The Hillhouse

The Journey of a Mother and Son

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

 

Cute and Cuter January 11, 2015

Today we’d planned to clean up after Christmas. Down with the tree, to the cellar with all those bins, out with the broom, vacuum and dust cloths. Homework and lesson plans were on the list too. I was looking forward to cleaning house for a fresh start and Elihu and I were both looking forward to getting caught up in general. After talking a bit about the things coming up in the week ahead, we enjoyed watching the birds on our feeder after breakfast, and if it weren’t for Elihu’s slightly prophetic suggestion at around 1:04 of this video, it wouldn’t have warranted posting. But it was too coincidental to pass up. I’d so hoped things would quiet down around here after the holidays, but apparently not. On with the adventure…

Ok, so check out what Elihu says at around 1:04. “Squirrels are cute, but newly hatched chicks are cuter.” I bet you know where this is going….

A few minutes later I went out to feed the birds, and I heard a frantic cheeping sound. ?!?!?  (The first half of this vid has no clear audio, but some may still enjoy getting a look at our setup.) Checkout the behavior and relationship of mom and baby. Amazing.

Ok. So maybe letting our broody gal set on her clutch to just “see what happens” might not have been such a good call. We’ve never had a chick hatch naturally, without an incubator, so we kinda didn’t think it would happen. But it did (and there are fifteen more viable eggs still under a hen!). In the dead of winter we’re now faced with keeping chicks warm and fed. Lucky for them they’re so darned cute!

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A sad Post Script: Our new little member of the flock died today. It appears she froze. Although still underneath her well-meaning mother when Elihu found her there, mom was pressed up against the cold cinder block of the brooder pen’s outside perimeter. When Elihu found the chick she was cool to the touch. (I keep wondering why the mother settled there – when there were warmer spots just a couple feet away. ?) How sad we’ve been all evening. Perhaps if I’d just left them alone in the main coop they’d have been fine. I don’t know, but in any case, fretting too much over it isn’t productive. At this writing the two broody hens are sharing a nesting box under a heat lamp in the brooder pen, so things seem ok for now. I don’t want to rock the boat and introduce any new elements. They seem to be comfortable, and they have food, water and safety from other members of the flock. We’ll just have to wait and see how things turn out.

 

Catch Up May 19, 2013

Almost there. Very close now. I know there are wizened folks who might spoil it all by reminding me that nothing is ever completely done, and nor will I truly ever get there, and that I should enjoy it all and be truly present for the journey of the process rather than jones for the destination itself. Mech. Can’t really get next to that kind of Zen thinking just right now. Cuz after some eight loads of laundry, several hours at the kitchen sink dealing with the dishes and another hour spent dealing with the animals… the end is finally in sight! I’ve been busy busting out the process all day, present only to the idea that I gotta get all this shit done!! . My house has been vacuumed until the bag could hold no more, the tops and bottoms of picture frames and heat registers have all been wiped down, the long-avoided undersides of both beds have been investigated with flashlights and the once-thought-to-be-lost items excavated with broom handles… even the ceilings have been swept of the cobwebs I have spent months pretending not to notice. It’s Spring, after all, and that itself may account for my unplanned campaign today to get things cleaned up.

It’s Sunday too, and a rainy one at that. Had it been warm and sunny, as it was yesterday, today might not have turned out as it did. But in that the two weeks ahead are rather full of events and commitments, I thought it best to muster all my resolve and restore some order before the next round hit. If I didn’t, my sanity was at risk. Plus it was entirely possible I might start breaking one of my own rules of a tidy home, which is to “reduce redundancy”, and I might start simply buying things because I could no longer find the ones I already owned in all the mess. Yup, having two or more of the same thing’s a pretty good sign of a chaotic house. Some redundancy is fine, but when you end up with three hammers or half a dozen pairs of scissors or ten pairs of pliers… that suggests things have gotten a little out of control at one time or another. So I began my piles, like with like, items with shared destinations (the box to go to the basement, the bin to go to Elihu’s room, etc.) and little by little began to make some headway. Elihu helped a bit, and by the time my mother called to say the Conants had a visitor and invited us to come over for a lunch break, much had been done. It was good to see our old family friend, and made me happy for dad to have company. We stayed perhaps a tad too long for Elihu’s allergies, as when we got home he remained rather sniffly right up until bed time.

So now he’s asleep, and I would so love to get into my own clean bed (I wash my own sheets so seldom my dignity prevents me from letting on…) but the coverlet tumbles away in the drier, taking much longer than it seems it should. I am tired. A good tired, though. It’s been a full day. Nice to see our friend Ken today, nice to see my family all in one place, nice to watch my father enjoying an organ concert on TV, lifting his hands at the conclusion of passages, humming, leaning forward in his chair at a certain turn… Most engaged I’ve seen him with anything in a long time. That was nice. And now, as I sit here in my comfy bedroom chair, having just kissed my own beloved son goodnight, I’m feeling pretty good. My house is clean. Things seems possible again. There’s just this ever-so-subtle feeling of hope that begins to germinate in the wake of such a cleaning and inventory-taking. It’s as if you’ve been given a new starting point. Everything from here’s gonna be easy. Cuz you know where everything is again. Like you should. Freshly cleaned, newly put away. And in a moment, I too shall be in my own resting place. Ok, now I can feel that Zen thing. Cuz this is a good moment. Yeah, I’m feeling it, liking it. Sorry I rushed through all those previous moments to get to this one. Ah well. Here we are. Nice, huh? Ah yes, this is a moment I am savoring. Feels good. Ahh, all is in its place.

Finally. All caught up. (For now…)

 

Household Help March 12, 2013

It can’t just be me. Each morning, after I’ve been washing dishes for about a half an hour and remember the laundry that still waits after the dishes are done, I wonder. Am I being grumpier about this than I ought? Course I know the answer; most likely. I know that I ought to be joyful as I go about my daily domestic work. That would be the good, Godly way in which to behave. But crap, it just seems like I spend an awful lot of time doing, well, just plain stuff. Not stuff that adds in any quantifiable way to the quality of my life, not stuff that makes me better fit, smarter or necessarily happier. I’m just doing crap that needs to get done – just so that I can exist. Some days this really pisses me off. But although I might get crabby about it, I’m not ignorant; I realize that I do not have it bad by any stretch of the imagination.

I remember visiting my family by marriage in Pakistan – middle class folks by their standards – and witnessing how some two dozen people lived in a four room house devoid of anything aside from the basic necessities and who were, in their experience, all quite happy. I also saw how the women worked tirelessly both day and night to keep the brood in clean clothes and fed (their kitchen was hardly six by ten feet, and they only had two burners!). I’m not so sure those women were themselves too crazy about their never-ending workload, but sadly, in that culture they weren’t exactly in a position to question it. At least I can pause for reflection. Yeah. I know that folks all around the globe work a hell of a lot harder than I do, and they have less to work with too. I get it. But still…

I wonder to myself, do other people really spend an hour or more a day just dealing with the silly dishes? Really? It kinda feels like I’m the only one. It feels like I’m always cleaning up or putting things away. It seems like it takes me so much more time and effort to feed just two people than it should. Am I being incredibly inefficient here? Am I missing something? I can’t help but feel like I am. But I know it’s an illusion born of my isolation. I really do know I can’t be the only one putting in the time. I know it. At least intellectually. Just doesn’t feel like it. Living in such a way as we privileged Westerners do, each of is our own island and it’s easy to feel like we’re each on our own, unique treadmill. That we are each one of us alone in our toil. That’s certainly how I feel most days after Elihu’s at school and our days begin in earnest. It takes me a good two hours – if not more – just to get the laundry done, the dishes done, the house picked up, the birds fed, the eggs collected, washed and put away… And God help me that I might need to actually clean – as in wipe away the little boy smell around the toilet, or maybe vacuum the forgotten corners… there goes another hour. Was it always thus?

No, not always. For many years I had help. I, like my mother in ‘her day’, had a cleaning lady. At first it seemed a crazy-pretentious thing to do, but I acclimated without too much trouble. Not hard to get used to someone helping you, especially if it’s well within your budget and you’re faced with a lot of house. Sometimes I like to joke that I went from having a cleaning lady to being one. Not really a joke. I have cleaned a few houses for cash since moving here. A bit humbling, yes. But then again, I was never the kind of gal to sit idly by as my cleaning lady was working; nay, I worked right alongside Marianna as she helped to keep my fine Evanston home looking fine. I never took her for granted. Nope. And now, as I face the task of keeping on top of it all (ok, so there is a lot less indoor real estate now) I look back with even still more gratitude. Oh, to have Marianna’s help now.

Thankfully, my son is getting older and much more able to help. I’ve probably let him off the hook more than most moms would. But then again, having only one child – one baby – and knowing there will never be another one coming along, I think that’s contributed to my going soft on Elihu til now. But I’ve relaxed lately. It’s good for him to do things for himself. And also – it’s good for me. I’m happy to have the help. (I can see why folks used to have so many kids! Built-in work force and life insurance. !) No longer do I tell my son that I’ll put the water on for tea, that I’ll empty the dryer…  And if I ask him, he generally jumps with enthusiasm to help. Thankfully, I have a child who very much appreciates the work it takes to keep a household. And thankfully, he is beginning to participate in its upkeep. And no longer do I feel badly – or guilty – about that. Instead, I feel good. Elihu is feeling empowered, and finally, once again, I have a little help around the house.

 

Early Start April 16, 2012

Last night went smoothly. To bed, to sleep. Not much earlier than what was historically normal for us. I was a tad concerned our first early morning might be dicey. Today, Elihu’s first day of the Waldorf School, he rose at 5:30 on his own. He’d heard the creaking of the automatic rotating incubator in the living room and mistook it for the sound of me typing away at my laptop. I heard him call to me, and without checking the clock, summoned the mommy energy within to rise and go to his room. He was up. I mean up up. Not like half asleep, groggily calling out to me in the wake of some bad dream. Nope. He sat up in bed, eyes wide. “Oh” I said, “you’re up“. “Yes of course I’m up! I’ve been up since five! I heard you typing and thought I could finally talk to you.” I climbed into bed with him and explained what he’d heard and how when I’d first heard it again this year, while alone in the house, I’d been startled, even almost afraid. I caressed his head lazily and closed my eyes. “You know you don’t really have to be up for another forty-five minutes” I offered, hoping he might choose to doze. “Oh, but I want to be up. I want to have a whole hour with nothing to do but be with my chickens. I don’t ever want to feel rushed again in the morning.”

He was serious, for he jumped out of bed, ran to check the weather on my computer, then rushed back and got dressed in a flash. He came to me and picked up my arm, tugging at me to get up too. It was almost six. I noticed, to my own surprise, that I was not tired, not sleepy, that I didn’t really need nor want to lay in bed any longer. I too rose, and (as most mornings) still in my pajamas went out to open the coop. Elihu went to the cellar to tend to the chicks. Not used to having their coop door opened so early, the chickens were all still up high on the roosting bars. I’ve often thought that we’ve raised chickens on a rockstar schedule; they’re quite comfortable sleeping in, long after their neighbors have been up and set free for the day.

Our morning was unrushed and oh so pleasant on account of extra early rising. After a lovely breakfast (nothing new on the menu save an air of relaxation) and a shower for me we were ready to go. As we turned the car around to head for the road, we admired our flock, laughing at the show they put on for us. Austin, our guinea fowl, likes to hang out with Maximus the goose – although they constantly bicker they are always side by side (we jokingly call this an ‘alternative alternative’ lifestyle; same sex, different species), Bald Mountain, our alpha rooster, is always keeping second-in-command rooster Judson in check; Shirley Nelson our bearded Arauncana tries to stay out of the action, while Madeline is first in line to check it out. Thumbs Up (so named because of the silhouette of her comb) is precocious and smoochable. She’s the first to approach people, and often prefers our company to that of her flock. She watches the car carefully to see if we might open the doors and invite her in.

Finally, we’re off. I re-set the trip odometer and note the time. It takes us about fifteen minutes and 5.7 miles to reach the school. The third graders are all clumped together by the fence and they’re happy to see Elihu. Oh how happy I am to see this. Although Elihu has longed for this day, he is nontheless a bit hesitant. He hangs back to see where it is that he should go, what he should do with his backpack. He is greeted joyfully by name by the woman at the schoolyard gate, and she helps him get settled in. He even allows me a final quick kiss at my private beckoning for ‘un besito’. Then he is off. I try not to watch him too long. He is fine. He is finally where he should be. I check in briefly at the office, and there meet his teacher. I tell her that Elihu’s heart was so full of joy today. My heart is bursting too, but I don’t say this. Instead I make a little hop in place, and touch her arm. “I am so so happy we’re finally here’. I don’t want to be too over the top, but man do I mean it. I also don’t mean to act as if this heralds a conflict-free future for Elihu and me. I am aware their will be challenges in our future. There may be uncomfortable moments. I just think that we’ll be able to negotiate them so much better in this environment. At least that’s what I hope today.

As I drive home I cannot believe that my day is starting before Elihu would even have been on the bus in our old routine. I have so much to do, I don’t know where to start. I am mindful that I must pick Elihu up today, and that school lets out just past two. I still need to be economical with my time. What to do first? I am filled with joy and possibility. Plants begin to leaf out on the edge of the winding country road. Robins are everywhere. I laugh to myself. It feels so good to be up with the birds. Early bird gets the worm. Indeed.