The Hillhouse

The Journey of a Mother and Son

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…

 

Sister Pattie February 23, 2013

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Just finished reading Pattie Boyd’s autobiography. As I was browsing the shelves for something new to read and saw the title, I had a dim awareness of who she was. The cover photo intrigued me, and of course, reading that she had been married to both George Harrison and Eric Clapton (and now remembering exactly ‘who’ she was) – naturally, I had to read her story. Aside from being a fascinating window into the culture of those times, it was so very much more to me. Of course my story isn’t anywhere near as colorful, historically significant or fast-paced as hers, but there are a few similarities. (Not the least of which is that we’ve each broken both of our wrists – one in nearly the same sort of accident – and have had more than one reconstructive surgery to fix em.) The big list however is of course this: music widow, shadow partner to famous guitar player, wife whose husband bore children with other women during their marriage – and whose husband somehow thought that it was ok. There’s a tiny personal link too…

Years ago, shortly after Fareed and I met and had become so deeply smitten with each other, he was asked to play on Sting’s album, Nothing Like The Sun. I had been on the road with a Chicago-based R&B band and our tour ended in Montreal. Since Fareed had relatives from the Pakistani side of his family living in town, he met me there and we went to pay them a visit. Next we drove south a couple of hours to see my folks in Saratoga Springs, New York. It was a casual phone call into Pangaea to say hello made from my parents’ kitchen phone that opened the door to the session (this was a pre-cell phone world). The secretary told him to hold on, and the next voice he heard was Sting’s (Pangea was his record label to which young Fareed had just been signed). Sting asked Fareed if he might pop by the studio and add a couple tracks since he was in New York. Sting had no idea we were a good four hour drive away – but of course that didn’t matter much to us, and we immediately hopped in the car and headed down to the city.

The track was They Dance Alone; a mournful tribute to the Chilean women made widows by the Pinochet regime and the dance they make in honor of their deceased husbands. As Fareed himself is the son of a Chilean mother, it seemed all the more appropriate. While he played, I sat on the couch eating strawberries with Sting as he nursed a bad cold. Anecdotally, I remember that we were asked to join him and his producer for dinner afterward, but I missed Fareed so much plus I really didn’t have the energy to hang with people I didn’t know well and come up with the requisite small talk – no matter how glamorous they were – so I asked Fareed to pass. So how does this all substantiate that distant connection to Pattie I mentioned? It was that Eric Clapton had also played on the same track (we got to hear his tracks soloed up too). In the end his stuff didn’t end up making it on the final mix – but Fareed’s did. Kinda fun. So. Not a close call by any means, but definitely within the six degrees of separation thing.

What struck me most about Pattie was how incredibly insecure she was. At first I couldn’t believe the things she knew about – and put up with, yet she behaved as if nothing was going on. How could she? I thought. And then at once – a memory hit me. And I realized that I was no different. In roughly our third year together, Fareed was being pestered by a woman who’d once known him on the road. Nothing new there. But then he said the strangest thing – so out of the blue: “She says she’s pregnant with my baby.” I remember now a snapshot of that moment; the end of day light, standing near Sheridan and Broadway in Chicago, a large stone church just to the north of us… I can still see in my mind’s eye the look on his face. That first glimpse into the emotion-less facade he would wear so much of the time later on in our relationship. There was a lot going on behind those vacant eyes, and I was privy to very little of it. I was stunned more than anything, because he seemed to infer that this was not a vague, warrant-less threat from some crazy fan. Something had happened. Our relationship was still fairly new, and to even consider something like this was absolutely unthinkable to me. So I too behaved as if nothing had changed. And yet, somewhere deep down, I must have known things were going on…

I learned that Pattie knew about – but somehow still ignored – lovers of both George and Eric. But it was more than that. Eric, a substance abuser and most certainly deeply troubled guy, was just plain cruel to Pattie. But she stuck around. She took it. Unlike Pattie, I certainly never knew about anything – at least nothing was obvious. And certainly Fareed was never anything but a gentleman to me. But I did feel a tiny hint of doubt. I just didn’t want to acknowledge it, because if I did, I stood to lose my partner. I wasn’t brave enough to go there. And I guess Pattie had to face it because it was shoved in her face. (Hell, I suppose it was shoved in my face too, eventually.) Even after hours spent googling over the past four years in search someone having told a story similar to mine, I still hadn’t found anything close to what I myself experienced – until I read Pattie’s story. When I got to the part where Eric tells her his news, my whole body went cold. My God. Here it is. I know that moment. I remember that out-of-body feeling, that strange, shifting reality that invades your body like a drug all in an instant… Finally, here was someone putting a voice to this experience – besides me. Finally.

“He’d met a girl called Lori when he was in Italy. They had slept together a couple of times. He still loved me but he thought he was in love her too…One day I was in the kitchen putting flowers into a vase when he came in and told me that he had had a phone call from Lori. She was pregnant. I felt panic, fear, uncertainty, terror of what might happen next. What would I do? How would I cope? ‘Can’t she get rid of it?’ I asked. I felt sick. I couldn’t breathe properly and my heart was pounding so hard I couldn’t think…” Man, do I know that place. I know it so well. But, this is only the first phase of a long and bizarre process, which inevitably ends in the birth of this new person – an event which is the most exceptionally queer and dreamlike mix of things one could ever experience in a lifetime. It’s acutely painful, it’s surreal… and of course, there’s a low level guilt present, because, after all, this tiny child had nothing to do with all the surrounding drama. And you do, in some way, wish for your not-yet ex’s happiness, and the new mother, and the babe… It’s a grueling, strange process for the wife. But oh thank God, I’m not alone. I finally read the experience from another woman’s lips…

“One evening we were sitting on the garden wall when the phone rang. It was Eric, wanting me to know that he was the proud father of a son, Conor. He was so excited. He had watched the baby being born, and went on and on about how moving, how marvelous, how miraculous it had been. His enthusiasm was unbridled. I might have been his sister or a friend, not his jilted wife. He had no thought that this might be news I didn’t want to hear.”

If you’ll read my post “Birth and Baptism“, you’ll hear me describe a nearly identical scene. Reading her account has helped me feel so much less alone. And in some ways, her experience was harder still because at that very same time she and Eric were undergoing IVF to have a child of their own. ! Pattie however, unlike me, never had the privilege of having her own child. I thank God up, down, right, left and center every day for my beloved son. I am so glad that I was able to know what it is to carry and raise a child. My heart goes out to Pattie, as that was a dream she worked so hard to achieve, yet it never came to be.

But on goes life. And while it may seem I can’t let go of my ‘story’, and I probably continue to write about it these days more than my audience might think is necessary, it shows me that my process isn’t over yet. But I am so very much better these days. I’m doing better than I was this time last year. And I suppose I’ll get better still with more time. My story will evolve, my heart will heal. Pattie’s story marches forward too… She has had so many adventures and such a rich life beyond that tiny tragedy that it gives me hope. I know that more adventures lie ahead for me too. For now, they’re more about fourth grade plays and egg collecting than travel or new careers, but I’m so very grateful for what I have.

And I’m grateful for my new sister, too.