The Heart of a Moth

The Heart of a Moth

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

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

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

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

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

Where is the parity? There seems to be none.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Even a moth.

Star Shooting

Star Shooting

My thick, arthritic fingers give me away first. Next come my crepey neck skin and disappearing jawline. Then there’s the thinning hair. Seriously. Did the universe not receive the directive? I was supposed to get a moment of glory after the kid launched, right? Understanding more fully the unforgiving nature of aging, and learning in some bright new way that I’ve not been given any pass on account of merit – I have taken to saying “yes” to opportunities these days, cuz who knows how many more lie ahead?

That little word has opened a lot of doors lately. I would’ve said no to a few invitations but for that ticking clock in my head and the agreement I’d more or less made with myself that I would dive headfirst into life while I still had the physical ability to do so. “Want to come to Vegas with me?” Yes. “Want to record something today?” Yes. “Want to come on stage and sing with us?” Yes. “Remember that comment you’d made about wanting to play in the band? Were you serious?” Yes.

Add to that list taking a zipline above the rooftops of old Las Vegas, driving cross-country (panic attacks took that off the table for a number of years) and flirting with men as if I were twenty years younger – and you’ve got a little thumbnail of the way I’ve spent the past couple of months.

Just to keep things real, however, I will add that when I’m left to my own, and without an agenda or a goal, I tend toward the same old familiar depression. But with these new recent experiences afresh in my mind I have learned that there are some things I can actively do to prevent the slide back down into hopelessness. (I’m grateful that my situation is not as intolerable as it is for many; I’m lucky, and I realize this.) There have still been short stretches of time in which I’ve felt the despair begin to take me over, and it’s then that I force myself to take some sort of action. Write, play the piano, learn a song, take a walk. Something, anything. Any sort of activity… simple, home-bound and doable.

And then there’s the complicated, far-flung and seemingly impossible stuff. That’s fair game too.

When I took my recent trip to the Midwest to visit friends (which happened after my initial week’s adventure out west, a nod of appreciation going out to the minor rock god), the entire experience flowed like pure magic. I kept marveling over it, hour by hour, as the serendipity continued without pause. Wasn’t the other shoe going to drop sometime soon? No! Why the hell should it? I’d tell myself, somehow actually believing it. The ‘old’ me would’ve prepared for mishap at every turn.

But not this new me, apparently. And friends, let me tell you, during my three weeks of travel and adventure I did not once succumb to such thoughts – and it was to my great surprise, I assure you! Just who was this woman? This lucky, lucky woman? Surely it was not Elizabeth! How could this be? Feted by friends, appearing places at just the right moment, having my tab picked up by a stranger, finding a parking space right in front of the club. I’m not a believer in instant karma (not sure anymore how I even feel about long-term karma, to be truly candid), and while it’s tempting to chalk it up to a happy reimbursement from the universe for the many years of good, solid and solo parenting – I don’t think it was so. Rather, it was my happiness, my exuberance – these things paved the way.

I can’t account for the flawless timing of things – but I’m still a believer in the magnetism of energy, the attraction of like with like. I dunno. On paper it seems to go well with a belief in karma, but the jury is out on all of this stuff. All I know is that I felt powerful and engaged with everyone I met. I was of course on cloud nine to finally be amongst my brethren, but it was more than that. As I’ve said before, it really was magic.

Aside from the many memories I now have and treasure, I came away from the trip – and the past couple of months, too – with a new sort of awareness. I’ve always fancied myself an observant and somewhat contemplative type, but I also know myself to be an overwhelming energy in the room; I am an interrupter, a talking-over-the-other-person person; I am often insensitive to people even when I like to think I’m anything but. And I’ve been wishing to change this, so I made an effort to visit with friends in person (I put hundreds of miles on the car in side trips) even when I’d had online communication with them. And the more I met with folks, the more I realized the insight that in-person contact provided. I felt I began to understand my friends in deeper ways. Some may say this is simply a post-covid response, but I know it not to be. I will say however that being sequestered in the country and having no peers or creative life to speak of over the past fourteen years has probably contributed to my appetite for connection.

But it’s more than that. I’m gonna take a guess and posit that perhaps, in some way, I am finally growing up. Maybe. At the very least, I’m living with a keener sense of mortality.

Time tells me that I can’t fuck around anymore. If I’m gonna do something, if I’m gonna learn something or have a new experience, it’s going to take effort. It’s going to take being brave, taking a leap and saying “yes”.

When I visited my hometown, I stopped by the Baha’i temple near the house where I grew up. It was nighttime, and the enormous, dome-shaped building was brightly lit and simply majestic against the black sky. I stood there for a long time taking it in. After a while I glanced at the clock in my car, it was 11:22. Hm. That was my old address in Chicago. I’d gone back there to visit too, and had been happily received by my old neighbors. In every way things had continued to line up on this trip.

My eyes returned to the view, and I noticed an amber glow in the sky to the west of the dome. My first thought, of course, was that it was a plane. My second thought was that I wished my son was here to see it with me. The glowing light traveled above the temple in a path toward the lake to the east. It appeared to break up shortly after it passed over the dome, and then, silently, it disappeared. I stood there, amazed. My linear mind wrestled with the details; it was amber, not white. There were no red and green lights on the sides. It was silent, it didn’t look like fireworks…. But in the end, my magical mind let it go. I had witnessed something lovely, something breathtaking. It simply couldn’t matter what it was. It was now another part of my stunning journey.

It felt as if I’d been given a wink from the cosmos. Something was telling me that I was on the right track. I was exactly where I was supposed to be, and I was doing exactly what I was supposed to be doing.

I was shooting for the stars.

Shift

Shift

It’s here. My new, post-child life. The one I’ve both dreaded and longed for. What will occupy my time? Will I ever know a social life again? Will I ever travel? Perform music? Will my life expand – or will it contract?

Without any preparation or forethought, a few lovely things recently appeared on my horizon and have now been firmly penned into my calendar. In due time I’ll share my progress, but for now, suffice to say, life has thrown a couple of sweet surprises in front of me. Certainly the aging thing isn’t slowing down, and my fingers are looking more like my 87-year-old mother’s than the ones I’ve known ’til now – yeah, the mortal shit continues to do its thing – but on a personal level things look promising. I don’t make any more money than I have in the past – in fact, I have less of it than ever before – but I’m not lacking in things I need. I’m lucky.

My son spent almost two weeks here with me after returning from holiday break at his father’s, one week being a bonus of time due to extended virtual classes. Just last night I drove him to campus, and he was beyond thrilled to be back. Having used his extra time studying and preparing for his new courses, he was more than ready. Plus, in the extra week, my son had also taught himself to play trumpet. Shortly before I left, he was standing with his eyes closed, playing variations from the Carnival of Venice. When he hugged me goodbye – my son is not a hugger, mind you – he squeezed me really tight and told me that he loved me. Oh, his joy. My joy. Truly, a mother could not wish for more.

From the parking lot I can see Elihu’s dorm room window, and before I drove off into the night, I stole one last peek at him. He was still playing his trumpet.

It’s one thing to leave a happy child to his bright future. It’s another thing to return home to one’s own bright future. How grateful am I that this moment in time, one which I’ve dreaded for ages now, does not bring with it the despair it might have, had things worked out otherwise. I now have things to look forward to. But, beforehand, there’s a lot on my plate which needs my attention: figuring out my way around a Mac, gaining facility with a new program, learning a bunch of music (maybe you get where this is going). So before I can fully enjoy the experiences ahead, I have a lot of work to do. For me, it’s fairly daunting. I’m not a techie, and I really don’t like dealing with gear (least of all new gear). Thankfully, I have friends who can help. And, as my son always scolds me when I ask him for answers, there’s always an Indian dude on YouTube who can tell me how to get the job done.

On a personal level there is also a nice treat headed my way in the next few weeks. I’m going to drive my deer-battered car to Chicago, where I will not only unload all of my vintage gowns and dresses, but I will stay with my bestie from high school, visiting a handful of old friends while I’m in town. There will be food to savor, sights to see and memories to revisit. Plus there’s another little excursion I’ll make in addition to my midwestern trip. This is a piece of seriously serendipitous magic at play. (I’m sending a demure wink of appreciation to the party responsible.) Hopefully these adventures will refresh me and prepare the way for the rigors ahead.

Thrilled am I at the changes that await. Thrilled am I to be at the doorstep of my life’s next big shift.

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Please forgive the mom brags to follow, but I feel compelled to elaborate on my son’s progress in life, and at RPI. I hope you might find it interesting…

Firstly, Elihu has made his autonomy more real than ever; he has deleted all of the videos on social media in which he’s appeared in a humorous or childish manner. He wishes to present himself as professionally as possible – and home vids are not something he wants in that mix. It presented a true shift in the way I had to think about him with relationship to me; I could no longer casually involve him in my posts. His role as my child is ours alone, it is a private thing. I get it, I certainly honor it, but I kinda mourn the change too.

My son is an Aerospace major, and a Chinese minor. He taught himself how to write and speak Mandarin before he went to college, and just this past week he tested into Chinese 3 for the spring semester. Elihu had a nice piece written on him for the school blog, he played solo tuba at the school’s fall concert (go to 3:07 to hear RPI president Dr. Shirley Jackson give him a lovely introduction, or go to 25:10 to hear him play Bach), he played in several ensembles (jazz, classical and early music) and has been invited by the outgoing president to perform at her invitational farewell concert. He’s written a tuba concerto as well as auditioned for soloist with the orchestra. In an effort to keep up his beloved German, he began a German conversation club with happy results. He also tried to start up an indoor model-building aviation club, but sadly there were not enough takers. He’ll persist, however, and I have no doubt he’ll be successful. He’s won numerous scholarships; not a penny will we pay in tuition, room, board or materials – all due to hours upon hours of his hard work. (He knows damn well it’s far beyond this mother’s purview!)

As an avid linguist (he is conversant and literate in five languages now) Elihu is thrilled to share the company of students from all over the globe, giving him the opportunities to hear and practice new languages. His roommate is Chinese, however the student’s first language is not Mandarin, and his accent makes understanding tricky – but this is precisely the stuff that inspires my child; he’s using this situation to expand his understanding of Chinese languages.

Elihu has made friendships with several PhD students and faculty members. He is networking and enjoying the camaraderie of similarly-minded (um, shall we just say “brilliant”?) folk. And as you can easily understand, all of this fills my heart to bursting. Funny, but of the twelve schools that Elihu applied to, this one was last on his list, and it was the only one (we still don’t understand this at all) which accepted him! It was RPI which awarded him a $100,000 scholarship should he choose to attend. And yet even still – it was last on his list. Isn’t it strange how life works? It seemed such a disappointment at the beginning, and yet it’s turned out to be that Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute has provided the very best situation for my son. I still can’t believe how it all worked out so well. It wasn’t what either of us had envisioned.

A most amazing shift indeed.

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Elihu’s Instagram

Stuffed

Stuffed

“You got a lot of stuff,” the minor rock god had said as he lay in my bed, actively surveying his surroundings for the first time. His words stunned me; it was the first objective observation from an outsider regarding my inner world. My closet doors had been left open – I hadn’t worried about keeping them closed. I had nothing to hide. Or had I?

I’ve always harbored a tiny bit of disdain for folks who have too much stuff. Of course I know that I too have stuff, but it’s tidy, it’s organized. I don’t have a walk-in closet of clothes, nor do I have a wall of shoes. Just a modest closet in a mid-century ranch house. I’ve always thought that if it was a visual treat to behold, and if it was easy to locate things, then what I had was just enough, and therefore not too much. So, it surprised me to hear these words. They’ve stuck in my thoughts over the past year.

It seems I’ve been fooling myself.

I’d be lying if I said I didn’t have a lot of crap in my house. But the ‘bump under the rug’ has been pushed to the basement (“cellar” is a much more apt term; there’s so much goddam water down there that every last item must be stored in a plastic tub packed with desiccants). The saying “out of sight, out of mind” is very true.

It was about a decade ago when I began to employ my system for keeping the out-of-season stuff along with all the other miscellaneous memorabilia and household detritus in plastic bins downstairs. Cardboard boxes made many decisions for me; mildew, rot and mice removed a good third of the hold. Overall, I’d thought the current situation was fine. I’ve long made annual campaigns to skim the top and get rid of the most obviously irrelevant stuff (like gifts of clothing Elihu no longer needs and broken airplane parts), and so I’d thought my possessions were at an acceptable level.

I’d thought that I pretty much owned just the stuff that I used. Not so. A closer, more honest look at the contents of my basement shows me that in fact, I’ve held on to so much more than I’d realized.

A recent inventory of my ‘backup’ closet downstairs has revealed something to me. While I’ve written about it, spent hours upon hours examining my collection of clothing and culled a good portion of it, as of yet I’d only made the easiest decisions. A few days ago I set about to whittle my household down to only the things I use in my current life. And as deeply heartbreaking as it is, I have come to understand that I will never be wearing those tiny size 6 sundresses ever, ever again. No matter how successful any subsequent diet or health campaign may be, those days are gone.

I held up a tiny pink dress and flashed back on the last time I remembered wearing it. My former husband and I had been in Italy, in a small town on the banks of Lake Como. We had gone for a walk and stopped to watch the local boys playing a game of soccer. The village was steeply graded; I recall us hanging our elbows over the top of a chain link fence, looking a good distance down onto the field, the lake and mountains behind. I was either newly pregnant then, or just about to be pregnant (yes, Elihu was made in Italia). The dress is tiny, the fabric is thin. Yet I hadn’t worn a bra. Probably just a G string below. Good Lord. Yes. Things have definitely changed.

I suppose it was this dress which catapulted me into a storm of activity which I like to call “facing the monster”. Until now I hadn’t been able to summon the emotional fortitude to face all of this shit. Some of it, but not all of it. A few days ago, I dug out every last piece from my downstairs collection and layed them on the bed. Memory after memory, “someday” after “someday” came with every garment I rediscovered. After an hour of agonizing over what to do with it all, I realized that I myself had to do as I would advise any friend. I could make this grueling – or liberating. I could make this hard on myself, or I could just choose freedom over anguish. After all – I have lived a life of very few regrets. (Even the regrettable experiences can themselves be seen in hindsight to have opened up exciting new paths in my life.) Casting these items out of my house shouldn’t bring heartache; I’ve fully enjoyed them, they served their purpose in my life, and I don’t need them anymore. It was time to give it all away. Simple as that.

Kinda.

Me, I’m still a backward-looking gal at the heart of it all. Can’t say that I haven’t savored the hell out of my life, and I certainly chose every adventure that became available to me, and yet still, some tender sense of longing prevents this process of letting go from being as simple as it seems it should be. And so, I will document. Take pics. Archive. Because these items bring to the surface memories which have been dormant for a long time – and I’m grateful to have them. These are images and stories which I’d like to revisit through my remaining years.

I’m taking a trip to the Midwest soon, to visit my old home. To see old friends whom I dearly miss, and to drive through old familiar neighborhoods which will likely no longer be all that familiar. Going “home” may be exactly what I need to remind myself of the impermanence of everything.

Going forward I wish to learn what it is to know contentment. To know acceptance. It seems that’s precisely what this post-childrearing era is good for. The sexy stuff of youth is gone, the tumult of raising a family is done, and empty space ahead is all that remains. A fresh, new inventory feels due.

Picture this, I say to myself, with hope growing in my heart: a home free of things I no longer need or use. A house free of “what-ifs” and the lamenting sighs one utters upon finding an ancient relic of a former life. One or two pieces can remain, I suppose. There’s no need getting uptight about this. No need to get overly pedantic; the point here is simply to lighten my load. To get rid of those things that don’t serve me anymore. To move into my future with a refreshed sense of lightness. To get rid of my burden.

To get unstuffed.

Mortal, Coiling

Mortal, Coiling

I am everything I never hoped to be, and less.

Truly, friends, I’m not searching for pity. Only witness. For I cannot be the only one who has begun to entertain thoughts about the descent we shall all experience, if, as they say, we are “lucky” enough. I’m not sure I concur about the lucky thing. Not yet. There may still be adventures ahead that will re-invigorate and inspire me onward, but as of this writing, they are slim. Not nonexistent, but definitely slim.

The osteoarthritis in my hands is noticeably worse than it was six months ago. My fingers hurt nearly all the time, they cannot close into a fist, and I drop things frequently. In the early part of this past year I lost about a third of my hair; after a traumatic emotional experience it began to come out in handfuls, and in spite of supplements and a good diet I’ve yet to see any of it return.

The inner fortitude and motivation I could summon in the past is evasive these days. No longer can I hit the gym daily, marking my progress in a guaranteed slimmer and stronger physique. No longer can I make moving into a daily habit, as piecemeal as is my life, as frail as is my current stamina.

One night or two a week I dig deep, and summon the balls-to-the-walls energy and fuck-this-word motivation to hit the pavement and run long and hard. But it’s often at midnight, when, after having jittered a leg over the side of the bed for a good hour in hopes of finally growing sleepy, I give up and instead don my nighttime run-in-the-road garb. Headlamp, headphones and reflective vest on, and I’m out. Usually for an hour or two. Chewing up the road in front of me, leaving miles of tricky grade behind. But I tell you, if it weren’t for those old school R&B hits, I’m not terribly sure any of this would be possible. And sometimes it takes a few shots of whiskey to light the spark. Yeah, I know. My kid doesn’t think it’s terribly safe either. But the alternative is lying there, all fucking night, thinking. Thinking about all the nasty shit that’s coming. Cuz it is. Yeah, you can protest. Be better than me. Fine. Yeah, think what you want. You do you, as they say.

My tone has changed, hasn’t it? I know it has. And because I’m not a fan of polluting this lovely Hillhouse journal with the stuff that’s rolling around in my head these days, I’ve purchased a new domain on which to share my thoughts. But somehow, I can’t find the resolve to deal with the details. To figure out how to re-engineer things. All the templates seem lame. Can’t even figure out which font to use. I just can’t care quite enough to get it going. Not yet. But I will. Somehow, in the end, I always get shit done.

In the interim, however, I’m gonna bitch. I’m gonna kvetch, I’m gonna let off some steam. Cuz it’s been building for a while.

The events of this aching world tire me. For the most part I just ignore them. It’s always been my feeling that the best way to help improve the world is just to be nice. Help folks out, do something that makes someone breathe easier. Create those rings that ripple out into the world and make things just a tiny bit better. Despair not; leave the rest of the world to fight over that bigger picture. Instead, take a walk in the woods with your kid. Play the piano for a few minutes. Arrange some flowers, feed the birds, bring the mail in for a neighbor. You know, stuff that gives energy to nature, to beauty, to service. Cuz really, what the hell else can we do? What else will benefit the world as immediately as any of these things?

In a month or so I’m getting out of town. Frankly, it’s what gets me out of bed in the mornings. But happy as I am to know that before long I’ll be visiting old friends and driving down the pot-holed streets of some big Midwestern cities, it’s more than disappointing that I can’t represent in the way I’ve always been accustomed; this time going ‘home’ I’ll be an aging lady with a few extra pounds and a bunch of new wrinkles.

Somehow I don’t think of myself as an almost-60 someone, until, that is, I see myself in an unexpected reflection (as opposed to the staged camera-above-the-face-suck-it-all-in pose). It almost always takes me aback, and yet this aging shit has barely started (if all goes “well”). It seems my former husband was correct; growing old is going to be a challenge for me. He always said it wouldn’t be hard for him, as he’d never known what it was go be good-looking to begin with, so he’d never know the loss of it. I was never flat-out hot, but I was attractive enough. And as my ex also said – I was pretty enough to entice men, but not so beautiful as to intimidate them. Suffice to say that with youth and a modicum of good looks come power. And that sort of power can only diminish with age. Again, protest if you like. But it’s true. If you don’t believe me – try applying for a job without any prior experience at 60. Let me know how it goes.

What’s the point of this? To let you know that your secret thoughts aren’t yours alone. There are probably many of you – especially those who are around my age – who concur. Those who may be thinking the same things but dare not express such ideas aloud for sounding self-sorry. Incorrect. Faithless. Me, I’m gonna go there. Cuz it’s kinda what I do, right? I tell you what I’m thinking.

Over the past year or so my mother has taken to muttering things under her breath about morphine and dying. She’ll tell you the lethal dose she’d need. She’ll make comments about hopefully not being around next year at this time and other such things. Clearly, doubled over with arthritis and without the physical stamina she possessed even a few months ago, she is tired and just about done with this world. And yet, when I once posited that I thought people should be able to choose their own exit, she yelled “You mean as in suicide?” with a look of horror on her face. And she’s not a religious woman. She’s politically liberal. She listens to NPR. You get it. So one might think she’d be fairly neutral on the topic of death. But truly, who is? I told her it was just semantics; death by choice was a far better way to phrase it than using the word suicide. She just screwed up her face in outrage and disbelief. But now look at the way she’s thinking. My mother is not too thrilled with her situation these days. Growing older is more often than not a decidedly un-fun thing to do.

My dear friend Ganga disagreed with me on this subject. She enjoyed a deeply spiritual experience here on this plane, and she felt every single moment was precious. Me, I argued that wishing for an exit when you felt your life’s work was satisfyingly concluded – and making it happen, too – that was a fine outcome, and it in no way conflicted with the sanctity of life. On this we never would agree, and yet we always loved and respected each other regardless of that difference.

When she weighed around seventy pounds and was too weak to even bring a fork to her mouth, I had spoken my truth as much as I felt was helpful and relevant. I sought to understand how she felt from the inside. For those on the outside, she appeared very close to death (in fact she died two days after I made my inquiry). I told her that we’d never been anything less than frank with each other, and that I wanted to know how she was feeling (this was my way of gently allowing her to tell me that she was aware that death was coming – and that she was perhaps even afraid of it). “How do you feel, physically?” I added, hoping she might take a closer, more honest inventory of her situation. I guess I’d wanted her to admit her frailty and accept my emotional support. But instead, she surprised me with her answer; “I feel robust in my body.” It was then that I realized how strongly a human clings to life. It was then that I realized that she was living her truth until her very last breath. I was shocked, and I was impressed. It was intriguing to say the least.

My son, mother and I have discussed this issue of ‘death by choice’ a few times, and both of them believe that the human instinct to survive is so innately a part of our DNA and cultural programming that very few people would ever choose to end their own life. I don’t know how my mother truly feels though. Her tone is so passive-aggressive that I simply can’t know how likely she would be to end her life if there were a legal and humane way in which to do so. I do know that my son knows my feelings. I wish to have the choice.

Friends, don’t worry. It’s not on the to-do list yet. Besides, it’s sadly not legal. However one day it might be, and the tools might be available. And if it were, I might take advantage of that freedom. Then again, I might not. I just can’t know until I’m there.

It aint over ’til the aging, overweight lady sings.

Stillhouse

Stillhouse

Things here at the Hillhouse are quiet these days.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Waypoint

Waypoint

I love maps. I can spend hours looking at a map, imagining the topography, envisioning the reality of being in those places, and trying to more fully grasp the relationship between here and there. Landmarks are, of course, essential to figuring out where you are – and how to get to your destination. These days I feel as if I’ve arrived at another one of my life’s landmarks, and the time has come to plot my next course.

In an ongoing effort to distract myself from the realities with which I now must live my life – an eye injury which challenges me daily, extra pounds which do not come off my frame as easily as they have in the past, and a clinging sense of sorrow that my best days may well be behind me – I am trying to keep moving. I am trying to keep busy.

Of course I continue to teach piano, and in spite of a recent heartbreaking setback, I am still looking for a musical partner. I run the Studio’s Airbnb. These things are routine and familiar parts of my life. But they have not been enough to keep my spirits from sinking. This, I can now see, is going to take some effort. And while I can honestly say that I’m not pining for my son, and while I deeply appreciate not having to make a full dinner every night and drive a twice-daily shuttle to and from school, I have to admit that I do miss him. The house lacks a certain energy now, it lacks a certain animation. My son challenged me, he taught me things and encouraged me to think more critically. I sorely miss our wonderful daily conversations. Somehow, for as much as I treasure being alone, it’s not feeling quite as blissful as I’d previously imagined it might.

When I look at my mother’s life as it is these days, it saddens me. I see the parallels between our lonesome lives, and it makes me sadder still. Mom lives by herself, and she doesn’t have the benefit of students and their families coming and going. Her world has grown smaller as her strength and mobility have diminished, and now her only companions are the wildlife she feeds outside her window, her television and her emotionally dysfunctional adult son who speaks very little and almost always leaves her guessing as to what’s on his mind. But even so, he is her son, he is the one who gives her a reason to keep daily rituals in place. She pays his bills, buys him food, makes him dinner, and often speaks about the goings-on at her place using the plural pronoun “we” – when in truth my brother is hardly her companion in the true sense of the word. Sure he fixes things around the house on occasion and he joins her most nights for a meal – but he is moody, unpredictable and often angry about something. Many days he utters not a single word to her. But he is her son, and somehow that is enough. Yeah. I get that part.

We’re all fond of saying that life is short, and that you must live life to the fullest because you never know… And of course this era of covid has brought that message to the fore of our collective mind, yet how often do we actively heed this way of thinking? How often do we challenge ourselves because we know tomorrow isn’t promised? Me, I’ve usually been the one to try shit out. I’m usually the one to take the dare, the one who’ll do the crazy stuff. On some level I have always felt like it was now or never. So I get it, and I’ve tried to live it. But I admit I’ve held back. Especially during my tenure as a single mom. I put a lot on hold, and justifiably so. But now that there’s space and time before me, I feel an urgency about getting back on the horse.

I can honestly say that there is some bone-deep, existential shift taking place inside of me these days. I’m thinking much more seriously about the stuff that I have always thought I might do “one day”. And my new awareness is born of two things: the deaths this past year of several peers (who were also dear friends), and the magic of reaching this certain age. I can’t consider myself middle-aged now. That’s not really accurate. Even if 50 is considered to be the new 40. Fuck that. OK, so maybe our current culture affords us a slight advantage – after all, do your remember how a woman in her 50s just a few decades ago seemed like a dried-up granny? That’s certainly not true now – but the possibility of dying still looms, undeniable and ever-present. Cancer is everywhere. Covid is real. And accidents happen. For me, these days, life feels like a roulette wheel. So I gotta get going.

A few days ago I saw a neighbor’s post on Facebook. She and her family – including two young boys – had climbed a mountain. She’d raved about the gorgeous view, and stated that it was not a difficult climb. The day that I saw the post it was midday and sunny. I had no students coming, no side jobs, no Airbnb turnover. My day was wide open. I did a quick search for the mountain, downloaded a trail app, and within minutes I was pulling on my hiking boots and filling a backpack. Inside of an hour I was at the trailhead (if I’d known ahead of time how long and narrow the wooded road to the mountain was, I might not have gone. I’m grateful to now know about these ancient carriage roads; they won’t put me off in the future). I was off to somewhat of a late start in the day, but I was comforted by the sight of a full parking lot when I arrived. I’d be safe, at the very least, if something should happen.

The ascent was a challenge, inasmuch as my heart was pounding so hard I began to wonder if it wasn’t actually dangerous, and I was virtually gasping in air through an open mouth for much of the upper part of the trail. When I reached the summit, I was drenched in sweat. But as anyone who’s climbed a wooded trail can attest – the sight of light from above and the expanse of rock that meets you when you reach the summit restores your body and your spirit as few other experiences can. I think this is why people get hooked. I think it’s why I climbed another mountain a day later. And, in spite of how horrible I feel when the ascent becomes almost torturous, it’s why I hope to climb again soon. Tomorrow, in fact, if all goes well.

Not too long ago I began taking a Tai Chi class. It’s an expense that some might find imprudent when my means are so modest, yet it’s something I feel that I have to do. I love moving. I love dance. I love working on balance. One day I hope to teach a dance class at the Y – but for now this is how my love of movement is going to manifest. I don’t know much about Tai Chi, but I can’t let that stop me. What I do know is that it feels good.

And speaking of getting back on the horse – that’s on my list too. I have a few friends who ride, one of whom, like me, is missing her daughter and companion, and so I hope to go riding with her. It’s been decades since I’ve been in a saddle, and I remember how sore it made me when I was young, so I have no illusions about how it’ll feel. It’s gonna hurt, I know. But how many things that are truly worth it don’t require some discomfort at the start? I can’t think too much about it. Yeah, things can go wrong. And you can get hit by a car crossing the road to check the mailbox. No reason not to try.

When I crewed on a sailboat in the Atlantic many years ago, I also decided to go without a whole lot of mental preparation. I mean, how can you prepare for open-ocean sailing when all you’ve ever known is sailing a dinghy on calm, summertime waters? It kinda amazes me now when I think back on it: the captain had emailed from a port and asked me to please bring some baking supplies with me, so my modest rolling suitcase contained huge zip lock bags of flour and sugar… No one in security so much as batted an eye (different times to say the least). I had in my pocket a scrap of paper with the name of the harbor where I was to find the boat. I did not understand a word of Portuguese, nor was I fully understanding the logistic challenges required to get from the airport to the tiny coastal town. But somehow, in a pre-cell phone world, I made it to the boat after two days of travel. And before I could quite comprehend the scope and nature of the adventure before me, land was long out of sight and I was taking our bearings and writing them down on a chart. In spite of my inexperience, I was soon piloting a large boat and plotting courses. I just had to go step by step. I knew close to nothing when I began, but I’d learned a lot when the trip was over. Through some pretty rough storms, torn foresails and stalled motors we’d made it to our various destinations.

Whenever I hesitate to try something new, I try to remember the boat. I recall how not overthinking was key. I also remember how important it was to know where we were – and to know where it was that we wanted to go next.

I know where I am. I know that my body is not what it was. I also know where my body will go if I live long enough. No one can evade the physical reality of aging, no matter how healthy they may be. So while I’m alive and able, I owe it to myself to get on the boat and go.

I owe it to myself to check the map, chart a simple course, and head for the waypoint.

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elizabethconant.com

AeroCraft

Elihu’s Music on YouTube

Poised for Flight

Poised for Flight

It’s a good thing that pregnancy lasts nine months. One needs that sort of time to mentally prepare for what’s coming. At least as best one can prepare for that sort of life-changing event. (I was in labor and pushing and still had no real concept that in a short while I’d have a real-live person to take care of.) And it’s a good thing that it takes a child some seventeen years to reach the point at which they can (somewhat) safely leave home under their own steam. Good for that too – cuz it takes that long to wrap one’s head around the idea of your tiny child actually becoming an adult.

This is the last year that Elihu will live with me, and so every experience from here on in becomes for me our ‘last time’. And lately I find I am constantly trying to understand how we got here so soon. There is a saying about childhood which is so true that it takes on a painful poignancy for me these days: the days are long, but the years are short. Indeed.

How is it that I can recall my son’s tender years as if they were still happening today? It feels as if tomorrow we might return to the things we did routinely for so many years. We will surely spend another weekend making towers from toy blocks, won’t we? We will most certainly drive down a country road on a rainy summer night and fill a bucket with frogs, won’t we? No, I don’t think we will. There is no time now for block towers and summertime frogs. There are airplanes to build, videos to produce, new languages to learn. There are college interviews and performances to prepare for. There are school projects and homework. Every day there are things that require hours of Elihu’s focus. There’s no time to spare at this point in his life.

Wistful as I am to recall all that was and all that will never be again, I take comfort in knowing that the childhood which I provided for my son (most of which is thankfully documented here in this blog) has helped to make him the successful and enthusiastic young man he is now. He has become an intriguing mix of Elon Musk and Henry David Thoreau. Not only does he thrill to aviation, physics and science-related thought, but he is deeply in tune with nature; he hears and knows all the birds of our region, he observes all the animals of the woods and those who visit our homestead and knows their behaviors well, and he also sketches them and writes about his time spent alone in the woods with great sensitivity and skill. He studies markets and investing and takes a great interest in learning how businesses operate. He is convinced that it’s a good idea to learn Chinese at this time in history, and so over the past year he has taught himself how to speak simple sentences as well as write many characters (he’s studying Japanese too; the similarities and contrasts fascinate him). The life that lays before him is a grand panorama of possibilities.

Every day he tells me that there’s not enough time to get it all done. Me, I’m prone to a constant mild state of depression, and somedays (many days, actually) it’s a challenge for me even to arise from bed. “Doesn’t it ever overwhelm you?” I ask, seeking out his weakness, for surely he must have one… “Never” he’ll always answer. (His father is an extremely driven fellow; here is a likely case for nature over nurture. True, I gave my child many gifts, but perhaps this heightened go-get-em attitude isn’t one of them). Lest I downplay my own positive energetic influence on the kid, I offer this anecdote: recently he suggested we take on a project, and I told him I wasn’t sure, as it seemed terribly idealistic, to which he responded “Tell me when we have ever failed at doing something which at first seemed too idealistic”. Come to think of it, he might be right. Although I’m losing a bit of steam these days, on the whole I’ve been a fairly driven mom. The two of us have shared a life unlike many others. And so I concur. We are pretty good at getting our hands on idealistic goals. So. There can be no regrets. This time of letting go and moving on is just as it should be.

This past fall Elihu and I shared a rite of passage which had been a long time coming here at the Hillhouse. Several years ago we’d begun to have our chickens (or as we simply say ‘birds’) butchered by a local Amish family, inspired by an observation my son had shared with me. One day, when Elihu was around eight, he suggested that we eat our birds. I admit, the thought had occurred to me, but it just seemed, at that point, too real. I would rather not have acquainted myself with the realities of butchering and eating one’s own chickens. At its essence, the act of raising chickens was still a gentle, romantic effort to make myself feel more like a ‘real’ country girl. Kind of an exercise in achieving rural street cred. Collecting and selling eggs was enjoyable, and everyone found it charming. Leave it to my contemplative son to burst my bubble and throw down the gauntlet. “If we raise chickens and we don’t eat them, then having them is an act of vanity”, the boy had said to me. Man. This kid went right to it, didn’t he? And so, from then on, in the first week of school each year, when the air had just begun to turn crisp and cool in earnest, we’d arise early one morning, box up all the young roos, load them into the car (more than one rooster is not necessary to keep the flock going, plus they don’t lay eggs – and they fight) and we’d drive them to the Amish butcher, returning home with a cooler full of farm-raised chicken.

We’d always known that this chicken-raising chapter would come to a close, and most likely that would be when Elihu left for college. I certainly enjoy the lovely energy they impart to our homestead, and I’ll probably have them around for a few years yet until they succumb to old age or the resident predators, but we won’t be stocking the incubator each spring as we have for the past decade. This past year we got a bit over-ambitious and raised up some forty birds – twice again as many as in past years – and so by summer’s end we were left with eighteen extra roos who needed ‘doing in’. In that our regular Amish farmer friend had packed up his wife and fourteen kids and headed for Alaska, we needed to find someone new to ‘process’ (the euphemism used in polite conversation for killing, eviscerating and cleaning) our birds. I was having no luck until I found a fellow in mid-state New York. A good five hours round trip. I didn’t relish the cost in time and money making the cross-state drive, but I still wasn’t emotionally ready to step up. Naw – it was a nice idea at heart, and it certainly would be a good skill to have under my belt – but I just couldn’t do that. I didn’t have it in me to drag a blade across a chicken’s neck. So I felt a good deal of relief to have found these folks. Realizing I’d hit up another Amish family, when I thanked them I added that it had been ‘such a blessing’ to have found them. But shortly thereafter I misplaced the scrap of paper on which I’d written their phone number. Having called from my landline, with no stored records of recently made calls, it seemed more than daunting to try and find these people again. I gradually came to understand that our plans might have to change yet again. Boy, did they change. And at the end of the whole adventure, I realized that the true blessing had been in my losing that piece of paper. We were forced to face our final farming frontier.

We had visited a local farmer in a last-ditch effort to hand off the dirty work to someone else, but it was he who convinced us that we should just do it ourselves; it wasn’t that hard, and we’d feel really proud of ourselves when we were through. In his deep Greenfield country accent he proceeded to tell us the little tricks we might not learn elsewhere. He repeated the steps over and over before lending us his metal cone. We would affix it to a tree, invert the birds, pull their heads down through the hole at the bottom, and slice their necks. Of course, this was just one part of a longer and still messier process, but it was certainly the most daunting from where we stood. A deeply cold weekend passed, and Elihu and I bailed. We went to return the unused cone to the farmer, and he looked disappointed in us. He turned to walk away and said “do as you please”. Elihu and I paused, and looked at each other. We both knew. It was clear that we needed to step up. Assured that the farmer wouldn’t yet be using his cone until he dispatched with his turkeys shortly before Thanksgiving, we re-borrowed it and headed back down the country road, this time both of us steeling ourselves for the task at hand for which we still weren’t convinced we were ready.

But somehow, we were. We watched many videos, we practiced holding our birds, inverting them, calming them… We practiced dragging a backwards butter knife across the correct spot, just under the ears, so as to have some muscle memory to guide us when our hearts were beating and our adrenaline pumping. And there was a lot of setup involved. We needed tables, buckets of cool water to clean blades, ice water to hold cleaned birds, hot water to scald, knives to butcher (carve out and clean), knife sharpeners to keep the process efficient and of course, the blades themselves with which to kill. I went to a restaurant supply house to get the sharpest knives to afford the swiftest and most humane dispatch. I also ordered metal gloves for us – there could be no error when it came to our safety! Having lost a chunk of my eyeball only a few months earlier (and also having been encouraged by a friend who’s an attorney with an appreciation for injury and the need for risk mitigation) we knew that this was serious and that we had to use the proper equipment. We did everything as right as possible. We cut no corners. But we did cut chickens’ necks.

I did the first two; although Elihu had truly exhibited a robust and manly attitude of doing this with confidence and ease and starting the process out himself, when it came down to it, he just couldn’t go first. But it kinda made better sense for me to go first, as I, being the resident chef, was the one with better knife skills when it came to cutting meat. That first kill takes a lot of mental fortitude, I can tell you. But the efficacy of the dispatch is made possible by the compassion which you hold for this creature; firstly, you are deeply grateful for the bird giving its life, and secondly, you do not wish to cause any more stress and pain than absolutely necessary. All this motivates your successful and swift actions. After our first kills, Elihu and I were both shaking with adrenaline. It is a violent act, of this there can be no doubt. But as with anything one does, the first time is the most foreign, it is the hardest. The killing does become easier. (Lest I appear to be patting ourselves on the back too much, I wish to add that only a few generations ago every grandma across the globe was routinely grabbing a hen from the yard and doing it in for the family meal without a second’s pause. Fully aware of this, it’s partly what kicked us in the butt to finally do this for ourselves).

After two long days of butchering and processing (it’s a lot more work than you’d think!) we finally stood together in the fast-waning light of the quickly cooling fall afternoon, and sighed together. My son is not a physically affectionate person, and we hug perhaps only a time or two a year, but in this moment he turned and wrapped his arms around me. “We did it” he said, neither triumphantly, nor sadly. It was mostly just a release. I knew. I felt the same way too. This had been hard, but we had learned so much. We had risen to a difficult challenge and met it. Finally, we had earned our stripes. Finally, we were farmers.

The two days we spent processing our birds was a rite of passage for both of us. But more importantly, it was a delineation of sorts which marked the end of my son’s childhood, and the beginning of our relationship as adults. We had worked as a team, we had communicated well, and we had each needed the other’s help in equal measure. It felt solidly good. And although it may have been an important day for us personally, and while I do think we were both aware of that as we went about our tasks, there was simply too much to do for either of us to slow down and indulge in moments of nostalgia or reflection. (That’s what this post is for….)

How will I exist after my son, my partner, my only true friend, is gone from our home? I’ve been so busy being a mom, my eyes always on the next project, the next event, the next appointment, the next adventure – that I never paused to think too terribly deeply about the life that lay beyond the seemingly endless tasks that made up my life as a single parent. Perhaps it’s because I’ve always known, deep down, that it would be a huge existential challenge for me. Also, I’m not one for mapping things out too precisely. Not to say I don’t make plans, it’s just that I don’t always envision the details. They always seem to sort themselves out. I never know how I’ll make it to my goals until the process has begun and I’m under sail, but at least I’ve always had an idea of where I’m headed. But now I find that my sails are full and I’m under power and moving, without quite knowing my destination.

My panic attacks have gotten much worse over the past few months, and I can definitely say that it is not covid-related. No. I know what’s going on here. I think of it all the time. My son is leaving soon, and I will be alone. There will be no one with whom I can laugh, talk, play music, or marvel over new ideas. It nags at me constantly, and quite frankly, if I were to sit with the feeling for more than a passing moment, it would be utterly terrifying. I keep running from one task to another… I spend hours at the gym, I learn new music, I shop, I clean, I do all the various mundane things I can to distract myself. But I do not sleep well. The end of our time together is coming so very soon, and every cell in my body seems to know it. And these days my son no longer stays in his bedroom (he has full reign of the basement, and he truly loves the privacy and space, plus his workshop is there too) and his absence across the hall, mere feet from me, is hard in of itself. I had hoped it might serve to prepare me, but it doesn’t seem to be working. I realize that all parents must watch their children leave (if all goes well, that is), and yet there is something about this situation which just feels different. Elihu and I have had a partnership for all these years. We have been more than just parent and child. It has always been we two against the world. Now it will be just me against the world. Daunting doesn’t come close.

Of course I have been muttering under my breath for the past decade that there is never enough time to do all the personal projects that I wish I could. And I have long complained aloud about the ceaseless, mundane chores that drain me of my energy and constantly wear me down (sometimes it would be so nice just to have a partner for this reason alone; “Sweetie, could you please get supper tonight? I have teaching materials to prepare”…) I fully admit it, this domestic shit has made me damned cranky over the years! (Regular readers may know this aspect of me well). But on the flip side of my laments are all the hours of caretaking for my son which were truly done from a place of love and with a profound desire to provide the very best in comfort, nutrition and support for my child.

When my former husband used to complain, post-divorce, that I needed to go out and get a ‘real’ job, I would always counter that I already had a ‘real’ job: it was raising our child! Why should I take a shitty, low-wage part-time job, only to hire babysitters in my absence, netting just a couple of dollars an hour and thereby delegating the care and raising of my child to a stranger? What was the advantage to that? I don’t see how this is hard to understand. My job has always been to be a mother. And I gotta say, I’ve thrown myself into this job as I have no other. Usually I’m a ‘jack of all master of none’ kinda gal, but in this case, while I may not have mastered it, I do think that I have truly kicked some parenting ass. It’s been a long haul, and I complained my way through much of it, but I did it well, and if were given a second pass at it, I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t do it any differently. So I have no regrets. We’re simply at the doorstep of the next era. My kid’s time has come, and so has mine. All is as it should be. (I really shouldn’t complain – no more sinks full of dishes! No more scrambling to get a good, hot dinner ready before running out to a gig, no more endless loads of laundry and piles of electronics and plane parts strewn about the house! No more taxi service! No more tuba-toting! Goodness, it’ll be a veritable vacation!!)

This is why I keep lists. There are so many things I want to do, but as excited as I am when inspiration hits, it’s just as easy to forget what the hell I just thought of when the fire dies down. I’m fond of saying: If I don’t write it down, it won’t get done. These lists will be my touchstones when the kid is gone. Without a directive or a goal, I will sink. So I’m gonna need those lists. Gotta keep my eyes on the prize. Gotta carve out my own life again. It’s been so long… I haven’t been single and alone in the world since I was 23. That’s a long time, friends. I deeply treasure my solitude, but this gonna be way different.

Before I was as mom, I spent a good portion of my time in solitude. I’ve never had friends with whom I hung out; I was in a lot of bands, had a lot of friends, but no truly close friends, and certainly very few whom I might’ve done social things with. I was too busy, and my life just didn’t have room for that. My bands provided a social life for me. And when I had free time I was fond of just getting up and going, doing whatever I pleased on my own schedule and on my own terms… and that works really well when you fly solo. Even when I was married, I spent most of my time being alone (my former husband, himself also a musician, was gone most of the time). So it seems I should be ready for this next chapter. Yet somehow, this feels different. No bands, no beau, no commitments. Sometimes it seems heavenly to me – I mean, haven’t I been jonesin all these years for a respite? for some time to myself? – but I know the reality will be another story. When I wake up in an empty house, with no structure to my day and nothing critical to do but to simply exist, it will get real. Once the kid flies the coop, it will take this mother hen some time to figure out what life looks like in an empty nest.

But it’s all good, as they say. I know that the past twelve years here at the Hillhouse have been a huge blessing. Every up, every down. Every emergency, every challenge, every heartbreak. Every moment spent quietly sitting in the coop amongst our birds, every evening spent cracking up at the dinner table, every deep conversation each morning on the drive to school. For as crappy a way as this whole adventure began, and as unfair a situation we were thrust into without a choice, and for all the hardship we’ve experienced along the way, I can still say it was so much more than worth it. We’re both as ready as we’ll ever be.

And my young aviator is finally ready to fly.

Like Us

Like Us

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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