The Hillhouse

The Journey of a Mother and Son

Storm of the Eye June 12, 2021

Today my son is a high school graduate, and I am free.

One year ago today I injured my eye, and I have found myself a prisoner of that event ever since. Today, standing in the bright morning sunshine of a fine spring day (floaters still clouding my vision and an ever-present feeling of a foreign object still being in my eye), I find myself wavering between elation and terror at the future ahead. What will describe this new chapter? My opportunity or my injury?

I cannot convey the depth and breadth of our experiences over the past year, for they have been many and mighty. And today, as I sit in a house filled to the brim with the mess of one final week of tumult and year’s end chaos, I panic slightly at the idea that nothing will right itself on its own. All of it rests on me. I realize that my son and I have just concluded, and very successfully so, this era in our lives, so I should take heart. I just need to do this one final time. In the future there will be no such messes, no such disorder. All I have to do is muster the fortitude to do this once more. Somehow, however, this doesn’t seem to make it any easier. This time I don’t know where or how to begin. And so I nibble on the leftovers from last night’s graduation dinner, I pick at the frosting from the cake, I take a sip of the last dregs of a can of Mike’s hard lemonade I found in the door of the fridge. I feed the chickens, refill the suet, make the coffee. I begin a new post. I look over my Facebook feed. I stall.

Inside, the house is a riot of unwashed dishes, half-cut onions, piles of unopened mail, schoolwork and artwork and piles of musical charts to be filed, dirty clothes in heaps in nearly every room, and pair upon pair of muddy shoes, too (how do two people amass such a mess?). Clean laundry that languished too long before I could dry it (and now smells slightly funky) confuses the system in my mudroom and will force me to start the whole shebang all over again. The lawn is knee-high and rife with land mines of fallen branches and rocks that must first be found and marked before the grass can be cut. (And this is five open acres, no small task) The coop looks like a right proper hillbilly homestead with traps set, both humane and lethal, retired kiddie pools, garden tools, a few pumps and pond paraphernalia, a wheel barrow full of plastic junk and two metal grain bins, knocked on their side by the white whale of raccoons (who evades me still), their contents now fermenting and turning rank in the wake of recent rains. All a girl can say is oy.

This day is further loaded, as I think on it. Funny how June 12th used to mean different things in different chapters in my life. In my married years, it was my parents-in-laws’ wedding anniversary. Many years later it became known as the birthday of my former husband’s out of wedlock child, the day that changed everything for Elihu and me. The day that launched us on our voyage here at the Hillhouse. For years I was conflicted about the day: should I curse it or thank it? I certainly cannot curse any child, for his birth is not his own choice. But you can understand that it was a shocking time for me, all those years ago, and were it not for the miraculous way in which our lives turned out, I might still be nursing my wounds over it. I can’t say that June 12th doesn’t bring a bit of reflection. I have never before felt such acute emotional pain as I did on this day, thirteen years ago.

And now, the date has yet another meaning. Another change of plans that I must somehow accept. An injury that I must see as a catalyst to a yet unseen future that awaits, one that otherwise would not have been possible. Thinking back over the past year, I realize that I sought out new experiences as a means of distraction from my discomfort, and I can clearly see what the injury has offered thus far: my first forays into relationships with men since my divorce, a new awareness of physical health and fitness, a bad outcome with a relationship which offered an opportunity for me to step into a better sense of self-worth (the caveat here is that this is, sadly, still a work in progress), and lastly, a host of music performance videos and the small victories that I achieved as I learned how to organize and present myself in a new format. Overall, it’s been a good year. Every time I started to sink into self-pity, I used a new goal to pull myself up and out. Yeah, for the most part it’s worked. Mostly.

As friends and regular readers will know, I tend to indulge in excessive amounts food and alcohol to take the edge off when the shit just feels relentless. But somehow I managed to pull up and out of the habit last summer. I began to see an opening, a time when life would be mine again, and so I wanted to prepare myself, to lean in… I wanted to forget this troublesome eye injury and set my sights on the future… While I did get leaner and became increasingly dedicated to my physical improvement (and really came to look forward to my workouts), I suffered a bad muscle injury, and within weeks of a diminished routine, I fell off the fitness wagon entirely. This in turn had me newly depressed and brought along with it a resurgence of daily episodes with panic attacks. I kept up with the challenges as they arrived, but it was a struggle.

Added to the frenetic pace of Elihu’s final year and all that went on with me personally, stress began to mount… I lost a good portion of my hair inside of a few weeks in late winter (whether due to stress or changing hormones, it’s an alarming experience to say the least), the arthritis in my hands became significantly more advanced in a short amount of time (my doc said it was one of the worst cases of OA he’d ever seen in the hands of someone my age), and I saw a dear friend through a year of health problems which ended in her death two weeks ago. It’s definitely been a trying chapter. So naturally I fell back on the self-soothing mechanisms that I always have. The pendulum began to swing back, and I just let it. Knowing that I was creating a situation that would have consequences down the road, I continued on anyway, savoring the hell out of those carbs which I’d fastidiously ignored since last summer. Watching as one glass of wine with dinner easily turned into a whole bottle. I jumped into the pool, right into the deep end. And so here I am today, treading water, wondering how I’m gonna make it out again. I know I will, but the side of the pool still looks to be a long way off.

Things ebb and flow, and today I’ll just have to take it easy on myself. This day has become a strange landmark in my life, and I should pause to take stock: what does June 12th mean this time around? Might I look at it perhaps as a day of hope? Today is the first day I’m not the full-time mother of a high school student. The first day in which I have nowhere to be, no one to answer to (let’s forget for the moment about the some two thousand emails and two full voicemail accounts which must be gone through on Monday). Today I’m not waiting for the other shoe to drop, it already has. It’s what happens after that which intrigues me, and keeps me from giving up and crying into my hands. How can I give up? My son is about to launch himself into the world – a prospect which is nearly as thrilling for me as it is for him. I have my book to look forward to (yes, friends, I am going to set about the task of editing and formatting content from this blog for a publish-on-demand book) and there is the business of getting healthy and fit again. Lots to do, lots to do.

Once I can get this house in order again, I’ll begin to figure out what this new game’s gonna look like. If I can just hold on to that feeling of hope again, if I can just remember that out of chaos comes order, that a catalyst is necessary for growth, that growth, change and evolution are what this whole silly planet is about…

If I can just get myself there again, it’ll be a perfect storm of possibility, and I’ll be right in the eye of it.

 

Ganga’s Bones (or Death in Three Parts) June 7, 2021

Part I

I have a dear friend who is dying.

In and of itself it’s not really anything out of the ordinary, however what brings some irony to the situation is that my friend once wrote a book about dying, and how to lose one’s fear of it. And she is not approaching her death as she herself has counseled so many others to do.

Back in a time when generous book advances were more common than today, she’d made a pretty penny from her work even before it had hit the presses. The book was written a few years after she had begun what was to become her most important gift to the world, the creation of a non-profit organization called ‘God’s Love We Deliver’, an operation which daily delivered fresh-cooked meals to sick and homebound people in metro NYC (in its beginning it delivered several hundred, today it’s upwards of seven thousand a day). Ganga had garnered some major street cred back then from ‘God’s Love’ which no doubt had something to do with the book advance. GL had also caught the eye of some well-known folks who had either chosen to sit on the board or give the gift of their time, money and visibility: comedienne Joan Rivers, socialite and philanthropist Blaine Trump (yes, that Trump family – by a former marriage – yet I personally believe her to be cut of a far different cloth), designers Calvin Klein and Michael Kors, among many others. When Ganga began to teach classes to men dying of AIDS on how to approach the end of life, it raised her profile in the culture of death awareness. She was a guru of sorts on the subject. Her teachings on acceptance of death were a perfect compliment to her mission to assist the victims of the AIDS epidemic with home-delivered, high-quality food, delivered with love. She advocated for both a loving approach to a person’s final days, as well as a practical approach to the death that was to follow. In fact, she encouraged people to lose their fear of death and accept it as a potentially wonderful experience.

She and I met late one night in line for the pharmacy at CVS some six years ago. It was her adorable Maltese dog named Bobby McGee who pulled me into her orbit, (she used to waitress at Max’s Kansas City in Manhattan back in the day, where Janis Joplin was a customer of hers, hence her dog’s name) but it was the conversation about death which we stumbled upon so organically which called me to her friendship. I told her I had wished there was a book that addressed death in a simple, pragmatic way – and she told me that there was; she herself had written just such a book! I recognized in her a fellow human of similar energy and drive, so when she told me, I didn’t doubt her for a moment, and I eagerly awaited the story that was to follow. And so it was that she gave me the thumbnail of her life’s work. After hearing about her experiences, I knew that this was a woman I had to know better. How lucky was I that this special woman lived right here in my town?

That night when I got home I ordered her book, and read it cover-to-cover shortly after it arrived. In the wake of my surprise divorce a few years earlier, and in an effort to preserve my sanity and understand how better to make sense of the experience, I had dived deep into the study of things philosophical, spiritual and metaphysical, and so the main idea which she posited of an existence beyond this physical world was not foreign to me or without serious merit and consideration. I liked what I read, and I was relieved to find someone for whom the topic was so easily discussed (and especially so as it was examined outside of any religious constructs).

Ever since we met, death has been an easy topic of conversation for the two of us to continue. In fact, there has never been a subject we two couldn’t discuss. We always enjoyed deeply candid conversations; it was the main reason we two felt so connected. (I wrote on my kitchen white board something she had said to me this past week: “Your conversation is nourishing”.) But now, whether it’s due to her severe lack of memory or her primal, instinctive fear of the finality, she has come to completely deny that her death is nearing. Actually, it’s not so much that she denies it, for the subject never even arises. She simply carries on as if it were life as usual. She behaves as if her life is now the same as it has ever been, when any other person in the room can plainly see that it is not. And for some reason which I cannot identify, but respect nonetheless, I am uncharacteristically unable to address the subject with her. It just doesn’t feel as if there would be any real benefit from the discussion, and so I leave it be.

Recently she broke her left hip (she’d managed to get somewhat better and at least ambulatory after she broke the right one plus a kneecap two years ago), but after this second surgery she has simply gone downhill. And at this point, all the signs are there; she weights a mere seventy-six pounds, and hasn’t the strength to move her legs or adjust her position in the bed. She can’t even put food on her own fork, and beyond that just getting the food to her mouth has become a challenge. And tonight as I was tucking her in and trying to get her comfortable (this is hard to do at this point as she’s so very skinny and pressure on her bones hurts), we both noticed how purple the tips of her fingers had turned, and how cold they were to the touch. She assured me that they didn’t feel cold. Another sign…

Yet somehow she can’t even see this for herself. The past few days she’s rationalized that her current condition is the exception to the norm; today she is unusually tired, or she ate enough at the previous meal, or maybe it’s that she’d rather enjoy my company that waste our visit by eating. A few days ago I brought a chopped liver sandwich (her father made chopped liver and she often waxes nostalgic about it) and she ate with enthusiasm and delight – but a mere three bites. That was all she could take. All the logic in the world couldn’t convince her that this was hardly enough caloric intake to maintain her health, let alone make up for the twenty-plus pounds she’d lost since she’d her surgery.

The hospice nurse and social worker (the latter is truly an absolute bitch, how or why she came to this career choice is beyond my comprehension) arrived while I was visiting a few days ago, and I was asked to please leave the room. I waited outside while they told my friend of the change in her care from rehab to hospice. It didn’t seem that my friend understood. When I was invited back in, something had changed. It seemed that Ganga had made the case for my being family of sorts; she wanted me there to hear the information. The women gave their spiel again. I interpreted it for my friend in the gentlest way I could. “Oh no, I don’t want hospice!” she said adamantly. I explained that if she gained weight, if she showed an increase in strength and if she made some overall progress, that her status as a hospice patient would be changed back to that of a rehab patient. This new change in care was just a measure of relief for her; she wouldn’t be made to adhere to a strict diet (she always complained about choices being made for her), and she wouldn’t be made to endure physical therapy (through which she screamed in fear and pain the whole time). She could enjoy the break she so often asked for. Still, it didn’t seem to matter. The word hospice is loaded, and as lacking as my friend may be in memory and physical abilities, this was not lost on her.

I realize that it’s not important that she be completely aware of her patient status. And anyway, having her truly understand the situation is not really possible; her lack of short term memory prevents any new information from sticking. And whether she knows that her death is coming before long or not – it doesn’t change a thing. What does matter is that I try, as her friend, to maintain a certain level of joy, satisfaction and physical comfort in her remaining experience here. I will continue to bring her her favorite foods, whether she takes one bite or not. I will play the chants of Muktananda from her days in the ashram in India, and I’ll hang his picture on her wall. I will bring her my favorite down pillow and comforter from home. I will do everything short of burn her favorite incense (I’ve already been spotted as a rule-breaker on the floor, no need to tempt complete banishment from the place) in order to keep her as content and happy as possible. We will simply have to live each moment to the best of our ability. From here on in I will do my best to keep her life worth living.

I too might have to employ this approach with respect to my own life these days. We’ve lost fourteen birds – some dearly beloved and deeply important to us – over the past six weeks. My mother is eighty-six now and her health and strength wain visibly as the months go by. My own body has continued to change in unpleasant ways that break my vain heart daily, and behind all of this is the knowledge that my son and only life companion will be leaving me forever in just a few months, sooner even, when one considers he will pass much of the summer with his dad. How I will manage, as a single person in the world with very few friends? This I do not yet know. I will simply have to continue to witness the joy and beauty in my life as it appears. I can do no more, and I realize that it won’t serve me to do any less.

I understand that everything is transitory. I have worked for years on getting this knowledge to live inside of me. Yeah, I get it – and yet I don’t. There is the intellectual aspect of me which is well-informed and trusting, but then there is the deeper, more animalistic feeling that I just can’t shake. Yes, I do believe it to be true, as my old family friend Martha always used to say, that ultimately “everything always works out”. My head believes it, but on some level my gut doesn’t quite trust it to be so. Elihu will often defend Ganga’s seemingly strange behavior these days by reminding me that we are physiologically wired to stay alive, and that that drive is strong. Primal. Instinct wins over intellect here, he tells me. Must be what’s going on in Ganga’s experience. She knows it’ll all work out. And yet she can’t quite bring herself to accept it. Understandable, because the next thing on her to-do list is to die. Easy to rationalize when it’s someone else’s experience I guess. I certainly can’t know for sure that I myself won’t behave in the very same way when my own death shows itself to be coming soon.

Part II

Ironically, the day that Ganga died I had successfully made my online reservation for a visit at the rehab facility, and even had the screen shot to prove it (the online system didn’t always print out the time I reserved, so this time I thought I’d beat the system). Elihu and I went to visit Grandma after school, and after that I was going to go make my visit (feeling certain it would be my last). As I was getting in the car to leave, I received a call from her sister. Ganga has died peacefully at 4 pm, less than an hour earlier.

In my mind I played back last night’s visit. A dear friend with whom she’d started God’s Love We Deliver and her husband had made the long drive from Maryland to hold Ganga’s hand and be there with her in the time that remained. I remember seeing all three of them there in the gentle light of the small table lamp, her friend reading poems to her, holding her hand… I remember thinking it would merely be selfish if I were to interrupt the vibe by wishing to hold Ganga’s hand once more, or to kiss her on the head… I had only ever kissed her once, a few days earlier. I had been so conflicted about doing so (it still felt awkward to offer such a tender gesture for a woman who, like me, spoke her mind and swore like a sailor), but I made myself do it, and for this I’m now very relieved. So as I took in the scene, and before I pulled closed the curtain between us, I simply said “I love you Ganga, I’ll see you tomorrow”.

I last saw Ganga on Tuesday night, the first of June. She died the following day at 4 p.m.

It is Friday night now, and tomorrow morning I will make the drive, early morning, to witness my friend’s cremation. Naturally, I had to take some action in order to learn where and when it was to happen. It still amazes me that our culture is just fine with the idea of a loved one’s body being whisked away in the night and returning a few weeks later in a small five pound box, no questions asked. Seriously, no one is sentimental? Curious? In need of closure? Sigh.

As I write this, my friend’s body still exists. Ganga still exists in corporeal form. But in a matter of hours, she won’t. And this doesn’t matter at all, really. I can hear her in my head saying “Oh Elizabeth it’s bullshit. Don’t think for a moment that the body means anything.” At least I think so. That’s been kinda eating at me the last two days. I used to think I knew exactly what she would have said. But now I start to doubt…

It’s now Saturday morning. In two hours’ time I will watch the smoke rise from the wide-bore metal smokestack, carrying with it a portion of Ganga’s body upward and into the ether. Then I will pray, I will chant, I will wish her a loving and peaceful transition. I will probably cry too. And then her form as I knew it, the form which made me smile with its familiarity, the form that once served her so well and which later let her down so deeply, that crazy mass of now-decrepit cells will be nothing but bones and ashes, and smoke in the air. That which was.

It’s still super early. I didn’t wake up in a good place in my sleep cycle, so now I’m desperately groggy and trying on many excuses to see if I can allow myself to sleep in and simply miss the whole affair. But how often does one get this sort of chance to witness the final departure of a dear friend? With a mixture of sorrow, anticipation and a tiny bit of dread, I’m going to pack my bag and head off now.

Part III

I arrived at Albany Rural Cemetery a bit before 8 am, (as I’d been told that Ganga would go in first thing in the morning) and the kind woman I’d spoken to on the phone was there in the office. They were a bit backed up; Ganga’s cremation had first been moved from Friday afternoon to early on Saturday, and now it seemed as if they wouldn’t get to her until noon or later. It was time to elicit some more information to see if I might not nudge things a bit in my favor; I did my ‘thing’ and expanded the conversation as much as I felt her to be comfortable with (ok, I probably went a bit beyond that). She told me the guy who was working the crematorium’s name was Damien. “You’ll know who he is. He’s got a lot of tattoos.”

I parked in the shade just past the chapel, crematorium and mausoleum, all of which were housed in the same terra cotta-colored stone building. I walked around the perimeter once, and noticed that there was a large hall on the lower level with a door that was unlocked. It was a mausoleum, its towering walls made of smooth marble squares, some occupied, some yet awaiting their tenants. There was a table with a vase of plastic flowers and a guest book on it by the doorway. I stopped to read the entries. They were all family members come to visit parents and grandparents. Not a one of the messages was terribly interesting, and they all seemed to be desperate with loss and sorrow. I looked for something more personal or unique, but nothing stood out. We miss you Grandma, we love you Papi… Does it all just end like this? Not a lot of hope for closure or transition on those pages.

I decided I would leave a message of my own for Ganga. I sat down on the cool stone stairs, held the book in my lap, thought for a few moments, and then filled in a page. I took a pic, then returned the book to the table and stood back for a moment to regard the setting. All at once a bald man in a gas mask came running down the stairs at top speed, stopping short at seeing me – I believe I remember him even putting a hand to his heart, because it was clear that I’d scared the shit out of him. We both paused for a moment and I saw that his head was covered in vividly-colored tattoos. “Hi, are you Damien?” I asked, but he didn’t answer, he just offered a muffled “Oh I’m sorry!” from behind the mask and made a sort of slight bow of apology, and then ran back up the flight of stairs. It seemed as if he couldn’t hear me with the headgear on. I remained in the hall for a few more minutes, noting the fact that, as Sarah had told me, that because they were so backed up, the place wasn’t presentable to the public at the moment. Cardboard body boxes were stacked up in the common area, and a very industrial-looking apparatus used for holding caskets was parked in an adjacent hallway. At the end of the day, it’s a physical world, and there are physical jobs that need to be done.

Within a minute or two the bald man came back down the staircase, this time sans gas mask. Again he apologized, and of course I did too. Why should he ever expect a stranger to be here at 8 a.m. on a Saturday? I saw that he was indeed heavily tattooed (plus he had a thrice-pierced lip). Oh what a kind man he was; I told him why I was there, that it was important for me to be here when my friend was cremated. He said Sarah was right, they were a bit backed up, and it would probably be around noon by the time he could get to her. That was ok, I answered. I’d tour the cemetery and bide my time ’til then. So Damien left to get back to his job. But then a few minutes later he came down the stairs again. “I can get your friend in at 9” he offered. “You shouldn’t have to hang around here for so long”. I thanked him, this time I was the one offering a slight bow of gratitude. “I’ll get things going.” Damien offered. “And I’ll have your friend in at 9”. “Um… so which stack will she be in?” I asked, referring to the pair of metal chimneys. Without hesitation he answered “The one on the left”. I nodded. “Ok, thanks”. He turned to leave. I felt a slight rise in my adrenaline. “Wait!” I called out, and he stopped. In my mind I considered the things I might do as a symbol of our connection in this final moment – perhaps he could retrieve a lock of her hair? Perhaps he could take the flowers in my hand and have them burned along with her? In a flash I realized all of the legal and logistical problems that even a tiny request might create, and quickly said “Never mind”. No, there was nothing left to be done. He nodded, smiled kindly, turned and left.

I found a spot under a deliciously-scented flowering mock orange bush just twenty feet outside of the furnace portion of the building. I pulled out my phone to check that I had the chant correct. Om Namah Shivaya. I pulled out Ganga’s book, and then her small bible. I had brought a cushion to sit on, and was wearing her red beaded necklace from India. I tried to imagine that now tiny body, that white-haired dynamo of a woman, lying just behind that vent, behind that brick wall. That body was in lousy shape when she left it, and certainly it was less than that now. But being the deeply sentimental person I am, I couldn’t help but try to picture her in my mind’s eye. I could imagine her laying there, a mere shell of the woman she once was, and with that image fixed in my head, I said my own quiet inner farewell to that familiar form.

A few minutes before nine I heard some machinery begin to operate, and I saw the wavy heat lines of burning fuel rising from the stack (for me it was the one on the right; I was on the opposite side of the wall from Damien). Ok, I thought, it has to get up to speed first… And then, a moment or two after nine, there was one initial blast of sound, and one puff of black smoke… The smoke didn’t last. Within a minute the black smoke returned to the invisible waves of heat, rising, which continued for another hour and forty minutes. (Later I surmised that this initial burst of smoke may have been the easily-burned parts of the package like her hair, her nightgown, the dry skin, the box… the rest of the material was wetter and denser and would just be a low and slow process.) The initial plume stunned me into tears, as I realized the transformation was underway. I reached for her bible, the one with her initials embossed on the cover and which had been given to her at her first communion in St. Louis another lifetime ago, and I turned to a page in which she had once inserted a laminated card with the Saint Francis of Assisi prayer that begins “Lord, make me an instrument of thy peace, where there is hate, let me sow love…” I read it aloud, through tears. I took a moment to consider it more deeply, and I read it again. And then I set to chanting. I readily admit that I’m years out of any meditative practice, so the chanting went in spurts – as did my focus. I needed to relieve my joints too, so a few times I stood, I walked, I considered the vapors rising from the stack. I thought of my friend’s physical state by now, and how I was moving beyond my sentiment for it. I stood in the shadow of the wavy heat lines on the pavement, and noted how our forms were casting shadows together. Likely it was far more fuel than body, but still… It was us, together for one last moment here on earth.

My friend had wasted away to a mere seventy-plus pounds at the end of her life, so after about an hour and forty minutes I began to wonder if it wasn’t time. But how to know? Would there be some mystical sign? Did she plan on letting me know? And within seconds of my pondering this, I heard two short sirens go off, and then the engines let down and began to hum a little more quietly. Yeah, I was pretty sure that this had been the timer, and our dear Ganga was finally cooked. It made me laugh.

I got in my car and as I slowly pulled away I saw Damien, leaning against the arched entrance, smoking a cigarette. Passing more time while her remains cooled down before they could be processed. “Man, I bet a lot of this job is just waiting, huh?” I asked, elbow hanging out my open window. That began a ten minute conversation in which we covered a lot of ground; he’d taken the job as grounds keeper originally, as he liked being outdoors, but then the guy working the crematory needed a sub, and pretty soon what Damien had once thought an unthinkable task had now become his new full-time job. He said it was particularly hard seeing the kids and babies that came in. He shared with me that while he’d never seen a ghost, once he had been overwhelmed with the scent of vanilla while mowing the lawn, the summer air around him filled with nothing but dust and grass seed. I mean, it is a cemetery. Certain subjects come up. Ghosts and unexplainable events must be covered at some point I should think. And it’s always nice when you meet another soul who has shared similar experiences, and with whom censorship is not necessary. Natural candor is a beautiful thing. Hey, it’s what I had with Ganga.

Ganga would’ve really liked this nice young tattooed man who reverently loaded her into the furnace of evermore. I’m sure it woulda made her smile. And I’m sure if she could’ve seen everything with the clarity of her former self, she would’ve been pretty happy with the way in which the last few weeks went down. (On some level I’m sure she knew well what was going on; she left after all was resolved.) Ganga had made peace with her long-estranged son, her son’s father, spent time with her daughter and her sister, and saw once again her beloved friend from the old days, who’d journeyed far just to hold her friend’s hand at the end. Ganga asked after Elihu at every one of our visits, and she was deeply satisfied to know where he was going to school, and that he himself was happy with the choice (she was adamantly against him attending an Ivy League for numerous reasons) and the last time Elihu visited with her, he had held her hand for a long time and had told her that he loved her. He sobbed the whole way home, a behavior very uncharacteristic of him. I told her about this the following day, and told her that for reasons he didn’t himself even understand, Elihu loved her so very deeply. “I feel the same way” she answered.

In the end, everything really did work out. And I know that Ganga is doing fine wherever she is now. I know it. I can just feel it in my bones.

Ganga (Ingrid Hedley) Stone, October 30th, 1941 – June 2nd, 2021

 

Ushering In December 31, 2019

When we arrive at a milestone, I think it’s human nature to offer up proclamations about the event’s significance. It feels restorative and hopeful at the conclusion of one chapter, and at the dawn of another, to identify the things that have happened, to acknowledge the lessons we’ve learned from those experiences, and to posit an improved vision for the future that awaits us.

I too feel the urge to summarize, to identify my overarching life themes of the past decade. A quick look through my personal journal entries from the past several New Years Eves shows that although I’ve lived through many, many adventures over the past ten years, my hopes at this time of year are nearly always the same. And each year my failings are also nearly identical. I have likely been wrestling with the same private demons for my whole life. While I do seem to get some purchase onto new ground each year that passes, sadly it seems to be at a much slower pace than I might have envisioned a decade or two ago.

This is not to say that I am the same person as I was in 2009. Good Lord no. Not a one of is, I should think.

It was in 2009 that I first called New York my home. And it was in 2010 when I first began to refer to our little homestead here as The Hillhouse. Shortly after that, I found I could no longer tolerate the emotional turmoil in my life without an outlet, and so my inner life found its way into an outer expression in The Hillhouse in Greenfield. I had no idea what I was even doing back then – all I knew is that I had to write, I had to get what was in me out of me. My objective was not to “have a blog” – I’m not even sure I quite knew what a blog was back then – all I knew was that I was starting my life all over in a new part of the world and I felt very alone. Heartbroken and hopeless. It was too much for me to bear, so I looked for expression and connection through the only means I had available.

Although it may seem far too obvious, I can see that today is a perfect marker, a perfect delineation between my then and my now (and beyond)….

The very first and most obvious piece of evidence I think of is that of my advancing age. At 56 it might not seem that aging should be foremost in my mind – but it is. And it’s more than just vanity. Yes, a great deal of it – if I’m to be completely honest – is about vanity, but more disturbing are the physical changes that are occurring that will come to adversely affect me at some point. There’s the stuff that’s to be expected: weight gain (one must become vigilant about careless food and drink after 50, I’m convinced of it now!), there’s the loss of height, but most alarming is the rapid change in my hands and my joints. My spine is succumbing to gravity, my hips are so much tighter than they’ve ever been, and my fingers seem to lose their grip on something daily. At age 18 I broke my neck, and in the past few months the injury has come back to cause me some concern; I now feel slight electrical tingling in my arms and even my head itself, and from this new reality I don’t know if there is any retreating.

This is tolerable when I think on the few things of value I may yet add to the planet. One thing, of course, is my son Elihu. He is what motivates me to get out of bed in the morning, and I know for sure he is the main thing that keeps my almost 85 year old mother going too. There are a few things I still need to do (doesn’t everyone feel that way?) and if I can conclude this personal business then I believe my growing impairments will be slightly less frightening. I have a list – lest you think I’m just wishing for a few more good nights on the town and a couple more singing dates – and I will henceforth take care to clearly map out the steps and check them off in a timely fashion. First thing on the list: get the kid into MIT. In the coming year all else will be a sidebar. My job now is to support my son in any way that he needs. Once he’s launched, I can turn my attention to the rest.

I look so different, so much older, than I did when we moved here from Chicago. And I kinda wished someone would’ve given me a heads up. Maybe then it wouldn’t have come as such a surprise. But is anyone ever truly ready for this? For me, things were pretty much ‘business as usual’ until I hit 53. Then stuff just kinda started to change really fast. I look at my friends through the lens of Facebook, and I can see the witching hour making itself apparent in their countenances too. Protestations are silly. I am SO not a fan of people talking about “internal beauty” or “80 years young”. Fuck that. Seriously, fuck all that bullshit. The bloom is off the rose already. There is no going back. No 60 year old is more beautiful to gaze upon than a 30 year old, and reduced flexibility and mobility suck. Sure I’m smarter, more experienced and more insightful than I was even a decade ago – but that aint gonna stop my hands from dropping the last wine glass on the kitchen floor or finding my limbs painfully stiff after a half hour on the couch. Sure, I workout regularly – and plan now to workout even more, and yes I will be increasingly mindful of the things that I need to do in order to stay at the best of my physical abilities, but the march of time – the physical declining of my body – this will not ease up as time passes. And this is a reality that is only just now truly settling in. I feel that the more deeply I can make peace with this aging thing, the easier it’ll be to move through it. To move through the next decade, more specifically.

And then there is my mother. She too is proof of the big changes that have transpired over the past decade, as her own physical situation has deteriorated quite a bit in just the past few years. I can look at her and get a fair idea of what lies ahead for me. I have her hands, her bad and scoliotic back, her bad right knee… It doesn’t worry me as much as it might have if I’d had no warning; at least none of this will come as a surprise to me. What is a tad surprising is the way in which my mom has recently begun to make offhand remarks about her death. We were looking at a reclining chair for her a few days ago and she said something about choosing a color that I liked. And I can assure you there was no hint of humor in her voice… While a year ago she would talk about living to see Elihu graduate from MIT (yes, we do like to put this particular cart before the horse), now she has amended that to say that she would be happy just to live to see him be accepted at MIT. And that is a different thing. Her heart is in continual Afib these days, so as a result she’s very easily winded and finds her energy gone after simple tasks. I can understand how she’s losing the resolve to envision things she once did. Her talent and gift to the world has always been that of superb cook and host; with that role diminished to only a handful of dinners a year, and hardly the energy to see those to fruition as things are presently, I can imagine this hits her hard. We Conants don’t really talk about feelings as a family. Never have. And so as we find ourselves in this new territory – on the verge of a decade that promises to bring change upon us more dramatically than ever before – deep inside I think we are feeling the sorrow of imminent goodbyes and major shifts in our reality…

I’ve spent a good deal of time wondering at the things one must do in order to find resolution and conclusion in life. My feeling is that if one takes all the chances one can, if one makes strangers smile and occasionally rescues spiders from the vacuum cleaner, if one is generally a kind person who does things to the best of their abilities – then there should be no regrets, no nagging feeling that their life has somehow missed its mark. I have very few regrets – I might even be so bold as to say I have none – because I know that if I were presented with the same choices in the same time and with the same emotional tools as I had at the times of those choices – then I would most likely behave in the same way. If one simply acts as a good person in their own sphere of influence, then I honestly believe they’ve done a fine job at being human. And I should think that believing this would help a person to accept the changes and losses that life inevitably brings. Of course my ending is not showing itself to me in an acute or obvious way at the moment, so it’s easy for me to say this now. We shall see.

When we moved here just over a decade ago, a majestic beech tree stood in the yard. It was enormous, and right after the view, it was usually the first thing one noticed on the property. A few years into our residency here the tree began to drop its topmost limbs. Where once we could see only branches, now the sky was showing through. I was told by many folks that the tree was in the process of dying. At first it was alarming; we really loved our beech tree and couldn’t imagine the space without it. Maybe it was dying – I mean, after we’re grown and have physically matured, are we all not in the process of dying? – but yet it was still so beautiful. It never ceased to be stunning. It’s probably lost a third of its volume in the past few years – it is not the tree we first knew. But this does not stop it from being regal. It does not prevent us from loving it as we did. These days I can begin to imagine how the space will look when it’s finally gone. Where there once was shade there will be a great patch of light. It will be a huge change on the property. And then, one day, it will not. When the reigning tree has reached its limbs to the sky and then finally dropped them all onto the ground, it will have been the completion of a tree’s perfect life.

And that resulting patch of sunlight will usher in a fresh new chapter.

 

 

May Bird May 7, 2018

Today is my birthday. Spent most of it in the windowless basement, at my desk, bravely muscling my way down the to-do list. But I know that it’s sunny outside. It is a fine spring day. The pic at the top of this post will attest to it. (Our late friend Ace, a Vietnam vet who returned from the war with a distant look in his eye and a ceaseless need to create art, he made this lovely bird. It’s a fine piece, and easily overlooked as its rusty patina blends in so well with the woodland setting. Today however, I sure did notice it. And how lovely a thing it is! I feel so lucky to have such a piece of work.)

It’s in my nature to bitch and moan about all the crap before me, all the stuff I never seem to get done, all the events that happen as if they were scripted by some omnipotent prankster… But my wise young son would remind me that all of this stuff – good and bad – is in and of itself the very essence of life. The serendipity, the monotony, the endless to-dos, the hitches and pitfalls, the windfalls. It is no one’s spiteful creation, it is no one’s gift, it simply is. My taking anything personally – the challenges, even the rewards – is as unwarranted as are the curses my mother directs towards her iPad; none of it is personal. It just is. Perhaps energy and intention can help to guide events, but I can’t think of life as actually having it out for me. Yeah, some unpleasant shit has come down on me, but at the end of the day I am not working twelve hour days in a sweat shop making clothes I could never myself dream of owning… For the most part, I have it good.

And although I know it was serendipity at its finest, it still feels like I got a little knowing nod from the heavens just now…

Having accomplished more administrative tasks in one day than I can remember, I treated myself to a quick walk outside in the sunshine. As we do often around here, I heard a small plane in the air above the house. Sometimes we run for the binoculars, but it was approaching too fast. I stood and watched… It banked, more sharply than I’m accustomed to seeing small planes turn, and it intrigued me. The plane got closer and closer, and then, when the plane was directly above my head, the engine noise changed and – the nose of the plane turned completely downward! What? I’d experienced stalls in small planes, but I guess I just didn’t expect it, and it truly frightened me, until I realized the pilot was crafting a lovely, controlled corkscrew pattern. I gasped. It was so thrilling and beautiful… Then the plane pulled out of the fall and turned west again, out and over the woods, leaving me there on the ground, full of adrenaline and joy.

A few months ago the Studio’s underground power line broke. Everything stopped. For a moment I freaked out, I wanted to just run away from the whole thing. Then one day I pulled myself up and I created a GoFundMe page. It was deeply humbling to see such love and support from friends and community, near and far. What had seemed like a targeted assault on my good intentions was now transformed into an expression of support and hope.  After a good deal of post-construction red tape, we will be hooked up again this week. What a ride. The last year has been rife with good news/bad news scenarios, and it has been exhausting, but it’s also helped toughen me up. OK, so now someone is suing me for a fall on the ice this past winter, but hey, it doesn’t scare me. Well, maybe a little, but seriously, this whole life thing is just one crazy illusion. One crazy game. You hope it goes well, but in the end, you can’t take it personally. You just gotta get through.

My oldest childhood friend lost her father this past week. Paul meant a lot to me, and to Elihu too. I always called him my second father. Thankfully Elihu and I both had some very lovely visits with him over the past few months, so we don’t feel too many regrets gnawing at us over things unspoken. (In fact, Paul called Elihu “one of his special people” on our last visit, and that meant a lot to my son.) This man, dearly beloved by his large family and the community in which he lived, had enjoyed a productive, long and full life. His death is something that shocks me when I remember it all over again, but what helps bring me ease is knowing how beautiful a life he led. He lived simply, he played the cards life dealt him (some of them would seem quite unfair indeed), and he did it all with gratitude, a sense of humor and lots of love. This is the way I wish to live out the rest of my game here on earth.

Whether it’s serendipity or divine providence, I dunno, but something about double fives feels lucky to me today.

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Dear readers, would you please consider subscribing to Elihu’s YouTube channel? He has put such a lot of work into both building the aircraft and the filming an editing the videos; what a wonderful birthday present it would be to his mother if you would just tick that subscribe box…

 

Split July 30, 2017

For the first time in a year or more my son is resting in my bed on a Sunday morning as I sit in my favorite chair, writing. This had been our routine for most of his life until one day, it wasn’t. Last times are evasive; there is so seldom the awareness that one is experiencing something for a final time, but it has to happen sometime, right? I try to be as mindful and grateful of all the little everyday routines that bring joy to my life because there is always a tiny voice in my head which whispers “this may be the last time….”

I can remember the last time my father was downstairs in this house. It was a delicate procedure to get him down the steep cellar stairs in the first place, but I’d just painted the main room and installed a large carpet, making it truly habitable for the first time ever, and Elihu and I had wanted to share our triumph with his grandparents. I can remember watching dad’s laborious ascent of the stairs at the conclusion of our visit, and thinking distinctly “this is the last time dad will ever come down here”. It wasn’t a sad or overly nostalgic thought either, it simply was. In this case, the last time was pretty obvious to spot. But most of the time the ‘lasts’ are not always so clear.

With adolescence come many ‘lasts’. Elihu’s spending a weekend night in my bed was a routine event when he was small, but of course the dynamic between us has been changing this past year as he has become a young man and no longer a small boy. Things that felt effortless and natural just a year ago don’t feel quite the same these days. Late last night (I now retire before the kid, cuz he stays up til all hours fabricating airplane models) he came into my room saying a large bug had gotten into his bed and it freaked him out so he wanted to sleep with me. I was half asleep myself, but the significance of the moment wasn’t lost on me. I knew that it would mean one more lazy, sweet morning with my son next to me. One last morning in which he’d reach out to me and say ‘mama’ before falling back asleep, one last time when I’d rise early to let the chickens out and return to my chair with a hot cup of coffee. We would have one final morning the way it had been for so many years. As I sit here in my chair, my heart finding relief upon hearing the breath of deep sleep coming from my son, I am savoring this window in time, knowing that it may very well be the last of its kind.

Most times there are no single defining moments to mark the end of an era. Often last times aren’t known to us until we look back in time and identify them. We look backwards and can more clearly see where trends slowed and new ones replaced them, we can understand in hindsight how interests and passions waned and new ones emerged. In retrospect we may even find the dates and events that mark these changes. But for the most part, change is gradual, beginnings and endings are undetectable, invisible. But sometimes, they are not.

When I was eighteen, I broke my neck. In one split second the whole trajectory of my life changed. Many times I’ve reflected on how curious a mix of life events that near-tragedy provided me: I can surmise that without having broken my neck I never would have met certain dear friends, experienced the life of a musician, fallen in love with my ex-husband, given birth to my son. That was an obvious moment; and obvious ending of one era and start of another. Of course at the time none of these positive outcomes could be guessed, but certainly life as I may have envisioned it had been redirected in an instant.

When I was eleven or twelve I experienced a moment which also became a marker in my life. The smallest, most mundane thing had become transcendent. I will never forget that feeling, the enormousness of the revelation, the way I fairly weakened at the dawning, the way I knew, in that moment, that I was a changed person.

It was a summer evening, and I was walking home along the road on which I now again live, some forty years later. As usual, my glance fell just a few feet ahead of me on the gravel, keeping watch for my footing. In the damp of the June night a small red eft had crawled out of the grass and was heading perilously for the road. I carefully allowed the tiny creature to crawl to the safety of my hand, where I would inspect it, marvel at it and then return it to the wet overgrowth. I looked down at this creature and was smacked hard with a profound realization: we were related. I saw his four limbs, his tiny fingers, his eyes, his mouth… I marveled over the symmetry – in both of us – and was simply stunned. I guess I’d always known that each and every creature on this planet is of course in some fundamental way related, but this just got to me. I remember standing at the side of the road in the waning light and thinking “We are all related. We are all of the same family.” I remember standing there a little longer and literally thinking “We are all one.” It almost frightened me, but for some reason I remember laughing out loud. I can’t explain this moment any better. It was huge, it was tiny. Miraculous, mundane. And it was also a last. And a first, too. And I knew it.

Elihu was with his father in Chicago for six weeks this summer, and I enjoyed a great stretch of useful, solo time. Determined that I would finally expunge my house of all the physical objects that we no longer needed, I embarked on the enormous task of sorting, culling, organizing, boxing and bagging. If my son had been home the project would have been impossible. Exhausting as the project was, midway through I could see a new life emerging on the other side. My very being was feeling light and changed; I sensed a fresh new life awaiting me upon completion…

On the fourth of July I closed the chickens in shortly after the sun went down, then got myself cleaned up before heading downtown to watch the fireworks (my goal this year was twofold: one, I would finally wear earplugs so that I could actually enjoy the visuals without the horrible explosive noise and two, I would plant myself downwind so that I could savor that uniquely summer smokey scent.) Recently I’d learned a new trick to accommodate my changing vision needs; I wore a contact in just my right eye, leaving each eye its own focal length. This made it possible to both see the road ahead as well as focus successfully on things at close range, without the need for reading or distance glasses. As I wound down the hilly dark country road, I felt that my contact needed adjusting, and so leaned in to the rear view mirror to take a look…

Crack! The car hit a boulder, a log, a tree – something – which made a sound as loud as any firework… My body was immediately flushed with the cold, electric sensation of adrenaline. What had happened? It was darker out than I’d thought, and as I pulled to the side of the road it was hard to see…. And when I did, everything changed. Instantly I felt nauseous. I’d done what I so many times had cursed other, more careless people for doing. Oh no. This was horrible. I couldn’t bear to look… My mind raced through the implications. I knew I’d done something terrible, but perhaps could something good come of it? Certainly, it would change the way in which I pointed an accusing finger at others. Now I was the selfish, insensitive human I’d blamed others for being. I had hit an ancient creature of the woods. I had caused immense pain and suffering to an innocent animal who was quietly doing what she had been doing for years and years. Not only that, but if she wasn’t dead already (which at this point I prayed she was) she would be soon, and therefore I had ceased the creation of more of her kind. I had ended her lineage. Maybe even ended the existence of her kind in our quiet woods. My car had struck a snapping turtle.

Many of us who live in the country have carefully re-directed a snapping turtle or two; we all know to keep well away from those frightening jaws, we all understand how lightning fast they can spin around, how easily they can break off a finger… And yet compassion moves many of us to pull over, search for a good sized stick and begin the process of saving the creature from the dangers of the open road. Mostly, these animals are mothers seeking to cross over to the adjacent pond (why in hell they can’t just stay put I’ll never understand) in order to lay their eggs. In my experience, turtles do this in the daylight. I had never thought to be on the lookout for such a migration at night. But then again, should I not be mindful after dark of bolting deer, lumbering porcupines and other occupants of the forest?

As it turned out, she was still alive. For a moment I considered running over her again in order to bring her a more swift and humane death. But then I considered her shell, and my tires. It could make for more trouble. And besides, there was no guarantee I could do the job as I intended. In the end, I chose to move her as carefully as possible to the side of the road to allow her to die. Her shell was, as I feared, completely split up the middle of her underside. I prayed that her body had gone into shock, and I prayed she didn’t hurt as badly as I believed she did. I placed her in the grass, and then drove into town.

The fireworks took on a whole different feel to me now. I walked through the crowds in a daze. I’d forgotten my earplugs and the shocks were loud. From where I stood in the wake of the smoke clouds, the fireworks appeared in the sky over the roof of the historic casino building. Instantly, these munitions were not entertainment; I saw and felt them to be the explosions they symbolically recalled. Each explosion birthed a wave of fear for my life, for the lives of those around me. War, I felt, must sound just like this. The experience was transformed by this new perspective. I imagined the casino itself to be hit, with bricks and stained glass crumbling to the ground. Deeply frightening as it was, I forced myself to stay in this experience for a few moments. I felt the need to grab the nearest humans and hold us all together in safety. How strange it was, I thought as the sky lit up the park like daylight, that this should be held as an entertainment for we of this modern, Western world. Easy, I supposed, as we here in this culture know nothing of war firsthand. I wondered how citizens of currently war-ravaged countries in the Middle East would feel about such a display. Would it bring on symptoms of PTSD? Would it throw children into tears, would it make mothers cry out for their babies and grown men shrink in terror? I thought it surely would. So strange, this mix. Triumphant and celebratory, menacing and evil. At every cracking sound I relived the moment when I’d hit the turtle. One moment I was thrilling to personal victory on a beautiful summer’s night, the next I was dumbfounded and heartsick. This time, I had known the precise moment when things changed.

These days my fingers are hurting more. Usually the first thing I’m aware of when I awake is that my fingers hurt. The irony of a musician losing her fingers to arthritis tempts me to indulge in self-pity. I lament that I haven’t played with other musicians since my son was born, and the way life is going at present, I’m not likely to again. I think of the ‘time before’ and my heart aches. When was the last time I played in a band? Who were the last people I played music with? It saddens me that I can’t recall. Just when did my decolletage become crepey looking like those other, older women (whom I was never supposed to become!)? This doesn’t just sadden me, it angers me. Just when did my left pinkie begin to bend out in a bizarre and unnatural way at the far joint? Just when did this trend towards jowls and sagging neck actually begin? Many of my thoughts these days are an effort to come to terms with aging. With the process of saying goodbye to the way things have been for so long… I tell myself that the process has always been molecule by molecule, cell by cell. That, thank God, it happens gradually. Kind of like pregnancy. You get a whole nine months to adjust to the new reality. But there’s also something silently disturbing about slow change: you can’t stop it, and you don’t quite know when it’s coming or how it’s happening. Your past splits away from you without your even realizing it. And then one day you get it as you didn’t get it before. Oh shit. It’s over. And there’s no going back.

A few years ago I played the music behind a student production of “Tuck Everlasting”. It’s the story of a family who is stuck in time; no one ages and life for them stretches on and on without end, while life and death continue on as usual around them. I’d never thought too deeply before then about life from the opposite perspective. But it certainly struck me as a hell in which I’d never care to live. It gave me consolation about the aging process: we all do it, and pretty much all at the same rate.

Troubled as I am by my mortality, I still continue to fully enjoy and participate in the experience of my life . Admittedly I am vain, convinced that most of the time I am right, and often full of pluck and bravado. But at the same time I am also timid, unconvinced of my talents and deeply fearful about my future. I am a mix of these things all at once. These qualities all wrestle for power as the reflective side and the reactive side continue to fight each other for dominance. It’s fascinating how humans can be all of these seemingly contradicting things all at once. Yet truly, we are all things at the same time. Our lifetimes are spent swinging from one awareness to the next, from certainty to uncertainty in the blink of an eye. One minute we are whole, and the very next – we are split.

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Post Script: Feeling that this post was already verging on way-too-long I omitted these two recent incidents which further expand on the idea of life circumstances splitting in an instant: The happy day when Elihu returned home from his father’s, I tripped on the suitcase on his bedroom floor and broke a toe. A week before, lightning had struck The Studio and fried the just-out-of-warranty AC units, resulting in three thousand dollars worth of damage. Thankfully, the IRS just granted us our official status as a nonprofit entity after a three-year application process. Split indeed.

 

 

 

Witching Window February 21, 2017

middle-age-now

It is late, and my son is in his room watching aviation videos. And I am in my room, reading about death. Yeah. That just about sums it up I guess.

It’s not as if my interest in death has come all that recently, but it is only of late that I’ve begun to actively search out books on the subject, and to think of it so much more personally than ever before in my life. My son, however, at thirteen, is about as far from thoughts of death and mortality as any one human could be. His thoughts are consumed by flight, by what makes it possible, by how me might build a craft to fly so successfully himself. He is also about numbers, about math, about language (German mostly, but some Japanese and Vietnamese, too – and French, if you press him), and he is about the tuba parts in the polkas he loves. He is about his birds. He wishes our rooster Bald Mountain goodnight in a sweet little voice that still sounds more boy than young man most of the time. He is only just about to embark on his young adult life. I however, am trying every single day to call up the nerve to say goodbye to my younger years with some small amount of dignity. It’s not as easy as I’d thought it would be, and I’m not going about it with a lot of class. Of this I am sure. For one, I still color my hair. For another, I still think my son actually enjoys my company… Sometimes he still does, but I can feel the curtain of adolescence descending between us, and it reminds me daily that I really do need to start to figure out how the next part of my life will look. How to embrace this growing older thing. Cuz as of this moment, I am still not down with it. Somehow, I still cannot believe it is happening.

After returning from a short but lovely evening of music at Caffe Lena (we heard Golfstrom, a talented group that plays Jewish popular music, mostly European, from around the early part of the last century, to put it succinctly) we retired to our rooms. In chasing a tangential thread from a Facebook post, I came upon the Obamas dancing their very first dance as President and First Lady. The first thought I had was: how young Barack looked. OMG. Truly, he looked like a young man. I have always been keenly aware that he was elected to office shortly after I moved here – and that he and I are very close in age. In fact, until just a few weeks ago, Obama had been president for the entire time we’d lived here in New York. (I remember well the night the counts came in; the sound of the cheering crowds in Saratoga – most likely from Skidmore College – was audible from three miles away. Even individual shouts carried across the forest to reach my ears as I stood, so deeply thrilled and full of hope, on my porch here on top of the hill.) Back then we really did look much younger, Barack and I. Often it throws me for a loop and leaves me in a mild state of panic when I see his head so much grayer, his face etched with such deep lines. As a woman I can play the game a little longer, and dying my hair is one of the main tactics I use. But my face has begun to change, and of course, my neck as well. And try as I might, I can’t ignore it. At every turn a reflection is available to me. At every glimpse my mortality faces me, and leaves me no possible way to pretend that things haven’t changed.

Tonight, in surveying the room I was struck by one thing: these were essentially my peers. And man, they look old. Yes, perhaps, most of them may have been older than me by a couple of years, maybe even a generation ahead, but by and large, they were ‘my age’ – that is to say ‘middle aged’, and the majority of them were gray-haired. A very few of the women had boycotted their changed appearance by dyeing their hair; one woman even had a head of brilliantly bright red hair in a blunt, modern cut. Still, I could tell, she was older than me. So what was the answer? What determines ‘real’ age? Should one not go ahead and present to the world how they felt on the inside? Just how was one to age gracefully and with class? Go with it? Fight it? Deny it with a head of bright red hair – or celebrate it with a head of bright red hair? (My mother-in-law went with fire-engine red hair into her 80s!) My dark hair almost made me feel like a poser in that room of silver. Like a complete fraud. My face told the real story though. The ‘smile’ lines that ran from the corners of my mouth to my nose now created an honest-to-goodness triangle. They weren’t likely to invoke friendly, truth-softening comments like ‘oh  it’s not so bad. No one else notices them the way you do’. No. They were as deep and age-revealing as the facial contours of any other women in that room. I was not a forty-something anymore, for sure. I was whatever the hell it is that comes next, goddammit.

Watching images of the elegant First Couple dancing, my mind wandered, and I began to wonder what it might be like if I’d never left Chicago. Part of me began to happily envision a scene at The Hideout, or the Green Mill perhaps, where certainly I’d see dozens of people I knew – and who were happily my peers. But then I thought again, and realized that most of my clan had grown up too. They no longer spent their weekend nights at alt country clubs or jazz joints – they, like me, were busy shepherding young children into middle school or high school – some might even be seeing theirs off to college. (Few children of my peers are married yet. Some are, but more still are not. And that somehow comforts me. But it won’t last long.) Today’s lively nights of jazz at the Green Mill might themselves prove to have me feeling old and past my prime for similar reasons. My peeps aint there no more. My scene is gone, my day has concluded. That chapter is past. Young folks can party, middle-aged folks are too busy to party, and old folks have the time to party, but the energy? I’m not so sure.

Just today, as we drove home from school after a special delivery of duck eggs (Mrs. Duck is really producing now – perhaps in anticipation of Spring…) Elihu and I both mused on how fast time seemed to be passing these days. I remarked that time didn’t feel so fast when I was a kid. I was surprised that he – a kid himself – also perceived time to be moving faster than ever before. “It’s a provable theory of physics” he told me. He promised that this wasn’t just some new age theory about the speeding up of time – it was a viable, measurable fact. “I’ve been thinking about time a lot these days” he mused from the back seat. “I mean, time is just change. So if time didn’t exist, would nothing change? Or if nothing changed, would time cease to exist?” We batted this idea about for a while, but by the time we were turning into our snow-drifted driveway I’d already decided I really didn’t care either way. Because whether fast or slow, some shit in my life was definitely changing, and quite honestly, I wasn’t a fan.

When I was in my early forties, I remember being caught and successfully reeled in by a made-for-tv commercial in which actor Victoria Principal extolled the brilliant, natural and effortless products in her new skin care line. As prudent a consumer as I had thought myself to be, even after some lengthy internal debates on the subject, I’d finally chosen to buy in. But first, I engaged in a little due diligence, calling the customer service rep to get a little more specific information on their products. How old was I? the woman had asked me. When I told her, I remember hearing her hesitate for a moment. As a woman at the dawn of her fourth decade, she’d advised me not to purchase a particular set of products, because women didn’t usually start to need “that sort of help” until they were in their late forties or even early fifties. Hmm, I’d thought. There was a timetable here that people had agreed on? There were actual landmarks I might look for? There was a timetable that might help me to anticipate – and emotionally prepare for – certain changes? Nobody had ever told me this before! No one had ever gone so far as to break down the aging process into stages. But clearly, some people, somewhere, had agreed on this stuff. (Granted, this was a pre-internet world with less information available to the armchair consumer). It did also occur to me that this particular Guthy-Renker employee might have been a bit too honest for her own job security.!

After my chat with the rep, I ended up buying a few products. I can’t say that a one of them made any noticeable difference in my appearance (however I grew to love the very subtle scent of the lotions which I have not been able to find again, as they were discontinued several years ago) but shortly after that experience I did come upon a ‘miracle’ cream which promised to firm skin as nothing before. This product, I can report, did exactly what it purported to. But at the age of 42 I had no idea what ‘real’ aging skin looked like, and the mild tightening this cream provided was just enough, and under makeup, sometimes it really was like a sprinkling of fairy dust.

About five or so years later, I remembered the product and thought how it might really benefit me in my new state of sinking skin, so I tried it again. But this time, rather than gently pulling my face together in a smooth, tighter version of itself, it pulled my skin together like a bouquet of tiny wrinkled lines, all gathered at the point of the cream’s application. My neck skin bunched in horrible lines where none had even been before; it was a situation made much, much worse. But also, it gave me an idea as to how my neck might look a couple of decades hence. Crap. I’d always thought this shit was for everyone else. Somehow I knew that I was just too cool for that sort of old lady thing to happen to me. That shit was for clueless losers who somehow didn’t care. Or not. Man. Really?

These are the days when things start to change in earnest. No more ‘almost’, no more ‘you look fabulous’ as in you really do look fabulous. Ok, I suppose if you shift your frame of reference from a forty-something mindset to a sixty-something mindset you can say those things and mean it, but if you’re like me, and you’re stuck in your head at 44, unable to fully comprehend that 44 was now a decade ago, then maybe you’re not ready to accept ‘you look good’ means just that, only within the context of a whole new framework.

Oh how I wish we didn’t pretend this stuff doesn’t bother us the way it really does. Mech, I suppose there are some enlightened souls out there for whom this process is interesting, new, fun, exciting and a welcome challenge. It’s a challenge all right, and I am eager to learn how I end up meeting it, but I’d be lying if I said this was a process I was enjoying. Nope. Not so much.

Yesterday I woke up with an unusual sensation: Nothing in my body hurt! I was in a joyful mood all morning because it was the first time in months and months that my pulsing, arthritic fingers and stiff hips weren’t the first things I was aware of upon awakening. I took it as nothing short of a small miracle. Plus it offered enlightenment; not feeling my body all these years until now had actually been a blessed and wonderful thing!! A miracle of sorts unto itself. Ah well, better I suppose to be thankful at this point than never at all. I mean I know what’s happening, and I’m bitching and moaning about it most of the way, but at the end of the day I have it pretty good, aches and pains aside. Yeah. I do. But still…

My young piano students are always talking about how much they can’t wait to be older. They can’t wait to be 8, to be 10, to finally be a teenager. I remind them that older people at some point start to wish they were younger. A crazy kind of predicament. “So what is, from your perspective” I’ll ask them, “the most perfect age to be?” Most have answered from 18 to 23. Which I think is interesting. Yeah, that was a good chapter. But the truly golden chapter? Want my answer? From 25 to 45. Yup. That would be it. And maybe, if I were to commit to one perfect, golden year, it might be 32. Good times. !

I remember in my mid to late forties thinking “Hey, this isn’t so bad! I still look pretty good!” (I hadn’t yet put on the extra 20 pounds I live with now, so factor that in too…) And in truth, I still looked pretty much as I had over the past couple of decades. At least I was recognizable to friends I hadn’t seen in years. And that’s often the main ‘test of time’. We all know the importance of name tags on the gentlemen at our 20th high school reunion. Those poor guys either lose their hair or succumb to the gray. The women, on the other hand, have the culture’s permission to color and highlight their hair, augment its volume or length too; they are encouraged to whiten their teeth, they wear beautiful dresses and use makeup to augment their fading beauty. Men have so few tools with which to make up for what they’ve lost. Men must bear the progress of time in all its daunting honesty. Then may get off easy in so many other ways – but when it comes to aging, most of ’em can’t hide.

Allow me to advise those who are behind me in their progress… The magic years are, in my experience, from the mid 20s to the mid 40s. By 48 or 49 one begins to change, but it’s subtle. As with all organic changes of life, it seems to happen slowly, and the one day you notice something that wasn’t there the day before. This sort of thing seems to happen more and more frequently after 50. Hell, even 50 wasn’t all that bad. But over the following three years shit has just seemed to change in all the wrong ways. All the stories I’d heard uttered from the lips of my ‘older’ friends is now becoming my own personal experience. And this, I think to myself, is likely only the beginning. My chin is strange and saggy, my face looks older for reasons I cannot quite pinpoint, and my so-important fingers are now routinely dropping things and can no longer grip into fists. They throb, they ache, and they do not bend as they did even one month ago. Last night, when I sat at the piano to enjoy the final brisk measures of the Italian Concerto just for fun, I realized that my fingers did not posses the dexterity or strength that they had only before Christmas. My physical abilities had waned in just weeks. Strange, and hard to really understand.

And so another chapter closes, and a new one begins. Mr. Obama does not look older because of the many stresses and challenges over the past eight years of his presidency, no. He looks older because he is older. And I look older now because I am too. It is a hard thing to come to terms with. When I was a singer and presented all those great torch songs from the early part of the last century, I’d often remind my audiences that the topics of love, jealousy and revenge were nothing new or exclusive to this generation. In fact, the only reason we were all here today was because – wait for it – our grandmothers got laid! Maybe it was a little forward, and maybe it made people squirm a bit in their seats, but whatever. It’s true. Every generation is as hip as it gets. And if we live long enough, we then ourselves become no longer hip. Doesn’t mean we don’t remember what it felt like to have all that power –  oh, we do. That’s precisely why it’s so challenging to release the past and so bittersweet to remember it.

Please take this to heart, all my young and beautiful friends: there is an end to it all. Savor the moments as they unfold, for one day your sexy and exciting present will be just a memory from long, long ago. You too will pass through the witching window, and find yourself on the other side, a mere mortal with crepey skin, graying hair and a treasure trove of memories. Know it, but don’t linger too long in the thought. Instead, let it inspire you to take some risks, put yourself out there and grab all the life experiences you can, while you still have the strength to hold on tight.

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Link to our YouTube channel: The Hillhouse

 

Goodbye Nel September 15, 2016

To read all of Nelly’s poetry, you can visit poemsbynel.com.

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My former mother-in-law probably never really liked me. But I suppose, after being family for over two decades, she had likely come to love me in some way. I know that I can say the same of her. She was never terribly kind to me, but it didn’t hurt me as much as it might have, because I realized she had come from a different world. Hers was a culture in which women served their men, a culture in which her power lay in her role as daughter, sister, mother and wife. Catholic by birth, spiritual by nature and married to a Muslim man for over fifty years, she was, to say the very least, a mixed bag. She was never entirely comfortable with the fact that I had my own life, that I had my own pursuits, and most of all, that I didn’t give it all up in service to my husband.

Nelly was born in Chile in the early ’30s, raised in Peru (where her father oversaw the crews that cut into the dense jungle to build roads – something akin to a culture of the Wild, Wild West in America) and lived her adult life in the Midwest, starting her American adventure in Ohio, then moving to Chicago. My ex-husband was her only son. The trio was close, and despite my being married into the family, I never made it into the inner sanctum. The group was rife with personal dysfunction, yet in spite of this, they each enjoyed a good deal of financial and professional success. I marveled at Nelly over the years; how she could be so savvy with some things, so progressive in her spiritual beliefs, and at the end of the day she didn’t really have any close or lasting relationships, nor did she really seem to engage deeply with anyone outside her small family. She’d have short, intense friendships that would burn out when she, clueless to the needs and expectations of her companions, would demand too much of them or leave them worn out. Nelly lived in her own world, and she created it the way she wanted it. She, a woman who dyed her hair fire-engine red using her husband’s Congo red laboratory stain, was indisputably one-of-a-kind. She drove me nuts, but I do owe her a debt of gratitude for helping to create a major shift in my life and my understanding of the world.

Nelly had been a designer and a very skilled dressmaker in her early years, and she always had an artistic and musical sense. She wrote poems, she sang, she painted. As she lay in her bed this past year, Fareed played guitar for her, Riaz played recordings and delighted as she hummed along, and Elihu recalls reading her poems aloud. Shortly after she died yesterday in the early morning, peacefully in her sleep, Fareed picked up her book of poems and it fell open to this page…

The Harbor

Swiftly the winter days

Rinse their glum

At the harbor

Spring will be here soon

In bloom

______________

Drunk in love

With loving

Stringing metaphors

Staggering

I am

________________

Silvery water

Turns into mirror

Shining holds the image

Of the sky

________________

Anticipating sweetness

I see the seagulls

Twirling and dancing

Above

_______________

The lone boat glides

With the lone rower

Across the silky waters

Good bye…

 

 

Judging A Book April 25, 2016

Ace Productions

Me, (on the right) back in the day. Chicago’s own Ace Productions. From rocker to chicken farmer. Crazy.

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Things aren’t always what they seem, are they?

The past two weeks have been so crammed with the events of life, both mundane and profound, and in the process of moving through all of it, the surprises just keep coming. To those on the outside looking in, it might seem we’ve got a quiet, simple life here in the country. But a closer look would tell one otherwise. Even now, when my son is absent for the week, I’m so beset with to-do lists that I feel almost stopped before I’ve begun. This is nothing new, however, and lest I come off sounding too whiny, let me add that it’s definitely a good sort of work that I’m beset with. I work for myself, I’m beholden only to my own dreams and goals, and for the most part, the stress in my life is low. Mostly.

I’ve spent the past six hours beginning to print out the past five years worth of blog posts, and it’s been interesting to see how my life’s evolved since we moved here from Chicago, now over seven years ago. Some things were planned for, but most were not (of course that we’re here at all was never, ever part of my plan!). And all of my experiences, pleasant or otherwise, have brought me to the place where I exist today, which is, at the end of the day, not a bad place to be. Actually it can be an exciting place to be. That’s not to say the future isn’t daunting. Yeah, it still scares me. But to look back over the past few years has helped me to realize how far Elihu and I have both come.

The other day a new friend of mine came over to see my home. She was rather taken aback at the interior – apparently I hadn’t accurately represented it the way it appeared to her. “You said it was a crappy little ranch house…?” she said, a little confused. But here’s the thing, it is a crappy little ranch house! It’s got all of four rooms – and apart from the walls I painted, there’s a distinct, lingering essence of Brady Bunch (partly due to the harvest gold range). Yes, on the face of it, I live in a modest, almost crappy house. But inside it’s cozy, inviting and easy on the eyes. It’s not so much the piano, the harpsichord, the great view or how it’s decorated, but rather that it’s comfortable, and most importantly, it’s lived in. Elihu and I have often joked that we have a “tardis” house – cuz it feels completely different on the inside than it looks on the outside. Yup, outer appearances don’t always tell the whole story.

Last night I went out. Went to a dinner and evening of gambling at the Casino and Raceway. I am not terribly fond of the place, but for one night of the year I allow myself to “do as the Romans do”, and I try to enjoy the place for what it is (not a good fit for someone on a lean budget perhaps, but thankfully my penny betting netted me $6). During my night I met several interesting people. Firstly, I met a successful local realtor, who showed off his smooth interpersonal skills like a modern-day, barroom Yoda. I learned his father was a piano tuner, his grandfather had played the banjo, and he himself was a barber shop singer. Yet in spite of the personal tidbits he had given me, I didn’t end up feeling completely at ease with him; his eyes scanned the room almost continuously, seldom stopping to meet mine, and it made me wonder if he might have wished an escape from our conversation, which may have gone on too long for his comfort. I tend to filter very little, and don’t cultivate a very ‘pro’ game face in social situations. Maybe that was it. Maybe he was eager for his girlfriend to arrive. Maybe I was simply thinking too much, and this was just how he was. Who knows? Regardless, it was interesting to talk with him, and the direction of this post was in good part inspired my our conversation.

The fellow serving our prime rib on the buffet line turned out to be an interesting fellow as well. One parent was from Montreal, one from Mexico, he’d grown up between the two, and he had an engineering degree but now worked as a chef. I’m always interested to hear how people got here from wherever it was they were before. So many stories. Mind boggling. The bartender in the dance club was European, of French and Italian parents, her co-worker from Ukraine. And as I danced, I noticed a black man in a wheelchair on the sidelines. Feeling a little guilty that I was dancing, and that he couldn’t, I went over and said hello. Turns out he’s a motivational speaker and trainer – and he was just doing a little assessment of the crowd as to whether he would indeed get on the dance floor – sometimes it feels right, sometimes it doesn’t, he explained. He told me he loves to dance, and then did a little spin in his chair showing off some colored lights under the wheels.

After drawing “Prince” and then his “formerly known as” symbol on my hand in sharpie and waving it at the DJ (to which he nodded enthusiastically), I waited for a long while, thinking this would be the perfect ending to the night. But again, what seems obvious to me might not seem so obvious to the other guy. It seemed without question that a dance club would pay homage to Prince only two days after his death – don’t you think? Well, these guys didn’t. No one did. And in fact, Prince’s death really didn’t resonate in any meaningful way with any of the people in my small group. Seriously. It kinda shocked me. But again, each of us lives in our own tiny universe. My mother can’t live without the opera on Saturday afternoons, me I like Prairie Home Companion, and a whole lotta folks don’t know or care about either. We judge others by how we feel, and by what’s important to us, and sometimes that criteria doesn’t even exist for others.

Prince himself is a great example of the paradox of perception. His take-no-prisoners showmanship and over the top sexuality – in fact, his over-the-top androgyny – all of it might suggest a man who might well be full of himself. In real life, Prince was nothing like the expression of himself on stage, in fact, he was a private person who lived a rather usual life at home. He enjoyed his friends, he enjoyed supporting and guiding young talents, and he enjoyed seeing those around him happy and thriving. But more than this – he was actually frightened by the prospect of getting on stage. He suffered from anxiety, and felt most comfortable and stress-free when at home. Which is why, I suppose, he hunkered down in Minneapolis, never moving up and out to a more lavish lifestyle in a more glamorous location. Stories are now coming to the fore of his having acquired a dependence on certain opiates in order to function as he needed to. And this I understand. I’ve lived with panic attacks since the age of 14, and they are not a joke. Nor are they something that can be rationally understood, or mitigated by practical wisdom. In fact, I’m not sure that I’d find myself comfortable on stage anymore. There was a time when I could sing a cappella for thousands of people and not be frightened – hell, once upon a time that was inspiring. But not these days. Not that the idea doesn’t thrill me, but something irrational and deep inside wouldn’t make it easy. So I get it. Prince had two sides – each viable, each genuine – but each completely different from the other. But to look at the guy, you’d never know.

Life is full of variety, surprises and unpredictable events. And it’s certainly not under our control. Our guidance, perhaps, but control?…. nope. What I’ve learned, in going through my old posts tonight, and in meeting so many new people these past few weeks, as well as trying to better understand the death of a personal hero, is that it behooves one to listen, and to try to really understand where other people are coming from. It’s important to try to learn how they see the world. When I remember this, I find it helps smooth out rough patches in my relationships, and it helps me to consider troubling situations as possible opportunities for new ways of thinking about the world.

A final note about Prince that I wish to make so very clear: he was a person who lived with love and respect for all living things. He felt a deep, reverential connection to God through his music. He was a mentor, a teacher, a philanthropist. He was, in my opinion, an incredibly powerful expression of God among us. He was so super-bad and over-the-top, that his love, reverence and wisdom could be easily missed by those who saw only what he presented to the world. So, it just goes to show. You never really know what’s inside the book until you start to read…

 

Pouring In January 12, 2016

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On our kitchen wall, just next to the front door hangs a glass weather barometer. It used to hang above a rusted drip tray on the kitchen wall at Martha’s. Elihu had mused over it once, as all children had through the years, and we’d explained how it worked. Mom recalls that Martha had said he could have it if he liked. I wasn’t thrilled at the idea of yet another piece of stuff in our tiny house, but the idea grew on me… When the green-tinted water rises to the top of the spout – and sometimes drips over and stains the wall – we know that rain is coming. I wish there were such an indicator for incoming emotional storms… “When it rains….” as the expression goes…

An old family friend had kept the tradition through the years of calling Martha on every solstice. This year, on the occasion in December, the fellow called mom as a stand-in for Martha. His call was welcomed, as he too was an old family friend. But his news was not good; he had been diagnosed with lung cancer and didn’t have much time left. Sadly mom was out the first two times he called, and by the time she found him in, several days later, he was quite weak. Only two weeks later he died, and on Saturday we attended his funeral. All about her my mother sees her contemporaries leaving this world, and must be a strange and sad place in which to live. There comes a time in life when every time you turn around people seem to be getting married. Then life takes over for a stretch of time with an assortment of twists and turns, until… All the people around you now seem to be dying. Old friends take their place in line one by one, and then, all of a sudden, they’re gone. Just like that.

Yesterday I received another jolt in the form of an angry email from Martha’s niece. In the message she called me a thief, and told me that she knew I’d been in the house since Martha had died, and that the only possible reason for such a visit would have been to steal something. She wanted an end to it all here and now. She demanded the thin, sterling silver bangle that Martha had always worn be returned to her at once, as well as the rest of the things I’d stolen. Seriously? Ok, come to think of it, I do have Martha’s dusty copy of “Yankee Expressions”, yes, I did take that. I was reading it while sitting with Martha one afternoon, and threw it into my bag. It’s still on my bedside table. I peruse it from time to time, very likely in the same sort of way that Martha once did. Regular readers may even recall how puzzled and concerned I was when Martha’s niece announced that items had gone missing from the house after Martha’s death (the items had since been found; they had simply been moved). After posting some lovely interior tableaus from Martha’s house on the blog, her niece had asked me to please remove them to ensure the safety of the house and its contents. I promptly removed all the images, and apologized as best as I was able. There seems to be nothing I can do to ensure a positive outcome with this person. Ugh.

This morning, as Elihu ate his breakfast, I’m afraid the poor dear got an earful from me. I recounted to him the whole thing – after which a look of deep sadness passed over his face. “But I want to keep the barometer” he said quietly. “Sweetie, we’ll buy the barometer from her. She just wants the monetary value of it. Don’t worry, we’ll make a fair deal with her”. I stewed a bit more in silence, until my beautiful son looked up and quoted a saying that he heard Martha use often: “Everything always works out”. I smiled, and wondered it perhaps Martha herself hadn’t nudged that little piece of calming wisdom into my son’s head. Howsoever the little nugget came to him, it was nice to reminded again.

What a strange and heartbreaking week this has been, and it’s only Tuesday! Lest I waste any more precious work time battling folks who ultimately do not care what I have to say – or believe me – I will paste the response I penned to her last night below, and call it a day.


 

XXX, I have no idea where all this has come from. I could have easily taken things all the while over months, years even – objects that I’d known and loved since I was a child. And I did not. The bracelet is the ONLY thing I have to remember Martha by, and I shall not return that which was given to me!! We were all together as I asked you if I might have it, as it meant a lot to me. You were kind and assured me Martha would have liked me to have it. I have no recollection of anything else. I also recall it was a low-key, friendly meeting. I had no idea you were giving this trinket to me under duress. Plus this tiny bracelet is not even worth much! I wear it daily, keep it by my bedside nightly. It is my link to a woman I consider to be my second mother. It is a cherished keepsake. 

 

As mom recalls, Martha told Elihu if he was interested in the barometer he could have it. I wasn’t particularly interested in it – but he was, so we left the rusty drip tray on the wall and took the glass home. 
And yes, I did come back to the farm once or twice after Martha left. Just to sit and be in the space, to remember. To take in that certain way the kitchen smelled, the views from those windows…  It was a living link to my oldest memories. I was savoring that which was soon to disappear forever.
So sorry you feel this way. It is a shock to my very core. Perhaps you and mom can remain friends – I don’t suppose we were friends to begin with, but that will certainly be a challenge going forward. I hope one day you feel differently about me. I’m not a thief, and Lord knows, there were many things – the red bench I mentioned several times – that I would have loved to have in my life as a reminder of the Farm, and for which I gladly would have paid. I would even have loved, bought and used the school bell at the Studio to ring in kids from lunch break at camp. But I dared not even ask – that’s how respectful I was about Martha’s/your stuff. There was also a Harry Belafonte LP I liked and would have paid for – and would actually have listened to – but I didn’t ask about that either, cuz I didn’t want to add stress.
The barometer is a lovely way to share Martha’s story with all the children who come to my home, but if you feel strongly that we came to it by unsavory means, I’ll box it up and leave it at the Farm asap. It would be disappointing to Elihu, and I know he’d like to buy it with his own money if you’d allow him that option. I really hope you’ll consider it.
It seems that distrust and hate are motivating you here. It’s hurtful to be the recipient of such anger – and especially after all this time has passed – not to mention bizarre, as you sound so unlike the person I’d thought you to be. Never, ever would I have seen anything like this coming. I am very sorry that you’re feeling so taken advantage of. I didn’t know you well, but I’ve always liked you. All of this truly breaks my heart. 
Maybe a robust sale will help you to feel more secure about things. I hope it all goes well.

IMG_1473A rainbow appeared as Elihu and I took down the Christmas tree on Sunday. I didn’t even see this second rainbow until just now when I uploaded the photograph! One for me, one for lil man. Maybe Martha really was right when she said that everything always works out.

 
 

Up Is Down December 27, 2015

coop pic

The day after Christmas we buried our beloved red hen, Thumbs Up. Elihu wasn’t here, but he was on the phone with me as I placed her in the ground. I put the phone on speaker and set it down as I shoveled the dirt upon her, my son sobbing along with me the whole time. Chickens may live well over a decade, yet this gal hadn’t quite made five years. Somehow we’d always thought she’d be here as Elihu grew up. With a personality more like a golden retriever than simple red hen, she animated our household in the most delightful way, and it’s hard to imagine how different the energy will be around here now that she’s gone. I’m almost surprised at how deep my grief is over this loss. My father died two years ago tonight, and while it should go without saying that I dearly miss him, this recent loss is just so fresh and acute that I cannot shake it. And with my son so very far away, my heart is breaking all the more.

These days I’m larger than I’ve been in years, and that too is nagging at my heart. Being unable to fit in my beautiful clothes, and becoming out of breath just going up a flight of stairs, all of this has me grieving for a time when I felt and looked my best. In the past I’ve managed to pull myself up and out of my funks, and I’ve shed as much as fifty-five pounds in one year, but I don’t know where the resolve will come from now, and I’m beginning to doubt that I’ll ever turn things around. My fingers are getting knobbier and ache with arthritis each day; this alone is a hard reality to accept. Every evening I take my relief in glasses of wine, the worrisome double-edged sword; it’s the much longed-for and soothing end to my day, yet it’s a source of countless useless calories that only add to my problem. I manage to pull myself through the days until that blessed evening hour when a sleeping pill will take me away from this waking world. And when the next morning arrives, I am once again overwhelmed and under-confident that I can do anything about it all.

When I hear about successful people who have jobs, money, families and such, becoming overwhelmed with depression, it’s hard to understand. Me, it seems that if you can pay your bills, then things couldn’t be all that bad. Right? But then I look objectively at myself; I have a lot going for me, so this current state of my spirit can’t really be justified. But still, I can’t help but wonder how differently I’d feel about life if only I had a little bit more money. If I had a job – and a paycheck. I know how glorious I feel each year when I get my tax return – the whole world opens up. Fuel oil, a haircut and color, new shoes for the kid, a barrel full of scratch grains for the flock, dinner in a restaurant – all sorts of things become possible, and with that possibility I feel a certain spiritual uplifting. It’s crazy, honestly, because none of this shit really changes my day-to-day reality, but somehow, having just a tad more than enough can feel so very, very good.

Recently I learned that Facebook had been charging me methodically over the past few months for many small commercial posts. Somehow (and I am not alone judging by the hundreds of comments just like mine, oh how I pray it comes to a class action suit one day!) I misunderstood a one-time ‘boost’ for a contracted series of boosts, thereby creating a slow but devastating hit to my PayPal account. Now this is the ‘slush’ fund I count on for Christmas and other treats. Imagine my surprise when I went to buy a couple of gifts for my son to find under the tree on his return, and there was nothing left. What the hell? Following the charges, I found the source of the problem. And I realized it was a case of ‘me versus the machine’. I would not win this fight, nor would I ever see that $300 again. Holy fuck. I was feeling shitty enough right now. Now this. Mom had made it plain that she was unable to help at this time – property taxes were approaching – so I knew I couldn’t go to her. I asked an old friend if he could loan me the sum – just til early January, as that’s when my students were returning – but after a few days there was no response. Feeling ill about having appealed to him for help, I’d been wishing I could take it back. But that wasn’t possible. What was posted was posted. Ugh.

Phooey. Thumbs Up is dead, I’m broke and fat, and my kid is a thousand miles away.

The up side is that my mother is still here, my neighbors are all wonderful and supportive, and I have friends who help buoy my spirits through the lifeline of the internet. My house is warm (bless this mild winter!!) and my son is has two goddam tubas and a myriad of instruments to keep him happy. We have six happy fish, three happy frogs and fifteen remaining fowl. I have a view of Vermont and a fucking grand piano. Ok, so my Wurlitzer needs a bunch of work, but hey. I have one.

Looking back over the years I see this same sort of lament over and over here on the blog. And it gets a little tiresome, I know. Sometimes it kinda feels like reading the journal of a middle school girl: ‘poor fat me, no one has it as bad as I do, no one understands me’ again and again. Things aren’t really so bad, I know it, but still…  I haven’t figured out how to pilot this Studio thing, I haven’t approached anyone to join the board yet, and my office is a fucking nightmare of unfiled paper and undone to-do lists. Yes, the refrigerator is organized, the pantry tidy, and the floors are as clean as they’re going to get for now. My house is in order now, but my life is not. It’s up to me, I know it. Holding out hope that I’ll find the oomph inside me to get the Studio going, to lose twenty-five pounds, to get my teaching materials filed and organized. But from where I sit today, I can’t imagine how I’ll get any of this shit done.

Yesterday I was rocking my sweet Thumbs Up after she had died. I was holding her against my breast, her neck against mine… I looked out past the Christmas tree to the hills beyond and remembered the year before last; I had been rocking in that same chair, looking out over that same view, tears streaming down my cheeks as I anticipated the imminent death of my father. Here I was again, so sad, so sad. Still, this was part of life. Nothing so wrong with being sad, I thought to myself. Maybe the best thing one can do is just invite the sorrow in and push through it hard. Sad doesn’t last forever, after all. Nothing does. Which ultimately, I suppose, is a great gift.

On Christmas morning I rose in an uncharacteristic panic; in my gut I had felt something to be very wrong. I sat up in bed and felt fear wash through my body. Without second-guessing myself I ran to the coop. The backyard was eerily quiet… where was Bald Mountain? I opened the door – the coop was nearly empty. Had there been an attack? Had the automatic chicken door opened too early and allowed a predator to enter? Adrenaline flushed through me. There, on the top roosting bar, were two old gals. Usually there were three. Shit. Thumbs Up…. where was she? I panicked, opened the other door and searched the run. There, in the far corner, was my girl. Hunkered down, seeking solitude, I knew in an instant this was a bad sign. She’d been in and out of the kitchen clinic several times over the past month, and I knew things weren’t good with her. But I didn’t know they were this bad.

I rushed her inside and this time decided to demystify her ailment. I knew it was an impacted cloaca of sorts; she couldn’t pass normally, and this was dangerous. I risked cutting into her flesh and creating a possibility for infection, this I knew, but I had to do something. So I did. I removed strange-looking tissue and tried to relieve her as much as possible. I bathed her and dried her and returned her to a bed in the mud room. We’d lost a hen here just a few weeks ago – this was ominously familiar. I stayed with her for a while, talking to her and taking photos that I knew in my heart would be the very last ones…

I called mom, the one person on the planet besides my son who ultimately has my back at the end of it all – and told her what was going on. God bless my mom. Offering me guidance and advice – here she was at nearly 81, and here I was at the age of 52 – and my mom was still my mom. It almost felt physical, the relief upon hearing her consolation. I was touched by her care and concern for me. She was saying things that made me feel better… Even if I might have said those same things to myself, hearing it from my mother was different. Yes, we agreed, there was nothing left to do for Thumbs Up. I might as well go on with my day as planned. I would go to the nursing homes and visit those who had no visitors.

With a book of carols and a harness of old-fashioned jingle bells in my bag, I headed out. First I visited my old next door neighbor who was happy at my unexpected visit. Her daughter and son-in-law soon arrived, and it was nice to see her tiny apartment full of people and holiday spirit. Satisfied to know she would have company for the day, I took my leave and went to another retirement home nearby.

The second nursing home was empty save for one woman who sat alone in the lobby while Christmas music played quietly, almost as if mocking the cheerless atmosphere. A large tree and a multitude of poinsettias beside a gas fireplace tried to give the place a cozy, home-like feel, but they were too contrived to do the trick. There was no one at the reception desk, in fact the office and dining room were dark when I arrived. I walked up to the woman, sat on the couch beside her and began talking. We passed a half hour before we saw another resident walking past. The woman I’d been speaking with said her son was coming to get her, but she didn’t know when. I’d begun to wonder if these plans were real or imagined.

The woman who next joined us was tall and lean, with her shoulder-length silver hair in a striking blunt cut. She, it turned out, was from Holland. She recounted a long life; how she’d come here at the age of 23 knowing no one, how she ended up going back to school for chemistry, how she married and had children, settling in a well-to-do New Jersey suburb. She wondered at her old home, the one in which she and her husband had shared over fifty Christmases. “Ach” she said, waving a hand in the air, “It was sold years ago. Who knows where all my things have gone. All my chairs, the curtains, the paintings….” She seemed disgusted, heartbroken and resolved all at the same time. My heart ached again, but I didn’t let on. Here it was my job to be the giver-of-cheer and hope. I asked if I might see her room here, how she had decorated it, where was it that she now lived. Both she and the first woman enthusiastically offered to take me on a tour.

We passed the rec room, which I knew to have a piano, as I’d played it years ago for a program my friend had organized. I sat down and opened the book of carols. The room was half-darkened, and the carpet sucked up every sound. In the quiet I began to play “O Little Town of Bethlehem” to which the ladies began to sing. I moved gently into several more slow and beautiful melodies, after which I felt it best to conclude. Then we three moved down the long corridor to the first apartment. It belonged to the tall Dutch woman who had introduced herself as Nellie; I learned from the plaque on her door that her full name was Pietrenelle. Adorned with white ceramic windmills and wooden shoes, her room was much as I would have expected. We moved on to visit Phyllis’ room, after which we headed back to the lobby. Two more folks had arrived in anticipation of dinner, and soon the smells of food began to waft into the air. I was surprised to see a middle aged man accompanied by a bulldog come through the front doors. “Dan!” Phyllis said, her countenance lifting as she saw the two. “Are you Dan?” I said, looking at the man and then gesturing to the dog. “He should be Dan!” I laughed. “He is actually a she...” he responded. Dan had not a clue as to the reference I was making (Yale’s school mascot is a bulldog named Dan. My dad was a Yaley, and of course, my son shares a name with the school’s philanthropic benefactor, Elihu Yale.) “…and her name is Lucy”.

I assured the women that I would be back to visit again, and I could see happiness and relief on their faces. This, if only a small bit of hope in the world, was better than none. I had done something. Not much, but the last two hours had been very pleasant, and I hoped the effect would last a little while.

When I arrived home I saw a horrible sight: Thumbs Up had fallen from the bench and was now propped up, wings spread, on the laundry detergent bottle. She was breathing in and out very, very fast. I tried to move her, and her head wobbled. Then she erupted in a spasm of movement, writhing her way across the floor, faltering on wobbly legs. This reminded me of a nervous disorder, but until now it had only seemed a gastric affliction. None of this mattered now. I gathered her up and put her in a nest on the floor. I tried to share her experience, breathing in and out breath for breath. Shit. This was horrible to watch. I couldn’t touch her, it would have caused her more pain. Her eyes were half opened; she was trying to maintain. Mom was waiting for me; she’d gone all out and made a thirteen pound turkey and all the works of a Christmas dinner. I really did not want to leave my precious girl. My heart yearned to hold her as she died – but I knew it could be an hour yet. Showing my mother love by being with her for supper was ultimately more important. I left reluctantly, and before I closed the door I told my beautiful red hen goodbye and that I loved her.

When I returned two hours later Thumbs Up was dead, as I’d expected. But her death had been violent; she had gotten up and out of her bed and died a few paces away, her bowels evacuated on the floor. I imagined her last minutes, I knew they were painful. The only consolation now was that she was gone. I was surprised by my immense and immediate grief; I ran to her, held her close to my heart and wept as I hadn’t – in two years.

She died on Christmas, and I placed her underneath the tree that night. The next morning I held her for a long time before I dug the hole, called Elihu, and finished saying goodbye. Yesterday I made my errands, and today, while I’d planned to finally assess my overflowing office, I’ve done nothing but choose photos and write. As casual as this blog may appear, it takes hours to create a post – even longer when dealing with pictures. Uploading is tedious and time-consuming. In between I take little breaks to look at the tree, or out the window at my flock. Like prodding a fresh wound to see if it still hurts – I’ll rest my eyes on the little white marker under the flowering quince bush.

Everything has its time, everything has its season. We get fat, we get thin. We get sick, we get better. We lose our way, and then we find it. We all flourish, we all fade. And whatever goes up, no matter how we might wish it otherwise, will eventually come back down. What a path is this life! Bless us all as we make our way through this great, mysterious journey. A hearty thumbs up to us all, and also to that little red hen who gave us such delight along the way.

IMG_0486I got to spend some time with Miss Lucy, the newest addition to the neighborhood. That was a treat.

IMG_0528Got busy getting down to all that grunge at the bottom of everything. This takes time. Glad it’s done.

IMG_0557The day before Christmas. All is well, and it sure doesn’t look like anyone will be dying anytime soon. Thumbs Up is the light red one on the left in back.

IMG_0576Butt shot – look away if you find it gross. Part of chickening. Austin, our comic guinea fowl enjoys the platform feeder. He thinks he’s a songbird.

IMG_0567Thumbs Up was calm in her bath as I removed scar tissue and gunk. It almost seemed as if she knew I was trying to help her. Such a good girl.

IMG_0594Getting her warm and dry. Again, while many hens might have protested, she stood there willingly. Perhaps because she was almost done with it all… Who knows.

IMG_0700Christmas day, she was different. After all, she herself had sought seclusion. I brought her to the stoop for a last visit with her flock.

IMG_0755I opened the door, and as she has so many times before, she hopped up and walked inside. I know no one else would have been able to tell, but she had an unsettled look about her. She made strange sounds and stood a little too erect, plus her eyes had a distracted appearance. Call me crazy, but hey, she died only hours later. I try to honor the ‘God voice’ when it tells me something. It’s a mistake to ignore it.IMG_0759Specks, the only hen who we’ve had longer then Thumbs Up, watches as her sister comes inside.

IMG_0650See how her tail is drooping? This is an unhappy hen, likely in physical discomfort.

IMG_0762I would take her pain on myself, if only I could. How can I love a hen so much?

IMG_0790My new friends at the nursing home, Phyllis and Nellie. Oh, and Lucy, the bulldog.

IMG_0824A sight I’ve seen all my life. Mom does it all.

IMG_0835Always superb.

IMG_0834This silver had been in my father’s family for a long time.

IMG_0857I smooch my old cat, Mina. She can’t live with us as Elihu is very allergic. My ex husband and I got her over 15 years ago. She is ancient now, and she won’t be here too much longer herself.

IMG_0885I expected to see Thumbs Up gone when I got home, but it was shocking nonetheless. My heart positively broke. Strange that we’ve butchered and eaten so many of our own birds, but this, somehow, was entirely different.

IMG_0957So beautiful were her colors.

IMG_1067I finally place Thumbs Up in her little grave. Pumpkin, the only remaining red hen, comes to see what’s going on.

IMG_1080A small piece of limestone marks the spot where Thumbs Up rests under the flowering quince bush.

Thank you, little red hen. Don’t tell the rest of the flock – but you were always our favorite.