The Hillhouse

The Journey of a Mother and Son

Sunday Lull May 17, 2015

My kid is in my bed, playing on his 3DS, the volume’s up on the accompanying soundtrack which, after the nineteenth time is annoying enough, let alone the nineteen-hundredth time. He’ll mute it if I ask, but I don’t, because the music seems to add to his enjoyment of the game. This is, after all, Sunday morning. That island in the week where nothing can touch you (if you aren’t a church-goer, that is!). It’s the one day that I let the chickens out a little later, the one morning when the clock tells me it’s 6 am and my heart doesn’t tighten at the prospect of the morning rituals before me… I enjoy my bedroom’s comfy chair on weekend mornings, and although the seasonal bouquets of lilacs and lily of the valley are no longer at their fragrant peak, having them here is a rare treat, and confirms for me that we’re still in that magical and short-lived time of the year I love so well. It’s a Sunday at home in the Springtime, and Elihu and I are together, each doing something that we love to do. Things don’t get much better than this.

Over the past couple of weeks I’ve been given a couple of unexpected gifts which have really helped to lift my spirits too. I guess I didn’t realize that I presented to the world as being so in need – maybe living in a constant state of never-quite-enough has dulled me a bit to the fact that not all folks live like this – and that there may exist a chance that I myself might not always live this way. While it might be my goal, I’ve never been able to imagine a time when Elihu and I could live without food stamps or assistance to heat our home. I suppose the goal is to glean an income from the Studio one day, yet still, that seems so far off, I can’t quite see it. Currently, our income is most often less than our basic living expenses, with my stalwart mother stepping in to make up the difference. It’s the little things that make it impossible to get ahead – unexpected car repairs, new shoes, haircuts, even shampoo and laundry detergent – things that by themselves don’t seem too much, but when they arrive one after the other can clean out a checking account pretty quick.

Lately I’ve been keeping track of these expenses and trying to nail down where my money goes and why it is I can’t seem to get enough… And one of these recent gifts was membership into a program which helps to get such control over money. The timing of this gift was perfect. Just as I’d been making columns, listing my costs and my income and beginning to use cash only instead of debit cards, this arrived. A woman I’d known from another lifetime as a kid in my hometown had gotten this program for me with the provision that I follow it for the next ninety days. I am so there. Can’t say I’m not a bit nervous – I still haven’t gotten those new gigs nailed down yet, so I’m still short on the income side. That means spending still less, and when you already live so modestly, it’s hard to know how to do that. Reduced my cable to basic, my garbage removal to once a month, trying to unplug the power supplies around the house, turn things off… Still, it’s daunting, this idea of breaking even, let alone of saving.

And then there was the second miracle gift – a person with whom I have some musician friends in common gave me an unexpected gift of cash, which has allowed me to put a little away, as well as pay the electric bill left over from a too-long winter. How did these things happen? Hard to understand, and for me, hard to actually accept the help. I waffled over the offers for a while, before I realized that if I were in a position to help someone else, I’d do it. And my grandmother used to tell me that the best way to receive a gift is to simply say ‘thank you’ – and mean it. I did, and I do. And I’ll be living my gratitude for these acts of kindness by continuing to push up and out of my situation. I’ve got lists, plans and goals. Sometimes I don’t think I’ve made much progress in my time here, but then I’ll look back over the past six years here and realize that a whole lot has happened. And although the steps are tiny, they are forward-moving, and after a while, baby steps actually do get you somewhere else.

Monday morning will come soon enough, and I mean to meet it with enthusiasm and hope. I often say to my kid that this is not a planet for wimps. And me, sometimes I feel mighty wimpy. So I’ll use this lull in my life to recharge and regroup. Church or not – what a blessing is a Sunday morning.

 

Abundance Invisible May 3, 2013

I suppose one might say Elihu and I are as poor as church mice. On a purely practical level I guess we are. But lately – or more specifically, yesterday – with the sudden and dramatic influx of readers here, I am made aware of the subtle and often unseen nature of abundance. Nothing feels much different today, as I sit in the chair in my bedroom, bed still unmade, morning dishes still unwashed, writing on my ancient little Mac. But of course, things are different. Had no idea how the freshly pressed thing worked, how on earth anyone’s blog got mentioned on it (if it had to do with pure stats alone I was never going to see myself featured) but overnight I’ve become rather acutely aware of what it is and how it serves. Once again, my life is full full full, albeit in ways that aren’t always apparent in everyday life. I feel so much less alone this morning – Elihu too (he couldn’t stop giggling to learn about our sudden spike in readers) and I feel less like a woman muttering to herself, and more like a person with an offering to make. And that’s certainly got value; we as humans all know what it is to feel unimportant or unseen. It feels good to know that we’ve got new friends, and that we might be offering a little joy here on this sometimes incredibly difficult and tedious planet. But that’s enough on that, I don’t want to start taking myself too seriously. ! The challenge now becomes to continue to do what I’ve been doing for the past two years without censorship; without letting my voice or content be influenced by anything other than what’s going on right here and now. With that said, on to more thoughts on abundance…

The other day, after coming home from the grocery store and laying out all of our goods on the table, I sat back in awe as I tried to fully understand the bounty. “Abbondanza!” I said, over and over again, as much for myself as for making the point to my son that what we saw before us what truly a manifestation of abundance and good fortune. “Imagine one hundred years ago” Elihu mused, “this would be impossible – to them this would be unbelievable!” Yeah, my kid gets it. And how happy I am to have a kid that does. It is pretty spectacular, this bonanza before us, although we’ve become virtually desensitized to such things in our modern, Western world. (If you’re reading this it probably goes without saying you’re likely a member of this privileged club.) Products from all over the world sit on our tiny kitchen table. The lettuce we think virtually nothing of comes from California, some three thousand miles away. Our grapes come from another hemisphere even! I pause to try and imagine the labor involved… it’s not possible. From growers to pickers to drivers of machinery to the designers of said machinery to the folks who unboxed it and placed it on the shelves here in our town… it boggles the mind. It’s why we say grace, why our prayers of thanks in this household are not so much to a creator God as they are offerings of thanks to all our fellow human beings who have toiled – probably without thanks or appreciation for their toil – in order to make our lifestyle possible.

While I may never see the day when I get fully caught up on my electric bill, nor know an era in which I make it through a winter without running out of heating oil, by the grace of some amazing power I have never known what it is go hungry (I suppose if I did pay those other bills I might know it!). I don’t take that lightly. Sometimes, when I claim the income from a new piano student on the Food Stamps re-certification form and they reduce our monthly assistance to little more than $100 a month, sometimes when I find myself enraged that I must choose either food or heat – I have to make an effort to stop myself, and to remember that things aren’t so bad as they might appear on paper. I have to take a breath and step back. Self pity is a demon to fight, and sometimes it’s a challenge to shake myself out of its seduction. A quick look around, a short inventory of the things I do have, and I can quiet the upset… Yes, things are tight, but what do I have? I have a gorgeous baby grand piano in my home – I have a harpsichord too! I live on a stunning piece of property, my son miraculously goes to the most nurturing, supportive school and is joyful every day of his life, my parents are both still alive and live just next door. And let’s not forget, I’m down two dress sizes now, too. ! Things really aren’t so bad. Ok, so I might not make a solid living teaching and playing piano, and I may never get fully caught up on our bills, but our overall quality of life is rather good all things considered, and my son is a very happy and thriving child. Really now, what could be ultimately more important than those two things?

Honestly, we’re able to survive because of my mother. When we run out of cash on hand, when our larder is empty, when I haven’t the gas to drive into town, she always gives us a little something to help us get by. (She quit her job recently, so that sort of help might not be so easy for her going forward. One more thing that lingers in the back of my mind as I assess our future.) Lately, she’s been keen on helping us with some infrastructure fixes. Like replacing the porch roof or insulating the attic. These things will make a huge difference in the liveability of the place, and they’re projects I could never ever take on myself. Yet they are unseen. The new porch is not an upgrade, it’s the same porch. Only now it has a ceiling that doesn’t leak. The attic will just hold in the heat a bit better (which ought to put an end to the oil running out too soon! A major plus.) Nothing in these improvements shows to the eye – but they’re things that must be done at some point. Guess mom wants to know it’s been taken care of before she’s ‘gone’. (Too blunt? Mech, it’s getting that way these days. !) They’re important projects, but as there’s no appearance of an upgrade it doesn’t look like anything’s been done. Although our house is still a tiny little ranch with thin windows and ancient fixtures, at least the roof doesn’t leak, and next winter we’ll be toasty. Abundance here too.

I also am a believer of a sort of ‘like with like’ phenomenon that seems to occur in life. Some folks really live by this law of attraction, and while it does resonate with me, I am still hard-pressed to live by its rules as the true LOA followers endeavor to do. I just haven’t mustered the discipline to shush the constant poverty chatter in my brain. I sometimes wonder if it’s why I can’t seem to just get up and over this hump… then my reality meter kicks in and I consider the idea that folks just plain don’t need piano teachers like they do plumbers or insurance salesmen. I guess. Yet still I can’t help but wonder, if I threw caution and known reality out the window and simply envisioned a truly abundant life – as in thought about it day in and day out, lived as if it already was so, what might happen? I try to imagine not only becoming caught up on my electric bill, but not even concerned about future such bills. I have heard it said that possibilities are limited only by our beliefs. Again, sounds good. Sounds like we might have some control over our lives, it gives one hope. Yet I struggle to integrate it into my life. Am I settling? Am I convincing myself that what I have is good enough? Sometimes I’m fairly sure that I’m settling. That I haven’t invested enough energy into imagining things as I’d like them to be. It seems I might be holding myself back with the ‘poor-me’, ‘if only’ talk. But then other times I have a truly perfect day, and I think I’m way ahead and none of that stuff matters at all…

Today was such a day. A full-on sunshiney Spring day in the one of the most beautiful city parks I know, the whole Waldorf school in attendance at their annual May day celebration in which the fourth grade (of which Elihu is a part) experiences a rite of passage and dances around the May pole weaving intricate patterns with the ribbons in the style of schoolchildren from a bygone era. We were able to get grandma and grandpa out in the fresh air too. Such good fortune; it was an important day for Elihu and they were there to share in it. After the festivities Elihu and I remained in the park where he chased ducks (as he always does) and he caught two right off the bat – with no bait, just his swiftness and cunning! We stayed there for hours, and after a bit took a walk up to Broadway, where we visited a very high-end chocolate shop. After a rare treat there, we returned to the car by way of the local hippie shop. We passed nearly an hour there admiring rocks and crystals and chatting with the dredlocked girls who worked there. We made some egg deliveries, then returned to the park. We realized that we hadn’t eaten in hours, and so as a final chapter in our grand day, we decided we’d eat out. Had the best chicken in the world at Hattie’s, grooved to some classic R&B as we ate, then made our way home (organ trio for the ride back.) When we got to the train tracks the gates were going down – and wouldn’t ya know, it was our good friend Mike at the wheel! We honked, and he leaned way out the window, smiling and waving. (He really did look like something from a children’s storybook, his elbow out the window, that striped engineer’s cap on his head.) That was a hoot. We rode home with the sun and warm wind streaming through the open windows, and we were happy.

We got home and Elihu, although he’d said he was getting tired, found a burst of energy and took off running after the birds. So far, a good chase hasn’t lost its appeal. Good thing. It buys me a minute to sit and catch up on my thoughts. As I begin to wrap up the post, he calls me. He wants me to watch him climb the apple tree. So I join him. We pick violets which we’re happy to discover now carpet our lawn. We inspect the garden and find some perennials returning. Things feel so good. Simple, but so very good. We’ve even got leftovers for another fine dinner tomorrow, too. Seriously, what else do we need? Our lives are full and we are happy.

So for now I’ll settle for the idea that when we’re happy and grateful, even more things that make us happy and grateful will find their way to us. We’ll walk that fine line, falling off every now and then, throwing little temper tantrums and feeling sorry when things aren’t as we think they should be, but then we’ll shake it off. We’ll get up, look around us, take another inventory of our lives and begin again. The evidence of an abundant life might not always appear as we think it should, but we have everything we need to live. Some times not as much as we’d like of one thing, sometimes a true abundance of another, yet always just enough.

 

Chatterbox March 27, 2013

Elihu is home sick today. It’s where he should be, but might not sound it. He’s asthmatic and yesterday had a tummy thing. He slept a deep sleep for twelve hours last night, and this morning wasn’t quite back to health. And even while I can hear him snorting and wheezing from the next room, I also hear his intermittent narration of the things he’s doing, the things he’s thinking. He calls out to me every few minutes with a thought, an observation… If I were to take a step back and realize things won’t always be thus, I’d probably be charmed. It is sweet. But after a while… I wonder, where did he get this talking and talking thing? Then I realize. Oh. Yeah. Me.

I have a lot to do; re-certify for food stamps – for both me and my brother – get taxes done, finish the application for tuition assistance at Waldorf. All the grownup homework assignments are due now. March is the month of deadlines for me, and I’m feeling a bit overwhelmed.  There’s also an Easter basket to fill on Sunday, and I’d counted on today in which to collect its little surprises. And now that Elihu’s home I have one less day to spend nose to the grindstone and chasing chocolate bunnies.

He’s fine without me, but he still calls out to me every few minutes. Not so much for soothing as for a witness to his play. Or his ideas… and they’re fairly nonstop. I find it hard to listen actively to him – and I don’t want to simply ‘mm-hmm’ my responses – so I find myself getting testy. Will have to retire to my office as soon as the house is picked up and spend some time in earnest at my desk. He’ll just have to do without my audience for a while.

I listen, I wait. He’s engrossed in something now, and his one-sided conversation has stopped. Maybe this is a good time to head downstairs. I’ll make sure he’s happily engaged before I depart. He’s a good kid, with a lot of ideas swirling around in his head. I want to be there to share them, but just not right now…

I make a promise to Elihu that when I’m finished with my homework I’ll come back and listen to everything he wants to tell me. My wheezy little chatterbox of a boy.

 

Paradox of Poverty May 30, 2012

As we were first hit with instense heat and humidity this morning and then tropical-style storms in the afternoon, I spent much of today inside tending to office tasks, one of which was to research how to get my brother on Medicaid so that we might help him lift himself out of a deep and bottomless depression. He’s been out of sorts for almost all of his life. He is a hoarder, a hermit, a social recluse and an angry, dry drunk. Until this week. He’s started drinking again, and this time I had to take action.

These days I am poor; regular readers know my plight – yet I’ve worked to glean what help I can from the systems that have been set up to help folks in my position. Through state assistance I’ve kept us fed and warm. But it was not entirely easy. I’ve often said that being poor is a part-time job. It takes a certain drive and tenacity to fill out all the necessary forms, make and keep appointments with case workers, let alone travel the distance to simply get to the office to which you must apply in person. My brother isn’t able to do any of this for himself. And he really has no true advocate to help him navigate the process. Our mother loves him dearly of course (what a new perspective I have on this situation just considering how I might feel were Elihu one day in Andrew’s position) but her role in this has been to feed him, to keep him alive. That is also, sadly, the role of enabler. Shortly after I moved here and learned the ropes of the social services world,  I got Andrew set up with food stamps. He’s long since let them lapse. Easy to do when mom is making his one meal a day. So today my mission was to re-establish his food stamps and get him some health insurance. It was a project perfect for the day’s inhospitable weather.

It’s ironic that the people who need and qualify for assistance can’t often muscle through the process required to actually get the benefits that were created for them. Those who love someone who is mentally ill have their hands tied; unless the person in need makes the effort to get help, none will come. To get help requires a 911 scenario, literally. All the folks I’ve talked to today told me again and again that the only way to get him hospitalized was to call 911 at his next violent episode, and he would be taken to the ER. This is nonsense! You mean to tell me that we can’t stop the train before it leaves the station, but instead we have to wait til it rolls off the tracks at high speed before we can get help? If the troubled soul can’t do it on his own, the laws prevent anyone else from doing so on his behalf. I can understand it’s designed to protect that person from being placed in a situation against his own free will, but often those who are so badly off can’t fully appreciate that they need help. And so they will rarely volunteer themselves to the appropriate programs. I mean really, if someone is depressed and can hardly wake up, get dressed and feed himself, can we expect him to have the drive to jump through all those hoops? No. And so today I began to navigate the labyrinth of the system so that somehow, through some tiny window I can manage to coax my brother into the help he desperately needs. It was a good day. I did find new resources, new tactics. Hopefully by this time next week Andrew will be in a hospital and on his way to a much healthier and happier version of himself. There are rules, laws, protocols, yes – but there’s also the power of a strongly motivated sister who loves her brother and will keep swingin til she hits a line drive through a break in the defense. We’re much closer today than we were yesterday.

And as for my own paradoxes, they have me a shakin my head. Recently, we were at risk for losing both our electricity and then our phone and internet. And I simply did not have the money to pay them. I was desperate, and pleaded with the woman not to shut off our power the next morning (by some divine intervention the cutoff was postponed 12 hours due to a technicality.) I gave up, accepted that we’d be camping for a while, then hung up. But then it hit me: I have a legally blind child living with me. I called back. Asked them what if I had a blind child in the home? What then? You know what? The whole game changed. Because Elihu is legally blind, the electric and cable company have rules in place to keep our services in place for an extra grace period. !! What a flash of inspiration – but how ironic. My kid can see, but imagine the irony of a totally blind kid having the lights cut off. Not such a big deal, huh? Made me laugh. Course then I pointed out to the woman on the phone that a child without any disabilities still needs to eat just as much as the blind one – and ya can’t do that without power! No fridge, no stove. Ya know? Crazy. But if my dear son hadn’t been ‘blind’, we’d have lost our services. Thanks, kid.

There’s another side to the paradox of poverty: the poor man’s diet packs on pounds. When you have a tight budget for food, what thrifty staples come to mind? Ramen? Pasta? Dry beans? Rice? Bread? Yup. Those things are affordable and can last in a pantry. Fresh produce? A luxury. Meat? We can’t both afford to eat it. At the start of each month when my food credit is given to me, I always go overboard on produce. I am renewed, hopeful. This time we’ll eat right. And it feels great to buy my son his favorite blackberries and grapefruits, my favorite arugula and broccoli. But I simply can’t keep it up all month, for by the second week I’ve spent more than half the month’s food money on produce. Mid month I pull way back, and some days we skip the fruits and vegetables so that we can buy meat. You’d think I’d have figured out how to even it out – so that we have more of a healthy mix throughout the month, but alas, I haven’t. And there’s never enough to make it four whole weeks. So in the end we’re back to pasta, ramen, bread. Ich. Poverty and pounds seem to go hand in hand. At least for me. I have to figure this out. I’m poor, yet you couldn’t tell by my girth. Or maybe you could. Yup, it costs more to eat right. To eat well. So here I am, like the old 80s song lyric  “under nourished and over fed”. What an insightful man that Rick Springfield.

Surprisingly, poverty has made some things possible that otherwise might not have been. The big one – the biggest, most positive change in our lives might not have been open to us had we fallen in that nether land of the not-quite middle class. I don’t think Elihu would be attending the Waldorf School had we had just a bit more money in our budget. Seriously. He’s there precisely because we are poor. We easily qualified for generous tuition assistance.  I think of that often, and it has me reconsidering whether this great change of life might not have come with some incredible blessings.

Also, we live on a gorgeous piece of land. I’ve found business cards in my mailbox asking me to contact them should I ever want to sell. People casually tell me to remember them if I change my mind. Forget it. This corner of the world might be the best blessing of em all. Again, there’s an irony here too; while I look out to a great vista and can see no neighbors from my spot, I cannot afford to cut the grass, so it shortly becomes covered in knee-high grass. The grass grows tall around my lawn chairs and sometimes hides the rim of the trampoline. Looking out I sigh at the disparity between my inner vision of what this place could look like and what it looks like now. Elihu, however, loves the grass. It makes the place feel magical to him (consider how tall the grass must appear to him!) and almost always cries when I have it cut. Last time I had the place spruced up for his party, he followed the lawn guys around pointing out clusters of flowers to avoid as they mowed. So he’s happy, that’s for sure. So for the time being, I try to look at this as a wild meadowland. Changing how I think about it, I can appreciate it much better, and it takes away some of the guilt I can feel about not keeping the place up as I would if I had the means.

There are a couple of things that act as great levelers in the world: becoming poor and getting sick. All of a sudden priorities change and whatever might have been a mere detail of your old life-as-usual now becomes a treasure, an extravagance even. I may have had an idea of the value of things in my own world long ago – but until I was faced with the prospect of having no food or heat, I didn’t fully appreciate how good it is to have those things in place. I know the true value of simple things now.  I also have arthritis in my fingers these days – it seemed to have really gotten much worse over the past six months. Now my hands often ache. So on days when they don’t – oh how happy I am! I know how wonderful it is when your body works without a hitch.

A little change of circumstance can bring out a healthy change in perspective. I would never have known the deep joy of gardening or raising chickens or building things with my own hands had I not been thrust into this life. I’d never imagined myself living a life other than the middle class white suburban experience that I’d always known. But man am I glad I’ve had this chance. I’m poor, but I’m not. Crazy, huh?