Making Music

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

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

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.

Middling

Middling

In this first week of March, Elihu and I exist in an interesting and unique place in our lives.

Today we are at home, each of us ensconced in our own projects, each working in our own individual spaces, yet each of us knowing and feeling the other to be not far away. We are together, yet alone. Every so often one of us will approach the other to share our most recent achievement, and the other will bear witness. We offer praise, critique, input, advice. We share a moment together before retreating back to our respective workplaces. And I love this way of living. We two are so comfortable together, so attuned to each other’s nuances and ways of thinking. Elihu speaks aloud his newly learned Chinese vocabulary, and I repeat it to the best of my ability. I see that the tree sparrows have returned, and he joins me at the kitchen window to watch them on the feeder while we marvel together at their precisely timed arrival. Elihu references a beginning line from a Tom Lehrer parody, and I finish it. I play an arrangement idea at the piano for a pop song I’m working on, and then Elihu plays me a favorite passage from a Brahms symphony. Sometimes we’ll play a short improvised duet of tuba and piano. And after we’ve enjoyed the other’s company for a short while, the moment concludes most naturally, and we each return to our solitude. But it is a safe sort of solitude, as in the back of our minds (at least in the back of this mother’s mind) we both know that the other is but a room away. And this, at least for me, is the key element to this current state of domestic bliss.

March is a time which has always been both hopeful and trying; it is the time of year when trees begin to drip their sap onto the car windshield, assuring us that the cold will break before long, yet it is also the time of year when the winter can offer up its worst in ice storms and heavy snows, burdening our hearts with a desperate feeling that the green will never reappear. For me, March has always represented the flat and still center of the year. A day in mid March has a strange, etheric, out-of-time sort of feeling to it. Neither winter, nor summer, neither active nor passive. It is the still center of existence. This day in particular has felt just like that. Not only in that is is that time of waiting for Nature to shift, but this year it is also for the fact that Elihu and I have no idea whatsoever where he will be going to college. Having heard from only one school (which although a top-notch institution, is his last choice), we are left to wonder at the trajectory of his life, even at this late date in the academic year. While most of his peers have been accepted and are already shifting their thinking to what will be their new homes and lives, we are left unknowing. We are left with a great expanse ahead with no landmarks. It doesn’t bother Elihu though, as he is deeply embedded in his senior project, and spends most of his waking hours in his workshop. He is engrossed, he is focused. And besides, my son is a person who knows how to fully inhabit the present. So he’s ok. And me? Yeah, I’m ok too I suppose. But I’m also not ok. Like March, I’m somewhere in between.

Not knowing isn’t so bad, actually. In fact, it’s kinda fun. It reminds me of how I used to feel, when as a touring musician I’d wake up on the road in a strange new place and for the first few minutes of consciousness in the morning I would try to recall where I was. New York? Ohio? Georgia? Was I in a closet? In a living room? A motel? I would enjoy those first few moments of not knowing. It was a short suspension of reality. I was awake, and yet it was like being in a dream. A strange in-between. And so it is in a similar place in which I find myself to be these days. Existentially in the middle. But truthfully, it feels good. Today we had no place to be, no deadlines to meet. We had only to do what we pleased. Me, I was upstairs at the piano working out new arrangements and making videos, while Elihu was at his bench, wiring up the the innards of his morphing-wing airplane. We crossed paths a few times, laughed at every meeting (ours is a relationship filled with humor) and enjoyed the alone-but-not-alone way of life in our tiny cottage. It was a kind of heaven for us both.

I mentioned to Elihu this concept of not knowing. The idea that at this very point in time, today, March 7th, 2021, we had absolutely no idea where he would be living for the next four years. No idea where life would take him after the summer. I marveled over how odd it felt – after all we had always been ones for planning and knowing. This was an unusual phenomenon for us both. He stopped on his way back downstairs, pausing for a moment on the landing, and considered the idea more deeply. He agreed. It was rather a strange situation to be in. We both stood for a moment, feeling the silence, feeling the unknowing. Then we parted and returned to our workspaces. Before sitting back down at the piano I looked out of the east-facing picture window in our living room. I could see the thawing surface of Saratoga Lake some ten miles distant, and I saw the Vermont mountains behind in the waning sunlight of late afternoon. The poignancy of the moment was acute; this life of ours had always been so full, so busy, so relentless, so unending…. And yet now the end of it all was finally within sight. The late afternoon light gave me that sad, distant and aching feeling in my chest, adding to the gravity of this impending farewell. How many times had I looked out at this same view and felt content, secure in my heart that life was full and good? Sure, many times I have lamented the load I’ve carried without benefit of a partner, many times I’ve grumbled aloud about domestic chores and the drudgery of it all, but many more have been the times I have reflected on how full a life I’ve had, and how lucky I am to have shared much of this adventure with such a person as Elihu. Many times over the past twelve years I have stood at this same window, looking out at the expanse beyond, feeling so deeply fortunate to be in the midst of a pretty wonderful life.

This is a fascinating place in which to exist. If I’m to be completely honest, I fairly dread being without my dearest companion close at hand, but at the same time I am also eager for it to begin; I have so many projects and interests. It always amazes me when people find themselves bored after retirement. It also amazes me that my mother asks what I’ll do with “all of my time” after the kid is gone. How do I begin to answer that? There is always so much to do! So much to learn. Too much! I’m confident things will be ok, I’m fairly certain that I will find my new groove before long. My son will have some major adjusting to do as well. But he’ll do fine too. We’ll both be ok. Knowing that we have both been actively preparing for these upcoming life destinations, I can rest easy in this space in time. Oh and what a rare thing it is not to know where the future will take us! It is actually a pleasurable sort of suspense.

At this moment we are just where we’ve always planned on being. We are ready. Plain and simple, we are here. At the end, at the beginning, and, at the same time, right in the very middle.

Like Us

Like Us

“It’s not easy for people like us” Elihu said, his dark eyes looking directly into mine from across the table.

We were sitting at the tiny island in the kitchen, a place at which we’d shared hundreds – nay, thousands – of conversations over the twelve years in which we’d lived here. The topic this time was how we two have always felt different from just about everyone we’d ever met. Sometimes I jokingly refer to us as being “fully loaded”. What do I mean? What did Elihu mean? At the risk of sounding like a snob, I’ll try my best to explain. Because it is a problem. When it comes to relationships. Friendships, romance – any of it. It’s not always easy being people like us.

Having an awareness of so many things: different cultures, different climates and physical environments, different ways of living in the world, different values, different ways of thinking, of interpreting the world, of celebrating, dressing, eating, making music, dancing, working, playing, relating to others – being deeply and legitimately interested in and somewhat educated about such a huge variety of human experiences can put one in a tricky spot. A place in which you can imagine yourself to feel somewhat at home in all of the experiences yet never truly at home in any of them. Does that make sense? My highly literate and exquisitely expressive son had said it much better than that, but sadly he is not a contributor here, so I’ll have to muddle through this idea as best I can. Basically, we feel that our awareness of the world greatly reduces the number of peers who feel as we do. Sometimes knowing too much puts one in a lonely place.

This came up in the context of discussing colleges. For as long as we can remember, the goal has been MIT. And when we went to visit last year (the only campus we visited!) we felt immediately at home. The place and the people – I believe the word favored here is ‘culture’ – it all felt so good, so natural. We even loved the smell of the old buildings, the crazy-long corridors in the landmark domed building, the music department and its cozy, aged atmosphere. But recently something has begun to nag at Elihu’s thoughts regarding MIT.

At its core, it is a tech school. It is the repository of the mathsiest students in the nation. It is a flagship of science and research. Sure, there’s a music department, sure my kid could minor in linguistics, but at the end of the day it is not a liberal arts school. Everyone is there for tech and science. If you were to take a random sample of ten students, you might not find a one of them participating in the arts. And at this stage in Elihu’s development as a person, while tech is at the heart of his interests, his music has become a huge part of who he is. And so perhaps, just perhaps, it might be a good idea to consider a college culture in which he may find more of his artsy peers.

“Harvard, Yale, Princeton” Elihu listed the options that he was now seriously considering. “Those places are full of people whom I could relate to easily” he said. I was surprised, but I wasn’t. (Secretly my heart leapt at the idea of Yale; my son is named for its founder, Elihu Yale, my father went to school there, and then went on to teach and become the curator of its ancient instrument collection, an institution which resides on Hillhouse Avenue. And I myself was born in New Haven. Are those not all lovely symbols of serendipity?) I’d known that Princeton had a good aeronautical engineering program, as one of Elihu’s mentors had gone to school there, but I wasn’t aware that Harvard or Yale had aeronautical engineering options. I was leery about them being candidates. But Elihu began to get a little excited when talking about these two ivy leaguers. It was new to me, this whole turning of the trajectory; it had always been about aeronautics – languages and music were the sidebars. But my son is a very gifted writer too, and a visual artist of some skill. He is multilingual, he is a poet, a composer, a reader and a thinker, an autodidact. Truly, he is a renaissance man, and it’s of utmost importance that he find his tribe. I feel his plight deeply.

Finding one’s tribe is at the heart of this whole conversation. When you can identify with so many other tribes, how can you find the one in which you should live? Me, I’ve resigned myself to living out my life simply observing – I don’t have many friends in my area, hell I don’t have many friends in any one area of the world these days. Now they are now scattered across the nation, the globe. So I will likely remain here, alone. I’m content to watch the world from my seat here at the Hillhouse. But my son – he needs to find his people. This is no small decision.

I am completely thrilled for the adventure that awaits my son. Thrilled. Yet as the same time, on a purely selfish note, I’m growing anxious about his departure. Our conversations are always rich. We love living side-by-side here surrounded by nature. We enjoy playing music together. We love all things hilarious, and we notice nuance where others often do not. We read aloud to each other. We practice accents and languages together. We think. And we share what we think. In short, we are a deeply connected tribe of two. But this will change so very soon as Elihu finally discovers the correct direction in which to head out and to be on his own.

Soon he will find the path that leads him to his new tribe, that path which will bring him to his new home. And it will be a place with people – like us.

Summer, Defenestrated

Summer, Defenestrated

Even though the outside temps are pleasant and the cold hasn’t fully arrived, in this first week of fall, summer is certainly out the window. But it kinda feels like the whole year, the whole nation, maybe even the whole planet itself has gone out the proverbial window along with it.

For me personally, in this long stretch of time since I last wrote a post, both enormously great things have happened in my life alongside tiny tragedies. Where to even begin?

The pandemic took away some amazing opportunities for my son, who had won a concerto competition and was to have played as a soloist with a symphony orchestra. It took away a South American tour with the orchestra too. But in the space that a home-bound experience provided, my son was able to study in preparation for his hopeful college, as well as create some beautiful aircraft and a new website. He likes to be alone, he loves to learn and to study. He’s been in heaven with extra time to work on Japanese, on Mandarin, and on advancing his understanding of German. Frankly, this time has been a huge gift for Elihu.

And me? Firstly I’m back on the diet train. As with every time before, I assure myself that things will be different this time. That I’ll keep those goddam thirty-five extra pounds off my frame for good. I’d been going to the Y several times a week for the past few years, so things were good on that front, but when the virus hit and people were staying inside, sharing recipes and cooking up all those carby treats, I was already well ahead of them. I’d been eating like a teenage boy all winter, and by the time of quarantine my face was doughy and I was inching my way out of my wardrobe. Since May I’ve lost seventeen pounds, which feels great, but I’m only halfway to my goal. And it’s the second half of the process that always kicks my ass, and it’s often when the whole program goes, well, out the window. We shall see how I fare this time around. Existential angst, a fresh round of panic attacks and a desperation for a respite from constantly being on the hook for what feels like everything, all this propels me to break free and move onward into a better future for myself. Perhaps this time it’ll be different. Perhaps.

The Studio has experienced a renaissance during this pandemic, a true re-birth. It’s been a small miracle, and it’s been the happy answer to my now seven-year search for sustainable programming – and income. Until now the venue has rarely even paid for itself. Magical concerts and gatherings take money to produce, and net very little. As a single mom, teaching, keeping house and farm, I have never had the time to figure out the fundraising thing. And as a NFP, that should be the venue’s main source of income. Anyone who truly knows me knows that I haven’t got it in me to do all the insanely tedious administrative work it takes to get grants. Back in the day – a few decades ago – in Chicago I was able to easily get a couple of grants for my music, but the world is a very different place now, and arts organizations are fighting tooth and nail for every penny. And because there are already so many live venues in my area, I’m up against too many contenders. Hey, I’m fighting just to exist on this goddam planet, I ain’t got it in me to take on any other battles. But thankfully, I won’t need to…

Last summer a friend suggested I rent out the place on Airbnb. At first the startup costs had me stopped, and I wasn’t sure how it might work legally. My accountant advised me of the parameters; personally I could take some money for management and cleaning fees, but the income was for the Studio. Fine by me. And how would I tie it in to our mission? I billed it as a “midcentury artist’s retreat in the woods”. No wifi, but deer right outside the window, a great live hall with an in-tune Steinway, lots of instruments and gear, and trees all around. Perfect. There was a lot of stuff to buy in order to set the place up properly. But mom stepped in as she always has to cover the gaps, and I crossed my fingers this was the final time I’d ever need her help. I made a few tweaks and made the former green room into a very cozy little apartment. Bookings started soon after, and I have been dark for only 3 days since I opened. It’s been exhausting – I’m a maintenance and cleaning staff of one for a big space – but at least the place is finally making money, not a lot, but the building is paying for its expenses, which is huge. Next year I’ll raise my prices and who knows, it might even get into the black. Folks have recorded albums, finished novels and choreographed dances in the space. Soon I’ll revamp the website and direct folks to all of the work created there. It’s a whole new chapter, and a productive one, which pleases me deeply. You should see the guest book, so much love and gratitude expressed there. A miracle, truly.

But personally, I’ve been hit hard by a few things, one more literal than metaphorical, and I shall get to that in a moment. Friends may know I broke my neck when I was eighteen, and for years docs have warned me that arthritis would likely follow as I aged. But secretly I felt like I was somehow a badass for whom this fate was too pedestrian, somehow I just knew that that would never be my fate. However, it has finally come back to haunt me just as the professionals had warned, and tirelessly so. My neck aches nearly all the time, and it makes all sorts of gruesome sounds; grinding, popping… And occasionally there are tingling and electrical sensations down my left arm (I broke that shoulder too, so…) So far the feelings aren’t severe, but I no longer think that Nature knows that I am exceptional, and she will continue to mete out the consequences of my previous injuries according to her plan.

I also have nine nodules in my thyroid which are continuing to grow in size. Thankfully the growths are benign – and I know this as I had nine fine needle aspirations, one in every nodule. Oy! I cancelled my appointment twice before I acquiesced and did the right thing. (When I broke my wrist years ago and needed surgery while pregnant, I had to have local anesthesia administered in both my neck and armpits, and this was reminiscent of that scary and vulnerable procedure. Long-ass needles in very tender parts while you are fully awake are no fun.) My neck is almost always tight, tight, tight. I’ll even gag out of nowhere, and of course it’s downhill from there if I don’t just force myself to chill out immediately. I must breathe deeply and slowly and use great restraint so that the gagging doesn’t take me over. Not an hour goes by when I don’t have to physically pinch the tissue on my neck and pull it out to provide some relief. It’s nearly 24/7. It’s bearable, but I can’t see how I can live like this for the rest of my life, certainly not if it gets worse. I was to have had a contrast MRI a while back, but my panic came on in spades, even with three xanax in my system, when they locked me into the neck scan apparatus for the MRI. It’s even tighter than the tube, and we all know how small that bore is. I tapped my foot to help, but it ruined the images. It tried, I did. I just couldn’t. Those who live with panic know what I mean. So now ultra sound and x-ray happen this week. Hope they shed light. I’m a singer, I can’t fuck with my voice. This neck stuff scares me deeply.

So now to the event that has changed my life forever. I was hit in the eye by a log kicked back from a wood chipper in early June. What the hell was I doing loading a wood chipper without eye protection? I don’t know. Being a badass again. I hired a crew to help me clean up the downed branches after a long winter, and not a one of them was wearing glasses, so I didn’t have cause to worry I thought, and besides, I always thought the danger lay in the impelling, not the expelling. And subsequently I’ve heard that the new, current machines have safety mechanisms to prevent that. But looking for the cheapest outfit to get the job done, naturally the gear they brought was old school and just as sketchy as the band that did the work. In fact, I donned my work boots and gloves and joined alongside them cuz they just weren’t kicking ass. And I hired them to kick ass! I worked alongside them in the heat and humidity. After about the third hour I loaded a huge, thick branch into the machine, and wham! it kicked out and into my left eye. “I gotta go to the emergency room” I said, covered my eye, ran back to the house, grabbed the kid and hightailed it to the hospital.

So. Where do I stand now? I lost a chunk of my sclera, the white part, and I have not only crazy annoying floaters which have dulled my vision to a slight blur, but I also have now a constant feeling that something is in my eye. Or as if I had a contact in backwards. I damaged my sinuses and have a constant tightness in my left orbit, and sometimes it hurts. At night, when I turn my eyes to the right, I see a flash of white light, something similar to an ocular migraine, and while at first it was really creepy, now, thankfully, it is something I’ve come to expect and it’s somewhat easier to live with. But it’s still creepy. Daily, hourly, I lament this accident, my part in it, my stupidity. Again, I was trying to take care of everything myself. I am so disappointed in the choice I made that day, in my fate. And I don’t like that I’m always feeling so self-sorry. Cuz I am.

But in order to diminish my self-pity and to “make lemonade” of the situation, I decided to throw my focus somewhere else every time I’d start to whine internally. I memorized all 195 countries in the world. I learned each one not only by their location, but also by their shape. I learned most of the capitals. Ok. So that took a week. What next? I picked up a book in French and started to read aloud, occasionally asking my precocious, French-speaking son where my pronunciation mistakes were. With so little vocabulary this became too frustrating, and I was back to feeling sorry for myself. What next? I started to walk. I live on a fairly busy road so had never considered this simple activity. I’d had an old friend from high school come to visit mid summer (a deviation from my diet certainly occurred then!) and we had gone for a walk one evening. It had seemed so foreign an idea, but how perfect, how simple! And how good it felt to move…

I have misrepresented myself on Facebook as I’ve shared my recent physical activity. Yes, I can do a lot of miles now (nine yesterday – my own mind was blown) and yes, I go fast. Not the 5.5 mph I did ten years ago, but I move, I cover ground. But I don’t run. I can’t. My neck could never take it. I’ve been a tad too embarrassed to reveal it, both for the way in which it looks to most, and for the way in which it is greatly misunderstood, but I, dear readers, am a racewalker. Have been for thirty years. And I kick ass at it, this I know. And it feels awesome. I love it. And I don’t love running. When I run, my boobs bounce, my neck hurts and I can’t wait for it to be over. But racewalking? It’s sexy. Very. It’s elegant, it’s control, it’s groove. I could balance a teacup on my head and not spill a drop. The movement is about the hips taking the stress, and dispersing it by moving with it, not against it. There are no heavy footfalls; each step is exponentially less stressful than a jogger’s step. And I can groove. I get my music going, I find my form (which I must always tweak as I go, lest I get lazy and hang my neck down thereby defeating the purpose of keeping stress off) and I go. I fucking go. And it feels so good, cuz I’m moving, I’m sweating, I’m dancing. Really. That’s what it feels like to me, it’s like a forward-moving dance. And when I sink into it, and realize that it’s not the destination, it’s the right now, it’s where I am right at this moment – that’s when I’m in the proverbial zone. It’s what kept me going yesterday, up and down grades – that each take a shifting of gears and form – seeing not the end, but just the going, the going… It helps keep me sane, distracted, breathing deep. I still have to pull at my neck, sometimes I need a lozenge to keep my throat itself distracted and moving, but I do it. It’s been a long time since I’ve racewalked, but it definitely feels as right now as it used to. Even though I love the solitude, I wish I knew others who felt as I do about it. I don’t have a tribe, I’ve never in my life met anyone who also racewalked, hell I’ve never even seen another racewalker but for on YouTube. I’ve done 5Ks and 10Ks and never seen another soul racewalking. But that’s ok. I’ve always been good at being alone.

Although I do get fairly personal here in this forum (one friend even referred to my writing as “brazen” – my goodness that seems a bit extreme, does it seem so to you?) I have never once mentioned the subject of relationships. There have simply been none. These past twelve years here I have given my all, and happily so, to my son, who shall forever remain the brightest light in my life and my reason for being here on this globe. I have declined many a romantic overture over the years; many fine men have made attempts to woo me, but I have given none of them a chance – yet at the same time, I’ve always been completely frank with them. I simply have never had the energy to give. I gave it all to my kid. But now, as I contemplate a new life without my child at my side, I am beginning to yearn for something else. I’ve never missed having love, sex, romance, any of that – I’ve simply been too slammed with life for anything else. But now, my mind wanders. My heart hopes, and I wonder at a post-child life and what opportunities might appear. But I have mixed feelings; I love my solitude. Can one have both, I wonder? That window might open again. Who knows.

As a proud mother nearly ending her tenure at childrearing, I must also share an update on my son Elihu. I will clear up now the way in which his name is pronounced as I have been asked many times (hey, I wouldn’t know either if my dad hadn’t been a Yale man). It’s “EL ih hyoo”. Not “el AYE hoo”. Granted, in its original day (think Old Testament) it was probably more like the latter, but the accepted pronunciation changed a few hundred years ago. (Look for Elihu’s story in the book of Job, it’s very moving. Without even intending it, my son got the name that fit the man he would become. Sometimes the world truly is magical.) My son has his sights set on MIT. We visited the school last October, and it just felt right immediately. I had thought the city atmosphere and large scale of the buildings would be too much for my legally blind kid, but no. He was charged up, thrilled at every corridor, every turn, every lecture hall. He was home. And although I’ve been told by numerous friends not to get our hopes up, I’m sorry. They already are. Elihu was awarded the Rensselaer Medal from RPI, and should he choose to go there (he’s already in), it would be pretty much a free ride. Nice to have that in our back pocket, but MIT is the goal. Elihu has taken on the applications all himself (he knows his flaky mom can barely get her taxes together – I would’ve been a definite hinderance to the process!) and I just learned his final list: MIT, Stanford, Cal Tech, Princeton, Georgia Tech and Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. He said he might add Yale just to make grandma happy. Thankfully our financial situation waives application fees for all, so I say what the hell, kid. Add Yale. Elihu Yale and grandpa would both smile down on you.

As Elihu’s final years here at home come to a close, so too will our chicken-raising chapter. It may not seem a lot of work, but it’s yet another thing to do. Winters are long. The flock can’t be left for even a day, they need constant tending. Making arrangements to leave town even for a weekend is an imposition on neighbors who step in to help. I don’t know what we would’ve done without their amazing help through the years. Farming does not allow for vacation days. Even when you’re sick as a dog and can’t get out of bed – you must. For the past eleven years our process has been this: each year we’ve stocked the incubator with eggs precisely twenty-one days before Elihu’s birthday in late April (yes, all of them are viable thanks to lucky Jack, our one resident rooster) and we’ve always hatched them out on Elihu’s birthday, which has fallen several times on weekends, making our parties fun and memorable. In the fall we’ve butchered the roosters (only one rooster is needed for a flock of twenty-five hens) as well as the non-laying hens, thereby wintering over a modest-sized flock of a dozen or so birds, and generously stocking our freezer. This year we lost our first flock in one fell swoop by a raccoon who accidentally got closed in after our automatic coop door shut for the night. It was brutal. There was blood everywhere. Determined to raise one last flock, we re-stocked the incubator, not once, but twice, yielding some 40 new birds. What in hell were we thinking? My kid is a prudent fellow, and even he has no idea why we went overboard as we did. I guess we just felt the sting of our loss and wanted to fight back. You know, be badass at the chicken thing one last time.

This is the week when we take our roos to the Amish butcher. Even though we’re not personally doing the butchering (been there, not doin that again!) it’s never easy. Especially cuz now we’ve had them a little longer and we can see individual personalities taking shape (yes, chickens are people too) and we have to remind ourselves that their lives were good, and that their dispatch will be swift and humane. And for the next year we’ll have that most heavenly chicken stock ever. So. This fall is it. I took down the fence, scrapped the metal and cut down the weeds around the run. Soon it will be back to grass. We’ll let the hens live out their lives; some will die of old age, some will go out for the day and won’t come back. It may yet be a few years yet before the last gal leaves us, so it’ll be a gentle goodbye. I suppose by the time Elihu graduates from college we’ll be wrapped up for good. But that’s all fine, because we’ve learned so much from raising them, and we’ve so enjoyed the lovely energy they’ve added to our homestead. Elihu will be studying aerospace engineering ALL because of his close experience with our birds. I thank them for my son’s growth and transformation. Our flock has helped my own son to take flight.

That should bring you, dear readers. up to date on the goings-on at the Hillhouse. I’m tiring of preparing meals, of driving to and from school, of figuring out all things domestic. I’m tired, but I know I’ll be singing a song of lament one year hence when I find myself in a truly quiet house with all the time in the world to rest. I like being alone, but soon it’s gonna be a different kind of alone. It’ll be hard for me to see this chapter closed. You know. Out the window.

______________________________________________________________________________-

You can see Elihu’s work on the following links:

Elihu created this site just this week for his high school senior project, an endeavor which will likely continue into his college years:

AeroCraftco.com

Here’s the font of all things aviation in my kid’s life:

https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCiVVhQtWp7v-VP6tmUQ3Z0w/videos

And here is his tuba work, soon to contain his compositions:

https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCllXXtqBrYgYexW4F2YIytQ/videos

I crafted this site a while ago; it now seems out of date, although there are some nice images:

https://copterdude.com/

And finally, my Airbnb listing:

https://www.airbnb.com/rooms/37592189

Vanity Pandemic

Vanity Pandemic

As I see it, and as I believe most of us will agree in our most private thoughts, humans become quite physically unattractive on the downward slope of their lives. The enlightened folks in the room will instantly protest this by arguing that true beauty is in a person’s wisdom, and in their soul (yes, but the packaging can be very off-putting, rendering that soulful beauty unknown), and that the best years are yet to come. Ok. You can think all that if you want.

Nature would work to support my feelings on this; a 56 year old woman is not designed to procreate, therefore she is not equipped with physical attributes that might attract a mate – or in base terms, signal to members of the opposite sex that she is a viable candidate for maintaining the species. There is just no point in denying it. The visage of a young person is magnetic, but an image of a person in their late 50s – honestly folks, not so much. I sure wish I would’ve taken the time to contemplate this more deeply in advance of my arrival at this strange place. I wish I’d considered that by the time my son left the house I’d be old – as in beyond my years of a strong jawline and a waist smaller than my hips, a time in my life when my hair would be as thin as my little finger, and my fingers would be twice their previous size and too arthritic to clutch a steering wheel. I’m not sure how that would’ve changed things, except that it might not have come as such a surprise.

Those of you who immediately react in opposition to my thoughts will likely be coming from an inspired and holy place that I myself will probably never know in this earthly lifetime. Those folks will scold that age is just a number. Uh-huh. Right.

All my life I’d never been able to imagine what things might be like beyond a few months into the future. Aside, I suppose, from a drawing I made in 4th grade projecting who I imagined myself to be at – gasp, 25 – where I sported a Mary Tyler Moore-esque flippy hair style and announced that I would be an “actor”. I think the choice was made based on my famously outgoing personality, and nothing else. (Of course what does a 9 year old know about job opportunities??) But how exactly would I get to be an actor? What was involved in that? No idea. Even a decade later, more than halfway through high school I had no idea what the future held, and actor was off the list after my grades tanked in sophomore year and my parents said no more auditions for school productions. So in junior year I had no ideas, no vision. Really. If I’d had my druthers I would’ve just been a musician. I have never been a good student, and since the age of 12 classrooms and panic attacks were closely associated. What I really liked doing however, what inspired me, had been playing music with friends – that was natural. And so it made sense that after I muscled my way through what ended up being a nearly wasted four years at college I made my way back to playing. (A sidebar here is that I made some great friends, met musicians, and got to play in some great groups – that was the value of college for me.)

Growing up I always thought of myself as fat. Might’ve been reinforced by my mother’s own laments about her chubby childhood (photos show no such thing), or it might’ve been the way my thighs always wore the whales in my corduroy pants down to shiny fabric in no time, or that my arms never curved in below my shoulders the way the athletic girls’ did – whatever it was, it had me confiding to my 5th grade diary that I was “78 pounds! Such a fatty!” Sheesh. The timeless lament of women – sad that it starts so young and runs so deep. True, I was not one of the slender ones, but by no means was I “such a fatty”. Regardless, I spent my teenage years feeling very bad about myself and trying in vain over and over again to lose twenty unwanted extra pounds. But I met with an unlikely fate at the end of high school which completely changed the course of my life, and gave me the chance for a complete re-invention of myself. I was literally given a ‘do-over’.

When I was 18 – and on my way to a band rehearsal – I broke my neck in a car accident. I wasn’t driving, but I had made the bad choice of accepting a ride from a friend who had been drinking. It was on a Sunday afternoon at the end of a village celebration. I knew when I got into the car that he wasn’t in good shape, but I didn’t relish a two mile walk home and being late to practice, so I got in. Before 30 seconds had passed I’d broken C6 and C7 (my shoulder too). I spent the next two months strapped to a Stryker frame bed in the hospital. A horrible event to be sure – but by the time I was healed and back at home, I’d lost nearly 30 pounds. I was given a jump start into a new body and a new life. I didn’t take it lightly either. Just being able to walk after such an injury was certainly huge, but being given a new body was inspiring. I began to workout and to run and surprisingly found that I loved it. I got fit and cut, and for a long time there was no looking back. And man, the shit I wore back in those days was amazing. Among hundreds of outfits, a lime green PVC catsuit and 4 inch platforms come to mind as I think back…

You gotta know that playing onstage is more than just talent and gear – maybe more so for a woman – but it’s there for all of us. It’s about how you read to the crowd, how you look. Really. It is. But getting a look together for a band was always fun, it was never a hardship. A challenge, definitely, but one I loved. Thrift stores and head shops with a rack of tiny tees, my grandmother’s leftovers – I’d cobble together a unique look that told the world it was just that easy to look so music video-ready. With chops from years of classical piano and ears informed by my dad’s jazz LPs, I had enough facility to play in a variety of groups. From reggae bands to alt country (the sparkly accordion added to my rootsy street cred) to Elvis cover bands – and then later (when I realized that by singing I could work with “real” jazz musicians) fronting 20 piece big bands – all of it represented an impressive repertoire of costumes. I’ve let go of most of it by now, but I have a few pieces left. A red and black horizontal stripe top from the early years (which matched my red and black Farfisa!), and a few gowns from the “Doris Day” years. Wow, those waistlines slay me. I actually zipped that shit up? I’m not even sure my current thigh could fit inside the waistline of one of those gorgeous dresses. Linda Ronstadt once said that she had no regrets because she had “a long drink at the trough”. I didn’t drink the way she did, but I’ve certainly had more than one woman’s share of glamour and adventure. Truly.

So now here I am, a country gal, closer to 60 than 50, and holding onto a half dozen silk sheaths. It’s almost as if keeping the clothes demonstrates to me that that life will one day return. That the body I identify with will return. That youth will return. I try to take stock, to let pieces go every so often. There really is no more size 8 in my future, this I know… But it’s a deeply poignant thing to say goodbye; it’s like another confirmation that the best times are behind me and truly gone… The turquoise suede duster with the fur collar that I netted from a lucrative commercial job in Las Vegas – I let it go for just $5 at a garage sale last summer. When the man sent his niece a photo and she texted back immediately that she really wanted it – that gave my heart some relief. It would have a new life, a young life. That made it easier. Step by step, velvet boots by beaded gown I’ve let most of it go, and with each separation I like to think that I’m increasing my OK-ness with this aging thing. But really friends, I’m not.

I’m grateful for the buffer of pandemic life because at least it gives me a window of time for some deep self reflection. I must remember that while I’m flitting about in this turmoil of vanity, people are fighting for their lives. This should not be the time for lamenting in my diary that “I’m such a fatty”, yet somehow that’s how it’s turning out for me. Let’s just keep this between us, shall we? I’m not proud.

The gift of time has enabled me to finally justify spending hours upon hours going through boxes and boxes of paper. Memorabilia mixed in with mundane crap. Lots of stuff mis-filed. Hell, lots of files themselves labeled “to be filed” – now that’s a hoot. I’ve just never had the stretch of time in which to fully face down this monster. And it’s actually producing results! Who knew? Finally I can put my hands on teaching materials and pieces of music that have been MIA for years. So it’s been productive, which offers my spirit some lift. There’s a lot of paper being tossed in the burn bin these past few weeks – and as each bonfire spirits away a few pounds’ worth of the past into the sky, I feel a small breath of hope growing for the future. It will be oh so different, to be sure. I will need some major redefining of my life in a year’s time. But thankfully I have a handle on it now, and I have time to prepare. I will make the most of my pandemic cocoon. File by file, and fire by fire, I’m already making progress.

I think back on breaking my neck, and how frightening it was; the uncertainty for my very life, my mobility, my health… And yet it turned into a gift. As I lose weight in paper – old files, long-useless owner’s manuals, receipts, set lists, to-do lists – it gives me a real sense of lighten-ing. And in these heavy times, that is something I can really use.

Slowing

Slowing

A few years ago Elihu and I listened to an audio book entitled “The Slowing”. It was a science fiction story which took place in the US, in our own contemporary time. The main characters were a teenage boy and girl, their families, and the other families of their suburban neighborhood. The basic premise of the story was that the earth’s rotation had begun to slow down. It conveyed a dreamlike sense of ungrounding at the start – but that was only the start. As the story developed we began to understand just how deeply horrific a situation this really was, and how fundamentally powerless were the planet’s entire living populations. When charts began showing exponential growth of the Coronavirus just a few days ago, I felt a profound fear in my gut, and a queer lightness in my head. I was not safe, my son wasn’t safe – none of us were safe. We were embedded in our very own science fiction story come to life.

Our ability to communicate with each other instantly makes our experience of this pandemic different from previous such plagues on the earth – some may say it stirs the pot, that it exacerbates people’s fears, that it feeds rumor and speculation… Perhaps it does. But it also puts us in instant communication with friends and family no matter the geographic distance between us. Our connectivity provides us with a toolkit for survival. We are privy to the most current information; graphs and maps keep us informed, we learn ways in which we may safely move when out in the world, sanitary ways to unpack our groceries, activities to keep our children busy and happy, opportunities to hear music, even visit with our friends, and classrooms have moved fairly easily to home computers (but certainly not all have; I fear this disparity will become something of a real problem if the situation persists until the fall).

Without making light of anything, I gotta say our own experience thus far has been enjoyable. I am hearing musicians I haven’t in years, folks I was resolved never to hear or see again – and yet here I am in their living rooms right there with them! How lovely! Virtual one-room venues and old fashioned salons are popping up everywhere, creating an earth-wide a la carte smorgasbord of entertainment. And this is but the first week – if this ‘thing’ lasts a few months, as it may, this new online culture will begin to organize itself. Patterns will arise – regular showtimes, regular features – and as with anything new, the novelty will fade and the new routines will begin to show themselves.

____________________________________________________

 

I resume this post after our first two weeks into this new life. I’ve penned a couple of novelty songs, started seedlings for the garden, and will be embarking on my first online lessons soon. My son has been finding a whole new presence in his musical community, easily learning how to teach, compose, edit and perform his own pieces with other students from throughout the country. It’s with no small amount of pride that I share that the conductor of Elihu’s youth orchestra held him up as an example of how players should be regularly documenting their practice. My kid is way ahead of the curve on this front; he’s been keeping a daily video log of his tuba practicing for nearly a year. (The kid puts me to shame – inspired by the healthy routine he was developing, I tried to meditate for 30 days in a row, but tanked by day 11. Regrettably I created a Facebook page in order to create some public accountability, but that meaningless banner yet hangs limp in the virtual irons, my shameful lack of personal stamina forever documented….)

Personally, I enjoy being solitary. I definitely prefer it to a house full of people. And the wonderful thing about living with my son is that while I have my privacy, I’m not completely alone. I can go for long stretches of time in my own personal space, content to know that my dearest one is never far away. Elihu is also content in keeping to himself, ever-engaged in any number of things from building airplanes to teaching himself trumpet, learning to write Japanese kanji or practicing his tuba. We check in with each other every so often, comparing our progress, discussing the things that we’re learning, maybe sharing a cup of tea before heading back to our private worlds. I too am mostly always in motion – but with nothing so weighty as the interests of my kid, rather my time is taken up mostly by things domestic; preparing for the chicks, mending things outside, doing yard work, cleaning gutters or filling feed bins, doing laundry and cooking meals, and keeping a country house from being overrun with dust, dirt and cobwebs. (I continue, however, to turn a blind eye to the greasy kitchen walls and oil splattered ceiling).

My main current interest in this early pandemic chapter has been to maintain some structure in our days by providing three balanced and nutritious meals each day. While not the meticulous planner that my mother is, I do spend a good amount of time trying to find new and interesting things to make. But truthfully this is mostly a diversion for me; eating has always been my single favorite experience on the planet – yet for my son, it is simply something that needs to be done. My kid – at 5’11” and 110 pounds – he dutifully eats what’s given to him, but really and truly, he doesn’t care. (Aside from the roasted quail at Reza’s in Chicago, the kid could give a hoot how his calories are delivered.) Still, I’ve been trying for years to find a food that he looks forward to, and this stuck-at-home life has provided me with the perfect excuse to dig down deep into some new culinary experiences. But dig as I might, I haven’t found any particular dish which I can create that excites him (can you believe pizza and mac and cheese are actually his least favorite foods?) and soon I think I’m going to revert back I to more modest meals, because I’m gaining weight rapidly and I’m sure there are more productive ways in which I could be using this gift of time.

How many days into this are we? I’m never quite sure; I’m experiencing time in a more gestural way at present. Personally my son and I are past the first free-form phase. I languished for a few days in bed (I am prone to depression so it was understandable) and so now I feel I’m able to make a list of goals for the next phase. My son and I are very lucky to have space, food, internet and basic equipment. This can be anything I’d like to to be. It will remain deeply tempting for me to make sumptuous dinners washed down with entire bottles of wine (I’m not entirely convinced that phase is over yet) but the opportunity to take hikes and bike rides and finally attend to my ‘to file’ pile exists now as never before. I pray things don’t end up going the way of my failed meditation project, but I’ve carved out some new to-do lists, and I feel a tiny seed of promise waiting to germinate.

And as we all know by now, given the right circumstances, tiny things can grow to become a force of nature.

 

 

 

Lemonade Lockdown

Lemonade Lockdown

As of tomorrow night, Sunday, March 22nd, the state of New York will be on lockdown. Some folks are miffed at the order and see it as much too extreme (perhaps they also see it as an invasion of their personal freedom – and isn’t that what this great country is all about?), and some folks have just been wondering when the order would finally come. For the two of us, the news brings relief.

In my personal life I know folks on both sides, and while I usually keep silent about such rifts, this time I’m in a mildly precarious situation regarding a student. She is one of the most musically precocious and talented kids I’ve ever had – in over 25 years of teaching – and her parents pay me generously. Her MD father revealed his feelings on the matter when I told him I was going to hold off on lessons for two weeks (in my mind thinking – no wait, make that four...). The parents had been to Florida the week before, and the eight year old younger brother has a habit of sucking on his lower lip, and spit on the keys is a predictable byproduct. With three kids home all day and a medical practice to run, I can understand how frustrating this news is, especially when personally, this fellow doesn’t support the lockdown. (How is it that the MD doesn’t see the value of self isolation? Nothing is self-evident anymore. Fundamentally, I think this shit is driven far more by emotion than by science.) I offered the best olive branch I could think of; would he be OK if I took his daughter along for a walk in the woods sometime? His face lightened, and he agreed. So that helped to defuse the situation.

Last night I thought I’d double-down and do things right. I set out to load up our pantry. Having just organized it the week before (a huge project I undertake but twice a year) I felt empowered by knowing its contents, and by knowing the things we might benefit from adding to it. The stores – at six in the evening – were a bizarre sight: four aisles completely empty – not a single item left standing in paper products. (I’d kinda blown off stocking up, thinking the toilet paper hysteria would blow over soon. Apparently it hasn’t as of yet. We’re down to a couple of rolls, but I’m still considering this to be a first-world problem.) The aisle with the canned vegetables, soups and dried beans was a wasteland, with just a few cans of pickled beets remaining. And pasta? Only the uber-pricey organic stuff from Italy remained. (At this writing it just occurred to me – was this out of fear? Was the perception of safety tainted by the country’s sky-high Corona cases? Oh dear…) Though usually I am a bottom-of-the-barrel shopper, buying house brands and no-name products, the situation sort of forced my hand and I ended up grabbing the remaining lone boxes – things I otherwise would have passed up. My $250 grocery bill – much more than my usual biweekly tab – attested to the boutique items in my haul. Pasta made from chick peas, wild rice, prepared rice side dishes (tasty, but so much crap and sodium in ’em), “theater style” microwave popcorn (we almost never have popcorn – but I have this romantic notion that Elihu and I just might watch a movie together!! Almost unheard of here in this always-busy household). Sadly, the two main things I’d come to get were both completely gone. Meat and toilet paper.  I guess I can finally scrap any hopes of going low carb this spring.

Wearing plastic gloves as I shopped, I was in the minority. And when I asked a clerk, frantically re-stocking cans of diced tomatoes if he worried at all, given his exposure to so many people, he answered “no” without any hesitation. “See the way I’m moving and sweating? I wouldn’t get it – I would sweat it out right away!” Hmm. Of course I laughed and agreed with him… But I was taken aback; does someone really think they can simply sweat a virus out of their system? I guess a person might not feel symptoms as acutely as others, but I don’t think it’s as simple as sweating it away.

Many on the street are cavalier. There is a feeling here in our town’s local convenient store that it’s all made up, that it’s all hype. There is a divide becoming visible, and it seems closely aligned with politics. Folks of the blue persuasion are keeping safe, respecting the rules of hygiene and social distancing. Folks in the red population tend to think that this is all hyped-up bullshit and they enjoy sharing a good chuckle about it all.

If you feel, as I and so many others do, that Trump is not only erratic and unintelligent, but most importantly dangerous – then you will likely be keeping that social distance, staying at home and practicing vigilant hand washing. But if you feel it’s our patriotic duty to fully stand behind everything that 45 says, you are likely still not convinced that Covid19 is your problem. Yeah, there might be lip service now, but Trump supporters are still stuck somewhere behind his original, flippant rhetoric. No matter what Donald might say going forward, deep in their hearts, the true Trumpers – at least the good ol’ boys who live all around me here in the hills – will continue to live life as usual, while complaining loudly about the imposition in hopes that the rest of us will overhear.

And me? Elihu? What are we feeling and thinking right now? There is a deep sadness at all of the things that are gone in an instant. Elihu was on the brink of litigating his team’s way to the winning spot in our region’s mock trial competition. Elihu was preparing for his tuba concerto with the orchestra on May 2nd. Elihu was looking forward to a tour of South America with the symphony, to studying at MIT in August, to traveling to Europe with his father. Elihu was at the very doorstep of an incredibly thrilling summer, and now… He has none of it. All of it cancelled or postponed.

When the reality sank in, I cannot tell you how deeply crushed my heart was. But a mix of stoicism and an innate positive attitude turned Elihu’s thinking away from the heartbreak, and instead toward a new future made possible by this sudden window of opportunity. Last night, when I returned from a day of errands, I found a young man who was now able to string together simple sentences in Japanese. It is a safe bet that by the end of May this kid will have four languages under his belt. And he’s started to compose music, he’s building new planes, he’s keeping his Instagram and YouTube accounts full of fresh material. He’s sharing his compositions with other young musicians who are themselves learning them and in turn posting their performances. Elihu’s even started to figure out how to teach tuba lessons online.

How do I feel about all of this newly-instituted isolation? I am thrilled. THRILLED to have nowhere to go. Thrilled to pause my exhaustive mom taxi service (remember, Elihu is legally blind and will never drive. Most moms begin to experience a little break from shuttling duty about now, but my job won’t cease until the kid’s away at college). I am thrilled to have a window of time in which to simply live. Thrilled that my son is close by, thrilled that this will give me an opportunity to see what a structure-less life feels like (before it descends on me in the fall of 2021). I’m thrilled to have this chance to actively shape our own life, and I’m relieved that for a short while we are mostly off the hook.

Facebook, the modern-day well at which the community gathers, is a tumble of chaotic chatter lately. Everyone is all aflutter about everything from the impending isolation to new bread recipes. People are apprehensive about being cooped up, and our feeds are endlessly stocked by fear-inducing images and news clips. Lines of people in their cars, waiting to have their nostrils swabbed to test for the virus, photos of iconic plazas and sites known for shoulder-to-shoulder crowds are now vast and vacant, video clips show people in Italy leaning out of their windows and singing to each other…

I admit that I spent the past few days (our first days with NO tuba, NO tutor, NO rehearsals, NO excursions, NO students) in bed. I just treated the abyss as a couple of full-on sick days. I propped myself up so perfectly with my favorite down pillows, grabbed a pair of reading glasses and pulled the phone to my face, joining my virtual tribe at the well until my poor phone got almost too hot to touch. I’m a bit embarrassed at how eagerly I too threw myself into the Corona-fray. I unintentionally hosted three redundant watch parties in my newbie enthusiasm to participate in the new online culture. I posted way too much, and way too frequently. I even joined Tik Tok in an effort to add variety to my amusements. (Elihu told me soberly, and out of love for his mother and in protection of her integrity, that people my age who engaged in Tik Tok were kinda looked at as losers. Just so I knew. I will be deleting my account shortly.)

When things are new, when they are novel (pun intended, sorry) it’s easy to see the possibility, to imagine what it feels like to live in a new and improved reality. But we humans all know that what follows behind the initial breath of hope and promise is usually nothing but a pale shadow of the inspiring first vision. My hope for this initial two-week quarantine is to 1) organize and clean my mudroom and kitchen, 2) take a hike on a local trail once a week if not more (yeah, right…), 3) get up and going with online lessons, 4) shovel out the coop and mend the fences, and finally 5) assess the winter’s damage on the property and begin to make piles of downed branches.

This may all seem easy enough – but everything takes gobs more time and energy than one might think. And I, late in my 56th year and missing some core strength I had only a few years ago, simply can’t do a lot of the heavy lifting I once used to do by myself. But thankfully Elihu is eager to help. It seems his increasingly strong young body needs and wants the physical work, for he bats not an eye when I share with him the tasks on our list. In fact, he cheers me on and tells me how easy it will all be. Could I be a luckier mom?

At this very specific moment in time I am as content as is possible. Somehow it feels like things will be alright. Hardly seems logical though! The list of things ever-running in the back of my mind is enough to make a sane woman weep…

I am fat (again) and have very few clothes into which I can still fit, my hair is thinning and my arthritic fingers continue to get thicker and more painful… I’ve had a sharp pain in my left breast and armpit for over a month, but I don’t want to look into it for fear of making a fuss over nothing, especially at this delicate time for the health system… There are fallen trees and enormous branches crisscrossing our property, mature and substantial weeds have grown up after last year’s absence of lawn-cutting, a huge pile of winter’s garbage flayed open by ravens and now wind-strewn across the grass awaits cleanup, there are bags upon bags of containers waiting to be shuttled to the recycling stations, there are cobwebs on every inside wall of my house and the basement is now taking on water with the melting of spring. And I have no income.

But what we do have here at the Hillhouse is space – blessed, wide-open space in which to move and breathe. We also have our freedom, our health, opportunity, nature, fresh air, fields, woods, chickens, grandma next door, great neighbors close by, a reliable internet connection, a full pantry and 150 gallons of fuel oil.

And now, to make some lemonade.

 

Tenure

Tenure


Most posts come to me almost finished. They’ve rolled around in my thoughts over and over again; pre-sleep, in the midst of sleeplessness, and often just after waking. A line here or there comes to the fore, something to hang my thoughts onto, a general framework which gradually etches itself into my memory while I go about the day. A few days of somewhat passive ruminations and I have it. Mostly that’s how a piece of writing comes to me. Mostly. But not always. And definitely not today.

I’d put it off longer if I could. Stalled a few months already – something which is not at all characteristic of me. Cuz I love to write. Folks who know me personally understand how I love to talk – anecdotes, stories, sidebars – the whole thing (no matter who’s doing the talking) is always of keen interest to me. Stories, I got em. And if you get me started, you’ll hear the story til the very end. God bless my little man, my son Elihu – I remember when he was just a wee one, and we’d lie side by side in bed at the end of a day in the dark of his tiny bedroom, and he’d ask me to “tell him a story that really happened”. Oh, I did indeed have stories “that really happened”. Stories the likes of which most mommies probably didn’t. Jumping off the caprail of the H.M.S. Bounty into crazy-deep water, jumping out of a plane (and surprising my jump master with a kiss the on last round before bailing), hosting a radio show (sometimes while nursing that same kid as an infant), playing to packed houses on the road, never knowing a soul there… Leaping from a moving train in Italy after throwing my belongings onto the disappearing platform, hitchhiking in Indonesia. I could go on, but you get the gist. I’ve been a lucky, lucky gal. Lots of stories. Lots of them – until it all wound down to a rather mundane existence in the suburbs north of Chicago. After giving birth to my first, and only child. (Yes, your life changes.)

Shortly after Elihu was born, I was still performing in a couple of bands. I’d worn the rocker chick/jazz chick/hard working musician badges as long as I possibly could; I was on stage performing in an ironic, tongue-in-cheek homage to the 70s when my milk first came in. My poor newborn babe was at home, hungry, waiting for his first real meal, and there I was at a club. Dressed in a red, white and blue patchwork pattern, floor-length dress reminiscent of something from Linda Ronstadt’s wardrobe, I felt it start. My milk-filled breasts had finally let down. I felt two wet spots begin to grow on my chest and I was grateful for the visual distraction of the patterned material. Immediately I recalled how my gut had begun a robust round of Braxton Hicks contractions only a few weeks earlier – when the band I was in soundchecked for a performance of “Jesus Christ Superstar” at the Park West in Chicago. I’d truly thought it was the beginning of my labor and that some 800 paying guests – not to mention the band and cast – were about to be sorely disappointed… Thankfully the painful spasms subsided long enough for me to get through the show. It was close. Up until that moment I’d kinda treated the whole pregnant thing as some sort of amusement – but on that night I was finally made aware of the seriousness of my condition. (I even took on the job knowing the performance was only a handful of days shy of my due date. !! I know, right? I really didn’t get it until then. And that’s the honest truth.)

Yeah, it’s usually the way it goes for me. And I’ll guess, for you too. Who the hell truly understands the real significance and meaning of an experience while smack dab in the middle of it? Few of us. Ok, so there are some moments of clarity, paradigm-shifting events and such, yes. But for the most part, we need hindsight to provide clarity and perspective, and truth. And that’s what I have a whole lot of right now, ten years in. Oh so much has changed in the last ten years of our life here at the Hillhouse. I have learned so much. So much that was once fuzzy is now clear, so much which was unknown is familiar to me now. And to use a writing technique I rather loathe but feel might make my point very well in this case: Oh. So. Much. Has. Changed.

There is no tidy way in which to summarize. I cannot possibly recount a decade of life with all of its drama and joy. Suffice to say, in the ten years since Elihu and I moved here, he and I have visibly aged. When we moved here (to the small white ranch house with a great view we lovingly dubbed “The Hillhouse”) in upstate New York from the suburbs of Chicago, Elihu was 5, and I was 45. He was tiny, and I still looked ‘young-ish’. Now he is taller than me, with a voice an octave lower than mine, and I can no longer hope to pass for forty-something.

There was a blessed island of time – say from his being 6 (and me being 46) and his being 12 (me 52) when all seemed easy, gentle, innocent. Sure, I grumbled under my breath about how hard it was to afford food (then came the food stamp era) and how much time it took to cook the damned stuff (it was only two people, why did it take so much time?) and then there were all those dishes (again, how do two people use so many dishes?) and yet still, in spite of the poverty, the domestic drudgery and even the loneliness of it all, there was a certain unmistakable charm to that time. And even when in the midst of my fresh heartbreak, all the chores and my near-constant grumbling, I had understood that. I knew that one day this time would be in our past. I surely knew it intellectually, but not so much emotionally (that would be the understanding I’m achieving now, in these reflective days).

There were the bathtimes, followed in the earliest years by playing dinosaur on my big kingsized bed – me roaring loudly while tossing the small child up and crashing him down onto the bed to his shrieks of pure delight… Then a few years later (an era which lasted a long, long while, perhaps due in part to my son’s reduced visual acuity) we came to read together each night – or rather I would read aloud to him. He would be lost in his inner visions as I shared along in the adventures. Oh so many books we read. I lament now that we didn’t keep a record on file at the library – I learned only after reading dozens of books that our titles had not been recorded as I hadn’t signed up for that service (all young parents please take note of that!).

Each Spring I read the Burgess Bird Book for Children (a first edition given to us by a dear friend – this tome is over one hundred years old!) and Elihu had a nearly word-for-word recollection of the text – something I’ve come to learn is a byproduct of his low vision. (He told me this past year that he’s informed only about 20% by his vision, with his ears telling him a good 80% about his environment. Even with my knowing his visual situation better than anyone else on the planet, this was still revelatory.) Elihu would correct me when I read something slightly different from the printed text – and many times when a signature, oft-repeated line would arrive, we’d say it slowly together, smiling at the secret joke. I deeply treasured those moments, knowing they wouldn’t last forever, even if it surely felt as if they just might… I loved our evenings reading together, and especially those precious spring seasons when we read from Mr. Burgess’ tender book. In the spring when Elihu was 14 he allowed me to lay down next to him and read a few lines. But it wasn’t the same. I felt it and so did he. The magic window had closed. But I couldn’t bear to leave his side, I couldn’t bear to confirm it aloud or with my actions. Eventually, he asked me to leave, softening it as best he could with a “please”.

Single mother. Used to be, years ago, when I heard the descriptor “single” used before the word “mother” I would think some unkind things. How does a mother end up single? How pathetic is that? And for single mothers with more than one child I just tossed my head and rolled my eyes in disbelief. Idiots. For God’s sake, didn’t you make a plan? What do you mean your husband just left? Why in hell did you allow him to? Yeah, I wasn’t very open minded, tolerant – or experienced. Yet. And although something deep inside me still bristles at the term “single mother” (culturally I may never cleanse myself of thinking it brings low-brow values along with it) I myself have (sometimes even proudly) brandished the title many, many times in order to impress upon folks that it’s just one woman doing the work of two people here. I’ve used the term to help create a clearer picture without going into details. My hope is that folks might understand that I did not ever expect to be in this situation. I use the word “single” to imply I am in the situation, but I didn’t choose it – it chose me. But if they don’t get that bit, or if they end up passing judgement on me, that’s fair. I guess I have it coming to me. Once, when Elihu was a wee one and I was juggling the usual domestic crap (my then husband was on the road most of the time) I lamented over the phone to my mom that I felt like a single mother. She responded “Every mother is a single mother”. Nuff said.

Having just one child, and having no spouse around to accommodate has been a great gift. Raising a child alone offered me great freedom, almost unlimited opportunities. Any adventure that appealed to us we were able to dive into without the baggage of extra people and their stuff. Mom and son is a very portable unit. Everything could be done at a moment’s notice; busking, birdwatching, poultry auctions, a trip to Vermont, a trip to New York City, a walk in the woods, gliding at the airfield, flying a handmade plane in the cemetery. A thousand tiny moments, hundreds of excursions, hundreds of snowbound days indoors side by side, talking, not talking…  Discovering how to draw a wing, how to build a cantilevered shelf into a tower of building blocks, how to articulate passages on the tuba, how to figure out the chords to a melody on the piano, how to nurse a hen with sour crop. Together, Elihu and I have become good at figuring it out. Solving the problem. It’s been a great adventure for both of us. I often say I gave birth to a 50 year old man, cuz this kid’s always had a much deeper understanding of things than anyone I know. Yet he’s been a tiny, adorable child, too. And as a mother I can recall all of these aspects in an instant. Years ago, I was unable to conjure an image of my son taller than me. No matter how hard I tried, I simply could not. Even now, when he appears in my mind’s eye, he’s usually shorter than me. But when I see him, I begin to see the next era. Now I can begin to understand all those things I knew were coming one day, because one day has arrived.

This past May I turned 55. At a glance, not so crazy. But then you realize – 55 is closer to 60 than 50. Wait, what? Come again?? How long have I been in my 50s? Wasn’t I just 45 last year? Give me a minute here…

This becoming 55 really altered my awareness. This was the first year that I could have imagined myself dying. Sure, we never know. I could yet die this week, next month, next spring. Who knows? Although none of us is very good at living as though we were dying – I began to get a bit more motivated this past year. My piano chops were still pretty modest, and I while had long stalled on looking for a local piano single job, indefinitely citing the need for improvement before I could get a gig anywhere, I decided that that shit had to end. There was no longer any time to waste. I decided my timidity was doing me a great disservice; if I had limited time remaining, what in hell did I have to lose? I had enough in my fingers to work. All I had needed was something to dissipate the unnecessary fear. Now I had it. Mortality.

I got in my car and drove to a local golf club and asked to play for the manager. She and her assistant leaned against the tables as they listened. “When can you start?” was the response. Empowered by my first success I knocked on the door of the only restaurant on Broadway that had a piano. The owner let me in and within minutes I was playing and singing for her and her husband. They booked me for that Saturday in March, and I began a steady which had me working all the way through September. Finally. The kid was old enough to be left alone, and I was back out in the world. Finally, I was playing again. Doing what it was that I used to do before this whole kid/divorce/move across the country/raise chickens/start a business adventure began. Phew.

The Studio too has brought me a long way in my personal development. Not a one of us Conants ever thought the scenario through to the far-off future, and it appears that future is now upon us. I myself didn’t really believe (although on some subconscious level I must have known) that running the place would be entirely on me. But it is. And now the main matter at hand is to get the venue inhabited by compelling programs and – the kicker – to see the venue paying for itself. My mother’s been able to patch up the holes, covering the shortfalls and helping with some maintenance, but it cannot remain this way. And it won’t be. A year ago my head was still fully in the motherhood mode; I was making progress with the Studio in fits and starts, and I simply didn’t have time or energy to devote myself to the job as it required. And now that Elihu is 15, things on the domestic front are a lot easier. Hell, I even have my own labor force – and a willing one, too. The kid is so helpful when it comes time to set or strike the room. I’ve given a lot of myself to him and he knows it. My heart is warm and grateful when he returns the service with enthusiasm.

I’m still not enjoying a lot of administrative success – I haven’t assembled a true working board yet (friends, mom and a couple of local artists hold the space for now), and the website is rudimentary and not at all the way I’d like it. I cannot add images in the proper places or align text correctly – the whole thing is a huge frustration. But I know about frustration. This too shall pass. Somehow, I’ll figure it out. In the past year the Studio has lost its power line from the road (thank you dear friends who donated to our power restoration!), been struck by lightning, and we were also sued by a woman who slipped on the ice at – get this – a community drum circle. So nothing really fazes me anymore. Nasty letter from a lawyer? Mech. Sliding door doesn’t slide? Red food dye on the white walls? Table gone missing? Hey. At least the place is still standing. All possibility is yet before us…

My son is in Germany. The last time he was in Germany he was inside of me. Last time I took a trip of any note was when my ex and I went to Germany to perform, and then to Italy to make a baby. Truth to tell, I’ve always felt pretty smug about how it happened. Sure it happens all the time – but I got pregnant on my very first ovulation cycle off of the pill in over a decade. Ha! Fareed and I stayed in a tiny town on Lake Como, in a small family-owned hotel, in room 12, which was the lucky room in which our Evanston friends had stayed, the room in which our friend worked on his book. The room with a view like no other. And 12 happened to be our shared lucky number. The stars were lining up… One afternoon Fareed and I took a walk in the woods on the steep bank of the lake, and we came upon an ancient, moss-covered well. I looked down into the black, and I became aware of a feeling. I knew that there was a tiny new life inside of me. I knew it. I continued on the path under the canopy of pines as if I was floating in a dream. I just knew that things were different now.

Back in Frankfurt I saw a drop of blood, and I was disappointed. How could I possibly have thought it would be this easy to get pregnant? I remember the sounds of the men in the Turkish coffee shop on the street below, the high ceiling of the tiny room where we had spent the night, the sorrow in my chest… In hindsight, I know now that the drop of blood was due to a small cluster of cells embedding themselves into the lining of my uterus. I’ve often said that Elihu’s life began in Italy, but he took up residence in Germany. Funny how life goes… He is loving his time on exchange in the south of the country. He has informed me that he may attend university for free – even as a US citizen! – if he tests in. And that, for my little straight A student, will not be a problem. He loves the slower, gentler pace of life there. It seems his childhood in Greenfield has prepared him well for it. Now fluent in German and without question truly bilingual, his world expands. My eyes fill with tears if I think too hard on it; I am proud, I am in awe, I am in love, and I am sad at the impending separation that college and his life beyond will bring. But it’s all good. It wasn’t all good at the start of this Hillhouse adventure, but it sure is now.

In a couple of days I will fly to Zurich and rejoin my son. We will stay a few days with his host family, I’ll visit his school, meet his teachers and new friends, and I’ll have the opportunity to thank them for their enormous gift of support for my son. We’ll say farewell to our hosts, then take a train to Paris, where we’ll be visiting with both my Godmother and an old friend from Saratoga who now lives there. Finally, we’ll take the train – the famous Chunnel – to London where we will enjoy two very good seats for the musical Hamilton on Thanksgiving eve. We’ll meet up with Elihu’s sister who lives just outside of the city, and then we’ll embark on adventures yet unknown to us at present.

This year marks ten years well-lived here at the Hillhouse. To be sure, we’ve earned our tenure.

 

 

Dear Readers, Elihu has worked so very hard at building aircraft and subsequently documenting their flights – all of his work available for viewing on his YouTube channel entitled “Copterdude”. Indulge me if you will, please, and watch a video or two. And if it’s not a great imposition on your inbox, might you consider subscribing to it? This mother would be deeply grateful.