The Hillhouse

The Journey of a Mother and Son

Minor/Major April 25, 2021

This morning I took my son to have his first covid vaccine. As he is still 17 and a minor, I was allowed to accompany him. But for his second vaccine in three weeks, I will be made to wait outside.

There really is no way to prepare a mother’s heart for this transition. Of course I’ve known it was coming and have tried as best I can to make peace with the new reality. Come this Wednesday, Elihu will no longer be a minor. No longer will I be the keeper of his medical records, no longer will I be responsible for his money, no longer will I be the recipient of his grades. How very strange indeed. I have been this person’s sole keeper in every way for the entirety of his life – and in just one moment the whole thing comes to a close. Thankfully he is an incredibly responsible person, and he is well-equipped to take the reigns. But me, I’m just not ready to hand them over.

When Elihu was two and a half years old he had a bad case of the flu, and I took him to the emergency room. There was a one-year-old in the waiting room, and Elihu doted on the tiny boy. The child had had an earache and was frantically crying in distress, to which Elihu responded with such tenderness. He cooed to the toddler, helped distract and soothe him. They spent a good fifteen minutes together, and by the time we were called in, Elihu had coaxed the child into a quiet and peaceful state. It was shortly after we got into the car and began to drive home that Elihu spoke his very first sentence. “When I grow up, I want to have a baby, Mama”. I looked in the rear view mirror, stunned at what I’d just heard. I saw him just sitting there, his pacifier returned to his mouth and looking out the window. My tiny boy, such a huge concept. My son had always been different, even at that age I’d known it. This sentence was just the first of many confirmations. He has always been wise beyond his years.

I first knew there was something distinctly different about my son when he was four months old. Aside from being colicky and hard-pressed to sleep without me next to him, I just knew something was not right. I couldn’t put my finger on it, but clues were starting to add up. When I walked him outside in a stroller, he’d close his eyes and slump to the side, but when we’d enter a dark indoor space he’d sit up and open his eyes. He couldn’t open his eyes in the great room of our home, the south wall of which was entirely made of windows, but he came to life in the dark basement playroom. I knew he had an inability to see in bright light, but until he could speak to us, we’d be left to guess about how he experienced his world. One evening I remember nursing and then rocking him, trying unsuccessfully to get him to sleep. And so I held him tightly to me and twisted my torso from side to side, desperate to find the rhythm that would finally take. I remember pulling him away from my chest and looking into his eyes, to find that his pupils were rapidly bouncing up and down. I flushed with adrenaline; had I just done this to him? Had I shaken my baby? A careful inventory of my actions told me that I had not, and yet something had changed. I remember wishing so dearly that I could just know if he was afraid, if he was in discomfort. How, oh how could I make it better?

It was my friendship with the keyboard player in Steppenwolf that became the key to understanding what was ‘wrong’ with Elihu. Years earlier I’d met John Kay, the lead singer and fellow who penned the iconic song “Born to Be Wild”, and I’d known him to have some condition with his eyes that made him colorblind, light-sensitive and also unable to drive (ironic, isn’t it? His song is the anthem for bikers everywhere, and yet John’s never driven a day in his life). As I sat at my desk pondering my son’s situation, I flashed back on this memory and immediately fired off an email to Mike. He responded, confirming my suspicion. And there it was. Without an internet search, without a doctor’s diagnosis. I’d learned that my son had Achromatopsia. Now, finally, I knew.

I’d had some neighbor girls take Elihu to the park, and instantly I felt a deep panic, an intense need to find and hold my baby. Now that I knew, I had to make it better. I ran through the streets until I spied the small clump of kids – Elihu was riding on the shoulders of one of the taller girls, his eyes squinted shut. I grabbed him from her and held him to my chest, shielding his eyes from the daylight. I shall always remember how I felt in that moment; I become a fiercely protective mother, and in that instant I became wholly dedicated to my son’s comfort and ease. In the months that followed I found a low vision doctor in Chicago – who actually specialized in Achromats – and Elihu would soon get his first dark glasses. He would take his first steps outdoors, and our world would become a little less stressful. And even though his father loved him dearly, he did not share my concerns for our son. He wasn’t moved by Elihu’s first steps in daylight, he thought I made too much of Elihu’s light sensitivity, and he would often chastise me for coddling our boy. But I didn’t care. Like I said, my mother’s heart was fierce. Nothing would prevent me from being Elihu’s champion.

There was so much I needed to impart to my son. Ever since he could walk it was my deepest desire to equip him to live as well as possible in this difficult world. My heart longed to give him ease, to give him insight and understanding. There was so much to teach him – where to begin? Folks who know me understand that I’m pretty frank and unedited in my speech. I say what I mean, and I believe for the most part that it’s better to express than to withhold. And that’s the tack I took with my son. If my four-year-old wanted to know how an engine worked, I was going to explain it to him. Seriously. He was going to get the real story, not some dumbed-down explanation meant just for kids. I always spoke to my tiny son as if he was an adult. That’s not to say I didn’t coo to him as a baby, or speak in tender, maternal tones to him – in fact I always spoke to him as gently and lovingly – and respectfully – as possible. I never scolded him as if he were an idiot. I always offered an explanation of actions and consequences, as if he understood. Because if he didn’t yet understand, he would at some point.

How could I teach him about the seasons, the holidays, the traditions of our world? How could I convey the context, the meanings of so many seemingly random cues? And if he saw no color at all, and if indeed the world was hazy and hard to see, how could I teach him to discern things? All of this nagged at me during my son’s childhood. And so I chose to read to him. A lot. (I wish now that I’d kept a list of the dozens upon dozens of books we read. I implore all new parents who might be reading this to keep a log of the tomes you read to your child. In revisiting them you will also revisit shared childhood memories.) Since my son’s vision was not great, and since reading for a good length of time fatigued him, I felt it was best that I take on the job. Every night of his life until he was around ten or eleven I lay next to him and read. Oh the places we went together. The adventures we had. What a huge and full life we had just from our nighttime books alone. This, I think, is in large part why my son turned out to be such a thinker. Having limited vision has also contributed; he has been left to live much of his life inside of his thoughts. While the other kids were watching movies or playing video games, Elihu was identifying birdsongs, inventing melodies of his own or creating lines of poetry.

My mother’s heart had always been heavy with the knowledge that my son would not always be able to join his classmates in so many experiences that most kids consider mundane. Swimming doesn’t work well on account of the bright light that usually accompanies the experience. Moving fast – as in running – is dicey in that Elihu can’t really see things until they’re upon him. When he was smaller the two of us had a system we used while out walking whereby he would minimize the many missteps, falls and scrapes that came of his limited vision. Elihu couldn’t always discern differences in grade, so as we walked together I’d quietly offer “step up” or “flat surface” as we went along. So imagine my surprise when one day at lunchtime my legally blind child whizzed by me on a bike in front of his school! His fifth grade teacher had taught him in just a few periods. I’d always wondered how – or even if – we would tackle this skill. I cried! Oh such gratitude I had for that dear woman! This step was huge. And it opened new doors for my son that I had previously thought would never be options. And can you imagine that my twelfth-grade son has been getting straight As in his phys ed classes? In fact he is even rather aggressive in some sports – but if you’d told me this a few years ago I would not have believed it possible.

Elihu’s father had decided to leave the marriage our son was five. I’d thought that Elihu was too young to grasp the situation, and so when we moved across the country to live in a house next door to his grandparents, I’d thought it wouldn’t be a big deal. He would have everything he needed, lots of nature around, and family too. I always welcomed his father into our home, and have always encouraged their relationship, so he saw his father quite a bit in the early years here at the Hillhouse. (My friends never understood this arrangement; they thought it was wrong to have my ex stay here with us. I thought it was the humane and right thing by way of both dad and son. My comfort could take a back seat for a few days here and there.) I did absolutely everything I could to ensure my son had the best possible childhood. I think I did the best I could with my situation.

However, it became apparent in the first few years post-move, that Elihu had been deeply saddened by the change. I’d thought that if I’d kept up appearances and continued to be of relatively good cheer that it would mitigate any possible negative outcomes. I hadn’t wanted my son to suffer the emotional challenges that other children of divorced parents do. Yet for a while my dear son really was troubled. If I’d expected him to be sensitive to the nuances of life, how was it that I thought he wouldn’t notice this huge life change? A year or so after we moved here I chose to speak to him candidly about the divorce, how it had troubled me too, but how both people needed to be in agreement for marriage to work, and how his father and I were not in agreement. I believe that the truth helped him to understand and make some peace with the situation. It was a really tough experience for both of us, but we got through it by addressing it honestly. Hard a time as it was, it helped us each to grow and become more emotionally resilient.

I needn’t worry about my son now. In fact, I’m tremendously eager for the life that awaits him. He is completely ready to take on absolutely anything. (Recently I apologized – again – for having brought him into this crappy world. I asked him if he might be a bit discouraged about the challenges ahead. “On the contrary,” he answered. “I’m excited. I’m gonna make life my bitch”. !!) Me, I’ve never been particularly good at anything – I don’t enjoy working hard (unless it involves music or writing, then I’m all in), I never did well in school, never had a real day job, never felt like I did things the right or ‘normal’ way. Whatever that may be. However there is one thing I know that I have done very well: I have raised a happy and successful human being. I have given my son love, respect, education, humor and a shit-ton of really good, home-cooked meals. I have spoken to him as a peer. I have held nothing back. There are plenty of books on child-rearing which will tell you I did a lot of things wrong. Most parents would probably frown on my parenting choices. So glad I didn’t listen to all that static.

Such a strange thing that along with my greatest success also comes my greatest challenge: letting it all go. How do I do that? Elihu has been my partner for seventeen long years. Seeing him off into the world is going to be the single hardest thing I’ve ever done in my entire life. But it’s essential for my growth, for his too. It’s a mandatory part of the process. And once I’m past the fear, I know there’s going to be a lot of joy.

Because this next chapter of our lives is going to be huge. Major, in fact.

______________________________________________________________________

An update on the college journey:

With a GPA of 4.3, an extensive lists of personal achievements, fluency in four languages plus some pretty exceptional writing skills, Elihu and I had felt he had a fairly good chance of being accepted at the nation’s top schools, but it proved to be a surprise when he was rejected by all of the places where he applied (save Harvard, more on that shortly).

We both understand that this year is a unique one; with gap year students plus those forced to wait a year due to the pandemic, there are a whole lot more students vying for spots. At the end of the day Elihu has been accepted by RPI (Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York) with a generous scholarship, but in that he attended two summer programs there – and it’s a mere 35 minute drive from home – he’d rather go somewhere new, different and a bit further from home. Plus his interest in liberal arts has really ramped up over the past few years, so he’s been hesitant to commit to a technical school.

He has been put on the Harvard waitlist, and he’s done everything in his power to distinguish himself from the crowd. He’s personally written to every administrator who might have a part in the final decision. Truly, he’s been tenacious. But in an unexpected twist, Elihu has been strongly advised by several mentors not to choose Harvard, even if accepted. They make the point that he will more easily rise to the top in a less demanding school, and that he can attend an Ivy for graduate work if it still appeals. Interesting input, and it will remain under consideration.

How surprising to us that at this late date Elihu still does not know where his future lies. To his credit he’s completely calm about the whole thing. Not much he can do. He’s done his very best, and now it’s just time to let the universe do its thing… Feel free to visit my Facebook page for updates. (We have been told that Harvard will respond with their decision by mid May.)

 

Poised for Flight February 9, 2021

It’s a good thing that pregnancy lasts nine months. One needs that sort of time to mentally prepare for what’s coming. At least as best one can prepare for that sort of life-changing event. (I was in labor and pushing and still had no real concept that in a short while I’d have a real-live person to take care of.) And it’s a good thing that it takes a child some seventeen years to reach the point at which they can (somewhat) safely leave home under their own steam. Good for that too – cuz it takes that long to wrap one’s head around the idea of your tiny child actually becoming an adult.

This is the last year that Elihu will live with me, and so every experience from here on in becomes for me our ‘last time’. And lately I find I am constantly trying to understand how we got here so soon. There is a saying about childhood which is so true that it takes on a painful poignancy for me these days: the days are long, but the years are short. Indeed.

How is it that I can recall my son’s tender years as if they were still happening today? It feels as if tomorrow we might return to the things we did routinely for so many years. We will surely spend another weekend making towers from toy blocks, won’t we? We will most certainly drive down a country road on a rainy summer night and fill a bucket with frogs, won’t we? No, I don’t think we will. There is no time now for block towers and summertime frogs. There are airplanes to build, videos to produce, new languages to learn. There are college interviews and performances to prepare for. There are school projects and homework. Every day there are things that require hours of Elihu’s focus. There’s no time to spare at this point in his life.

Wistful as I am to recall all that was and all that will never be again, I take comfort in knowing that the childhood which I provided for my son (most of which is thankfully documented here in this blog) has helped to make him the successful and enthusiastic young man he is now. He has become an intriguing mix of Elon Musk and Henry David Thoreau. Not only does he thrill to aviation, physics and science-related thought, but he is deeply in tune with nature; he hears and knows all the birds of our region, he observes all the animals of the woods and those who visit our homestead and knows their behaviors well, and he also sketches them and writes about his time spent alone in the woods with great sensitivity and skill. He studies markets and investing and takes a great interest in learning how businesses operate. He is convinced that it’s a good idea to learn Chinese at this time in history, and so over the past year he has taught himself how to speak simple sentences as well as write many characters (he’s studying Japanese too; the similarities and contrasts fascinate him). The life that lays before him is a grand panorama of possibilities.

Every day he tells me that there’s not enough time to get it all done. Me, I’m prone to a constant mild state of depression, and somedays (many days, actually) it’s a challenge for me even to arise from bed. “Doesn’t it ever overwhelm you?” I ask, seeking out his weakness, for surely he must have one… “Never” he’ll always answer. (His father is an extremely driven fellow; here is a likely case for nature over nurture. True, I gave my child many gifts, but perhaps this heightened go-get-em attitude isn’t one of them). Lest I downplay my own positive energetic influence on the kid, I offer this anecdote: recently he suggested we take on a project, and I told him I wasn’t sure, as it seemed terribly idealistic, to which he responded “Tell me when we have ever failed at doing something which at first seemed too idealistic”. Come to think of it, he might be right. Although I’m losing a bit of steam these days, on the whole I’ve been a fairly driven mom. The two of us have shared a life unlike many others. And so I concur. We are pretty good at getting our hands on idealistic goals. So. There can be no regrets. This time of letting go and moving on is just as it should be.

This past fall Elihu and I shared a rite of passage which had been a long time coming here at the Hillhouse. Several years ago we’d begun to have our chickens (or as we simply say ‘birds’) butchered by a local Amish family, inspired by an observation my son had shared with me. One day, when Elihu was around eight, he suggested that we eat our birds. I admit, the thought had occurred to me, but it just seemed, at that point, too real. I would rather not have acquainted myself with the realities of butchering and eating one’s own chickens. At its essence, the act of raising chickens was still a gentle, romantic effort to make myself feel more like a ‘real’ country girl. Kind of an exercise in achieving rural street cred. Collecting and selling eggs was enjoyable, and everyone found it charming. Leave it to my contemplative son to burst my bubble and throw down the gauntlet. “If we raise chickens and we don’t eat them, then having them is an act of vanity”, the boy had said to me. Man. This kid went right to it, didn’t he? And so, from then on, in the first week of school each year, when the air had just begun to turn crisp and cool in earnest, we’d arise early one morning, box up all the young roos, load them into the car (more than one rooster is not necessary to keep the flock going, plus they don’t lay eggs – and they fight) and we’d drive them to the Amish butcher, returning home with a cooler full of farm-raised chicken.

We’d always known that this chicken-raising chapter would come to a close, and most likely that would be when Elihu left for college. I certainly enjoy the lovely energy they impart to our homestead, and I’ll probably have them around for a few years yet until they succumb to old age or the resident predators, but we won’t be stocking the incubator each spring as we have for the past decade. This past year we got a bit over-ambitious and raised up some forty birds – twice again as many as in past years – and so by summer’s end we were left with eighteen extra roos who needed ‘doing in’. In that our regular Amish farmer friend had packed up his wife and fourteen kids and headed for Alaska, we needed to find someone new to ‘process’ (the euphemism used in polite conversation for killing, eviscerating and cleaning) our birds. I was having no luck until I found a fellow in mid-state New York. A good five hours round trip. I didn’t relish the cost in time and money making the cross-state drive, but I still wasn’t emotionally ready to step up. Naw – it was a nice idea at heart, and it certainly would be a good skill to have under my belt – but I just couldn’t do that. I didn’t have it in me to drag a blade across a chicken’s neck. So I felt a good deal of relief to have found these folks. Realizing I’d hit up another Amish family, when I thanked them I added that it had been ‘such a blessing’ to have found them. But shortly thereafter I misplaced the scrap of paper on which I’d written their phone number. Having called from my landline, with no stored records of recently made calls, it seemed more than daunting to try and find these people again. I gradually came to understand that our plans might have to change yet again. Boy, did they change. And at the end of the whole adventure, I realized that the true blessing had been in my losing that piece of paper. We were forced to face our final farming frontier.

We had visited a local farmer in a last-ditch effort to hand off the dirty work to someone else, but it was he who convinced us that we should just do it ourselves; it wasn’t that hard, and we’d feel really proud of ourselves when we were through. In his deep Greenfield country accent he proceeded to tell us the little tricks we might not learn elsewhere. He repeated the steps over and over before lending us his metal cone. We would affix it to a tree, invert the birds, pull their heads down through the hole at the bottom, and slice their necks. Of course, this was just one part of a longer and still messier process, but it was certainly the most daunting from where we stood. A deeply cold weekend passed, and Elihu and I bailed. We went to return the unused cone to the farmer, and he looked disappointed in us. He turned to walk away and said “do as you please”. Elihu and I paused, and looked at each other. We both knew. It was clear that we needed to step up. Assured that the farmer wouldn’t yet be using his cone until he dispatched with his turkeys shortly before Thanksgiving, we re-borrowed it and headed back down the country road, this time both of us steeling ourselves for the task at hand for which we still weren’t convinced we were ready.

But somehow, we were. We watched many videos, we practiced holding our birds, inverting them, calming them… We practiced dragging a backwards butter knife across the correct spot, just under the ears, so as to have some muscle memory to guide us when our hearts were beating and our adrenaline pumping. And there was a lot of setup involved. We needed tables, buckets of cool water to clean blades, ice water to hold cleaned birds, hot water to scald, knives to butcher (carve out and clean), knife sharpeners to keep the process efficient and of course, the blades themselves with which to kill. I went to a restaurant supply house to get the sharpest knives to afford the swiftest and most humane dispatch. I also ordered metal gloves for us – there could be no error when it came to our safety! Having lost a chunk of my eyeball only a few months earlier (and also having been encouraged by a friend who’s an attorney with an appreciation for injury and the need for risk mitigation) we knew that this was serious and that we had to use the proper equipment. We did everything as right as possible. We cut no corners. But we did cut chickens’ necks.

I did the first two; although Elihu had truly exhibited a robust and manly attitude of doing this with confidence and ease and starting the process out himself, when it came down to it, he just couldn’t go first. But it kinda made better sense for me to go first, as I, being the resident chef, was the one with better knife skills when it came to cutting meat. That first kill takes a lot of mental fortitude, I can tell you. But the efficacy of the dispatch is made possible by the compassion which you hold for this creature; firstly, you are deeply grateful for the bird giving its life, and secondly, you do not wish to cause any more stress and pain than absolutely necessary. All this motivates your successful and swift actions. After our first kills, Elihu and I were both shaking with adrenaline. It is a violent act, of this there can be no doubt. But as with anything one does, the first time is the most foreign, it is the hardest. The killing does become easier. (Lest I appear to be patting ourselves on the back too much, I wish to add that only a few generations ago every grandma across the globe was routinely grabbing a hen from the yard and doing it in for the family meal without a second’s pause. Fully aware of this, it’s partly what kicked us in the butt to finally do this for ourselves).

After two long days of butchering and processing (it’s a lot more work than you’d think!) we finally stood together in the fast-waning light of the quickly cooling fall afternoon, and sighed together. My son is not a physically affectionate person, and we hug perhaps only a time or two a year, but in this moment he turned and wrapped his arms around me. “We did it” he said, neither triumphantly, nor sadly. It was mostly just a release. I knew. I felt the same way too. This had been hard, but we had learned so much. We had risen to a difficult challenge and met it. Finally, we had earned our stripes. Finally, we were farmers.

The two days we spent processing our birds was a rite of passage for both of us. But more importantly, it was a delineation of sorts which marked the end of my son’s childhood, and the beginning of our relationship as adults. We had worked as a team, we had communicated well, and we had each needed the other’s help in equal measure. It felt solidly good. And although it may have been an important day for us personally, and while I do think we were both aware of that as we went about our tasks, there was simply too much to do for either of us to slow down and indulge in moments of nostalgia or reflection. (That’s what this post is for….)

How will I exist after my son, my partner, my only true friend, is gone from our home? I’ve been so busy being a mom, my eyes always on the next project, the next event, the next appointment, the next adventure – that I never paused to think too terribly deeply about the life that lay beyond the seemingly endless tasks that made up my life as a single parent. Perhaps it’s because I’ve always known, deep down, that it would be a huge existential challenge for me. Also, I’m not one for mapping things out too precisely. Not to say I don’t make plans, it’s just that I don’t always envision the details. They always seem to sort themselves out. I never know how I’ll make it to my goals until the process has begun and I’m under sail, but at least I’ve always had an idea of where I’m headed. But now I find that my sails are full and I’m under power and moving, without quite knowing my destination.

My panic attacks have gotten much worse over the past few months, and I can definitely say that it is not covid-related. No. I know what’s going on here. I think of it all the time. My son is leaving soon, and I will be alone. There will be no one with whom I can laugh, talk, play music, or marvel over new ideas. It nags at me constantly, and quite frankly, if I were to sit with the feeling for more than a passing moment, it would be utterly terrifying. I keep running from one task to another… I spend hours at the gym, I learn new music, I shop, I clean, I do all the various mundane things I can to distract myself. But I do not sleep well. The end of our time together is coming so very soon, and every cell in my body seems to know it. And these days my son no longer stays in his bedroom (he has full reign of the basement, and he truly loves the privacy and space, plus his workshop is there too) and his absence across the hall, mere feet from me, is hard in of itself. I had hoped it might serve to prepare me, but it doesn’t seem to be working. I realize that all parents must watch their children leave (if all goes well, that is), and yet there is something about this situation which just feels different. Elihu and I have had a partnership for all these years. We have been more than just parent and child. It has always been we two against the world. Now it will be just me against the world. Daunting doesn’t come close.

Of course I have been muttering under my breath for the past decade that there is never enough time to do all the personal projects that I wish I could. And I have long complained aloud about the ceaseless, mundane chores that drain me of my energy and constantly wear me down (sometimes it would be so nice just to have a partner for this reason alone; “Sweetie, could you please get supper tonight? I have teaching materials to prepare”…) I fully admit it, this domestic shit has made me damned cranky over the years! (Regular readers may know this aspect of me well). But on the flip side of my laments are all the hours of caretaking for my son which were truly done from a place of love and with a profound desire to provide the very best in comfort, nutrition and support for my child.

When my former husband used to complain, post-divorce, that I needed to go out and get a ‘real’ job, I would always counter that I already had a ‘real’ job: it was raising our child! Why should I take a shitty, low-wage part-time job, only to hire babysitters in my absence, netting just a couple of dollars an hour and thereby delegating the care and raising of my child to a stranger? What was the advantage to that? I don’t see how this is hard to understand. My job has always been to be a mother. And I gotta say, I’ve thrown myself into this job as I have no other. Usually I’m a ‘jack of all master of none’ kinda gal, but in this case, while I may not have mastered it, I do think that I have truly kicked some parenting ass. It’s been a long haul, and I complained my way through much of it, but I did it well, and if were given a second pass at it, I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t do it any differently. So I have no regrets. We’re simply at the doorstep of the next era. My kid’s time has come, and so has mine. All is as it should be. (I really shouldn’t complain – no more sinks full of dishes! No more scrambling to get a good, hot dinner ready before running out to a gig, no more endless loads of laundry and piles of electronics and plane parts strewn about the house! No more taxi service! No more tuba-toting! Goodness, it’ll be a veritable vacation!!)

This is why I keep lists. There are so many things I want to do, but as excited as I am when inspiration hits, it’s just as easy to forget what the hell I just thought of when the fire dies down. I’m fond of saying: If I don’t write it down, it won’t get done. These lists will be my touchstones when the kid is gone. Without a directive or a goal, I will sink. So I’m gonna need those lists. Gotta keep my eyes on the prize. Gotta carve out my own life again. It’s been so long… I haven’t been single and alone in the world since I was 23. That’s a long time, friends. I deeply treasure my solitude, but this gonna be way different.

Before I was as mom, I spent a good portion of my time in solitude. I’ve never had friends with whom I hung out; I was in a lot of bands, had a lot of friends, but no truly close friends, and certainly very few whom I might’ve done social things with. I was too busy, and my life just didn’t have room for that. My bands provided a social life for me. And when I had free time I was fond of just getting up and going, doing whatever I pleased on my own schedule and on my own terms… and that works really well when you fly solo. Even when I was married, I spent most of my time being alone (my former husband, himself also a musician, was gone most of the time). So it seems I should be ready for this next chapter. Yet somehow, this feels different. No bands, no beau, no commitments. Sometimes it seems heavenly to me – I mean, haven’t I been jonesin all these years for a respite? for some time to myself? – but I know the reality will be another story. When I wake up in an empty house, with no structure to my day and nothing critical to do but to simply exist, it will get real. Once the kid flies the coop, it will take this mother hen some time to figure out what life looks like in an empty nest.

But it’s all good, as they say. I know that the past twelve years here at the Hillhouse have been a huge blessing. Every up, every down. Every emergency, every challenge, every heartbreak. Every moment spent quietly sitting in the coop amongst our birds, every evening spent cracking up at the dinner table, every deep conversation each morning on the drive to school. For as crappy a way as this whole adventure began, and as unfair a situation we were thrust into without a choice, and for all the hardship we’ve experienced along the way, I can still say it was so much more than worth it. We’re both as ready as we’ll ever be.

And my young aviator is finally ready to fly.

 

Summer, Defenestrated September 27, 2020

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.

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You can see Elihu’s work on the following links:

Elihu created this site just this week for his high school senior project, an endeavor which will likely continue into his college years:

AeroCraftco.com

Here’s the font of all things aviation in my kid’s life:

https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCiVVhQtWp7v-VP6tmUQ3Z0w/videos

And here is his tuba work, soon to contain his compositions:

https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCllXXtqBrYgYexW4F2YIytQ/videos

I crafted this site a while ago; it now seems out of date, although there are some nice images:

https://copterdude.com/

And finally, my Airbnb listing:

https://www.airbnb.com/rooms/37592189

 

One More May 6, 2020

Another year? Really? Do I have the energy for it?!

Fifty-six was something of a surprise. I mighta known stuff was coming down the pike, but somehow a lot of it threw me for a loop. I wasn’t the only one who had some challenges to face this past year; my son has also had a few life-changing events – some really good, and some hard and unfair. But we’ve learned from it all, and onward we go. Elihu turned 17 last week, and tomorrow I turn 57. Wait, fifty-seven? What?? Somehow to me that just plain sounds wrong. Liz Conant is 34, isn’t she? Most adults have a favorite age; family friend Martha always liked 42, and my mom touts her 50s as the best decade ever. But for me, my 40s and 50s were given over to single motherhood. It just hasn’t been about me for a while.

The ironic thing about this earthly existence is that those who grow old are regarded as the lucky ones. And yet growing old brings a list of unpleasant deficiencies (please hold your protestations) like diminishing physical abilities, crepey skin, strange new chin hairs, an inability to recall a particular word in real time, and most disappointing for me, a sagging neck and a second chin that no amount of scarves can obscure.

Lest it sound like I’m a vain, self-sorry sort (well, actually, in part I am), I will happily agree that I’ve had a wonderful life thus far – and I’ve been luckier and more privileged than a great majority of the world’s population. I’m aware of this and think on it often. I’m healthy, I’m housed, I’m loved. All is well, truly it is. But lately my neck has been making these very distressing popping and grinding noises from inside (my arthritis doctor may have made things worse by admitting that my neck Xray was “abnormal”. I try to play it off by remembering the “Abby Normal” scene in “Young Frankenstein”, but it doesn’t quite work), and I’ve begun to feel sensations in my limbs that are likely linked to my old injury. Also this confinement has just added to the extra pounds I carry around. And I’m not digging any of it. I’m just self-comforting with food and booze. Simple as that.

It seems I may also have some sort of low-grade depression playing in the background of my life, because for no real identifiable reason some days are just very hard. There are days when I don’t even know how to get out of bed – truly, I mean it. There are days when I don’t know where the hell it’s gonna come from today… How will I feed my kid, deal with the chickens, return the emails, teach the students, run the errands – if I can’t even get dressed? And I’m not just talking quarantine-related angst. It’s shit that’s been with me for years. Most pronounced in these past eleven years here at the Hillhouse. And yet – the flip side of that coin is that I’ve done more for myself this past decade than any other time in my life. I’ve raised my son, rediscovered how to make music (this time without a band – my worst fear, truly), I’ve learned about starting a business, about farming, about fixing things, making things work, making do… And it helps to remember that. Seeing it in print is a good reminder. I suppose we all need reminders. And second chances, third chances, fourth chances…

A birthday always seems to me like a secondary New Year; it’s that perfect opportunity to try again, to pull oneself up and hit that to-do list with new enthusiasm. This is my hope for tomorrow. Maybe it will prove to be a new seed, that new bit of inspiration that I so need now…

Perhaps I’ll end up reading this tomorrow, and in the light of a new day maybe I’ll think better about sharing all of this negative talk and decide to pull it. It does sound a little self-sorry for a woman who has her wits and her health about her. It shames me to voice any complaints at all – because I have some very dear friends who are suffering from some hugely challenging health issues, and their paths are so much harder than mine. And I suppose a birthday is a gift. If nothing else, it’s another chance to do good work and get things right.

This year will be a gift. It will be my last year with Elihu here by my side. In one year, by my next birthday, we will know where Elihu is going to college. By then we’ll be preparing for him to leave, and I will be preparing for my first year out of the only job I’ve known for the last 17 years! It’s a good thing I have a year to get ready. For as many changes as we’ve shared here through the years, this last major shift will be the biggest of all. And with that in mind, I intend to cherish every moment of my 57th year. The best gift of all is to have one more year with my son.

Ok. I’m on board again. One more year? Yes, please.

 

Slowing April 15, 2020

A few years ago Elihu and I listened to an audio book entitled “The Slowing”. It was a science fiction story which took place in the US, in our own contemporary time. The main characters were a teenage boy and girl, their families, and the other families of their suburban neighborhood. The basic premise of the story was that the earth’s rotation had begun to slow down. It conveyed a dreamlike sense of ungrounding at the start – but that was only the start. As the story developed we began to understand just how deeply horrific a situation this really was, and how fundamentally powerless were the planet’s entire living populations. When charts began showing exponential growth of the Coronavirus just a few days ago, I felt a profound fear in my gut, and a queer lightness in my head. I was not safe, my son wasn’t safe – none of us were safe. We were embedded in our very own science fiction story come to life.

Our ability to communicate with each other instantly makes our experience of this pandemic different from previous such plagues on the earth – some may say it stirs the pot, that it exacerbates people’s fears, that it feeds rumor and speculation… Perhaps it does. But it also puts us in instant communication with friends and family no matter the geographic distance between us. Our connectivity provides us with a toolkit for survival. We are privy to the most current information; graphs and maps keep us informed, we learn ways in which we may safely move when out in the world, sanitary ways to unpack our groceries, activities to keep our children busy and happy, opportunities to hear music, even visit with our friends, and classrooms have moved fairly easily to home computers (but certainly not all have; I fear this disparity will become something of a real problem if the situation persists until the fall).

Without making light of anything, I gotta say our own experience thus far has been enjoyable. I am hearing musicians I haven’t in years, folks I was resolved never to hear or see again – and yet here I am in their living rooms right there with them! How lovely! Virtual one-room venues and old fashioned salons are popping up everywhere, creating an earth-wide a la carte smorgasbord of entertainment. And this is but the first week – if this ‘thing’ lasts a few months, as it may, this new online culture will begin to organize itself. Patterns will arise – regular showtimes, regular features – and as with anything new, the novelty will fade and the new routines will begin to show themselves.

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I resume this post after our first two weeks into this new life. I’ve penned a couple of novelty songs, started seedlings for the garden, and will be embarking on my first online lessons soon. My son has been finding a whole new presence in his musical community, easily learning how to teach, compose, edit and perform his own pieces with other students from throughout the country. It’s with no small amount of pride that I share that the conductor of Elihu’s youth orchestra held him up as an example of how players should be regularly documenting their practice. My kid is way ahead of the curve on this front; he’s been keeping a daily video log of his tuba practicing for nearly a year. (The kid puts me to shame – inspired by the healthy routine he was developing, I tried to meditate for 30 days in a row, but tanked by day 11. Regrettably I created a Facebook page in order to create some public accountability, but that meaningless banner yet hangs limp in the virtual irons, my shameful lack of personal stamina forever documented….)

Personally, I enjoy being solitary. I definitely prefer it to a house full of people. And the wonderful thing about living with my son is that while I have my privacy, I’m not completely alone. I can go for long stretches of time in my own personal space, content to know that my dearest one is never far away. Elihu is also content in keeping to himself, ever-engaged in any number of things from building airplanes to teaching himself trumpet, learning to write Japanese kanji or practicing his tuba. We check in with each other every so often, comparing our progress, discussing the things that we’re learning, maybe sharing a cup of tea before heading back to our private worlds. I too am mostly always in motion – but with nothing so weighty as the interests of my kid, rather my time is taken up mostly by things domestic; preparing for the chicks, mending things outside, doing yard work, cleaning gutters or filling feed bins, doing laundry and cooking meals, and keeping a country house from being overrun with dust, dirt and cobwebs. (I continue, however, to turn a blind eye to the greasy kitchen walls and oil splattered ceiling).

My main current interest in this early pandemic chapter has been to maintain some structure in our days by providing three balanced and nutritious meals each day. While not the meticulous planner that my mother is, I do spend a good amount of time trying to find new and interesting things to make. But truthfully this is mostly a diversion for me; eating has always been my single favorite experience on the planet – yet for my son, it is simply something that needs to be done. My kid – at 5’11” and 110 pounds – he dutifully eats what’s given to him, but really and truly, he doesn’t care. (Aside from the roasted quail at Reza’s in Chicago, the kid could give a hoot how his calories are delivered.) Still, I’ve been trying for years to find a food that he looks forward to, and this stuck-at-home life has provided me with the perfect excuse to dig down deep into some new culinary experiences. But dig as I might, I haven’t found any particular dish which I can create that excites him (can you believe pizza and mac and cheese are actually his least favorite foods?) and soon I think I’m going to revert back I to more modest meals, because I’m gaining weight rapidly and I’m sure there are more productive ways in which I could be using this gift of time.

How many days into this are we? I’m never quite sure; I’m experiencing time in a more gestural way at present. Personally my son and I are past the first free-form phase. I languished for a few days in bed (I am prone to depression so it was understandable) and so now I feel I’m able to make a list of goals for the next phase. My son and I are very lucky to have space, food, internet and basic equipment. This can be anything I’d like to to be. It will remain deeply tempting for me to make sumptuous dinners washed down with entire bottles of wine (I’m not entirely convinced that phase is over yet) but the opportunity to take hikes and bike rides and finally attend to my ‘to file’ pile exists now as never before. I pray things don’t end up going the way of my failed meditation project, but I’ve carved out some new to-do lists, and I feel a tiny seed of promise waiting to germinate.

And as we all know by now, given the right circumstances, tiny things can grow to become a force of nature.

 

 

 

 

Lemonade Lockdown March 21, 2020

As of tomorrow night, Sunday, March 22nd, the state of New York will be on lockdown. Some folks are miffed at the order and see it as much too extreme (perhaps they also see it as an invasion of their personal freedom – and isn’t that what this great country is all about?), and some folks have just been wondering when the order would finally come. For the two of us, the news brings relief.

In my personal life I know folks on both sides, and while I usually keep silent about such rifts, this time I’m in a mildly precarious situation regarding a student. She is one of the most musically precocious and talented kids I’ve ever had – in over 25 years of teaching – and her parents pay me generously. Her MD father revealed his feelings on the matter when I told him I was going to hold off on lessons for two weeks (in my mind thinking – no wait, make that four...). The parents had been to Florida the week before, and the eight year old younger brother has a habit of sucking on his lower lip, and spit on the keys is a predictable byproduct. With three kids home all day and a medical practice to run, I can understand how frustrating this news is, especially when personally, this fellow doesn’t support the lockdown. (How is it that the MD doesn’t see the value of self isolation? Nothing is self-evident anymore. Fundamentally, I think this shit is driven far more by emotion than by science.) I offered the best olive branch I could think of; would he be OK if I took his daughter along for a walk in the woods sometime? His face lightened, and he agreed. So that helped to defuse the situation.

Last night I thought I’d double-down and do things right. I set out to load up our pantry. Having just organized it the week before (a huge project I undertake but twice a year) I felt empowered by knowing its contents, and by knowing the things we might benefit from adding to it. The stores – at six in the evening – were a bizarre sight: four aisles completely empty – not a single item left standing in paper products. (I’d kinda blown off stocking up, thinking the toilet paper hysteria would blow over soon. Apparently it hasn’t as of yet. We’re down to a couple of rolls, but I’m still considering this to be a first-world problem.) The aisle with the canned vegetables, soups and dried beans was a wasteland, with just a few cans of pickled beets remaining. And pasta? Only the uber-pricey organic stuff from Italy remained. (At this writing it just occurred to me – was this out of fear? Was the perception of safety tainted by the country’s sky-high Corona cases? Oh dear…) Though usually I am a bottom-of-the-barrel shopper, buying house brands and no-name products, the situation sort of forced my hand and I ended up grabbing the remaining lone boxes – things I otherwise would have passed up. My $250 grocery bill – much more than my usual biweekly tab – attested to the boutique items in my haul. Pasta made from chick peas, wild rice, prepared rice side dishes (tasty, but so much crap and sodium in ’em), “theater style” microwave popcorn (we almost never have popcorn – but I have this romantic notion that Elihu and I just might watch a movie together!! Almost unheard of here in this always-busy household). Sadly, the two main things I’d come to get were both completely gone. Meat and toilet paper.  I guess I can finally scrap any hopes of going low carb this spring.

Wearing plastic gloves as I shopped, I was in the minority. And when I asked a clerk, frantically re-stocking cans of diced tomatoes if he worried at all, given his exposure to so many people, he answered “no” without any hesitation. “See the way I’m moving and sweating? I wouldn’t get it – I would sweat it out right away!” Hmm. Of course I laughed and agreed with him… But I was taken aback; does someone really think they can simply sweat a virus out of their system? I guess a person might not feel symptoms as acutely as others, but I don’t think it’s as simple as sweating it away.

Many on the street are cavalier. There is a feeling here in our town’s local convenient store that it’s all made up, that it’s all hype. There is a divide becoming visible, and it seems closely aligned with politics. Folks of the blue persuasion are keeping safe, respecting the rules of hygiene and social distancing. Folks in the red population tend to think that this is all hyped-up bullshit and they enjoy sharing a good chuckle about it all.

If you feel, as I and so many others do, that Trump is not only erratic and unintelligent, but most importantly dangerous – then you will likely be keeping that social distance, staying at home and practicing vigilant hand washing. But if you feel it’s our patriotic duty to fully stand behind everything that 45 says, you are likely still not convinced that Covid19 is your problem. Yeah, there might be lip service now, but Trump supporters are still stuck somewhere behind his original, flippant rhetoric. No matter what Donald might say going forward, deep in their hearts, the true Trumpers – at least the good ol’ boys who live all around me here in the hills – will continue to live life as usual, while complaining loudly about the imposition in hopes that the rest of us will overhear.

And me? Elihu? What are we feeling and thinking right now? There is a deep sadness at all of the things that are gone in an instant. Elihu was on the brink of litigating his team’s way to the winning spot in our region’s mock trial competition. Elihu was preparing for his tuba concerto with the orchestra on May 2nd. Elihu was looking forward to a tour of South America with the symphony, to studying at MIT in August, to traveling to Europe with his father. Elihu was at the very doorstep of an incredibly thrilling summer, and now… He has none of it. All of it cancelled or postponed.

When the reality sank in, I cannot tell you how deeply crushed my heart was. But a mix of stoicism and an innate positive attitude turned Elihu’s thinking away from the heartbreak, and instead toward a new future made possible by this sudden window of opportunity. Last night, when I returned from a day of errands, I found a young man who was now able to string together simple sentences in Japanese. It is a safe bet that by the end of May this kid will have four languages under his belt. And he’s started to compose music, he’s building new planes, he’s keeping his Instagram and YouTube accounts full of fresh material. He’s sharing his compositions with other young musicians who are themselves learning them and in turn posting their performances. Elihu’s even started to figure out how to teach tuba lessons online.

How do I feel about all of this newly-instituted isolation? I am thrilled. THRILLED to have nowhere to go. Thrilled to pause my exhaustive mom taxi service (remember, Elihu is legally blind and will never drive. Most moms begin to experience a little break from shuttling duty about now, but my job won’t cease until the kid’s away at college). I am thrilled to have a window of time in which to simply live. Thrilled that my son is close by, thrilled that this will give me an opportunity to see what a structure-less life feels like (before it descends on me in the fall of 2021). I’m thrilled to have this chance to actively shape our own life, and I’m relieved that for a short while we are mostly off the hook.

Facebook, the modern-day well at which the community gathers, is a tumble of chaotic chatter lately. Everyone is all aflutter about everything from the impending isolation to new bread recipes. People are apprehensive about being cooped up, and our feeds are endlessly stocked by fear-inducing images and news clips. Lines of people in their cars, waiting to have their nostrils swabbed to test for the virus, photos of iconic plazas and sites known for shoulder-to-shoulder crowds are now vast and vacant, video clips show people in Italy leaning out of their windows and singing to each other…

I admit that I spent the past few days (our first days with NO tuba, NO tutor, NO rehearsals, NO excursions, NO students) in bed. I just treated the abyss as a couple of full-on sick days. I propped myself up so perfectly with my favorite down pillows, grabbed a pair of reading glasses and pulled the phone to my face, joining my virtual tribe at the well until my poor phone got almost too hot to touch. I’m a bit embarrassed at how eagerly I too threw myself into the Corona-fray. I unintentionally hosted three redundant watch parties in my newbie enthusiasm to participate in the new online culture. I posted way too much, and way too frequently. I even joined Tik Tok in an effort to add variety to my amusements. (Elihu told me soberly, and out of love for his mother and in protection of her integrity, that people my age who engaged in Tik Tok were kinda looked at as losers. Just so I knew. I will be deleting my account shortly.)

When things are new, when they are novel (pun intended, sorry) it’s easy to see the possibility, to imagine what it feels like to live in a new and improved reality. But we humans all know that what follows behind the initial breath of hope and promise is usually nothing but a pale shadow of the inspiring first vision. My hope for this initial two-week quarantine is to 1) organize and clean my mudroom and kitchen, 2) take a hike on a local trail once a week if not more (yeah, right…), 3) get up and going with online lessons, 4) shovel out the coop and mend the fences, and finally 5) assess the winter’s damage on the property and begin to make piles of downed branches.

This may all seem easy enough – but everything takes gobs more time and energy than one might think. And I, late in my 56th year and missing some core strength I had only a few years ago, simply can’t do a lot of the heavy lifting I once used to do by myself. But thankfully Elihu is eager to help. It seems his increasingly strong young body needs and wants the physical work, for he bats not an eye when I share with him the tasks on our list. In fact, he cheers me on and tells me how easy it will all be. Could I be a luckier mom?

At this very specific moment in time I am as content as is possible. Somehow it feels like things will be alright. Hardly seems logical though! The list of things ever-running in the back of my mind is enough to make a sane woman weep…

I am fat (again) and have very few clothes into which I can still fit, my hair is thinning and my arthritic fingers continue to get thicker and more painful… I’ve had a sharp pain in my left breast and armpit for over a month, but I don’t want to look into it for fear of making a fuss over nothing, especially at this delicate time for the health system… There are fallen trees and enormous branches crisscrossing our property, mature and substantial weeds have grown up after last year’s absence of lawn-cutting, a huge pile of winter’s garbage flayed open by ravens and now wind-strewn across the grass awaits cleanup, there are bags upon bags of containers waiting to be shuttled to the recycling stations, there are cobwebs on every inside wall of my house and the basement is now taking on water with the melting of spring. And I have no income.

But what we do have here at the Hillhouse is space – blessed, wide-open space in which to move and breathe. We also have our freedom, our health, opportunity, nature, fresh air, fields, woods, chickens, grandma next door, great neighbors close by, a reliable internet connection, a full pantry and 150 gallons of fuel oil.

And now, to make some lemonade.

 

 

Vortex March 1, 2020

In my mind, March is it. It is the beginning, it is the ending, and it is the never-ending middle all at once. Sap drips from the trees onto my car, signaling that some shift of nature is afoot, yet the temperature stays well below freezing without letup, telling me that no such change is on its way. At the doorstep of March we are as close to a cold, dark January afternoon as we are to a muggy, pollen-dense May morning. March is enigmatically right in the middle of it all.

These days Elihu and I are in the middle of it all, too. We are constantly moving, ever on to the next project, the next appointment, the next milestone. However, on a quiet Sunday like this, with coffee brewing in the kitchen, blue jays scolding outside the window and a teenage boy sleeping soundly into the late morning, it doesn’t exactly feel like it. This very moment is when life feels the way I like it best; rested and unhurried. But this is just a momentary pause in our life. Deadlines, exams and concerts are approaching. Preparations are being made for presentations, tours, camps and travel. Tutors and teachers and after school clubs must be coordinated. As I sit here in the quiet of my bedroom, a shaft of morning light flickering through the curtains, I try to imagine all the things that are yet before us, but the visions are as hard to fully comprehend as last night’s dreams.

The orchestra has become a source of great joy for Elihu. He has finally found peers – other kids his age who also live on the outskirts of mainstream school culture. Smart, mathsy, musical, multilingual and funny, these outsiders are insiders here, and I am so deeply relieved and happy for my son that he has finally found a social group to which he truly belongs. Yesterday, I peeked in on the orchestra as they rehearsed the Brahms, and I witnessed my son in his own heaven. After the last note he pulled away from the horn and smiled in a way I have seldom seen. A mother could wish for nothing more. With my heart full I left him for an afternoon with his people.

This is the season of SATs for all high school juniors, but for those who have set their sights on MIT, this means two additional SAT exams. Regular high school curriculum – even the rigorous work of the Waldorf School – does not prepare a student for these extra tests, and so Elihu has been working with a tutor on the weekends. Between tuba lessons, tutors and other extra costs it has been a financially stressful time. But crazy as life is, an angel has come to us at perfectly placed times… An old friend from my past life in Chicago has sent us gifts of money simply out of the blue, and really, the timing has been truly miraculous. In the middle of it all sometimes I just don’t know how it can possibly work out, and yet somehow, it does. (An extra thanks to you, angel.)

Among the many extracurriculars that Elihu has going on are film club, math club and mock trial. Not only does he cut a fine figure in his jacket and bow tie, but his preparation is meticulous and the delivery of his statements to the court is equally impeccable. He has won best advocate twice now. Truly, if he wished, he could pursue a career in law (my paternal grandfather was a judge, so it’s in the genes I suppose), but of course this won’t be his path.

Flying has taken a backseat these days. With fields under snow, cold weather, academics and music there just isn’t a lot of time or opportunity. Elihu did however do a week-long internship in the aircraft maintenance hangar at the Saratoga County Airport recently, and that was really inspiring for him. Every day when he got home he radiated pure happiness. He learned a lot about the practical, real-life side of aviation. I’d even go so far as to say it was one of the best experiences of his life thus far.

The most thrilling and challenging event is yet to come… Elihu won runner up in the Empire State Youth Orchestra’s concerto competition (“Someone has to win, why not me?” said the young man after what felt like a pretty good audition) and he will be soloist with the ESYO repertory symphony in May. Elihu told me the other day that the moment he is most looking forward to is when he walks onto the platform with his tuba, shining under the lights, when he takes his seat, breathes for a moment, and then nods to the conductor. Indeed. Can you imagine? I still have a hard time understanding this will be happening. But we’re not there yet. There are many unseen things to be done in addition to the practice and mental preparation. Elihu needs to be fitted for a tuxedo – tails, white tie and vest, the whole nine yards – and this will require even more time and money. I don’t know how it will all come together, but I know it will. Somehow it always does.

When the heavy snows arrive in December we suspend our garbage pickup for a few months. The driveway gets increasingly narrow and icy at the end of plowing season, making it a challenge to leave containers at the roadside. By mid March we have our own private dump in the driveway. It’s a tad embarrassing to see the great mound appear as the snow melts away, and with one sunny afternoon it can become a bit pungent too. Winter snowfalls are a beautiful thing, but they do make day-to-day tasks a bit trickier. County plow trucks routinely knock over our mailbox, making it necessary to pickup our mail down the road at the post office. The coop is surrounded by great berms of snow, leaving the flock only a small area in which to move, and even our poor birds are becoming short-tempered and irritable. And this year, in addition to our temporary dump we have enormous tree limbs down throughout the property. A massive ice storm a few weeks ago left us without power for three days as well as a huge mess of downed branches and even entire trees strewn across our five open acres. The melting of March will reveal the extent of the mess. It’s got me wondering how in hell we’ll clean it all up, but one thing at a time. We’re not there yet.

Elihu and I recently went over his schedule for the next few months, and it’s rather stunning. Soloist with the orchestra. A trip to Washington state to find his new tuba, a South American tour with the orchestra, a week of study at MIT, a trip to Europe with his father. I won’t see much of him this summer, and while it saddens me, it’s OK. It gives me deep satisfaction to know that I’ve helped to make all of this happen. And it gives me true happiness knowing that my son is happy.

The sun has moved across the room, now it’s falling onto the bed. I know that it’s getting late, and we need to get moving. Chickens have been tended to, breakfast dishes stacked in the sink, and Elihu has been buzzing notes on his mouthpiece for awhile now. In a few moments we will load the tuba into the car and head off to his lesson. Later on today he will meet with his tutor. Afterwards we will head home in the dark for supper. Bed will follow, and tomorrow, after two weeks of winter break, school will start again. I will resume my work, and the preparations for the coming month’s events will begin anew.

Tomorrow we march into our future.

 

 

 

 

 

Tenure November 10, 2018


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.

 

 

 

 

 

Morph August 1, 2018

Waiting. Waiting three weeks for my son to return from China. Waiting to muster the resolve to stop drinking empty calories in wine and light beer to help make it through. Waiting for the renewed oomph to workout regularly again. Waiting for the hope, the inspiration, the vision. Waiting for the skills to run this silly arts venue. Waiting not to be afraid. Waiting for the arthritis in my body to cease its progress. Waiting to play more interesting solos. Waiting to learn how to earn a livable wage. Waiting. Waiting for something, something to change inside of me…

I suppose that’s not completely accurate. I’m changing alright. Without my understanding – and before I could gather my wits and fully understand that it was truly underway – my body joined that population of the fading. Of those past their physical prime. Past their mental prime too. It feels like very little prime overall is left in my own personal pump. But I need to make what’s left last just a while longer. I’m bitching, whining, doing this passage-of-time thing without a lotta class, and I know it. Searching rather desperately for ways to age without losing me. How do I do this? Waiting for the answer. Reading essays of those who’ve gone through this themselves, remembering how my ancient father lamented that as a little boy he’d watch men like him and think that he would never become a tottering old man himself, and yet there he was… Watching half a dozen monarch caterpillars turning into butterflies in my kitchen. Posting a pic of the glorious new creature perched on my nose. Noticing the vague new contours of my face. Realizing that the changes that await me are not like the those of the caterpillar. Thinking back… just when exactly was I a butterfly? And when I was a butterfly, did I fully understand how glorious it was to fly? Not completely. But now, of course, I begin to get it.

When I awoke early this morning, at around 4 am, I checked my phone and saw that my son, who had not texted or called me anytime in the past few days, had arrived with his father and the ‘other’ family in China. I have a friend in Beijing who told me not to expect communications of any kind, so this was a surprise, and a relief. But with this news a queer and foreign feeling entered my consciousness and made me feel almost weightless and sick: my only child was without me on the other side of the planet, and I had no control over a single thing that would happen to him. I felt as if I were in a dream, I felt untethered and all of a sudden, without a distinct purpose.

You may say that my child being half a world away is the reason behind all of this self-sorry nonsense. And goodness, Elizabeth, we all age. Mine are first world problems, are they not? I suppose if I knew how it was that I would make a living for the remaining several decades (something tells me I’m not off the mortal hook for a while) I might rest easier into this shift. But facing growing old and having no substantive source of income is a huge stress to me. I suppose I could get a job as a clerk at some shop in town – but the last time I did, upon moving here ten years ago, it did not end well. I have never done well at traditional desk/cashier/clerk-type jobs. But I have enjoyed moderate success at hundreds of unusual jobs; I’ve been everything from Tony the Tiger (yes, costume, paycheck from Kellogg’s and all) to deckhand on a boat. I’ve also typed, answered phones and fumbled at cash registers, I’ve taught classes, I’ve hosted radio shows, I’ve raised chickens, sung a cappella in front of thousands of people… Oh so many jobs, hats, achievements, and yet… These days if you ask me what it is that I do for a living, I do not know how to answer that.

Folks are fond of telling me that “I should write a book”. Yeah, I dunno. Isn’t that what this blog already is? And who needs another memoir on their bedside table? I would like to pen a Wikipedia page for my father, but even that seems just insurmountable from where I sit right now. There are too many things to do, too many administrative tasks that need my attention. (How on earth would I manage to organize my content into a book when I can’t even keep my website updated in a timely fashion?) So many ruminations thread through my brain in the long hours of the night when I cannot sleep, but retrieving them while sitting at the keyboard just isn’t happening even as it used to a year ago. In real time I forget words and names which I know I wish to use, yet cannot retrieve from my mind. Things are indeed different now than a couple of years ago. It seems I am truly entering into a new personal age. I just don’t know what the fuck it will be about.

I also worry that there will be no one with whom to share it with. But is this not a choice? I see my mother and several other older friends who deeply cherish their independence and solo lifestyle – just as I do – and I see their individual worlds contracting. My mother tells me she has so much work to do, and then I see her at her desk attending to a stack of solicitations from Native American groups and alley cat rescues. A pile of dream catcher key chains and return address labels with cat photos attest to her main business these days. I can’t begrudge her this; it is her role at this late stage of life. These are the tiny reasons that drive her, that help to give her a purpose. I get that. And she funds much of The Studio’s ongoing needs too, so she derives her sense of purpose through this as well. If only I could.

The Studio, the few students I have and the even fewer gigs, none of it serves to define my reason for leaving a carbon footprint. I have three more years to shepherd the kid into college – and that alone will be a part-time job, with all the scholarships and such that we must hunt down – but when he is launched and out, what then? I have told Elihu that I intend to follow him. That I will not be a burden, but that I will also not allow myself to live far away. I want to know his wife, my grandchildren. I wish to be solitary, but not. Kind of like my mom and her son. Just enough, but not too much. So this plan lingers, somewhere in the not-too-distant future, and that helps. But the space in between now and then is still fuzzy. Waiting. Waiting…

A couple of the chrysalises in the kitchen have stopped in the middle of their process. While one hatches, the neighboring package turns darker still; no patterns begin to show beneath the papery outsides. For some unknown reason, the change has ceased. There will be no butterfly, there is nothing more to wait for. It’s tempting to see this as some cryptic sign from the universe, but I scold myself that it is not.

For these creatures, stopped in the middle of their great changing, the waiting is over, the most exciting parts of their lives are history. I wait, and I wonder. Will another change arrive for me? I am fairly sure the most exciting parts of my life are over too, and I am certainly not going to grow wings again, but I hold out hope for one more chapter, just one more adventure… I await one more chance to morph.

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Dear Readers: Although I thank you in advance for your sincere love and concern, please do not send me private messages suggesting I seek professional help, do not suggest that I take a 9 – 5 job, that I hire someone to do the admin work for me (with what money?) or offer solutions. If you have a good house sitting gig in Saratoga, or wish to simply underwrite my low-key life in the country, that’s fine. Otherwise, don’t fret. (Also, haters, please, don’t share your hate or contempt for my feelings. There is nothing productive that comes of all that nonsense.) This too shall pass, and please remember that this blog has always represented my deepest, most uncensored expression, and if we all took an honest look inward I’m pretty sure our revelations wouldn’t always appear as the bright and shiny aspects of our best selves that we might wish them to be.

 

Lean to Green May 28, 2018

Apparently, I didn’t think this through. Many of the things that I’d wished for over the past several years are becoming a reality now, but it seems there’s a catch to it all. Really? Must there always be a catch? I suppose that’s the way this earth is designed. Two steps forward, one step back. But I remind myself yet again, it’s still progress..

A couple of years ago, when my son still needed me at every turn, when dinner had to be made and chickens had to be tended, I was desperate to leave the years of unending servitude and mundane chores. Although he was old enough then to take some things on, I didn’t ask much of him, but rather encouraged Elihu to live as idyllic a childhood as was possible. Sure he’s always helped when I’ve asked, and he’s always been upbeat and compliant, but still, I have never wished to ask too much of him because I knew his time would come soon enough. Before long the world would ask of him the same repetitive and thankless tasks, and I wished to protect him from the inevitable drudgery for as long as possible. Until now. Elihu has told me that he feels good when he can help out, and now with him being taller than me and having core strength that is fast superseding mine, he is more than capable of carrying 50 pound bags of chicken feed from the car to the coop, relieving me of one task that is becoming just a tiny bit more challenging as the years pass. So I now delegate this and other chores, something for which I am deeply grateful. No longer must I feed and water the chicks in the barn, stooping under the poultry netting, threatening a back injury. No longer must I interrupt my work to get my feet wet in the evening’s dewy grass closing in the flock and collecting eggs in the dark. Now I am freed up to spend more time at the piano, more time getting the kitchen tidy after supper, more time to go through the endless inbox, culling the cream from the crap.

Two years ago at this time, I had yet to play a piano single job here. It had been 13 years since I’d sat at a piano in a hotel lobby. And even back then, when I had piano singles, I hadn’t sung. I hadn’t combined the two. Plus I’d always used real pianos – the technology of a good-sounding, portable piano with ‘real’ action no less – that didn’t exist yet, nor did lightweight, good-sounding PAs. So in May of 2016 I had only just acquired a new keyboard and PA with which to get jobs. I gotta be honest – for as many years as I’d played, for all the experience I had under my belt, and for as eager as I was to get going – I was nervous. Back in the day I’m fairly sure that getting work was influenced by my youth and looks. And maybe even my famous then-husband. The latter idea always bugged me. I tried to silence the concern, but it always followed me; I hated the idea that I hadn’t gotten work on my own merits, but rather my association with someone whose ass many people strove to kiss. But now, all these years later, I was finding that my lack of anyone to vouch for me – starting over, absolutely on my own merits, and with completely new gear – all of it was much more daunting than I’d expected. But I was tenacious, and in the face of full on panic attacks, old fashioned nerves and the challenged sense of vanity of a fifty-something woman, I muscled on. I put in time at the piano, I got a couple hundred tunes in my book, I had new promo shots taken and business cards printed. Starting slow and easy, I got a couple gigs at the Greenfield Farmers Market. And then I was off…

The Studio too was something I’d pushed to the back of my mind over the past several years. There has always been forward movement, but the destination was fuzzy. I’d scolded myself in years past, thinking I needed to simply set aside ten minutes a day to envision the future, to help clarify the picture. But I seldom did. The whole prospect just scared me. I knew what I wanted the big picture to look like – that was easy – but the shit between here and there was beyond me. And in some ways, it still is. But it’s getting clearer now. Kinda crazy the way in which The Studio adventure has panned out. It’s been forward progress in fits and starts. Things look really good, then a pipe breaks. An event feels like a great new era, then a patron sues us (me) for falling on the ice. Deep down, I don’t sweat any of it too much, even when it looks bleak (as it still does from this moment!) because I have a hunch – I call hunches the “God voice” – that things will work out in a surprising fashion. That’s pure faith, I tell you, because at present there’s little evidence to support that reality. But if I were to listen to some of my friends (one more strongly than the others, and yes, G, that’s you!) who give the Universe/God/Creator all the power, and see us as merely passive vehicles to such a power, then I have no reason to fret. But I’m human, so fret I do. But thankfully events are coming to me that shine some light and offer some hope. Some tiny turns of fate are beginning to illuminate new possibility down the line. In a way this too scares me, cuz I’ve never thought this far ahead. It feels strange to see the future that I’ve talked about so much over the years slowly becoming the present.

All this is good, right? I’m working steady piano singles, the kid is able to make himself dinner and take care of the birds, and The Studio is still with us, in spite of lightning strikes and law suits. So what’s the problem? Well, here’s the catch… I’ve got jobs, but they’re all on the weekends. I’ve got events booked at The Studio, but they’re mostly on the weekends. I’m not making money from the place yet (mom’s still spending down her life savings on its monthly operating costs) so it’s not like I can hire someone to run or manage the place, so I find myself in a new, completely unforeseen quandary. So far folks have let themselves in and ‘self-hosted’, but that can’t last much longer with the events coming down the pike. Man. Who knew? I’m kinda surprised with myself that I didn’t see this coming. And I’m hoping that a solution emerges. I’m fairly confident that one will, but from here, in this moment, I don’t see it.

Funny that sometimes we get what we asked for, but when we do, it’s not exactly what we’d thought it would be. It’s a good problem to have in my case, but it’s still a problem. And although I’m making more money, I stand to lose my food stamps and heating oil assistance, and likely my health insurance too. So then I’ll need to make a good chunk more just to come out even again. I call it the ‘dreaded wedge’. That piece of the pie one needs to traverse from poverty to just above poverty. It’s kinda crazy that when one finally makes money, it becomes even harder to make a living. This too is a new situation I never anticipated. I’m earning more, but as a result it’ll be tougher to get by. Talk about irony! I just never thought things through I guess. I still have to fight the desire to cry into my hands sometimes. I’m tired, I’m getting older, my body is changing faster than I’d thought it would, my arthritis makes playing the piano painful, and there’s no reversing any of this. But I can’t stop. There is no option. No other choice but to continue along the path I prepared for myself.

On Saturday night, after a tip-less and quiet night at the restaurant, a complete stranger talked me into coming out and dancing to a local band. In spite of my inner grumblings and initial reservations, I had a fabulous night. A couple in their late 80s danced along side us, as did 20-something couples. All of us laughed and sang out loud together as we danced. We enjoyed an oasis of joy in this relentless, physical world. And when this new friend and I parted at the end of the night, he thanked me for taking a chance on a stranger and coming out. He left me with these words: “Behold the turtle; he makes no forward progress until he sticks his neck out”. Indeed.

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Post Script: My deepest and most heartfelt thanks to all who donated to the recent GoFundMe campaign to replace the broken power line at The Studio. It’s a trial not included in the above post, but a milestone I did not want to let go unmentioned. The success of the drive was due entirely to your love, support and belief in me and in this vision of a community gathering place. The Studio would be dark today and completely stopped if it weren’t for all the donations. So again, thank you, dear friends, thank you so very much. xoxo