The Hillhouse

The Journey of a Mother and Son

Witching Window February 21, 2017

middle-age-now

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Gray Area March 2, 2013

A few months back, I posted a question on Facebook: to color or not to color? I was wondering what the current cultural concensus was about covering up the gray hair. My young son had been hoping that I’d give up coloring my hair for two reasons; first, because of the potentially dangerous chemicals, and second, it was not natural. If my hair was now turning gray, that was how it should be. To Elihu, interfering almost seemed like questioning a divine natural plan. He really wished I’d just leave it be and accept the change… And so for several months I have let it be. I’ve entered into the experiment with an open mind. And after all, winter is a good time to go into chrysalis mode and try things out; grow out hairstyles, lose a few extra pounds, rethink the wardrobe… But each day, when I take a peek into the rear view mirror and see that ever-lightening pate of mine, I wonder. Am I big enough to do this? Am I laid back enough, accepting enough, natural enough? Can my ego handle this, I mean, really? At first I was invigorated – just think how free this will feel! No more roots to stay on top of… my look would be proud, natural, all me… I was beginning to see it… and wouldn’t ya know, there were even folks out there cheering me on! Just not the women.

That Facebook tally? Just about half and half – out of dozens upon dozens of responses, it really was split down the middle. Surprisingly, all the men voted for going gray. And all but just a couple of women voted to keep on coloring. We women just can’t seem to give it up. The thinking is, as best as I can understand, that if we have the means to look younger, and if culture is accepting of our doing so… then why not? Hmm. Well, I guess my kid came up with two good reasons not to. But the more I look at the top of my silvering head in the rear view, the more I falter…  I can understand why the men vote for going gray and the woman don’t; our culture doesn’t really support men dying their hair, so they’re more at peace with the idea of turning gray. (Hell, many of em have to deal with losing all of their hair! Makes going gray seem easy.) When you see a guy whose face says 70 but whose hair is a rich, dark brown – don’t you wonder about him? Don’t you kinda wonder if he thinks it actually looks good? I mean, does he think he’s fooling us? But then again – look at his wife. She’s the same age, and her hair is also an unnaturally dark and even color. But we allow that – and think little of it. Interesting. We’ve definitely got a double standard going. So why would I want to play into this whole charade? Am I really so shallow?? After living with my witchy gray hairs for a few months, I can now answer that question with a definitive ‘yes’.

Another thing about growing out your gray is that it can take a long time. My hair grows terribly slowly, so it might take four years to get to the length it is now. And I really don’t want to wait that long for the ‘complete’ look, nor do I want to cut my hair off. I’ve given this lots of consideration. There have been days when I’ve worn my new gray proudly, but in the end, it aint working for me. There are those for whom the graying process turns into quite a boon, resulting in a gorgeous new look for later in life – but that’s not my story for sure. I am not aging like Emmy Lou Harris here. I had a dear friend who once said that ‘men go gray, but women go silver’, yet despite that gentlemanly thought – and despite my own son today laughing with delight at the way my ‘silver’ hairs sparkled against the dark ones… I’m not feeling it. So I’ve decided that when I’ve lost 15 pounds, I will allow myself the royal treatment; a professional cut and color. And if my wallet can support it – maybe even a blow out. Whoo – gawd that’s gonna feel good. And I’m not a spa kind of gal. Never once in my life had a manicure – never mind a pedicure. Had a massage once, when I was eight months pregnant. No, I don’t spend money on extras like that. But it’s time. I’ll be fifty in May, and my fragile ego needs a good send-off into the second half of the century. A good cut and color should help – and since God apparently means to have me age in the usual way (although I still think there’s been a huge mistake here somewhere), I’m going to need to do what I can to soften the transition. 

So how jive is beauty that is so ill-gotten? Can one have a somewhat manufactured sort of beauty and still maintain one’s integrity? I struggle with this still, but have come upon a few more clues to help me sort it all out… The Waldorf School presents the perfect, supportive environment in which to ‘grow out ones grays’, and yet there are more than a few women there who continue to color – and who make no bones about it, either. We all know that Dolly Parton has been nipping and tucking for years – and has never been anything less that honest about it. And does this woman not have integrity? Good Lord I should say so. Integrity – and wigs, too. That’s a whole ‘nother level altogether.

So I guess I’m feeling better about my decision now. I feel empowered just imagining how I’ll feel with fifteen pounds shed and new, beautiful hair. And quite honestly, I’ve been feeling just about anything but empowered these past few years. I could use a little boost. A little pretty time. So after a good deal of thought on this subject, it’s with great relief that I can now say it’s no longer a gray area for me.

Or is that grey area? Hmm…