Ubiquitous Elephant

Woman ill in hospital bed

I can’t leave this unspoken anymore. There is an elephant in the room. There is an elephant in every room, and not a one of us is brave enough to admit it out loud lest we stir the pot, finding ourselves at the receiving end of a whole lot of grief.

Medical procedures and pharmaceuticals extend our lives far into the frailest years, and, more often than not, this creates a lousy situation. In short: people these days are living too long. A long life is not a victory if it is an unpleasant one. Consequently, I believe that every adult should have the right to choose a humane and legal death.


My mother is living on and on in the isolation of her house. Granted, she’s got the deer and the birds and the woods outside her windows, she’s got her British murder mysteries, and all of the 70s and 80s sitcom reruns to entertain her. She’s got The New Yorker to read (and read them through she does!), she’s got her drink every evening, and she’s still able to prepare food (she knocked out Thanksgiving dinner again this year, a true feat in that her right knee is now quite literally bone on bone). But she’s not able to come and go and she did only months ago. She is stuck inside her house. It can’t be easy. But there’s no reason to highlight this. She knows. And she has adapted. People are really good at that.

Now she is faced with a knee replacement at the age of 88. (She has postponed dealing with this for a long time. That’s understandable, but at this point there’s no avoiding it.) It surely stands that a woman of her determination will come through it ok, but if not, then what? And, even if things do go well – what then? We need to make some modifications to her house. She knows this, and we discuss some of the logistics with success. But when I move too fast, offering to do something for her, she gets angry, and says I’m taking over her life. And she has drawn the line at care. Somehow, this future scenario does not involve any outside party coming in to assist her with things. She fights me on this, saying I write her off as incapable. Quite the contrary; I know that she is clever and resourceful, capable of surprising things in light of her limitations, but she is human, after all – and post-op, she will need care, one way or another.

I believe that the thing she’s battling with is not so much the details themselves, or that I am taking over, but rather it’s the beast that is pushing its way into the room which frightens her. I wish we could just acknowledge the creature, and make plans accordingly. It might make the beast less menacing.


Mom and Elihu both know my feelings about death. I believe that in a fully realized and modern society, a lucid adult should be afforded a medically efficacious, humane and affordable – and legal – death at the time of their choosing. Both Elihu and my mother warn that I might not avail myself of such a service when I become old and frail. They posit that when I am a very old woman, I might not wish for the end. Yes! I completely agree! How can I know possibly know how I’d feel in that moment? I can’t. But what I do know is that I want the option of a humane – and legal – exit.

I’m gonna stop you right now if you’re tempted to spout the reactionary “It’s a slippery slope” response. While the more litigious or philosophical among you may have specific points to support your case, I believe that for the majority of people, that response is born of fear. The religious among you will also take issue with this for your own reasons. This is where we will likely part ways; I do not believe a loving god would deny its children this most tender of mercies. I won’t be getting into the arguments here and now, but rest assured I’ve studied all manner of debates on the subject, a multitude of points and counterpoints.

I’ve been thinking about death for years. I’ve seen many videos of people’s final moments (a profoundly generous gift on the part of both the people themselves and their families). I’ve read many books, and listened to numerous talks on the subject. What helps give me the courage of conviction to write candidly about this is the number of people with whom I’ve discussed the topic, and the number of people who have admitted to me, in the safety of a private conversation, that they heartily agree. People should be able to choose their exits.


As a musician I work a fair amount in nursing homes, and I see the saddest outcomes for individuals who’ve lived the most glorious lives. After I finish performing, I always make informal rounds, visiting folks who I see to be awake and who welcome my brief intrusion. I’ve been playing at one facility for nearly seven years, and, sadly, some of the residents are still there… They are bedbound, screamed at all day by TVs, blaring at top volume. It is cacophonous. It is inhumane. It is terrifying.

I can recall meeting a fellow who had taught chemistry at Columbia University; he spoke about his life as a child in a small town in Finland. He recalled the fish that his mother had made, and told me how much he missed that. He told me about the research of which he was a part, he told me of his three children whom he’d raised in the city, now all gone. Dead. He and his wife had long since divorced. Was she dead too? He didn’t know. He was well-spoken and brightly recalled his memories which I followed with great interest. And yet here he was, bedbound, soiling himself and unable to move, dependent upon an over-worked and underpaid aid to restore his comfort, to say nothing of the basic dignity he’d lost in the whole mess. Bells and blinking red lights were always going off in the hallways; it was impossible for the staff to keep up with the need.

(We have all visited a relative in one of these places. And if you find the higher end joints a little off-putting, just imagine this bottom-of-the-barrel venue. No one in his right mind would ever send his mother to such a place. It goes without saying no one would wish this outcome for themselves, either.)

After I have finished with my visits, I invariably end up speaking to the staff. At the conclusion of our conversations, I always pose the ultimate question: If you could choose to end your life in a safe and legal manner, thereby eliminating the need for living in such a place, would you? And of the dozens of people whom I’ve informally polled, not one has ever answered differently. Every single person has said that they would choose a humane, safe and legal death over life in such an institution.


My mother comes from a generation which was raised to live in hardship without complaint. (Use it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without.) This generation was encouraged to be self-sufficient and responsible; living in this manner is often a point of pride. It makes sense then that her needing or asking for help feels wrong. Perhaps like a tiny failure. Hard wiring is not easy to undo. So at the end of her eighth decade, it’s a bit late to expect that my mother will change her way of thinking. I get it. Additionally, a woman like her who’s done an expert job at hosting hundreds of people over the years might have a hard time letting go of that authority and yielding up the most basic tasks to another person. It might also be that accepting help means that true frailty is not far behind. And, however heartbreaking it may be to conceive, that really is the truth.

Yes, I can understand that it’s got to be frightening to be in her shoes. I think we’re all scared of finding ourselves at that place in our lives. And yet so few of us have the courage to admit our fears aloud. Most of us keep silent; we stifle our gripes and concerns. We suck it up. And I really wish we didn’t.

It’s my hope that people all across this earth can learn how to speak candidly and caringly about the end which awaits us all (as well as the feelings of uncertainty that precede our final days). My mother and many of her generation may find self-advocated death an abominable thing – and certainly my mother is likely not the type to avail herself of such a service were it even available – yet I still assert that a humane and swift death needs to be the legal right of every rational, healthy adult.

Would you have surgery without anesthesia? No, you would not. Would you have your dog suffer? No, you would not. You would use medical tools to minimize or eliminate suffering. If you’re a doctor, you will likely cite the “do no harm” bit of your professional oath to me in protest. Well, I believe that preventing someone from obtaining a wished-for, safe and legal death at the conclusion of a long life is doing harm. Quality over quantity. It’s simply one step beyond a DNR. But, as things stand in December of 2022 here in the US, it’s one hell of a big step.

The elephant will seem far less menacing when we can get her fed and comfortable. She may even turn out to be a welcomed guest. But we’ll never know until we can all agree that she’s sitting right here in the room with us.


Drawing by Jules Bradbury

To see further examples of the work of Jules Bradbury, find her on Instagram: @no_still_life

or visit her website: www.no-still-life.com

The Severing

There was a time when it was all on me.

Making money, taking care of the kid, the students, the Studio, the chickens and ducks, the house, all of it. Now, at least for the moment, nothing at all is on me. I am bereft of the many responsibilities that had once left me spent at the end of every day, while, unbeknownst to me at the time, had all been at the very heart of my purpose here on this earth. Now, with all of that tidily wrapped up, my purpose is not something I know with any certainty these days.

It’s not a pleasant feeling.

Yes, there are still some hurdles ahead which only I myself can navigate, and there are situations which would likely fall apart if I didn’t step up and do my job, but at the end of the day these will merely be administrative tasks. They do little to address the deeper issue that lurks behind my every moment these days.

Why the hell am I here?

The kid is successfully launched, my brother is on site to help mom out, and I have no one to whom I am beholden. Is this not precisely what I had yearned for all those years ago when I lamented the unending domestic drudgery that was my life?

Goodness, Elizabeth. Your future has arrived. Why then is it such a melancholic occasion?

I’m moved to write tonight, but my conscience is nagging me to get in the car and attend an open mic across town. I know there will be a keyboard, I know that I can join in. But I also know that it will almost certainly disappoint. There is a resting level of mediocrity which afflicts this town and its music scene. Swarms of not-quite-average musicians fill the open mic signup sheets by 6:30, promising a three-hour cavalcade of out-of-tune guitars, waif-like girls with nasally, warbling voices and miserably indistinguishable three chord songs.

I realize that writing publicly and honestly about my feelings may well have bad consequences, but at this point I’m not sure that I care anymore. The stakes just aren’t that high these days.

Last spring, the candor in my writing, instead of being seen as simply that, was taken to be a breach of trust within the band that had employed me. As the new member of an established family, I had marked myself a loose cannon from the start. There was no going back. No apologies or retractions were going to fix it. It made me physically sick for months. And, it had been such a musically successful endeavor, the likes of which I could never have guessed would come my way – that it made the loss even more tragic.

When my new musical venture vanished, so too did my hope. My desire to stay fit, to be healthy. Even my will to get out of bed. I forced myself to attend a handful of open mics in a desperate search for something, anything, that might help fill the musical void, but instead, the experiences made things much worse. I discovered that I was alone. Completely alone. To realize one is living in a community without peers is heartbreaking.

In an effort to pull myself up and out of a serious funk, I tried my hand at busking this fall. It went well, and I began to really look forward to future sessions, until one night when I was packing up my keyboard, I suffered two herniated discs. A lightning bolt of pain had me instantly on the ground. Crap. I’d finally come upon a promising solution, and in one split second it was gone.

The two months that have followed have been another challenging detour. It’s hard not to take shit personally sometimes. Things were looking so good just less than a year ago. I had a gorgeously promising foothold into another world, a higher tier, and then – I lost it. After a period of mourning, I’d tried to get back up again. I’d tried to take matters into my own hands, to be proactive. And then….

Seriously?

I’m going to try to check my self-righteous and self-sorry attitude and try to behave with some humility this evening. My plan is to go out shortly, armed with a wide range of material to offer. Folks seldom ‘get’ me at these things, so I’ve taken to writing songs that I think might resonate better with the room. Who the fuck knows what will fly and what will tank? I’m planning on doing “Twisted” because it’ll be fun, and, since it’s a basic blues I figure I can’t go wrong…. But I can already feel that sensation of losing traction with the audience. Joni who? Whatever. (Ok, yeah, I do know it’s Annie Ross a la Wardell Gray.) I’ve got an REO Speedwagon tune in my back pocket if all else fails.


Consider this a real-time post. I have now been to the open mic and returned. Some insights. Not a whole lot, but some.

When I realized that the first three songs out of the gate were Dead tunes, my perspective changed. It was likely a room of people with whom I had little in common. What kind of material did I possibly know that would they resonate with? Would I simply be met with blank stares? I myself was merely tolerating their music. Quite likely they would merely be tolerating me too. Again, I scolded myself: these were my fellow humans, the whole purpose of the gathering here was to be supportive of each other. My own piano student herself was hosting, and of course I was happy for her enjoyment and success. But it was a challenge for me to remain in the room. And although I heard no compelling grooves, there were a few people eagerly pounding on djembes and swinging tambourines – so the music had an obvious appeal to some.

Come on, Elizabeth, forgive the dropped beats and the out of tune guitars. You’re far from perfect, don’t be so snarky. Be nice.

So yeah, after a $3 whiskey (!) I did get a little kinder. And I listened. In between tunes the piano guy played “Christmas Time Is Here” from the Peanuts book, and he actually knew the bridge. So there was that. A fellow Greenfielder sat in on drums, adjusting his snare hits to fit the errant beats accordingly. The vibe was congenial, and although I’d never been introduced to some folks, they’d already known who I was, and that was nice, I suppose. Maybe next time I’ll get there earlier and play. After all, I’ve got a week to choose my angle.


About three months ago, in absolute despair about the next chapter of my life, I consulted a local tarot reader. She worked at the head shop which Elihu and I had visited since he was tiny, and from which I bought my first oversized gemstone rings (to accommodate my ever-enlarging osteoarthritic fingers). This woman was said to have been the “best there”. And so she did my reading.

Among the cryptic things she’d said to me (I took notes) was this line: “Soon, in late November or early December there will be a great severing.” My God that sounded scary. Of course my first thought was my mom – who knew, right? She was 87, after all… A friend had even suggested maybe this meant my son. No, neither of these could possibly be!

And then today, at a piano lesson, this young girl from across the road, whose family had taken in half of our flock (the favorites) when I left for the road this past spring, they had made the decision to “off” the hens, as they were old and had ceased laying eggs. The girl mentioned this in passing, as it is a common thing for farm folks to do and to talk about – in general it’s nothing more than a recounting of the week’s events. But this time – this very afternoon – to me it was a punch in the gut. I was stopped.

For a few moments I tried to process this. It’s been several weeks now that I’d been wanting to go over to her place and visit with my dear Hammie (a black and white Hamburg hen). My heart wished for that comfort, as the past few months have been pretty awful for me. I’d thought that once I was walking ok without the use of a cane, I’d take a trip across the road to see her… It was a hope I held onto; it was a tiny light I had looked forward to. I just wanted to see Hammie once again, to see her beautiful, familiar patterns… I wished to hold her in my arms and bury my nose in her side, taking in that lovely, earthy scent.

But – she was gone now. Head cut off and left in the forest, she’d been food for the wild creatures. Ah well. At least I know she filled a belly or two, and her parts have sunken back into the woods of Greenfield. She still rests here. And she was, after all, just a chicken. A reunion wouldn’t have been the same thing for her as it would’ve been for me. But still. My heart breaks once again. Great severing, indeed.


Time for me to sever myself from this day, from the unexpected sadness, from the way in which I miss so terribly the tribe I’ve yet to meet. I’m not as despondent as I was a month ago, but I’m not in a great place either. I miss my son (he won’t be here for break). I miss the music I used to make and the places I used to go. I miss having friends, I miss the body I used to inhabit. I’m just waiting now. But for what, I don’t know. Holding my breath in hopes that things don’t get too much worse, or at the very least that things don’t change too quickly, so my heart will have time to adjust.

But I’m certainly grateful that I don’t live in a war zone. I do have my home. It’s warm and it’s safe, the interior is cozy and beautiful, and the roof doesn’t leak – and since the mouse nest has been evacuated from the piano, all is well for now.


I experienced one very good moment this past fall; it was a happy and welcomed respite from the current bleak musical landscape of my life: Here I am singing “I’m Confessin” with a non-local band at a trad jam session which is held monthly in Saratoga.

A happy accident. Now this is what I need more of in my life.

Somnessence

My mother always used to say that if only all the aging women of the world who were lying awake in the middle of the night could come together in some sort of idea-swapping convocation, the problems of the world could be easily solved. Finding myself at the doorstep of 60, likely about the same age my mom was when I remember her first saying this, I’m now discovering my own sleep pattern to be less than ideal. At night, I sometimes imagine all of the other humans at this stage in life who, like me, lay sleepless, their minds wandering to and fro, following after tangents or manically focusing on troubling thoughts.

Last night as I lay in my bed, unable to sleep, yet not alert enough to do anything, my mind was churning. This is the time when my ideas seem to flow without much effort. Mostly, I’m just drowsy enough that I can’t quite get pen and pad in hand, but every so often – a time or two a week – I’ll successfully jot things down. Things like topics for posts, short melodies, or prompts which I hope will bring the concepts cascading back to me in my waking hours. Disappointingly, when I do manage to write something down, my scribbling is not always legible in the light of day. So I’m often back where I started. Knowing that my ideas are still somewhere, inaccessibly located in the landscape of my dream self.

My sleepless moments were rich with nuanced ideas, but now, as I make the time to sit and write, I can’t bring them back. I can, however, remember some dreams from the night before, and these fascinate me. Highly detailed and other-worldly, they behave as memories and provide me with the feeling that I have traveled far and wide just since yesterday. I have always had an active dreamlife; many times I’ve awoken in the morning feeling as if I needed another night’s rest after a full itinerary of oneiric travels.

During the night a hot new app was busy transforming my photos into slick, genre-specific avatars. As I slept, I had dreamt of an old friend from high school, and, waiting for me in the morning was an image that was supposed to look like me, but instead looked like the woman who I’d just dreamt of. Earlier that week I’d thought about her – having never known her well and not having thought of her in a few decades – so I went to message her on Facebook but found that her career as an actor had put her out of my immediate range. There would be no hello across the years. I didn’t need her audience, but it was strange, really, the way in which she appeared to me both in a dream and then in an image the next morning. It felt as fantastical as the newly created images looked.

What this means – if anything – I haven’t a clue. But it seemed like another nod from the universe that there might really be cosmic or energetic links between people and events. I certainly believe in plain-old coincidences, but every now and then it’s so tempting to believe that things are meant to happen as they do. I remain ambivalent.

Why did I get a herniated disc when I was out busking? This seems a pointed and cruel irony; I was busking in part to make myself some much-needed money – and it was as I packed up my gear that I felt a lightning bolt of pain which sent me to the ground and ultimately ended up costing me a good $500. All this for a lousy $50 in tips. Just what the hell was this experience supposed to have done for me?

The past few weeks since the event I’ve been unable to walk, hardly able to move about my house. Stairs have been unbearable. At my wits’ end, I went to see a chiropractor (who came recommended to me by a local keyboardist who, like me, had also once broken his neck). It’s taken a few weeks of ESTIM sessions and having my spine stretched on a table (this allows the disc room to move back into place), but I am now able to move almost without pain. It’s still going to be a long road back to racewalking and mountain climbing, but at least now I have hope. I once told an eye doctor who was gazing into my injured sclera after a nasty accident with a tree branch, “Before you tell me anything, remember that hope is half of healing”. I firmly believe this to be true. Thankfully, I have hope again.

I’m not sure if I believe this back injury was a necessary experience, but it sure has highlighted for me how good I have things now, relatively speaking. It’s been humbling. Truly, you don’t know what you have until it’s gone. I’m hoping my restored mobility will continue to remind me that I should take nothing for granted. Things could easily be much worse. I have it good, I know it.

This aging thing and its accompanying maladies, however, have begun to frighten me. I can see my face and my body getting older; I am noticeably changed from this time last year. And I’d be flat-out lying if I said it didn’t break my heart. Also, I’ve lost almost half of my hair over the past six months, due to a huge amount of stress – and this alone had seemed to be the worst indignity yet. Until, that was, I found myself unable to walk. (I’ve had to sub out of some lucrative holiday gigs, and that hurts too.)

I suppose that I need to focus on what I do have. A successful child and a warm and safe home.

And through the magic of AI I am now in possession of some lovely alternate images of my countenance, which, although illusory and not representative of my real self, serve to buoy my spirits. I will happily take an improvement of mood in any non-destructive way I can. For now, these dreamy images help take the edge off of this all-too-real reality.

While there are traces of some similarity, this image doesn’t really look like me; when you see photos of actor Virginia Madsen, I’m sure you’ll see the likeness to her. It is truly like our faces have merged in this image.

Falling Reign

This past summer has been an emotionally difficult season for me.

At a time when most of my peers have been wrapping up their careers, and at a time when I had fancied myself to be starting my career anew, I instead discovered my future to have fallen far short of that expectation. This has consumed me, and I have been stuck. And when my son returned from his trip to Europe late this summer, he knew it too, straight away.

“You are becoming happy in your sadness” he’d said after I’d admitted that I was still bereft at the end of my recent musical employment. “You are becoming happy to be sad. It’s not acceptable. You’re letting this become your story. ” He paused, and then he let a few minutes of dark highway pass, as if for effect. “Do not let this become your story.”

Although whatever had happened was in the past, he could tell that I was still dwelling on it – nay, simmering in it. What was gone – and how it had all gone down – was becoming toxic to me. “You have to move on” Elihu said, as we drove home in the inky darkness. It stung to hear him so critical, so serious. He was hardly my kid anymore; he was a peer offering sage advice. My mental health depended upon it, and we both knew it. I’d been able to push it away during the lonely summer months, as I’d had no one to counter my mood, no one to discuss it with. But he was home, and now I had the outside perspective I’d needed. Yeah. Time to move on. But to what?

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With no musical comrades, no peers and no dear friends in physical proximity, “moving on” seems truly daunting. Elihu has been my closest companion for the past nineteen years, and it is a tall order to replace such an insightful and considerate person with whom I can discuss things. I do have a few close friends – my oldest bestie from high school having recently become a cherished part of my life – but she is far away and has her own life to contend with. And in the end, no one can really take the place of my son. People warn against considering your child to be a peer, but I dunno. I have often said jokingly that I gave birth to a 50-year-old man. Not so funny as it is true.

Music seems to be fading into my past, and it breaks my heart fiercely. I have new projects – unrelated to music – which I should really dive into, but I flounder. I try to convince myself that I need new headshots, new recordings. That I need to write songs. Sure, I can always do that, but is it truly necessary at this point? Who fucking cares? I’ve worked mostly as a sideman; at 59 it’s a little late to pretend I’m a solo artist. So what is it that will earn me money, give me a sense of joy, self-respect and fulfillment? Is music even my path anymore? I am beginning to doubt it. I mourn the richness of my musical past and miss the brief taste of how it felt to make music again with other humans (that gave me joy, albeit short-lived). For now, I suppose it’ll have to go on hold while I discover what the next practical move should be.

What that will be, I don’t know. I’m grateful for my spiral-bound pads, filled with writing, lyrics, poems and project to-do lists, yet following through and assembling any of it into meaningful content seems as challenging as losing these goddam extra pounds I’ve solidly re-packed onto my frame over a season of self-soothing and grief.

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Last night, a violent late-summer storm pelted the house with sheets of rain and gusts of wind that knocked out power and toppled trees. I stood in the screen porch, feeling fully the might of the wind and water, and I asked the force to please wash me free of the past; wash me clean that I might start over again, from this moment forward…

It’s been a few weeks now since Elihu has returned to campus. He is an autonomous individual. I am no longer a full-time parent. The Queen has died, lain in state, and been buried. Things are different now. It’s time for the new order.

I suppose it’s time for Elizabeth 2.0 now. And when I figure out what form that will take, I promise you’ll be the first to know.


Turn of a Dime on “Liz Sings 70s”, my YouTube channel

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The Heart of a Moth

If one were to believe in karma, or in a certain “this-therefore-that” way of thinking, a belief that each event is the product of other events, all serving to bring forth one particular outcome, then things would be easier to justify, easier to handle emotionally. But these days I’m not too confident about it.

Once I was. And it was a less stressful way to live. Everything happens for a reason. Easy.

Sure, one can see in hindsight with some clarity how things build upon each other. Some consequences are so clearly related to things that came before that one can’t help but make the association. And there are those segments of our lives when things just seem so perfectly scripted that it’s hard to believe it wasn’t all “meant to be”, or that we might not have just earned the perfect outcomes through a withdrawal from some sort of energetic bank account.

I’m a mass of conflict these days. Just a few months ago I could not have felt stronger, more hopeful. Great things were within my grasp – I’d say I even sat squarely in the middle of some moments of pure perfection. Things I’d dreamed of for ages had finally come to fruition. And somehow it felt as if I’d earned all of it through my years of sacrifice and toil and hope… The world owed me some good shit now, cuz I’d been through a lot, and I certainly deserved it. Right?

A lot of people deserve good things. And a lot of people will never, ever receive these things. Most people on the planet will live fairly crappy lives, ones in which merely existing is the only goal, lives in which nothing out of the ordinary will manifest. But what on earth have they done to deserve these horrible fates? Not a bloody thing. Not in this life, at any rate.

Where is the parity? There seems to be none.

Not to say that there isn’t a direct correlation between hard work and its reward. Of course that can exist. But to me, that kind of opportunity seems a luxury. For me personally, I feel that reward doesn’t always seem to be a reliable outcome of hard work. Cuz I work a shit ton. I toil, I clean, I sort, put away, file, fix, tend, check in on, shop, cook, learn the tunes, learn the gear, teach the students. All for what ends up being not enough income to pay bills in anything like the real world. Were it not for the home provided for me by my mother (the Hillhouse itself), I truly would be out on the streets. And at 59, that’s a crappy thing to know about myself. All this work, just to exist in another person’s dwelling, and without the means to sustain myself in the most primitive way. Demoralizing.

Yes, I might see my reward as existing in my son. He is undoubtedly a remarkable human, and he’s destined for great things, he’s happy and launched. Yes, I’ve enjoyed a life densely packed with experiences that most folks don’t have.

But here I am on the other side, with the remainder of my life an expanse of nothingness. No rewards in view, no destinations. Got some ideas, a couple of projects I’d like to accomplish, idealized visions of what I’d like to write or perform. But any one thing on the list seems to require an investment of energy which I just can’t seem to summon anymore – or money, which I simply don’t have. My gear is old, my clothes are outdated, and the blog isn’t free. So what now? As I see it, it’s a game of waiting and simply slogging it out, hoping for a few more good moments before the finish line.

My inner conflict is further stoked by a secret disdain which I feel for some people. Shameful, but true. Look at those ham hock arms, listen to the horrible way in which they speak to their children, look at that antagonizing shit they post across their vehicles… And then I realize that if there were to be a catastrophic event and we were all thrust together, I would see their humanity first. My heart would soften when our eyes met… I would see the fragile person within. I would feel forgiveness, and I would understand that their life was a product of the situation into which they were born. And I wouldn’t care that they still believed in Trump. (Many of my friends would disagree with me on this quite fervently, but I say humans are humans at the end of the day. I don’t have to hang out with them, but I don’t have to hate them either.) How dare I feel so superior?

As I was standing at the window just now, looking out at the tall weeds surrounding the vacant chicken coop with a deep feeling of despair growing inside, my eyes landed on a moth, clinging to the wall. That creature and I both have hearts, I thought. A vague feeling of hope overcame me. For just a second, I felt some relief. It felt as if we were all in this together, every creature on this globe. Good outcomes and bad outcomes, we all experienced them. Moths too. Imagine flying towards a thing that your whole essence tells you to be the ultimate goal, only to find your life extinguished? That doesn’t seem fair, to be sure.

“Who ever told you life was fair?” my mother would often say to us as children. I could never form a response, shamed, scolded and immature as I was back then, but now I understand what I had been thinking but couldn’t articulate. “Everyone”. From the time we’re tiny, we’re told to play fair. What a strange incongruity. Play fair, nothing in life is fair. I suppose that both are true.

We earthly creatures are all linked in some way, sharing this bizarre brew of the tragic and the magic. And strange as is may seem, in view of the unfavorable odds with which we are presented, it appears that each one of us somehow manages to maintain a tiny feeling of hope. Each one of us has a heart which continues to beat.

Even a moth.

The Privilege of June

This is the first June 12th in several years which has passed rather uneventfully.

Last year on this day my son graduated from high school. Two years ago on this day I permanently injured my eye. Today had been my former in-laws’ wedding anniversary. This is also the birthday of my ex-husband’s second son, the out-of-wedlock child who inspired me to move with Elihu from the Midwest to upstate New York and start a new life.

It’s interesting to me that the day which used to cause me such anguish now hardly registers as a day of note. Even my eye injury (something which is still an ongoing cause of mild discomfort) falls to the status of the everyday. And my son’s half-brother’s birthday is not the hurtful anniversary it used to be. In fact, I’ll likely suggest before the day is through that he might call him. Can’t say that I don’t feel a slight twinge when this other family is mentioned, but at this point, it’s simply part of our reality.

The past several weeks have been painful for me, in the wake of an imprudent move of mine regarding an old friend. I lost a professional situation in the mix as well, but it pales in comparison. Yet somehow, the internal anguish which has dogged me recently without much letup has tempered a bit today.

This morning and afternoon I have passed the hours in the sunshine and in the shade, reading, leisurely walking about the waist-high grasses of our property, and just being with my son. When Elihu and I walked together down the long, wooded driveway to the road at his suggestion, my heart was made light. We two always enjoy great conversation, and much laughter. It’s something I’ve never taken for granted, but perhaps in this final time before he leaves for the rest of the summer, I cherish his company even more. These days I am living moment by moment, noticing the peace and comfort of my life, and regarding it far less casually than is my habit.

“I am not grateful for my life,” answered Elihu when I asked him if that was how he had felt, “but rather I feel privileged to be here”. He went on to cite the exceptionally rare chance that each one of us had at becoming humans, let alone coming to be in such a safe and thriving time and place. Prone to depression as I am, it’s easy for me to want to give it all up, to get it done with already, just fucking leave. But something about the way in which Elihu presented his case and the manner in which he spoke had reached me. It inspired me just a little. And a little is something. Today it was the something I needed.

On Wednesday my son leaves to spend the summer in Europe with his father and the other family. I’m thrilled for him, but I admit that a tiny piece of me still feels a tad jealous. I wish that I was going with him on this adventure. But instead, after having raised him on my own, and having done all the of heavy lifting during those densely-packed academic times, the trend continues; his father gets to share with our son all of the magical, other-worldly experiences, all of the travel and adventure. (Fits the term I recently learned of “Disney Dad”.) But it’s ok. Elihu’s life will be so enriched by the events ahead. This makes me happy. It makes me feel grateful.

Actually, it makes me feel privileged.


Postscript: Another contributor to my improved mood is the success of my mother’s recent surgery, and her favorable prognosis. She is faring well and her recovery looks to be complete. An enormous relief.

June 12ths of the past…

Birth and Baptism

Summer, Defenestrated (9th paragraph)

Storm of the Eye

Growing On

We are put upon this earth without our consent. We are launched into a life incarnate without our choosing and by the time we’ve finally gotten our wits about us, many of us may come to realize that we might not have signed on for the experience if we’d been given an option at the outset.

This may sound deeply cynical, I know. But please understand that although I may often feel as if I don’t wish to be here, it’s not to say that I do not bear profound witness to the unfathomable marvel of this planet and the mortal life we share. Daily I am astounded by the complexities around me in the natural world. Daily I am fairly tortured by my desire to know more about my fellow humans and what motivates them to move through their lives and into their futures. Who among us is enthusiastically participating in life? Who among us is caring principally about advancement, who is working simply to avoid the pain, and who is altogether unaware that his or her own existence even merits examination?

From my privileged seat in a commercial airplane I can see vast tracts of land below me, all organized into human-sized portions. Suburban grids by day, cobwebs of light by dark, our handprint is ubiquitous. While I know there’s plenty of magic taking place here, I can’t help but feel the collateral despair. I imagine all of the strife, all of the heartbreak and loss. All of the fear, shame and regret. Perhaps it’s this way of thinking which has motivated me to live a more colorful life than some of my peers. I wish to avoid undue toil and discomfort in favor of the more pleasurable experiences. I am interested in reaching people and connecting. I am attracted to candor and insight. My goal is to bring comfort and witness to people. You can count on me to be the ice-breaker at a party, or the one who gets the silent old man in the corner to smile.

But sometimes, none of this is what’s appropriate or necessary. Today I learned that lesson again, and it has me stopped for a moment of reflection.

As I look out at the disheveled property that surrounds me, it cries out for me to surrender. This is the summer when it seems I will have to relinquish any illusion of control and simply let everything go….

The lawn is already up to my knees, the downed trees are becoming overtaken with vines, the retaining rock walls are tumbling down the hill, and my perennial garden looks to be nothing more than stinging nettles and goldenrod. The many hours of labor I spent tending to the garden last year appear to have been in vain. My arthritic hands hurt and my once-broken neck is becoming more of an issue each day; I just don’t see how I can wrestle the patch back into shape the way I’m feeling now. I honestly don’t think I have it in me anymore. And with a recent surprise turn of personal and professional events, my energy reserves feel even more depleted. As some might say, “I haven’t got the bandwidth” for it all. Truly, I don’t.

This will also be the final year for me at the helm of the Studio. It will conclude a decade of my hard and unpaid work. Work that was, at its core, a Sisyphean task. That’s not to say that it was a waste of time and resources – to the contrary, it was the birthplace of many great works and memories. Audiences leapt to their feet in applause at inspired performances, people of all ages danced, sang, acted and played music. Artists painted, writers finished novels, dance troupes worked out choreography, yoga teachers held workshops, kids enjoyed summer camps, elders convened to talk about death, people were married and neighbors drew into a circle to play drums together. There was even a workshop in which participants (of which I was one) walked barefoot over hot coals. Truly, a wide net was cast. I cannot say that it was not a success. In many ways it was an astounding success. But that era is over now, and I need to find something which better suits my waning energy and stamina.

I have to wrap while I can still feel the afterglow of the good things that happened there. If I stay at this too long, I’ll resent it. Time to stand aside now. Time to let things be.

What will come next is truly unknown to me. There will be music, there will be new gigs, new jobs. I know this. Just not sure where, or with whom. Not entirely sure I’ll even stay here at the Hillhouse. For now it’s where my piano is, so it’s where I am. But like the Studio, this place may have served its function in my life. Not sure. Much is yet uncertain.

The only thing of which I can be sure is that with or without me, the grass will continue to grow.

Making Music

It’s come to pass now. I’ve just been to New York City for a rehearsal. It was my first time playing with other musicians in almost two decades. And it was fun.

But it was also work. I had learned my parts, yet I’d still missed a few details. The music director and the leader were kind about it though and helped coach me as best they could. But in the end, there were a few nuances I couldn’t get in the moment, and which I promised to make good on by the time we met in Chicago for our first show.

I know I talked too much. I’m accustomed to being the funny one, the one in charge, the most colorful character in the room – but it wasn’t so in this situation (nor was it really appropriate for me to add my unnecessary commentaries). For as many times as I scolded myself during the rehearsal to please stop talking, I failed at that effort. It had been so long since I’d been in the company of professionals that I felt downright provincial, and it threw me off. I felt like the chicken farmer from upstate who couldn’t stop chittering about how exciting it was to be in a big city and playing with a real band. Sheesh.

But all in all, it went well. And it’s going to feel like heaven when we’re all assembled on stage and playing (we have some guests for the upcoming date in Chicago who are joining us – it promises to be a night of gorgeous sounds). How perfect is it that our first show will be in my hometown? It seems like something from a dream. And yet it’s real. Very real. When it’s all said and done, I will have driven a few thousand miles and moved a whole lotta gear. I will have spent hours upon hours learning and practicing. Man, it’s just such a lot of work. But strangely, that seldom enters my mind. It’s just what one does in order to play music. It’s a challenge, but it’s also a joy. And not everyone can do it, so I’d be foolish to waste such a gift.

It does make one wonder, though, why in hell would anyone go to all this trouble and invest all this time and money only to end up barely breaking even? Any sane person would question the whole thing. But musicians, we don’t tend to focus on the effort or expense. If we did, I can promise you there would be no live music! So why do we do it? For me, honestly, it feels like I’ve never had a choice. And look, I know, no one made me do this. But I’ve always felt that playing music was so naturally a part of my life that there were no other options. I did go to college and I tried to do things the “right” way, but it simply wasn’t my path. Learning, rehearsing, loading in and loading out, it’s been part of my life ever since I was sixteen and my mom drove me and my suitcase Rhodes to rehearsal in our powder blue ’65 Valiant.

This new situation is more than just about the opportunity to play music, it’s about the opportunity to work with people who are very good at what they do. Over the past fourteen years I’ve been so musically lonely. When I lived in Chicago there were so many excellent and talented musicians with whom to work that I never experienced a shortage of projects, and I was always challenged. But here in my country life I haven’t had any musical relationships at all. Of course I’ve been busy raising a child, but still….

So this is why I bought a new keyboard, spent hours learning material and just drove four hundred miles for a rehearsal.

So I could get back to making music.

A Greeting

This is an unconventional post for me; I should like to briefly introduce myself – and in some way, qualify myself to a completely new and unforeseen audience.

My name is Elizabeth Conant. I’m a 58-year-old woman, originally from Chicago, who has recently concluded a 15-year run as a single mom in rural upstate New York. Although I’ve worked mainly as a piano teacher and accompanist in this past chapter, in my previous city life I was a working musician.

This blog began in earnest some ten years ago when I desperately needed a conduit to the word in the wake of a traumatic divorce (I know, what divorce isn’t traumatic?) and cross-country move.

I’ve dealt with depression and panic attacks since adolescence. Thankfully, these issues are currently much less acute than they’ve been in past years. That may well be because I now stand at the threshold of a curiously inviting time of freedom and possibility.

In some respects this collection of writings might be construed as an online diary, but I hope that readers may find contained within the 650+ posts some substantive content which pleases or inspires them.

Welcome to The Hillhouse and thank you so kindly for stopping by.


For a peek into our life here at The Hillhouse, please visit our Instagram page.

Link to the Chicago Tribune piece on the death of drummer Taylor Hawkins

Stillhouse

Things here at the Hillhouse are quiet these days.

There are still the comings-and-goings of piano students and their families, and the chickens mutter to themselves and scratch in the leaves all day, a familiar sound which is almost always audible through the thin windows of my vintage ranch house. There is animation here; there is still a lovely sprinkle of energy from the visitors, both human and animal, which prevents me from feeling the absence of my son too acutely. And of course, there’s music; now I finally have time to practice a bit, to learn new material, to try things out. That helps keep the house from feeling as silent as it might otherwise.

But even so, my feeling about this new single life is tenuous.

My mood continues to ride the crests and valleys of a mildly manic state. I don’t reach the absolute lows that I know some people to experience. Rather, I sense what I can best describe as a loss of hope, a state which I can feel coming over me the way a person might feel a migraine coming on. I try to get ready; I check the calendar for my next student, my next appointment, my next diversion… Mindful of the imminent low, I try to find the footholds that will get me through.

And while I don’t experience the true euphoria of a manic high, some mornings I awake with my chest bursting with the thrill of possibility; my head swimming with enough ideas to fill a book. I pen dozens of notes to myself in a handful of tiny spiral notebooks which I keep throughout the house, having the absolute conviction that I will revisit these ideas, flesh them out and convert them into insightful posts. (A more honest part of me knows that this is not likely to happen.)

There are mornings when I lay in bed (grateful to finally be able do so!) and I wonder where my reason for living will come from in the day yet before me. It’s not a down place, it’s just a medium place. It’s where I live most of the time, actually. The to-do list always pulls me forward, but it’s certainly not something which gives my life meaning. (Lest I give the idea that I’m inert these days, let me assure you that I am not. Yes, there is a new, relaxed pace to my life, but it is still rife with a myriad of tasks and errands, many which have me grumbling ongoing complaints.) But in those first, quiet and undefined moments of the day, I am without a sense of purpose. I am adrift.

Like today. I awoke feeling neutral. Feeling nothing. The time of day was not apparent by the diffused light, my body felt good, rested and free of pain, my mind was empty. For a moment I did not even quite know where I was. Glorious absence it was. And then my critical mind awoke and reminded me: this was too much absence. Wait, was I here for some reason? I couldn’t remember. Figure it out, Elizabeth. Get up, do the morning’s chores, and figure it out.

These days I feel the need to get out of my tiny environment. To see old friends, to relax into relationships that I miss, to see people who already know me. Friends from the time that came before parenthood and life in the country. I need a respite, a change of scenery, a little dose of the city. I dunno, just something else. For the most part I am a homebody to be quite sure; I love my bed, I love my home, I love living far from the road surrounded by nature… I love all things familiar, comfortable and easy. But this place of domestic peace will always be here. My opportunities to get out and enjoy life will not. I’m getting noticeably older with every passing month (my arthritic hands are getting worse and worse each week), so if I’m to travel, to get up and out and far away from here, I need to do it soon. Soon.

Recently I’ve begun to consider more seriously the idea of giving away my flock. I don’t see how I can ever leave this compound if they are still my responsibility. Having my son go away to college has been immensely freeing – no meals to cook, no shuttling to school and back – and yet I can’t take full advantage of this new situation as I might like. I’m deeply conflicted about this.

Recently I asked a farmer friend of mine if she’d like to take my flock. She said yes, but then asked me “Are you sure?” Yeah, she knew. I did too. A move like this needed some serious introspection. Having a flock of chickens all about the property is a lovely, life-enhancing thing. They improve the mood of all my visitors – and they always improve my mood, too. If they were gone this place would be very, very quiet.

So this is where I find myself now. Suspended between my old life and the new one ahead. Seems I need to be brave and wrap up this era for good.

Just not absolutely sure if I’m ready for the still to follow.