dinosaur on my big kingsized bed – me roaring loudly while tossing the small child up and crashing him down onto the bed to his shrieks of pure delight… Then a few years later (an era which lasted a long, long while, perhaps due in part to my son’s reduced visual acuity) we came to read together each night – or rather I would read aloud to him. He would be lost in his inner visions as I shared along in the adventures. Oh so many books we read. I lament now that we didn’t keep a record on file at the library – I learned only after reading dozens of books that our titles had not been recorded as I hadn’t signed up for that service (all young parents please take note of that!).
Each Spring I read the Burgess Bird Book for Children (a first edition given to us by a dear friend – this tome is over one hundred years old!) and Elihu had a nearly word-for-word recollection of the text – something I’ve come to learn is a byproduct of his low vision. (He told me this past year that he’s informed only about 20% by his vision, with his ears telling him a good 80% about his environment. Even with my knowing his visual situation better than anyone else on the planet, this was still revelatory.) Elihu would correct me when I read something slightly different from the printed text – and many times when a signature, oft-repeated line would arrive, we’d say it slowly together, smiling at the secret joke. I deeply treasured those moments, knowing they wouldn’t last forever, even if it surely felt as if they just might… I loved our evenings reading together, and especially those precious spring seasons when we read from Mr. Burgess’ tender book. In the spring when Elihu was 14 he allowed me to lay down next to him and read a few lines. But it wasn’t the same. I felt it and so did he. The magic window had closed. But I couldn’t bear to leave his side, I couldn’t bear to confirm it aloud or with my actions. Eventually, he asked me to leave, softening it as best he could with a “please”.
Single mother. Used to be, years ago, when I heard the descriptor “single” used before the word “mother” I would think some unkind things. How does a mother end up single? How pathetic is that? And for single mothers with more than one child I just tossed my head and rolled my eyes in disbelief. Idiots. For God’s sake, didn’t you make a plan? What do you mean your husband just left? Why in hell did you allow him to? Yeah, I wasn’t very open minded, tolerant – or experienced. Yet. And although something deep inside me still bristles at the term “single mother” (culturally I may never cleanse myself of thinking it brings low-brow values along with it) I myself have (sometimes even proudly) brandished the title many, many times in order to impress upon folks that it’s just one woman doing the work of two people here. I’ve used the term to help create a clearer picture without going into details. My hope is that folks might understand that I did not ever expect to be in this situation. I use the word “single” to imply I am in the situation, but I didn’t choose it – it chose me. But if they don’t get that bit, or if they end up passing judgement on me, that’s fair. I guess I have it coming to me. Once, when Elihu was a wee one and I was juggling the usual domestic crap (my then husband was on the road most of the time) I lamented over the phone to my mom that I felt like a single mother. She responded “Every mother is a single mother”. Nuff said.
Having just one child, and having no spouse around to accommodate has been a great gift. Raising a child alone offered me great freedom, almost unlimited opportunities. Any adventure that appealed to us we were able to dive into without the baggage of extra people and their stuff. Mom and son is a very portable unit. Everything could be done at a moment’s notice; busking, birdwatching, poultry auctions, a trip to Vermont, a trip to New York City, a walk in the woods, gliding at the airfield, flying a handmade plane in the cemetery. A thousand tiny moments, hundreds of excursions, hundreds of snowbound days indoors side by side, talking, not talking… Discovering how to draw a wing, how to build a cantilevered shelf into a tower of building blocks, how to articulate passages on the tuba, how to figure out the chords to a melody on the piano, how to nurse a hen with sour crop. Together, Elihu and I have become good at figuring it out. Solving the problem. It’s been a great adventure for both of us. I often say I gave birth to a 50 year old man, cuz this kid’s always had a much deeper understanding of things than anyone I know. Yet he’s been a tiny, adorable child, too. And as a mother I can recall all of these aspects in an instant. Years ago, I was unable to conjure an image of my son taller than me. No matter how hard I tried, I simply could not. Even now, when he appears in my mind’s eye, he’s usually shorter than me. But when I see him, I begin to see the next era. Now I can begin to understand all those things I knew were coming one day, because one day has arrived.
This past May I turned 55. At a glance, not so crazy. But then you realize – 55 is closer to 60 than 50. Wait, what? Come again?? How long have I been in my 50s? Wasn’t I just 45 last year? Give me a minute here…
This becoming 55 really altered my awareness. This was the first year that I could have imagined myself dying. Sure, we never know. I could yet die this week, next month, next spring. Who knows? Although none of us is very good at living as though we were dying – I began to get a bit more motivated this past year. My piano chops were still pretty modest, and I while had long stalled on looking for a local piano single job, indefinitely citing the need for improvement before I could get a gig anywhere, I decided that that shit had to end. There was no longer any time to waste. I decided my timidity was doing me a great disservice; if I had limited time remaining, what in hell did I have to lose? I had enough in my fingers to work. All I had needed was something to dissipate the unnecessary fear. Now I had it. Mortality.
I got in my car and drove to a local golf club and asked to play for the manager. She and her assistant leaned against the tables as they listened. “When can you start?” was the response. Empowered by my first success I knocked on the door of the only restaurant on Broadway that had a piano. The owner let me in and within minutes I was playing and singing for her and her husband. They booked me for that Saturday in March, and I began a steady which had me working all the way through September. Finally. The kid was old enough to be left alone, and I was back out in the world. Finally, I was playing again. Doing what it was that I used to do before this whole kid/divorce/move across the country/raise chickens/start a business adventure began. Phew.
The Studio too has brought me a long way in my personal development. Not a one of us Conants ever thought the scenario through to the far-off future, and it appears that future is now upon us. I myself didn’t really believe (although on some subconscious level I must have known) that running the place would be entirely on me. But it is. And now the main matter at hand is to get the venue inhabited by compelling programs and – the kicker – to see the venue paying for itself. My mother’s been able to patch up the holes, covering the shortfalls and helping with some maintenance, but it cannot remain this way. And it won’t be. A year ago my head was still fully in the motherhood mode; I was making progress with the Studio in fits and starts, and I simply didn’t have time or energy to devote myself to the job as it required. And now that Elihu is 15, things on the domestic front are a lot easier. Hell, I even have my own labor force – and a willing one, too. The kid is so helpful when it comes time to set or strike the room. I’ve given a lot of myself to him and he knows it. My heart is warm and grateful when he returns the service with enthusiasm.
I’m still not enjoying a lot of administrative success – I haven’t assembled a true working board yet (friends, mom and a couple of local artists hold the space for now), and the website is rudimentary and not at all the way I’d like it. I cannot add images in the proper places or align text correctly – the whole thing is a huge frustration. But I know about frustration. This too shall pass. Somehow, I’ll figure it out. In the past year the Studio has lost its power line from the road (thank you dear friends who donated to our power restoration!), been struck by lightning, and we were also sued by a woman who slipped on the ice at – get this – a community drum circle. So nothing really fazes me anymore. Nasty letter from a lawyer? Mech. Sliding door doesn’t slide? Red food dye on the white walls? Table gone missing? Hey. At least the place is still standing. All possibility is yet before us…
My son is in Germany. The last time he was in Germany he was inside of me. Last time I took a trip of any note was when my ex and I went to Germany to perform, and then to Italy to make a baby. Truth to tell, I’ve always felt pretty smug about how it happened. Sure it happens all the time – but I got pregnant on my very first ovulation cycle off of the pill in over a decade. Ha! Fareed and I stayed in a tiny town on Lake Como, in a small family-owned hotel, in room 12, which was the lucky room in which our Evanston friends had stayed, the room in which our friend worked on his book. The room with a view like no other. And 12 happened to be our shared lucky number. The stars were lining up… One afternoon Fareed and I took a walk in the woods on the steep bank of the lake, and we came upon an ancient, moss-covered well. I looked down into the black, and I became aware of a feeling. I knew that there was a tiny new life inside of me. I knew it. I continued on the path under the canopy of pines as if I was floating in a dream. I just knew that things were different now.
Back in Frankfurt I saw a drop of blood, and I was disappointed. How could I possibly have thought it would be this easy to get pregnant? I remember the sounds of the men in the Turkish coffee shop on the street below, the high ceiling of the tiny room where we had spent the night, the sorrow in my chest… In hindsight, I know now that the drop of blood was due to a small cluster of cells embedding themselves into the lining of my uterus. I’ve often said that Elihu’s life began in Italy, but he took up residence in Germany. Funny how life goes… He is loving his time on exchange in the south of the country. He has informed me that he may attend university for free – even as a US citizen! – if he tests in. And that, for my little straight A student, will not be a problem. He loves the slower, gentler pace of life there. It seems his childhood in Greenfield has prepared him well for it. Now fluent in German and without question truly bilingual, his world expands. My eyes fill with tears if I think too hard on it; I am proud, I am in awe, I am in love, and I am sad at the impending separation that college and his life beyond will bring. But it’s all good. It wasn’t all good at the start of this Hillhouse adventure, but it sure is now.
In a couple of days I will fly to Zurich and rejoin my son. We will stay a few days with his host family, I’ll visit his school, meet his teachers and new friends, and I’ll have the opportunity to thank them for their enormous gift of support for my son. We’ll say farewell to our hosts, then take a train to Paris, where we’ll be visiting with both my Godmother and an old friend from Saratoga who now lives there. Finally, we’ll take the train – the famous Chunnel – to London where we will enjoy two very good seats for the musical Hamilton on Thanksgiving eve. We’ll meet up with Elihu’s sister who lives just outside of the city, and then we’ll embark on adventures yet unknown to us at present.
This year marks ten years well-lived here at the Hillhouse. To be sure, we’ve earned our tenure.
Dear Readers, Elihu has worked so very hard at building aircraft and subsequently documenting their flights – all of his work available for viewing on his YouTube channel entitled “Copterdude”. Indulge me if you will, please, and watch a video or two. And if it’s not a great imposition on your inbox, might you consider subscribing to it? This mother would be deeply grateful.
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.
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
I know, right? Who am I to be offering up words of wisdom? For one, I just blew one of the cardinal rules of blogging for the first time in my 616 posts here: never begin a post with the personal pronoun “I”. Off to a good start…
Lying on my side in bed this morning, ruminating over the many things I have to do, and working on defining the most effective ways in which to execute them, I was inspired. Ah, you know that fragile window in time, don’t you? Those first fleeting moments of the morning when just a hint of inspiration overcomes you, and for a split second all things feel possible – and the stirrings of these possibilities begin to motivate you… But like a dream which one struggles to remember upon waking, the spark begins to fade the harder you try to bring it into view. And then you realize, fully, what you are in for. Yes indeed. You’re back. Phooey.
Yeah, it’s easy to feel inspired when you’re horizontal, when you’re warm, when you’re not hungry. That brief moment before anything really starts to hurt, before you remember that you forgot to wheel the garbage out to the side of the road… it’s easy to feel that lifting of spirit when your mind is empty of static, and the fragments of possibility sparkle there in your thoughts, beckoning you to rise from your bed and do, do, do, be, be, be… The challenge then becomes somehow holding on to that feeling, and coaxing it alive as you move through your day.
The idea that best helps me out when I want to forget the whole affair and just go back to bed is this: Face the Monster. Lately I’ve been taking the single most frightening thing I have to do each day and putting it on top of my list. It’s actually brought some impressive results. I’m still really scared, but I’m forcing myself to do things that I dread, and it’s not all that bad of an experience. I’m still rather consumed by insecurity and trepidation about my future survival, but I’m wading forward through the muck in spite of it. I’m in absolute awe of the human beings for whom this earthly life is but a trifle. Those folks who find their path, make a livable wage and own late-model cars. How in the world do they do it? I sometimes wonder if I will ever get it. Will I ever be unafraid? Will I ever earn a living wage? Sigh. Back to the list…
So, today “Facing the Monster” will entail going out to schmooze, where I will meet some artists and non profit types (they intimidate me greatly as they all seem to know exactly what they’re doing; they write grant proposals and deal with all that administrative nonsense while continuing to produce their art, uncompromised) and hopefully sit in at a local piano bar. Now if this doesn’t sound all that daunting, you’re probably right. But from where I exist, here on the inside of my skin, it has “panic attack” all over it. Really? Meh, not as bad as once upon a time, but still…
As many may know, The Studio has experienced some tremendous milestones over the past few weeks. Firstly, a local news channel produced a lovely piece on the venue, which was just what we needed. But then? A day before it aired we lost ALL of our power to the free-standing venue. After forty years the original underground power line went kaput. Who knows how, who know why – and at this point, who cares? Bottom line: ALL programs had to be cancelled as I set to figuring out how – or even if – I was going to make this pricey repair. At the end of the day it’s still just me piloting this silly ship, and I was completely out of money and answers. For several days I chose not to even think about it, because I was just plain out of steam. Metaphorically speaking, I went back to bed.
Then one morning, I said ‘fuck it’, and I Faced the Monster. I created a GoFundMe page for The Studio, held my breath in and hit send. I had no idea, really, that it would work. I knew a couple of folks would help out, but in fact the response has turned out to be so much more than I’d ever expected. It’s been deeply touching, yes – that would seem pretty obvious – but what this experience is also helping me to understand is that this venue, while ‘mine’ in some ways at this point in time – is not really mine. And soon, in order to survive and thrive, it must be handed over to a greater population. At some point, this simply cannot be my baby anymore. It needs to belong to a community. Seems obvious, right? I mean it’s a ‘community arts center’. But until now, it’s been basically my personal pet project (and my mother’s too; she would very much like to see the Conant/Studio legacy live on). And I won’t lie; surrendering control and seeing other folks come in and make it their place too seems a little scary. I need to learn how to keep my vision for the place clear and evident while at the same time sharing the reins with others. It’s obvious that I, by myself, cannot do all of the things which successfully running an operation like this entails, so I’ll need to Face the Monster once again. Next up, I need to find my posse…
But first comes today. Art opening, piano bar. Sounds fun. I get to wear nice clothes for once. Even sparkly things, which I secretly love. I’ll meet some people, share my vision for The Studio, sing some songs and make some people happy. And I’ll remember today’s piece of wisdom; Face the Monster and scare him back under the bed – at least for now.
The new year, thus far, has been an unrelenting game of good news/bad news. Somehow, in spite of some personal sorrows we weathered in the first weeks of January, it seemed that things in general were looking up. The Studio appeared to be crossing a line into new territory; I was starting to book events that had been on my mind for months. The time was finally here, and things were happening. I was making connections, meeting people. We were getting press – we were in the paper and on the news. Poised for some exciting things ahead. And yet, here we are today, so close and yet so far…
At this writing I am so very close to wanting to pack it all in. Forget the whole thing. Park my kid with a host family in town, move to Florida, get a gig house sitting or dog walking and just never come back. That idea is really appealing right now. No more snow, no more meals to make, no more food stamps to run out of, no more furnaces grinding to a halt in freezing temps, no more piano students cancelling in the 11th hour, no more venue emergencies, no more having to go to my mother for the money to fix it all. (At the age of 54 you’d think that shit would be behind me. Apparently not. It’s incredibly demoralizing and has me wondering if a job at Walmart might not be a more dignified situation.)
Not too long after we lost our ancient rooster Bald Mountain, an unidentified neighbor dog came through our property, killing five hens (two of whom were elders and quite dear to us) and injuring one of our laying ducks. She was hurt, but not so badly as to warrant butchering her – so we took her to the vet. Having acquired my very first credit card in the nine years I’ve lived here (when your ex leaves you holding the bag on family credit cards but you live on welfare, it makes starting over a very lengthy process) I was in a position to actually take an animal to a vet and pay the almost $200 in care and meds. A small financial setback, but our duck healed well and now stands to hatch out her own ducklings this spring. So it was a happy ending. Sort of.
As nature abhors a vacuum, apparently so too does an unused credit card balance; I found myself making an unplanned, last-minute trip (the timing and short duration of which made it unusually costly) to Chicago in order to visit an old friend who was diagnosed with a rapidly advancing, early onset form of dementia. (It’s called FTD for short, there are two links below to videos which describe the disease in more detail.) I’d told her I’d visit in the fall, then again made the promise at Christmas, and most recently I suggested a summer trip. In reality there would never be a good time to go, and it appeared that my friend as I’d known her was fast-disappearing. So I chose the winter school break, when I could leave Elihu alone for a few days without concern, and I’d be back by the time we held our Friday night dance performance at The Studio. The day before I was to leave, I came down with a fever, and during my two-day trip (the most expensive two days of my life since I moved to New York nine years ago) I completely lost my voice. So there I was, in the company of my oldest and dearest friends, nearly unable to speak, and physically wrecked. It didn’t diminish my happiness at seeing everyone, but I can’t say it was a pleasant experience. I was lucky to have the use of a friend’s car, and luckier still to experience some unplanned visits and serendipitous meetings, so at its core, it was a successful trip. Just not a very comfortable one.
And I got to spend two days with my friend, a woman who I will most likely never see again. And even if I do see her again in this lifetime, she won’t be herself anymore. Whenever my mother complains about the expense of an outing, the thinking I always share with her is that she’ll always remember the event, but years down the line she won’t remember the bill. I also had to remind myself of this over and over. Visiting a friend is more important than money. The time was now, and I did what was right, I know it. But still. It’s gonna take a few years to knock this balance down again. Yes, I am feeling sorry for myself. I’ll get over it. Just not today…
While I was visiting with my friend, on that rainy day in Evanston, Illinois, I got a call from the woman who teaches yoga at The Studio. The power in the building was off. That was strange; I’d gone to great lengths to make sure the electric bill was paid in full, that everything would run without incident during my three-day leave. But no, the main breaker had been flipped, and nothing was changing. I was whispering with great difficulty over the phone, my throat already on fire, my stress level rising as I realized I needed next to call the electric company and navigate the automated system on 10% battery, and without a voice. Shit. I bounced back and forth down the long hallway of my friend’s new downtown condo, visiting with her while on hold, then retreating to the bedroom to explain my situation to the customer service folks. After some time and several different calls, I was able to arrange for a lineman to assess the problem the following day.
The next day I also juggled personal visits with more follow-up calls; apparently no one had been to the property yet as they’d promised. And my mother, she had thrown herself and a last-minute solution into the mix in the form of a rented a generator to power the place (we still needed to find an electrician who could tie the damn thing into the main circuit board) for the rehearsal and subsequent performance. My mother was trying to fix a situation which needed much more than a band-aid approach. Missing the forest for the trees, she was trying to revive a non-revenue earning event at no small expense. She was so persistent, and I was in such physical discomfort and so unable to even speak, that countering her on the phone was infuriating. There I was, at the iconic Blind Faith Cafe for the first time in over a decade, with a waitress asking for my order, an overly enthusiastic friend trying to interpret for me, and my mother telling me I needed to confirm the generator rental NOW. I don’t relish hanging up on anyone, but there was no other out. I told my mother to CANCEL the damn generator, and pushed the red button. Done, done, done. I was in no place to keep this event together. Even if I hadn’t been sick, I was 900 miles away. Not a good idea. I don’t like giving up, but sometimes ya just gotta wave that white flag.
Before I’d gone to Chicago, I made sure to have my hair done. Karen, the woman whom I was going to visit, had been a very talented hairdresser, and if she would resonate with anything at all, it would be my hair. So I had my regular hair gal Wendy pimp my ride. The highlights were over the top, the curls beyond natural and the lift almost 80s music video ready. I wasn’t a huge fan, but it wasn’t for me anyway. I was thrilled that Karen loved my hair. I was thrilled that she was still recognizable as herself. And I was thrilled, that after an eight year hiatus, she and I and some dear friends were going to meet at a restaurant we’d been going to together for over twenty years. Old home week was on. It was why I had traveled so far…
I was the first to arrive at the place, and somehow it seemed different. Ah, but that’s what nearly a decade can do, I thought to myself. Shortly before we convened at the weary-looking table we learned the reason: only four days earlier our pals Tony and Vatsana had sold the thirty-year old business. If only I’d come out a week before. If only, if only…. All we could do was laugh. Poor Karen, who partly due to her condition, partly due to the anticipation, had been repeating “Crispy Basket” all afternoon, continued her refrain, only now it took on the tone of a small, sad child. “No more Crispy Basket” she said, laughing, but still sounding rather pitiful. In the end we all had to laugh. The whole situation was ridiculous. No more Panang Beef the way only Vatsana ever made it. And the cucumber salad? There was no redeeming it. The magic was gone. I couldn’t help but think how this was one of those defining moments in all of our lives. One of us was on a fast-track to death, none of us was looking any younger, and never again would we gather together around a table, all of us together.
Karen was still able to have a laugh over her situation, and by the end of the night we had created a new ‘in’ joke which would surely last… She and her sister Debbie had recently gone to the hit show Hamilton and during intermission they’d gone to use the bathroom. This was before either woman was aware of the extent to which Karen was prone to wander, and by the end of intermission, when her sister was nowhere to be found, Debbie sent her a text. “Where are you?” she asked. “I went to use the bathroom” Karen texted back. “Where?” her sister asked, to which Karen very matter-of-factly responded “Target”. Apparently, finding the lines too long, she had meandered outside and down the street, ending up at nearby Target store where she used the bathroom and then dutifully waited outside for her sister. And so for the rest of the visit, a trip to the bathroom was referred to as “going to Target”. Good to be able to laugh about it. It’s a frightening enough situation to warrant tears, but what good would it do to cry?
“I just want to know if you’re worried, if you’re stressed. How are you feeling? Are you scared?” Although I’d intended to get a little deeper into my inquiry of her experience, that was as far as I got. “Liz, do I look stressed? No, I’m not stressed. I’m not scared. It’s just weird is all.” We talked a bit more about the strangeness of it. I was secretly relieved that the very disease itself had robbed her of the ability to fully comprehend the severity of things. She had taken on a certain childlike quality which seemed to take the edge off of her reality. Karen was in a bizarre place to say the least; she would warn me of her inability to filter her language and impulses and ask me to intervene. She knew when she was about to approach a stranger with an inappropriate question, she knew when the impulse to chew something grew too strong and so her teething toy needed to be within reach lest she gnaw her debit card beyond use (which she did while I was there). Again and again I asked if she was scared. I didn’t want to lead the witness, I just wanted her to know I would be there for her as best I could.
“You’re such a country girl” Karen would say many times that afternoon at her apartment. She’d laugh at my wide-eyed assessment of all the change that had taken place over the past few years. Lyfts and Ubers swarmed all around us on the streets and appeared like tiny bugs on our phones, ready to drive us across town without so much as a bill passing hands. People were everywhere, lobbies were huge and involved falling water. There were crazy themed restaurants everywhere, and there were as many brown people as white. It was probably a good idea that I’d taken this trip. My little cocoon in upstate New York did not present an accurate glimpse into modern urban life. “Yeah, I may be a country girl, but you’ve still never ridden the el!” I joked back. Indeed, my friend had been a real Jewish American Princess, complete with a two seater sports car and folks who wintered in Boca. “Yeah, but you’re still such a country girl”. Karen always had to have the final word. I remember thinking at that point that she was probably right. This was not a world to which I would choose to return.
We spent a rainy Wednesday afternoon inside her beautiful new condo with its floor-to-ceiling glass walls watching TV, playing her keyboard, singing and looking at photos. She was adamant that we go across the street to World Market and pick out the perfect frame for a photo I’d sent her of my father and her at the piano in our old Evanston home. Karen loved my dad. And he had loved her. They flirted in French and cracked each other up. “I kiss everyone goodnight, like this” she said, kissing her index finger and placing it on the photos of friends and family members that sat atop her bureau. “We need to have Bob up there.” By the end of our day together, a beautifully framed picture of Karen and my father rested among all the others, and we were both very satisfied. I couldn’t think of a more perfect ending to our visit.
The afternoon finally turned into evening, and although the previous incarnation of my friend would never have admitted to such a thing, this woman told me several times that she was getting sad as my departure grew closer. I was too. Never a good time for goodbye, especially the kind that truly might be the last. But thanks to my true and spazzy form, the poignancy of our goodbye was somewhat diluted; once by my returning to leave her my CD, and secondly by a crazed digging through my bag to find my hat – which was loud enough to have Karen open the door and check on me. Finally, when the elevator arrived, she turned and closed the door without waving. It wasn’t really goodbye, just see ya. Better that way.
The el squeaked its way through old, familiar neighborhoods. Nighttime was always a good time to ride the train. Lights sparkle everywhere and interiors become tiny tableaus. I’d noticed on this trip that apartments were all becoming so über hip. Growing up I remember shabby apartments, one after another. Now it seemed that the entire city was made of upwardly mobile thirty-somethings. On the train another adult also unable to censor his speech appropriately made a loud observation which made me laugh: “I’ll bet the train will lose a whole bunch of millennials at Belmont”. There sure did seem to be a lot of em.
I’ve always loved to fly, so this rare opportunity to experience commercial flights again had become another great disappointment; on the way there the entire flight had been above the clouds, and my seat was on the aisle. Upon returning, I found myself in a middle seat, which might have been fine, only there was no window at the end of the row. In all my years of travel I have never before been in a windowless row. My head cold made the ascent the most miserable I have ever experienced, so it really didn’t matter anyhow. This trip had been about seeing my friends, and that had been accomplished. The quality of my flights wasn’t really the issue, expensive though they may have been.
The two-day whirlwind of $12 airport beers, visiting old friends and eating out at favorite restaurants was done. I relished the final moments of the flight, the landing, the awesome power of the engines braking the craft. I savored every moment I was not yet back. A horrible feeling of dread filled my gut when we turned the corner and I saw the lights of the tarmac. The detour was over. A muddy driveway piled high with a winter’s uncollected garbage, a fourteen year old boy who needed to be fed, and a venue without power awaited me at the end of my eight-hour commute.
It’s been one week tonight since I got back home, and shit hasn’t stopped. Still need to cancel a few more events, have yet to ascertain how and why the power cut out, and my poor kid has been really sick for the past two days. I just got the dishwasher repaired with the last remaining available credit on my ‘new’ card, and all but three piano students have stopped taking lessons. But there’s been good news too. Not without a hitch, though…
A very nicely produced piece on The Studio appeared on the local news only a few days after we lost power, and here the irony continues. Just the day before it aired I had discontinued my cable service in order to save some money, so I wasn’t able to actually watch it live on TV from my house. Oh, the timing. And the piece itself is lovely; it pays a very sweet tribute to my dad and to my mom, it shines a bit of hope on the future of the venue, but sadly when they’d come out to interview me I was at my annual heaviest, and on camera I read like Ann Wilson in the early 80s. Deeply embarrassed, I’ve had a very hard time seeing the generous shares and comments in the Facebook world. I can’t bear to watch it ever again. I need a serious do-over. I’m down eleven pounds since the interview, and my personal goal, if nothing else, is to establish some online video presence with some short music vids to help redeem myself. I’m very nearly on the bottom of my personal barrel right now. So not where I imagined myself to be in this new and until now, promising new year.
Entropy. My kid likes to remind me that’s the direction we’re all headed anyway, so don’t sweat it too much. It is kinda like the great playing field-leveler. Yeah, we have our glory years (if you’re anywhere from 20 to 40 as you read this, consider yourself in the undeniable sweet spot) but then the physical shit eventually hits the fan. I’m almost at peace with that idea. Certainly closer than a year ago. I’m slowly acquiescing to my mortality. It feels as if I still have a small chunk of work yet to do here on this planet; the kid’s not fully launched yet, and I do have a vision for The Studio which at the very least I’d like to see set sail before I’m done, and yes, my ego would like to see the blog turned into a book. (However I’m wise enough to know that nobody truly cares. And please, don’t protest, I get it. I sat next to an author on the plane who provided me another reality check on that count: I gave her what I thought to be a pretty compelling elevator pitch, and she just smiled and said “Everybody has drama, and lots of people write well.” Nuff said.)
“Your fingers are freaking me out” Karen said as she stared at my knobby distal joints. “Yeah, I really don’t like having arthritis this bad” I had responded. A moment passed. Karen looked at me, and she seemed tired. “I’d rather have what you have.” Another space landed between us. “Yeah,” I answered. “I know.”
Guess it’s time to quit griping about all the stuff I don’t have, and instead, concentrate on all the things that I do have. I guess it’s time to start writing that new book…
It’s Missoula Children’s Theatre time again in Greenfield, although the production isn’t happening at its regular spot in the year. For the past eight years it’s been held at the end of winter. Small islands of crunchy snow on the grass, early robins and MCT always told me warm weather was coming soon. Now, it’s the opposite. We’ve only just had our first week of pre-winter cold and there are still some leaves left on the trees. This year, the production comes at the start of what will likely be another seemingly endless winter. Truthfully, I’m happy to have it done and out of the way earlier in the school year. There is so much work to be done, so many things I haven’t had proper time to attend to. This Studio thing really needs my full attention, and side projects can zap me of what little energy I have. After this week there will be no more detours. Maybe.
Clearly, things never go exactly as planned. But sometimes that can be good. Serendipitous mistakes and last-minute plans have led people to The Studio for the first time. They see the property and the venue and they are almost always surprised, sometimes truly delighted. Now new ideas are being born and plans are emerging. It’s an easy sell, really. Those who get it, get it. I don’t need to waste energy worrying about the people who don’t get it. I also don’t need to fret that the money isn’t coming in as we need it, and I needn’t fret that people don’t know we’re here. Everything will happen in its time and place if I keep going. I just have to keep reminding myself that these are the early years; a long adventure lies ahead – an adventure which I’m fairly confident will continue on beyond my lifetime. I am going to savor this chapter, because there is still a homey quality to the place. It still feels much as it did when my father held his concerts here. The hall even smells about the same. And as Elihu says “the screen door still makes that sound when it closes.” Yup, these are the early years and I’m not taking them for granted. One day, when this place is bustling with programs and people are daily coming and going, I will think back on the early years with a smile on my face and quite likely a pang of nostalgia in my heart.
I recall the simplicity of my folk’s Baroque Festival some thirty years ago. I marvel at how they filled the seats in a pre-social media era. In a day of mimeographed programs, hand-set type, phones attached to the wall and typewriters without even so much as a correction feature – how ever did they pull it off? Could it be that my father organized all the musicians, the program, the rehearsals (never mind the hours in practice at the harpsichord) and then went on to handle all of the publicity, advertising and administration, all while working throughout the school year as a professor and continuing to concertize? Apparently the answer is ‘yes’. And all very successfully too. Of course my mother made up the other, indispensable half of the equation: childcare (for my brother and me), the running of a household (and the moving of a household as we lived in Chicago and only summered here in Greenfield), plus she worked a job too, and she also fed and housed all the musicians and their families when they were here at the Festival. As a child it seemed to me that in the summers my mother was either always making beds or making food. The whole idea of a true mom and pop operation like that, ‘back in the day’, it just amazes me.
Last night a low brass quartet rehearsed in the space for the upcoming program of holiday music in December. Elihu and I stood in the room, bathed in that amazing blend of tones. I even saw Elihu’s face break out into a smile. He remarked that you could even feel the sound in your body. Yeah, you could. I too couldn’t stop smiling. I was beyond thrilled. I’d had this concert in mind for a couple of years now, and to see it come to life was more than gratifying. It was vindication. A tiny victory. The background static of all those folks who found our spot too rustic, too far from town, too much of this, not enough of that – it all faded away. It didn’t matter. Those who didn’t love the place, or get the beauty of it didn’t need to be here. This space is special, and all that happens within its walls is magical. (But lest I get too romantic about things, I have to remind myself that after the wrap party on Saturday I must sweep and mop the whole place and set fans to dry the floor in time for Sunday morning’s yoga class. It’s still real life, after all.)
This year’s Missoula Children’s Theatre production is Cinderella. And how fitting! I feel like a real-life Cinderella myself. I think of this space, this empty room with nothing on the walls, no decorations…. And me, late at night with no one around, mopping the floor, vacuuming up spiders and wiping down walls. But then a few hours later, a few magic mice and promising pumpkins have turned the space into a grand ballroom! I’m a lucky gal too, cuz it doesn’t all end at midnight. There will always be another ball…
Bare bones for now (pun intended)… I’ll report back when the magic happens. The room will be transformed.
Life is really, really busy. Isn’t it? And recently I’ve come to understand that it certainly aint just me. In fact, I have a feeling my life doesn’t come close to those with whom I rub elbows each day. But still, I’m busier than I’m entirely comfortable with being (if only being busy equalled money coming in rather than money going out, I might actually welcome it!). With the addition of starting a small (very small) business on top of the single mom thing (3 meals a day folks, sometimes more – from shopping to prep to cleanup) to playing tuba police, to de-worming and de-miting some 30 poultry by hand daily to trying to put the clean laundry away – never mind the hour or so a day I spend in community with my far-flung friends on Facebook (I don’t consider it a waste; it’s my connection to old friends. Some days yes, it can be a pure waste of time, but mostly it’s not) and oh, yeah, that’s right, teaching piano lessons (that’s the only ‘real’ thing I do!) I find that when I lay down at night exhausted, I can’t sleep for all the to-do lists competing for my attention. Yes, I write em all down. And no, I don’t do social media or tv (what tv?) before bed. And yes, I read books. But still…
I can’t say things aren’t going well. Cuz they are. Well, better, at least. This fall has seen the deaths of several friends, and while I didn’t know any of them very well, I had quickly grown very fond of them. Their permanent absences in my life make me more keenly aware that I actually do have work to do here on this planet, and when I remember that the possibility does exist that I might follow them to that other plane without much warning or time to prepare, I double down on my efforts to accomplish those things yet before me on my ‘real’ to-do list. As in ‘really’ doing something of good for my fellow anguished, over-busied humans. Busy though I may be, I gotta keep remembering the light at the end of the tunnel.
And I do actually mean light. I mean to bring a little light to the world; music, art and the delight of having created either or both – and the community and sense of belonging that those things in turn help to grow. In my short time on this earth I wish to bring people together, I wish to see them supporting each other, being witnesses to each others pain as well as their joy. These words look a bit trite when I see them on paper, but it’s true. I just want to have a life party. Like my mother, the consummate host, I just want to offer people the venue in which to come together. Some may need the community of movement, of healing arts, others need to sing, to play an instrument, others find their peace learning how to paint an image in their mind’s eye. (Adding in some food and wine to the mix couldn’t hurt, either.) Also, I’d like to know that this entity will continue to live after I’m gone. So there’s a real goal ahead. There’s just so much to do in order to make the crudest, simplest versions of those dreams come to life. And for the most part, it’s still just one woman behind the curtain.
But that’s changing. Recently I’ve begun to actively reach out and seek a little help. I do however still suffer from the routine handicap of not having enough money. I can barely feed my teenage boy much less fill in the expenses of the Studio. (All I can say on that front is thank you friends, and thank you mom.) When Elihu leaves town for a week here and there to visit his dad, I relish the dramatically lower food bills. Food stamps are never enough. I pad our menu with a slightly healthier diet of ramen noodles (add an assortment of chopped raw vegetables, stir an egg into the hot broth, add lemon juice or spicy asian oil), I make the most out of our flock and fill my kid up with a half a dozen eggs every morning, yet he’s a growing boy, hard-pressed to weigh in at 80 pounds and is always ready to eat. Food is probably the least of my financial worries though. I’ve learned some tricks, and can make a little go a long way. It’s a bit harder to make heating oil last. Thank the gods that this year has been quite warm so far; I’ve only had to rumble the old furnace to life a handful of times. Back in our morning’s ritual is making sure the thermostats are pulled down so we don’t wast precious fuel during the daytimes. At a balmy 65 degrees today, so far, so good.
The Studio has finally begun to take on a life of its own in some ways. I’ve been agreeing to participate in every manner of community event that comes my way in an effort to meet people – and finally get out in the world. Elihu is 13 now, and I can leave him alone with some confidence that if hungry, he can find something, and if bored, he has instruments to practice, books to read and homework to finish. It hasn’t been ideal, but I’ve left him home alone for great swaths of time lately – and this past week, seven days in a row! No matter how capable a kid I’ve raised, I don’t feel great about that. But I assure him this time spent away is all an investment in the Studio. He’s smart, he gets that, and he’s a good person too; he never makes me feel bad about it for a second. I know he misses me because bedtimes in these recent days have reverted a bit in their feel… He beseeches me to stay longer, to just sit with him. He holds my hands (we’re not a touchy family mostly at Elihu’s insistence – that’s one thing I still miss about being married; the quick, familiar pats, hugs and flyby smooches) and he touches my face. With great mirth and joking he pulls at the extra chin fat I now carry around, which although slightly demoralizing, becomes quite hilarious. We laugh together again, we sit in each other’s company. We enjoy our rare, quiet moment together. Because tomorrow will be here soon, and the tornado of life will swallow us up again.
We fairly live for Saturdays at this point. Tomorrow, I was really looking forward to going through my kitchen and tidying it up a bit. That, however, will not be happening. My main computer has been so violently assaulted from the outside world that it no longer even opens to the malevolent Bing page (as it had for months – apparently I was already being attacked at that point) and so, without being able to establish connection whatsoever with the outside world – not to download assistive programs, not to ask a friend’s help, nothing – it looks like I’ll have to pull apart my office and bring the tower in to some computer repair joint, and in so doing, use up my precious one day off. Sorry kid, it’s a book and the back seat of the car for you, I fear. That or a good solid afternoon at the tuba. Or both. God bless my ancient laptop and that beautiful horn.
Good timing though. I just made some updates to the Studio’s site before my computer got all wonky. They’re rudimentary – hell, the whole thing is rudimentary and not exactly how I’d prefer to represent the place, but still. It’s a start. It’s what I’ve been able to pull together. I’m learning though. I still can’t figure out how to put a border around a box of text without having to choose a new color for the inside of the box (why doesn’t it default to the background color??) but these, and other small nuisances are just that, and before a year’s time I hope to have them figured out. It just takes time. But therein lies the rub. Everything takes time. !!
A woman I’d known from Chicago came to visit last weekend. As life would have it, her parents just happen to be the landlords for my new bestie in town. A small world coincidence that still amazes all of us. She swept into town for a couple of days, we enjoyed a night out and an afternoon over salad, she visited my home and the Studio (at which her parents once attended concerts of my father’s back in his day) and she gave me some good ideas on how to economize my time. Good input from the outside world. I’m trying to maximize the fruits of my labor, honest I am. It’s just that when you’re one woman, you can only do so much. Hence my recent informal (but ball-busting) campaign to ‘get out’ and meet people. The way I figure it, I’m planting seeds at this time in my life. All of it: raising the kid, starting the Studio, meeting new friends, volunteering to help others, even saying yes to lunch dates (a new one in my world!). All of this busy-ness is the sowing of a new garden. When I realize that I too might be struck with a blood cancer, a terminal illness or an unforeseen accident, I am doubly resolved to sow this garden (and also to write my silly passwords down!). I feel a new urgency to save my hundreds of blog posts, archive my father’s papers and memorabilia, learn where my grandmother is buried and get my kid off to college…
There is nothing I enjoy more than just sitting on the front stoop with a cup of coffee, watching my chickens. There really isn’t time for that these days, but I know that if I can get this garden started, that time will come again. So it’s back to busy. If I can get back to sleep first, that is. !
Life is chugging away for us here, full of projects and deadlines and the usual related stress, but our life has also been filled with the many seasonal and traditional delights which we look forward to all year; those which help to lighten our load at a time when the world begins to press in on us. Finally it is Lily of the Valley time. Finally, the beautiful apple tree outside our door is at its fragrant and colorful peak. And finally, Elihu and I may walk the side of the road and harvest fiddleheads for our supper. With our birthdays both just past, this is the magical week of the year in which life seems to take a breath in, and everything hangs, suspended, in a rare, timeless window as we enjoy the forgotten corners of our property, noticing the tiny miracles around us with new eyes.
So many wonderful things have happened since the last post, and also, many challenges have popped up in their midst. I suppose we’re lucky to have had our precious, private moments alone here at the Hillhouse, and I’m very aware that any problems with which we are beset are most certainly first-world concerns, so at the end of the day, my complaints are not dire. And yet, being for the moment without water as we are, it is tempting to want to pout and wonder why us? Why now? Mech. A couple five gallon buckets will flush just fine, and for now we’ll just have to buy a bottle or two of Saratoga water at our local Stewart’s Shop so we can brush our teeth and make tea. Things are not so bad. I should like to say at this time that I have never taken our toilsome pump for granted. It’s done what it could, and now we have come to the point we just hoped would never arrive. But so we continue, just one more inconvenience added to the list of life that never ends…*
Where to start? Personally, I’m still feeling as if it’s just me toting the barge where the Studio is concerned, but that’s not entirely true. Artist and friend miChelle has stepped up, offering her art for our summer open house in June. Along with her modern sculpture and paintings we’ll be featuring a local jazz pianist – as well as the middle school jazz ensemble which he coaches, and in which Elihu plays string bass. It’s the promotion that’s hanging me up – that’s never been my strong suit, but there’s no avoiding it. Thankfully another board member has also made her design help available to me this week, and that lifts a huge weight off of me. This will be a week of posters and email campaigns. One hurdle at a time. One crisis, one jam session, one flock of chicks in the living room, one tuba lesson at a time, somehow, I’ve made it this far. I’m beginning to think that things might just be ok.
A few months ago, Elihu’s teacher put an envelope in my hand which contained an application to a residential summer science program at a prestigious local technical college. It had looked interesting, and I thought if Elihu didn’t get in, the process of getting transcripts together, soliciting letters of reference and writing essays might be a good learning experience on its own. At the very least, it would be good preparation for the college process which lay head. Why not give it a try? Although it had seemed pretty straightforward, the application did become a brief source of stress and teenage drama in the household, and when I personally delivered the completed package to the Dean’s office, it was a great relief to us both. But afterward, life quickly moved on, and the whole thing fell to the back of our minds. Until the other day, when I found a large envelope in the mailbox…
I was good, I waited til the kid came home. I poured myself a glass of wine – on the ready to take the edge off of our loss, or… Elihu opened the envelope, and the first word we both saw was “Congratulations!” I had no idea how this sort of thing felt. I had gone to a college which had no entrance requirements save a high school diploma; the world of academic success was completely foreign to me. Furthermore, my son goes to a school which is itself structured in a way unlike all other schools; no tests or grades are given to mark and measure progress. That my son is doing well in math or science still seems rather subjective to me. But here was at the very least a measure of his potential… I couldn’t help but wonder if it wasn’t simply his teacher’s glowing letter – or even Elihu’s own words, which ended with “I dearly hope you’ll choose me to participate…” No matter – success was his! Or maybe – dare I say ours? I do not wish to claim that which I did not earn – but surely, I will accept a nomination for Supermom, Spring of 2016. Tears came to my eyes immediately – but to my chagrin there was no moment of close bonding to follow… “I have to call Daddy!” he said with urgency, and without a second of hesitation – he didn’t even stay long enough for his eyes to even meet mine – he dashed off to his room. So instead, I enjoyed a glass of wine by myself at the kitchen table, basking in this new and wonderful feeling of accomplishment and success.
Sundays are a day of lugging and loading. Mornings start with a tuba lesson (on the second floor!) and end with a jazz ensemble rehearsal which requires a string bass. It goes without saying that both must first be unloaded and returned to their proper resting place before the other can be loaded up. That and the lugging of 5 gallon buckets of water, plus the lugging of a dead porcupine (whose roadside death we mourned, but whose body will hopefully entice the local turkey vultures to pay us a visit) have me feeling that I am earning my keep and more (not to mention the upkeep of an increasingly stinky flock of young chicks residing in our living room). None of it is lost on my dear child, who does what he’s able and works to make sure all that lugging is for good reason. I have this kid’s back, yes – but in all honesty, he has mine too. We hosted our first jam session at The Studio last week, and thanks to his great ear and true love of playing music, we were able to pull it off. I enjoyed my secret dream of playing drums (oh so rudimentary but rock solid are my beats) and got to see how it all might work. And it did. But without Elihu, it wouldn’t have. He knows how important he is. I thank him. (I also remind him that if he likes to eat – then he’s gotta play. !)
Last night we took ourselves out to dinner with the last of my tax return. It certainly wasn’t a justifiable expense – but each year we have a tradition of Elihu having frogs’ legs for his birthday dinner. Although mom had taken us out the weekend before for steak – a great treat to be sure – Elihu was still jonsein for his all-time favorite. I had told him that we probably wouldn’t go this year, and he’d accepted it ok, so when I suggested we go to the Wishing Well he yelped with delight. This kid had earned it. And truly, we both had such a great time. As usual, tables around us arrived, ate and left several times over by the time we’d finished our dinner. Elihu and I like to linger. We enjoy talking, we enjoy savoring and taking our time. We don’t like plates cleared until the very last moment. I don’t know how I got so lucky. Until this kid no longer cares for my company – or heads off to college – who needs a date? I know of no one whose company I enjoy more…
After supper we joined our friend Rob at the piano. He ran to his car to get a pair of brushes – which he told Elihu would sound really good on the resident bongos – and I played a couple of tunes while he was gone. When Elihu got the brushes in hand he and I did a couple of blues tunes. He sounded great – the brushes allowed him to swing in a new way, and I gave him a couple of breaks in which to stretch out. That was a memorable night for me; I can’t forget the way he looked at me – he was smiling ear-to-ear in the most delighted way I’d ever seen. It’s an experience that musicians sometimes have when they’re playing together and when things just sound and feel so good… And to share this kind of moment with my own kid? Man, that was a gift. I’m pretty sure he felt the same way too. We had even laughed out loud as we played. Later, when we finally said our goodbyes to our friends at the restaurant and headed out into the dark, spring night, we were both in such a happy mood. We walked to the car in the cool, softly scented air, coasting in the afterglow of a wonderful night out. Friends, music – and frogs’ legs too? Wow. Perfection had been achieved.
On the way home from the Wishing Well it began to rain, and I obliged Elihu’s plea to search out some frogs who would certainly be hopping across the roads by now. We popped in his very favorite polka CD and made a detour down winding Braim road. Our search turned up only one frog, who he deposited into our tiny garden pond when we got home. Our moods remained cheery and spirited by the fresh rainfall and the wonderful night out… Elihu retired to his room to read, and something prompted me to pick up my accordion – after years of having let it languish in the corner – and I soon found myself standing on the kitchen steps, under the awning, playing a polka out into the velvet-black night (by some small miracle our neighbors were all gone, and the lights were out in all directions – a very rare thing these days – an absolute gift from the Gods, I was convinced!). Somehow, I found those left hand buttons as I hadn’t since before my son was born. My accordion was the only other sound besides the rain; the melodies punched through the darkness and echoed out through the hilly woods. And oh, what a sound. What a feeling. What a night.
That was only a week ago at this writing, and yet it seems many months have gone by since then. So very much has filled our weeks – another week of students, school, tuba and bass, chickens, friends, errands, pets, excursions and all the mortar of life which fills in every available space in between. My friend Beth has more than solved my design quandary – she’s lifted The Studio to a whole new level with her graphic gifts… Her infusion of time, energy and enthusiasm has reinvigorated my own, and right now, I’m beginning to feel like I’m not all alone in this (save good old mom, who at the end of the day is always filling in the monetary gaps. I cannot wait til I can relieve her of this burden for good. Guilt is all I feel these days on that front. !)
Things will be changing here soon. I realize that the magical country life we’ve enjoyed til now will change a bit. Nothing’s changing overnight, and we will always be who we are, we will always live where we do – but our routines change, the landscape will change, the scope of our world will enlarge – most of this is good and welcomed. But I’m a sentimental gal, and I’ll always remember our simple, early days here with fondness. Maybe we’ll be able to preserve some of that as we move into our future. Yeah, I think we will. But inevitably, some things won’t be the same. That’s the nature of life. Things change. Things evolve. Kids grow up. And thirty-somethings become fifty-somethings. ! But thankfully with all the change come those surprises that make us forget the tiny heartbreaks. It’s exciting to think of what’s yet to come. And it’s that sense of anticipation that takes the edge off of the loss of what is no longer.
As I write this I think of Crow Field… I haven’t even mentioned the field yet… The huge field that lies just outside our window – the one in which we search out Woodcocks, fly planes and kites, and in general love and enjoy every day of our life here – it will become someone’s suburban backyard by summer’s end. A large house is going up in the field which we have come to think of as our very own. Of course the field is not ours, and we’ve known for years now that every year we have had the field there for us to enjoy was a very precious thing. Elihu broke out sobbing – and even began to shout and swear – when he learned that it had been sold. When I told him I’d found the ribbon marking off the house’s footprint, he told me he felt sick.
We’re acclimating slowly to this new idea of a big house in the big field. Slowly. It still seems as if it will never happen, but that’s how we felt about the ‘new’ house at the end of our driveway; and it did finally arrive. And as kind as the neighbors are, their windows are without curtains and their lights and sports bar-sized tv can easily be seen in our house. I so wish they’d consider window treatments. Hell, I wish they’d think of us – and realize that their light interferes with our space… But they don’t, and that has me worried the new neighbors won’t either… I suppose we’re damned lucky to have the space we do, so I try to keep it all in perspective and just keep going. After all, we live on a generous lot, we have room to run, room for a flock of chickens and a pretty nice view out the window. And we have a hell of a lot to look forward to with The Studio too; we are embarking on a new era, and things will only get more exciting in the coming years. Of this, finally, I have no doubt. Elihu and I will try our best to accept the loss of our field, as we welcome in the new friends we’re about to meet on our path. “Things”, as Martha Carver would say, “always work out”. Ok, Martha. Gonna to have to trust you on this one.
May has but one week left – and Lordy what a lot we’re planning on packing into it. This post itself is also rather jam-packed and I apologize if it’s too much. Skip stuff as you need (maybe I shoulda said that at the beginning!). Not having had the time to make weekly posts, this is something of a catch-up effort. Next time shouldn’t be such a novel. The photos that follow are also voluminous. Skip it all if you like. Those, like me, who enjoy voyeuristic windows into other people’s lives will enjoy; those who meant only to pass a few idle moments on their phones will either be long gone by now, mildly annoyed or checking out at this point. ! A tidier post to follow next time, I promise…
*(At the end of this writing we learned it was merely a broken switch – and not the whole water pump – which needed replacing. The greatest relief I’ve known in a long time, all thanks to our angel/neighbor – Zac? Nope. This time it was his father! We had help from absolute royalty, I tell ya. I do not know where we’d be without the timely help that family has given us through the years. !!!)
We started the month by launching Elihu into his teen years…
Elihu’s Hess biplane takes off from the cake’s runway, aglow with candles for runway lights…
The entertainment at Elihu’s birthday parties has always been the hatching of chicks.
This year, one hatched in my hand.
Here they are at different rates of drying off… Fuzzier ones are about 3 hours old, wet ones a mere 3 minutes old, and sometimes still trailing their shells and egg sacs behind.
Chicks are cute, but the trampoline is always the #1 hit here at the Hillhouse. (Eternal thanks to Karen H!!)
A quick smooching of Athena before heading to school the next morning.
On May 2nd, this is what Spring looks like here.
Driving to school in the morning, we savor that vast, beautiful field while we still can. We’ve passed so many hours in that field together, with much hilarity involved. Elihu invented his Monty Python-inspired athletic events ‘Tussock Jumping’ and ‘Bramble Dodging’ in our crazy cavorts across the uneven terrain en route to visit neighbors on the other side of the field.
When I return home from driving Elihu to school, I am always welcomed by my beloved flock.
Each night, Elihu takes time to bond with the chicks, who will stay in our living room for a few weeks.
Weekends mean tuba lessons.
How lucky is this kid? He loves his teacher, and his teacher has chickens. ?!!? (Plus Mike lives only 10 minutes from us. That is more than amazing. !)
First, Mike plays along with Elihu on his warm ups.
And now, Elihu’s first-ever tuba duets with one of Mike’s six children. Afterward he remarked on how well she played. I added “yeah, and she’s really pretty, too.” Replied my low-vision (but not blind!) son, “Yeah, I noticed that.” !! She’s the same age too. Crazy. Two tuba-playing, chicken-owning kids just a couple of miles down the road from each other. Wow.
Later on that same day…
A bunch of middle school kids who are playing jazz. Ok, now this happens only 5 minutes from our house. Again, how lucky are we? The word “very” comes to mind over and over. And thank you John Nazarenko, for making this happen. Elihu is enjoying this beyond any musical experience he’s had thus far. (I know 13 year-olds don’t like to be called ‘cute’, but hearing these kids doing tunes like “Song for my Father” and “All Blues” is just that. Sorry. Next year they might be hip. But not yet. Today, they remain cute.)
These two kids really seem to play well together – and Elihu tells me W has a peculiar sense of humor too. This may be the start of a great friendship…
Post-rehearsal, Elihu’s in front of Zankel Hall, checking his phone for all those jobs that will surely be coming in by now….
Dad’s office, with the Steinway in the background. During his lifetime, this room was mainly taken up with harpsichords. Now that the piano is moving to the Studio, only my old suitcase Rhodes remains.
May 7th. Birthday of Brahms, Tchaikovsky and…. Elizabeth Conant! And what a birthday gift is this!
The Studio before…
…and The Studio after.
A Steinway at The Studio! Woo-hoo! This changes everything.
Ah, but the birthday girl herself has some schlepping to do… First jam session tonight… gotta get the room set up and ready… Aren’t I getting a bit too old for this?!?
Hillbilly load-in begins.
Sketchiest move I’ve ever made. Man, I guess I am getting tired. Or old. Or both.
Thanks to the assistance of kind and always-smiling Alex at the guitar store, the room is now set up! Now that was a most appreciated birthday present. Thanks for the help!!
In early May, the trees are still rather bare.
It arrived in a big envelope. I admit, that alone had my heart racing just a bit…
Wow! What a surprise was this!! Personally, I can’t remember ever receiving an acceptance letter. And so I live vicariously through my child. ! RPI will be a chapter unto itself, no doubt…
The chicks are still cute and fuzzy, and things are feeling very happy around the house.
On Mother’s Day, Elihu plays a little music for grandma…
…and then proceeds to ‘intentionally not smile’ in a posed picture – something which bugs mom to no end. (He says he merely wants to ‘be taken seriously’ when having his picture ‘formally’ taken.) Btw – can you believe my mom is 81? I don’t think she looks it. Do you?
Mother’s Day ended with an E and E selfie with chick. This, we hope, will be the rooster to take up Baldy’s post one day.
In early May, the chicks still live in a box in the living room. See how one is now perching on the edge? This tells us they’ll be moving to the garage soon. When they can fly – it’s all over. (That’s Elihu’s bass recorder on the left. People always ask us what it is.)
Friend and chord/melody style guitarist, Dan comes over for a bit of rehearsing. Hope we’ll be playing together this summer – if I can ever find the time to learn some new tunes. ! He’s been patient with my crazy schedule. More than grateful to finally have a guitar player to work with.
This is what happens when siblings take lessons together. One must always provoke the other. Little Coco is ready to strike with a subtle, but annoying tap on the shoulder of her big sister. !!
Oscarina, the large and lighter-colored fish at the bottom is a Koi, and is growing rapidly. Thankfully, she will now be residing in the prestigious local arts colony, Yaddo. The move went off without a hitch and we can visit her anytime we like. Yay!
We’re off to the Wishing Well for a fancy schmancy dinner. If we had our druthers, we’d eat like this once a week!
The heavenly scent of Frogs’ Legs. Unique to this establishment.
A dark selfie. So few pics of we two.
Rob plays piano here – a lot! I got to take up his post for a few minutes and enjoyed playing with my son on drums. A wonderful night all the way ’round.
Finally the weather’s right for painting The Studio!
Keith Sr. is doing some much-needed restoration too. It’s been decades since the exterior’s had any attention. Phew!
Keithie Jr. paints on the crew along with dad. Elihu and Keithie went to Kindergarten through 3rd grade together. No matter how different their life paths, that kind of bond made so early in life will always last.
Keith is maturing just a wee bit faster than my own child. Ya think? All in due time…
Another week’s passing and the green is really starting to show now…
Which means the apple tree is reaching its finest hour!
My cherished Lily of the Valley is finally here too!
As is the flowering quince (which appears more of a salmon or coral shade than in this pic).
In future Springs, this view will include a large house in the background. We are both still in a deep state of disbelief as our hearts ache with the loss.
Thankfully, other delights distract us. Elihu and I stood among the branches of the apple tree and enjoyed the constant hum of bees, flying hither and yon, as they visited every possible blossom. It was crazy the sound they made. Quite loud, and a resonant, almost single pitch.
Crazy cowbird, goofy guinea fowl.
Outside our kitchen window the red bellied woodpecker visits the platform feeder when the suet is gone.
Elihu takes a peek, but the woodpecker gets the feeling he’s being watched.
Outside, our two resident males hang out in the morning sunshine. Rooster, Bald Mountain is caught here mid-crow. Austin, to his left, is our crazy-ass Guinea Fowl. Never let it be said that birds do not have distinct personalities. !!
And chickens do have favorite foods too – pink apple blossoms are one of em.
Comic relief. And some serious attitude, too. !
We hope this will be the new resident roo one day…
…Cuz this old boy’s not gonna last forever. Poor Baldy, he limps when he walks, he sits whenever possible, and he only fertilized two of sixteen eggs this year. Yeah, he’s pretty much lost his mojo. But we love him still.
We saw this wonderful creature – the turkey vulture – just down the road. Having just passed a dead porcupine, we got an idea…
Out with the tuba, in with the poor dead creature.
Wow, sixteen pounds. Impressive!
We were sad to see she had been nursing a litter. We laid her to rest in our yard so that we might entice the turkey vulture and then watch it do its thing from our kitchen window.
Elihu picks up Christie, the stand-in for Thumbs Up, as she is the only truly friendly hen remaining.
A mutt of a hen (Araucana, Barred Rock and more), she lays olive green eggs.
Elihu carries Christie back to the house…
… and Pumpkin follows him back. (“Our” field is behind the row of trees.)
This is what the end of a weekend looks like. Sometimes I want desperately to run far, far away….
…until we settle back into our groove at home. Then everything is once again right with the world.
Lilacs uplift us too.
And look! It’s my long-lost accordion. I’ve left it out now to show my students (and to try to relearn all I’ve forgotten!) If an accordion doesn’t make things better, I don’t know what will!
It’s heavy, but it’s sparkly and loud, so who cares?
Usually a very trim, streamlined bird, this male brown-headed cowbird is showing signs of puffing…
…he’s mid-puff now… hoping to wow a mate he will rise to his full height and size while emitting an ultra-sonic high chirping which sounds like a video game….
Inspired by the constant presence of birds in his life, Elihu, thankfully, occasionally finds time to draw birds. His love of drawing birds preceded all of his other, equally obsessive loves.
After supper we headed out to Caffe Lena for open mic. I knew Lena as a child, and so it makes me happy that Elihu continues to know this place as I did. (Bill Cole’s Woodwinds shop is just behind him – that’s where Bill kindly tweaked Elihu’s ‘beater B flat’ tuba and brought it up to speed. Great guy – kind, fair, and expert at what he does.)
“Good Folk Since 1960” is the slogan here. I can recognize a half-dozen artists at a glance whose shows I attended when I was Elihu’s age or younger.
Elihu has the ‘big kids’ laughing as he folds the performer’s entry cards into tiny origami cranes.
Before he plays, I want to make a pilgrimage to the men’s bathroom wall, upon which Elihu wrote at age 6 on the occasion of his first open mic. (It’s in red, and to the right and below the tree drawing.)
And here it is. Can ya read it? So sweet!
These guys were fun. They gave the night the perfect bit of energy and humor.
But for me, this was the highlight of the evening…
I cut off the first line, as I was switching from camera to video… His first line was “I bought some instant water, I just don’t know what to add to it”. Steven Wright and Mitch Hedberg are obvious favorites of this kid.
An old house in Saratoga that for some strange reason always stuck in my mind as a child. I liked the crazy roof over the stairs on the front porch. When I was little, it appeared cozy to me. Now, it strikes me as sketchy. Just as well – it’s history now!
Ah, the impermanence of it all. There goes the cozy roof.
This little guy is next, I was told by the developer. Thankfully, the new structures will be aesthetically similar, or at least in keeping with the vibe of the neighborhood.
Modern Saratoga looms in the background.
This is the sort of thing that will replace the old houses. Not too bad. Could be much worse.
I’m something of a demo groupie. I can’t take horror movies, but rather I am drawn to the violent and animated quality of a back hoe claw. It seems almost sentient…
On the way home I pass a picturesque cottage just down the hill from me, and I see it with new eyes. How charming it is at this time of year when all the white apple blossoms are in bloom.
Look how much things have grown in just a week’s time! This is the “lightning tree” which Elihu and I visit each Easter, and around which he has made a small stone structure with rocks from the stone wall at the field’s edge.
Saturday in the park. Congress Park, that is. In the foreground at the right is the baby willow tree that I had planted in memory of Jamaican-born banjo player Cecil Myrie, who died in October of 2014. He invited Elihu to busk with him when Elihu was just 6, and Cecil gave him his first two dollar tip. Our lives changed that day. (Can you imagine how truly grand this tree will look at the water’s edge in a few decades? I’m thrilled that I was able to contribute to the landscape of this handsome and historic park.)
Not exactly a brass plaque, but it works.
The willow tree with war memorial in the background. Wait – who’s that guy in the yellow shirt?
Shoulda known. It’s my kid – and he’s carrying a duck. !
Elihu loves to share ‘his’ birds.
We are such scofflaws!
Sometimes it really is hard to believe this kid is legally blind.
Since Elihu can no longer rely upon the ‘cute’ factor when busking, he’s trying out some new material. It seems to be working.
This is how we recycle our paper (and wood scraps) in Greenfield. Afterward, the ashes get tossed into the woods, where, as we say in this family, they “Go back to God”.
It’s been said that the fastest way to take off ten pounds and a couple of years is a selfie taken from above. !
Under the moonlight, we discover hundreds of tiny, white violets that we’d never seen before, growing all across our lawn. How is this possible??
A flash reveals them.
We lay on our backs in the moonlight and pick the tiny flowers until the hour gets so very late… Sunday night, back to school hours, we can’t stay out forever…
After Elihu went to bed, I took a long, mournful look at the silhouette of the field which will most certainly be transformed by this time next year.
At the end of the evening, I had the field and the full moon all to myself. I savored the moment, as I try to do with as many moments in time as I can be present for, because you almost never fully realize what you’ve got – until it’s no longer there anymore. For now, all is well. And hopefully, no matter what happens down the line, we’ll find a way to embrace the changes as they happen, and find a way to savor all those future moments too.