The Hillhouse

The Journey of a Mother and Son

Real Ideal October 28, 2017

Ever since some friends and I found ourselves painting the walls of my new home in a mad dash to finish the project on the eve of our wedding, I have adopted a phrase which has served me well through the years: “Lower your standards and you’ll always be pleased with the results”. (Jokes have subsequently been made that I may have brought the divorce on myself by setting the bar so low at the very start. !)

Nearly every endeavor of some significance seems to involve more plots twists and surprises than one could ever anticipate at the outset. These little ‘spanners in the works’ can leave one ready to throw a laptop out of a window or just stay in bed and hope the world outside might forget all about you. But the impulses are brief; after all you couldn’t get your work done without the laptop – however old it may be – and by 8 o’clock your child would be be desperately pleading with you not to make him late. And then there are always the roosters. They never let you forget it’s time to start all over again and get things done.

Initially, a great new idea buzzes with possibility. The idea inspires, promotes new ideas, it sheds light on a potential path into the future. For a moment, everything seems right. A vision emerges, a plan to bring the idea to life takes shape. But the reality that follows is so seldom as pure, easy and straightforward. And therein lies the challenge.

Traffic, spilled coffee, sick pets, sticking brakes, cancelled students, lost music, failing technology. Those are the fairly mundane bumps in the road. Then you have the state returning your non-profit forms repeatedly when you, your attorney and your accountant had thought it looked good and was ready to go. You have board members that don’t respond to emails. Your emerging business has needs, but no money. Your venue looks so lovely, and the calendar of events is starting to fill up, but then the new AC units get hit by lightning in the middle of the cooling season and the septic tank cracks. Yes, these things can happen. And yes, they happened to me. And I have staved off tears and desperation by reminding myself to lower my standards. To relax a little, because somehow, (as Martha Carver always said) “Things always work out.” That, and a little Monty Python skit here and there have helped tremendously over the past few months as I’ve watched how quickly an ideal situation can become a real one.

If my son remembers me for nothing else, he’ll remember me for saying this time and time again: “It’s not a mistake if you learn something from it”. There are so many tiny heart breaks in the craft of building model airplanes – the kind of model that actually flies, not the kind that sits on a shelf looking pretty. The practice of building and then flying a craft inevitably results in crashing. There’s a slogan model aircraft enthusiasts enjoy sharing: “Build, Fly, Crash, Repeat”. This is not a hobby for the faint of heart. It is not a hobby for mentally flabby folks like me, either. There’s a lot of analytical thinking that goes into the building and repair. It’s a hobby that involves a mix of unlikely gifts; the appreciation for aesthetics and beauty, the ability to physically assemble delicate parts, a knowledge of mechanics and technology, and the understanding of basic physics. And the underpinning of the whole hobby is that deep, unquenchable desire to know what it feels like to fly… A tall order, and thanks to the unrelenting properties of this physical planet, a plan that’s bound to fail at some point. I can think of no other undertaking that better illustrates the relationship of ideal and real. And let me tell you, the undaunted spirit of these flight enthusiasts is inspiring. We can all take a lesson from these folks. A crash is just a means to a repair, and who’s to say the new craft might not be an improvement upon its former self?

Another saying my son will remember me for is “You never know until you go”. Been saying that to him since he was a toddler. Truly, you can hear about something, but until you experience it for yourself firsthand, you can never really know it. Recalling to myself the several aforementioned philosophies has helped me to traverse a very challenging chapter in our lives over the past few months. An absence of posts here on this blog will attest to our busy life (never before in the 6+ year history of this blog have I let more than four weeks go between posts. Talk about ‘lowering ones standards’. !).

Readers may enjoy a little update on the Studio, and I am pleased to tell everyone that things are indeed a whole lot better than they were a year ago. I was glad for our insurance, because it helped pay for some of the AC repair – but at the end of the day it’s still mom who fills in the gaps. The deductible, the electric bill. The stuff for which I cannot find a grant to help subsidize. It’s easy to find a small bit of grant money for a sexy project – everyone loves to see high school kids performing and ‘staying out of trouble’, but no one – that I’ve come across yet – is interested in funding the repair of a septic system, much less helping to pay the monthly operating costs. I can’t provide a platform for things to happen until the basic costs are met, but that point doesn’t seem to matter to the folks giving out money. It may seem hard to believe, but just to keep the venue open, insured and heated/cooled, it costs me – out of my own, impoverished pocket – around $800 a month. Slowly some events are starting to help me cover those costs, but it will probably be another year before “we” (I have to bite my tongue all the time – I want to shout “We is actually just ME!”) break even. I’m going to boldly suggest that in a year’s time I might even glean a tiny income from the place. Maybe. I’ll set my standards low, so that I’ll be more than thrilled when the money does finally come in…

Last week I took our roos (and also our 12 pound duck whom we named Christmas Dinner) to the Amish farmer to be butchered. It was a fine, sunny fall day and every last corner of the hilly countryside and winding road looked like a perfect magazine shot. After I got home and the birds were tucked inside the chest freezer, it was off to the Studio for a sound check. Then I picked the kid up at school, made sure he had something to eat and a plan for his evening. Homework, tuba, building, get the birds in and collect eggs. Oh, and please don’t spend too much time at your workshop, I cautioned him as I left. I paused for a moment in the driveway to take it all in. I could’ve listed a dozen things that needed tending, fixing, or replacing, but for one moment I let them all rest, and I turned my attention to the miraculous moment in which I was existing. My son was happy, thriving and well-taken care of (and probably pretty psyched to have the house to himself once again), and I was about to join dozens of happy and excited kids at The Studio. What? Amazing. For just a moment it all seemed perfect. Maybe even ideal.

The life that I’m living now was certainly never part of the plan. If you’d have told me that one day I’d be a single mom living in the country, that my kid would play tuba, build airplanes and speak German, that I’d be raising chickens and selling eggs, that I’d be running a community arts venue on my own… If you’d have told me any of this a decade ago, there’s no way I would’ve believed you. Cute story – but not mine. But look, here we are.

Trips to the emergency room, cancelled events, governmental red tape and failing cars can wear a gal down, but honestly, this life has turned out to pretty close to ideal. Really.

 

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Here’s a link to the gallery page of The Studio’s site. The main page is not current – I will endeavor to make updates after I publish this post and before I finish the grant proposal which is due this coming week. ! Don’t even get me started about the annual Halloween party happening tonite – I will cobble together a costume in the 11th hour. Elihu however is well prepared and is thrilled to be going as Otto Lilienthal. Elihu will be proudly declaring the German aviator’s last words “Opfer müssen gebracht warden” throughout the evening. (Otto died of a broken neck after falling from one of his thousands of flights. His final words translate as “Sacrifices must be made.” Indeed.)

 

Last Night November 18, 2013

I must remember that they’re just chickens. My ten year old boy has no room – or tolerance – for the sentiment I’m succumbing to now that the Amish farmer has finally found time for us in his schedule. The appointment came rather suddenly after months of setbacks, and perhaps just a teensy bit of stalling. Maybe I wasn’t exactly consciously stalling, but I suppose I may have dropped the ball a time or two when we might otherwise have gotten it done. But then again, we truly have been busy, and it takes more than a little planning to check this off the list. (Serendipity must be on one’s side as well.) But each time we get close, I do get a little wimpy about it all. I start taking photos of them, I make them endure enforced smooches, I look on at the marked gals in a mixture of love and nostalgia – for most of them have been here since the start of our adventure as chicken farmers (hence the current lack of egg production). We’ve been thru a lot together. The gals who are here today have survived half a dozen animal attacks. They’ve graduated from international shipping crate-as-coop to a legitimate, framed-in structure, and they’ve now seen some sixteen seasons. That’s a lotta happy living. Happy, happy birds they’ve always been. So for as much as I may anthropomorphize em and raise them to heights of character sophistication they’re probably far from ever achieving, and whatever the reality of their intelligence (or lack thereof), it can still be said that these particular girls have been with us for the whole ride. So saying goodbye, for me, at least, is just a little hard.

There won’t be much time for sentiment tomorrow. Mr. Shaw has no time for that. He’s a farmer. Got a dozen or more kids, half of whom work the line, and there’s a lot to do in one day. Calls me m’am, treats me kindly, and has my birds returned to me in tidy bags within a half an hour. Plus we’re doing another ‘chicken removal’ service for some friends and must arrive there super early to box up their girls too. I even wonder at the pure logistics of the operation; just how will we fit all these living birds into my car? Coming back they’re in bags, and they’ll fit in a cooler or two. But we must be able to fit these coolers as well as these boxes in the vehicle. Haven’t rehearsed it, so we have our fingers crossed. Ironically, I got a bunch of boxes from the grocery store today in which Thanksgiving turkeys had just arrived. Perfect. Each would carry four birds. Got some taller boxes at the wine store. Good for roosters. So we’re ready. Up at 5, a quick breakfast, then under early-morning dark it’s out to the coop where Elihu will pluck each bird off their roost, one by one, and check their vents to see if they’re currently in production or not. I tell ya, this kid’s a natural. No hesitation, plus pure confidence. And at this point, a good year’s experience sorting out the layers from the dead ends. Yeah, not sure I’d have the oomph to do all this without him. In this case he more than carries his own. Tomorrow he’s a true partner.

We both shut the birds in tonite. He indulged me. These days it’s not the event it was when he was younger. Some nights he’d be in the coop, smooching, petting, crooning and talking softly to his flock for a good hour before I could get him to come in. Now, what with homework and practicing and getting older and such, he runs out, does a quick head count, then shuts em up. I kinda miss the innocence of just a few months ago. ! But it’s all good. While I will miss the crazy, loud and goofy chicken population meandering all about the property, and the lovely little interjection of energy they provide here, I will also be greatly relieved to see my food bills cut by more than half, and to find far fewer fresh poops on my doorstep. And finally, the gals will get a break. Only one horny rooster around. And he’s getting old, too. You’re welcome, ladies.

So it’s goodnight, farewell and thank you to our first ever hatched, Jessie, our nods to twins Cora and Sophia, of course the new roos – including the bravest and most resilient rooster we’ve ever known, Julius Caesar (first-born of ’13) – and, last, but never least, my favorite: Shirley Nelson, our green egg-laying Araucana. She stopped laying months ago. She is still flighty, and has never let me pick her up without a fuss, but I just love her beard, and I just love her most curious habit of crawling underneath alpha rooster Bald Mountain as he stands in one place. She likes to sit underneath him, and he is most content to have her there. Never seen such a strange and cooperative arrangement before, and it is one more reason I’m  just a bit sad about seeing her go. Never got it on film, but I hope my brief description here will inspire long-lasting mental images thru which she may be ‘immortalized’. Elihu, knowing her to be one of the tiniest birds, is looking forward to trying out a buffalo-style chicken wing recipe on her, so at least she’ll be remembered (can one be ‘immortalized’ by simply being a meal?) for that. And the door. The back door on the coop has a diamond pattern in the glass. Elihu said it looked like it belonged in a house of someone named ‘Shirley Nelson’. And actually, he’s kinda right. First came the bird, then the door. And we still refer to it as the Shirley Nelson door. So, let her time come. She leaves behind a legacy, and maybe even a good new recipe for the book.

I need to get to sleep. My little farmer has been out for almost an hour. Five am will be here sooner than I’d like, and I gotta be on when I get up. (Plus I have a full day of school immediately after that adventure, and so does the kid.)

Thanks so much you dear girls and guys. You had probably the best lives that chickens could ever hope to have. Freedom, food, fresh air and the love of a boy and his mom. We appreciate your gift to our stomachs and to our growing bodies. Enjoy those cozy roosts one last night, and we’ll see you one last time in the morning.

Post Script: Shortly past five and the winds outside sound like a passing freight train. I look out the window for a quick coop check and see that the light is out. Wow. That almost never happens. (Likely the power line was pulled down by the weather.) A real-life metaphor for what’s shortly to come. Here we go…