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

 

Cusp January 19, 2015

Two thousand fourteen was a tough year for me. Can’t say it was necessarily a bad year, but it was the year in which my father was newly gone, the year in which his concert hall suffered a flood (at my negligence; in order to save money I hadn’t properly winterized it), and it was the year in which I left the safety net of my part-time job at the Waldorf school in order to set about creating a new business. I did manage to get heating and cooling units installed in the Studio, and this past fall I spared no expense and had the place properly shut down for winter. At a glance, maybe not much. But progress, nonetheless. You might say I began to plant the seeds of change. And soon, we’re going to see them begin to sprout…

The biggest holdup – one that’s been in the works for nearly two years if you can believe it – is the logging of our family’s property. It’ll give us some start up money to get some basic fixes done to the place, not to mention a completely new floor (which still makes me sick to think of as the old floor was gorgeous…. and paid for) and some tlc on the weather-worn exterior. And besides that, we’re going to need a place to park all those cars. In the past, my parents only used the Studio in the summers, and parking on the expansive lawn worked out fine. Me, I’m going to need year-round parking, in a level place where I can clear snow and not worry about damaging the grass. Our plan is to create a parking lot in the woods just to the east of the building – in the very place that mom and dad had also initially intended for it to go when they built the Studio in 1974. Back then when they realized the cost – and saw that they had plenty of space for cars on the lawn, they shelved the plan. But now, needing access to my mom’s woods out back for the logging job, it’s become a perfect opportunity to kill two birds with one proverbial stone: the loggers need a ‘platform’, or a wide space in which to park their huge equipment, and I need a parking lot. They’ll open up the space whether we use it or let it grow back again – so why not use it to our advantage? The loggers will also need to construct a proper load-bearing road into the property, complete with enormous metal culvert and lots of fill – another structure which will benefit us tremendously. And then, on top of all this ‘free’ infrastructure, we’ll get money from the lumber. It kinda seems too good to be true. Knowing what I do about life, and how the best-laid plans can quickly go awry, I’m going to be keeping a close eye on every step of the process. (In a few moments I’ll take a break from my computer and go to meet the crew for the very first time. So that makes today hugely significant in the re-birth of the studio.) As I noted to my son recently, I was eleven when I saw the Studio built, and he, at the very same age, is here to see the Studio re-built. Perfect.

As usual, other adventures continue, and recently Elihu and I went to a rehearsal of Haydn’s “The Creation” by the Burnt Hills Oratorio Society at Skidmore College’s Zankel Music Center. We got great seats up front by the basses. ! I feel so lucky that this beautiful campus, along with all the cultural experiences it provides, is less than five miles from our house. Talk about the best of both worlds: peace, quiet and privacy with nature all around, and yet within minutes we can be hearing world-class music or dining at gourmet restaurants. Lucky are we!

Along with all the activity and changes going on in my life, I’ve added another to the list: hot flashes. A couple of years ago I got an IUD in order to deter the near-unending perimenopausal periods I was experiencing, and since they’d finished completely, I’d thought I was over the hump. Honestly, I didn’t think hot flashes would come til after the device was removed, if they came at all (my hope was to avoid them altogether). And now I suspect that after I have it removed one year hence, the hormonal change will descend on me with a vengeance. So this may only be the tip of the iceberg. My mother suffered badly from intense hot flash episodes for well over a decade. Even after hearing about them, I would still think to myself “It’s just a quick sensation of warmth. Really, how bad can they be?”…. Now I get it. Yeah, I’m guessing they’ll be mighty unpleasant. The first one hit at night, and initially it was not only uncomfortable, but it was frightening too, and in that respect reminded me of a miscarriage; some new variety of discomfort was growing inside me, and while it had familiar aspects to it, something very different was going on. A bit of nausea came along with it as well, and that was unexpected. But I suppose, like everything else in life, I’ll adapt and eventually get used to it.

These days I’m becoming more receptive to the idea that nothing lasts. I’m not resisting change the way I used to. Absolutely everything changes, and the sooner you surrender yourself to that notion, the easier your life will be. So here I am, standing on the edge of tomorrow, waiting for whatever comes next…

IMG_5749The other day Elihu and I marked off the perimeter of the Studio’s new parking lot with flags. This photo shows how things have looked for the past forty years on this stretch of Wilton Road, looking west. My parent’s property is on the left. Mom’s house, Andrew’s house and the Studio are all just behind these woods (that’s our neighbor’s driveway in the foreground).

IMG_5753And this is where the new driveway will be going very soon (that’s our neighbor’s house behind the big tree).IMG_5756Here’s the old salt box my folks put out in anticipation of the parking lot they never made. You can see the Studio’s white roof to the far left, beyond the woods.

IMG_5765This interesting-looking tree will go. Behind to the right (red) is the Studio, on the left is mom’s house.

IMG_5676Now we’re off to hear some music – and hopefully fly some RC helicopters too.

IMG_5673This hall both looks and sounds beautiful.

IMG_5620Best seats in the house!

IMG_5623Love the conductor’s red cowboy boots.

IMG_5616Just look how close we are to the bass section! (Note the C extensions on the necks which allow the bassists to play even lower.)

This singer performed at dad’s Baroque Festival years ago. Elihu’s music teacher from Waldorf is also playing clarinet in the orchestra.

IMG_5644Elihu has to say hello.

IMG_5645Kinda like meeting rock stars.

IMG_5658Proving true to his love of all things super-low, Elihu makes a beeline to the contrabassoon.

IMG_5653Hard to imagine I grew up with several of these in my house. Seeing or hearing a harpsichord always makes me nostalgic.

IMG_5690The house manager was sweet and opened up a classroom in the music building for us.

IMG_5704Lots of vertical room to enjoy!

IMG_5713After a slight mishap Elihu made some successful, on-site repairs. This pic may seem fairly ordinary, but actually, it’s not. Elihu is wearing his new tinted contacts here, and therefore able to see in the bright, natural light without sunglasses. A huge quality of life upgrade. He doesn’t wear them often, but when he does his world opens up.

IMG_5737Later on that night Elihu continued to be inspired by the afternoon’s concert.

IMG_5746And the inspiration carried over into the next morning.

IMG_5770After letting the girls (and boy) out for the day, I headed over to meet the forester and the logger who’ll be working in our woods over the next few weeks.

IMG_5775You can see the Greenfield hills in the distance. It’s a lovely view down my driveway, so long as I don’t look off to the right and see the vacant, new-construction house that looms over the field.

IMG_5777They’re here!

IMG_5806Assessing things from the road…

IMG_5790…and then from the interior of the woods where the parking lot will go.

IMG_5792These trees will all be gone soon – the ones marked with green tape will stay as feature trees.

IMG_5813Got the signed lumber contract in hand! It’s real now!!

IMG_5826Heading back home down my driveway. Feeling good, and excited for the days ahead.

 

Threshold March 7, 2014

March has historically always been a jam-packed month for us. And yesterday we’d both kinda reached our limit. By the end of the night Elihu had shut himself inside his bedroom, where he cried and screamed out his frustration… He had said that he was upset over a perceived transgression of mine… I’d picked the bed covers up off the floor and put them back onto his bed, and in so doing had ‘ruined things’ as he’d had his bed ‘just the way he liked it’. Mm-hmm. Crazy talk, and I knew it, but there was no reason to press the point. Instead I left him to cry, sulk and in general get the residual crap out of his system. No point to counter his mood with volume, anger – or reason. I knew what it was about: this had been one incredibly busy and stressful week and it was finally manifesting.

Late winter is always a bit busier for us as I play piano for (among other things) the traveling Missoula Children’s Theater group, which produces a musical at Elihu’s former Elementary School. I love doing it, it revives for me the skill of light sight-reading, it always has a cute musical theme and is fun to play – and of course seeing all the kids (63 of em this year!) rising to the challenge of singing, dancing and reciting their lines – all in these incredibly inventive costumes – makes it more than worth it. But it’s an investment of time for sure, and our rehearsal days begin just when the school days leave off – and since we’re on an earlier schedule at Waldorf, it adds a bit of a challenge. Elihu just doesn’t get enough sleep during this week, plus the poor kid has to sit through hours of rehearsals (and it’s microwaved pasta for supper all week long too. Ich). He’s a trooper, and once again at the end of it all, I realize how much of a team we are. By the end of the show he knows all the songs, even offers me notes, and ends up having a ball watching the final production. (He was once in the chorus a few years back, and while he had a good time, he didn’t enjoy the overall experience enough to do it a second time. His performance skills shine in other ways…) Yeah, just about anywhere I go – teaching, playing, working – he comes along with me. It bonds us in a way I can hardly describe.

Today, as we left the school post-show, post-picture ops (with kids he’d known since Kindergarten all those years ago), we entered the cold, clear winter night with joy and relief in our hearts. Finally, finally, finally…. ¬†Finally we were over the hump, finally we could go home and just do nothing. I took one last look at his old school with a deep feeling of nostalgia. It was the last time he’d be there for Missoula while still a peer of the cast. Next year both he and his old classmates will be middle schoolers. I sighed, and tried to remember the moment, to capture it and lock it away in my memory bank… the sounds of the kids laughing, yelling, running and playing, shouting their goodbyes, and one by one finding their way back to their family cars. We all drove off into the night and within minutes we two were pulling into our long, beautiful country driveway. As we came closer to our little house, we mused that we’d always be part of the family we’d just left, and how lucky we felt to have a home in both Greenfield Elementary and Waldorf too. It made us feel included, safe, happy. And as we walked across the moonlit snow to shut in the birds, we both stopped for a moment to admire the exceptionally crisp and bright stars (one of which Elihu corrected me was Venus) and velvet-black night sky. How lucky we were, we marveled over and over to each other. That this quiet, lovely oasis was ours. We lived here. Every so often we’ll share a pause like this, and we’ll just sit in the stillness as we take it all in. And tonight, with this crazy week – and even crazier day – behind us (including a quick visit to the urgent medical care unit – more on this later), we really were present for those stars, the moon, the sparkling snow, the deep, beautiful dark woods beyond.

There is much more to come, more than I myself can even truly understand at this point (The Studio is but one item on the full menu of projects and commitments before us), so I realize that tonite’s respite might not be quite enough time for us to recharge our batteries for the next phase, but hey, sometimes ya just don’t have any choice but to keep going. I suppose one could simply throw in the towel and retire from all meaningful existence (and don’t think I haven’t considered that option a time or two!) but that really isn’t the responsible person’s option now, is it?

So on we march, over the threshold and into our future adventures…