The Hillhouse

The Journey of a Mother and Son

Future Field July 22, 2016

The days are long, but the years are short.

These aren’t my words, but I’ll be citing them for a long time to come. The mother of a piano student and I were marveling over the way in which time seems to speed up once your children hit a certain age, and without pause she offered this lovely, succinct sentiment. To hear it put so correctly, so simply, it gave my heart a bit of relief. It felt good to identify the phenomenon so easily. Because it is absolutely so true. You hear phrases like these in your younger years and think, ‘yeah, I suppose that makes sense’, but until you’re there, you just can’t fully get it. Now that I’m arriving here myself, man do I get it.

Those days and nights of sippy cups and car seats, naptimes and baths – the stuff that seems to go on and on without respite – all of that stuff comes to an end before you’re fully aware that it has… And then, in what seems like only a few more minutes, you wake up to the reality one day that your child simply doesn’t need you as they once did. But that’s just the beginning. Then the landscape continues to change in new and unfamiliar ways… Your child is almost directly at eye level with you now, and it won’t be long… That mysterious change takes place at some point in adolescence when the child takes on a different look; the very essence of the young child has somehow disappeared, magically morphing into a young adult.

What exactly tells us this change has happened? What tiny contours have appeared that weren’t there before? How can such subtle shifts represent such a big change? I see my students as they grow during that mysterious passage from ten to fourteen and I am continually amazed by the process. Elihu and I attended the local high school graduation ceremony in late June and my mind was blown as I watched nearly a dozen kids who I’d known for the past eight years cross the stage in cap and gown, now indisputably young adults. I know this is happening now with Elihu, and I find myself daily readying my heart for the next couple of years. In perusing this blog I see a nearly endless childhood, a mother and young son moving through the world as a unit, discovering things together. But I know that our future story will soon become very different in its nature. That’s good, that’s fine, it’s all as it should be. I know. But still…

For the past month, the world has been doing what it does so well…. Offering up daily distractions, projects, serendipitous events, the shifting of gears and moving on to the new. At this point my son’s been with his father in Chicago for over a week, and I am settling into my annual basement organizing effort. I pour through piles of paper memorabilia, and as always – perhaps even more so because of my distilling sentimentality for Elihu’s quickly passing youth – I am beset with more crap than I have room for. I find letters to me in a child’s hand, sketches of birds and airplanes, tiny shells and rocks once stuffed into pockets in order that we might remember…. I am bound by these worldly anchors, and I am bogged down. Making decisions is more than difficult. I wonder: This can’t be how everyone else lives, can it?

I see photos on my hard drive of the field next to our property, the one in which we’ve chased woodcocks and flown kites for the eight years in which we’ve lived here. There is a physical ache when I open them now, as I know that within months a house will stand in that space, and a family of seven will spill over onto the open acres that we once thought of as belonging to the birds and the two of us alone… We always told ourselves that this was coming one day, it’s just that we never really seemed to believe it. It’s not the worst thing that could happen – we know this – but still, it hurts our hearts with a slow, deep burn.

It’s not my intention to sound whiny, it’s not that I mean to complain, because I have it good. I know I do. It’s just that nostalgia tugs at me and keeps me from moving forward. It prevents me from throwing out hand-written letters and ancient concert programs. This summer, as with so many summers before, I find myself struggling to let go of my past in order to move into my future. It feels as if I am holding onto the line that tethers me to the shore because the vast expanse of water ahead is just too frightening to comprehend.

I’ve hired an organizer to come and help me make the hard decisions. She’s come before and has been a great help to me. For me, she is a lifeline. This has to stop, and I need outside help. I cannot keep saving, accruing, collecting – and looking back. My brother is a hoarder of the highest order, my mother likes to make passive-aggressive stabs at me for “throwing everything out” and my father’s office is still piled high with paper two years after his death. I cannot go down this path like the rest of my family. Jesus wasn’t kidding when he warned us not to put so much emotional such stock into the physical crap here on earth, which he reminded us will ultimately become moth food or rust…

Today I will try to be bold, I will remind myself that these artifacts are not the memories themselves. In casting off the keepsakes I remind myself that I am not losing the experiences, nor am I losing the love of those with whom I shared those memories. All of those experiences are still inside of me. And no matter what the future brings, no one can ever take away the memory of a small boy running joyfully across a bright, sunny field…

 

 

Relic July 3, 2015

It’s not my home anymore, and today this sight is truly a relic of my long-gone past, but still the shores of Lake Michigan restore my soul as nothing else can.
IMG_0183


In the wake of Martha’s death, things have changed around here. For one, in the short time between the lovely farewell party we held for her at the farm and the day in which her relatives returned to organize her house, several of her belongings had been stolen. It had to have been an inside job, which leaves the few of us who know the place well to be suspects. I don’t truly think Martha’s niece thinks that we did it, but I can’t know this for sure, and that cloud of distrust has given this transitional chapter a very unsettled feeling. But it sure helps to wind things up there, and at the same time helps propel me back into my own life, something that’s been on hold for a while now.

It’s more than strange to see the farm no longer inhabited. Not a soul remains. Only stuff. Things upon things, more piles and objects than one can comprehend. It is a house that has been receiving its contents for half a century. And now, with their final caretaker gone, they sit, silent and enigmatic, most of their stories lost to those who are left to dispatch with it all. For me, I don’t find myself wondering so much at the items – if the stories are lost, at least their purposes speak for themselves – but more to the point are the unanswered questions – why was Martha saving all of this stuff? For what use was it all intended? Hoarding can just as easily be achieved with elegant, historical relics as it can with modern junk. In the end, things that aren’t of use are essentially just that. Junk. Stuff that sits inert, waiting for someone to give it a new life. So while this house may seem at first glance to be full of precious antiques, I see it a little differently. I see it as a repository for things that at present aren’t realizing their potential. (And in some ways, I also see the place as a mirror for my own life in this moment.)

When mom, Elihu and I visited Chicago a few weeks ago (for the memorial of another dear, old friend), we were given the rare opportunity to see the places where my parents raised my brother and me – and personally it was a way in which I could finally say a deep and meaningful goodbye to those chapters in my life. Our old home had been lovingly restored, the new owners more than happy to share with us every nook and corner of the place. We had the good fortune to eat familiar, much-missed food at places that were once regular destinations in our lives. We re-acquainted ourselves with the new city skyline, saw neighborhoods where some old places were razed and new ones erected, and we took it all in with enthusiasm and great interest. The lake, the unending stretch of beach that goes on for mile after mile, that boundless expanse of horizon which I still miss so very much… We saw it all, and we experienced it all together. And at the age of eighty, I’m not sure my mother will return in her lifetime. I know I will never return in the same way. (As for Elihu, he doesn’t remember his Chicago life, brief as it was, so for him it’s just an interesting anecdotal chapter that came before his time.) This trip was the perfect conclusion and farewell to our former lives. And this time it made coming home to Greenfield truly feel like coming home.

Shortly after we came home from our brief visit to Chicago, Martha died. And a week later, we had her memorial celebration. After that, the items went missing from her place. And now, the farm is no longer our space to enter freely. Ultimately that’s ok – there’s plenty I need to get to; the Studio, my teaching, my own home and property, my chickens, my health, my daily routines (which have been anything but routine over the past month or more) and, of course, my son. I’m resurrecting my quest to find piano solo jobs in this bustling tourist town, and last night made more than a dozen stops in my first attempt to sus out how things work these days. I learned plenty in just six hours of conversation and visits. I’m not up to speed in many ways. I’m out of practice, unfamiliar with my songs, my keys, even the silly lyrics. And technology? Forget about it. My lack of a smart phone and tablet all but cuts me off from the world around me. My songlist itself needs some serious updates (I’d thought I could hang my hat on the novel concept of being nostalgic and ironic, playing mostly a diet of guilty pleasure radio hits for the over 50 set, but the wisdom on the street is that I need a serious infusion of more current material, regardless of my cute little shtick.) I recall a time in my life when I had several hundred songs up and ready to go without a second thought; now I second guess it all. Did I really ever do this before? Was I really a musician in a former life? I certainly never jobbed with a vengeance, but I got work. More importantly – I almost always had work; and if I didn’t, it ended up finding me. Here, in Saratoga, a world in which I’ve never worked professionally, I don’t have the infrastructure of dozens of musician friends nor the good reputation I once took for granted to proceed me. And I certainly don’t have that ‘famous’ guitar-playing husband to help give me an added boost of credibility. All I have is me. (And a new rig, thank God. Wait, make that ‘thank mom’. !) Here, in this ‘new’ town, in this new life, it feels like I’m a relic.

Things can change, this I know. And thanks to a handful of magically timed recent meetups with some very wonderful women I know and a little outside perspective, I’ve been able to reinvigorate the vision. If it weren’t for my hairdresser – whom I merely visited yesterday for a quick hello – I wouldn’t even have set out to meet all the people I did. She urged me to go and close those deals which I’d proposed just a few months ago. And sitting in her chair, whom should I meet but an old friend of Martha’s. It seemed another push from the universe to let go of the past and move into my future.

My day started at six a.m. and didn’t end until lil man was back home and we two settled into bed around 2:30 (his flight from Chicago – where he’d been visiting with his father – got in after 1. A super late night.) My day started by learning, praise Allah, that I didn’t have colon cancer. Pre-cancerous polyps, but that was all (my grandparents died of colon cancer, and my cousin, two years my junior, is on her third round of chemo in her fight against the disease). My day filled quickly after the doctor’s appointment, and I only returned after dark to close the chickens in before I headed out to the airport to pickup Elihu. It was a day full of unplanned-for events, the enjoyable company of friends, and the gleaning of much important professional information. I felt a bit like an outsider though. Yes I’d left Chicago more than six years ago by now, but I’d been cloistered away ever since in the role of rural, impoverished, single mom. Yesterday it felt like I was starting all over again. But at least I was beginning on my own, not in the wake of a famous husband, not on the reputation of a varied career as keyboardist, not as a frontman for a well-loved band, not as any of those things. Just as me.

I still have a hard time letting go of my past life because sometimes I worry that nothing can match its glamour; that instead of a fruitful future, I can expect a long, bleak road ahead. That kind of thinking has been easy to succumb to in the past, but I need to get rid of it now. It’s ok to hold on to a keepsake – there’s nothing wrong with being in possession of a relic or two – but there’s still a lot of junk in my house that no longer serves me which I need to clear out, so that a new life can have the space and freedom to move on in.


IMG_0085The most beautiful, perfect sendoff for our dearest Martha. Michael made a fine toast (we all raised a glass of Martha’s regular evening drink – gasp – Apricot Brandy) after which we all sang Martha’s favorite song, “Simple Gifts”. That big, beautiful farmhouse came alive again, and I’m sure wherever Martha was, she was pleased.





A real-life tableau, undisturbed for decades.

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Ever a practical woman, Martha wrote her own obituary, as well as her final wishes and disbursements here in this plain, spiral notebook. She called her matters ‘mundane’; simple though they might have been, mundane they were not.

IMG_0152A last image of what has been our ‘normal’ for the past five decades. Mom and Andrew sit in the kitchen at the farm as they have since he and I were tiny.

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IMG_0048Is my own collection of stuff any less of a mystery? How in hell did this crap all find me? Another garage sale of epic proportions in on the calendar for this summer. My house will not end up like Martha’s. (Besides, there’s no space; it’s a mere four rooms to her ten.)

IMG_0052I am of the opinion that if you do not see it, you will not use it. I’ve labeled all this stuff and use it all pretty regularly. I’m doing my best to keep my crap confined to this storage room and nowhere else.

IMG_0058I’d thought my new rig was so modern and ready-to-rock, but alas, the bulky 3 ring binders of charts (and my reliance on them too) instead of a handy tablet is a handicap in this day and age. No matter, for now it’ll have to do. Until I can store it all in my brain, that is.

IMG_0103I try to keep my world as simple as possible. Hopefully, a tidy home will provide a solid platform for a full and invigorating life to come. If some things are about to change in my life, I’ll need some things in place that never do. That’s just the kind of gal I am. I’m fine with some change, and I feel it’s important to routinely clean one’s house out of unused items, but I utterly depend upon some things remaining just as they are.

IMG_0025Here’s a pic of our first-born hen this year, whom we named Martha. Sadly, for no reason I can understand, she died one morning this week. We’d never before had a hen who was half red and half white. She was as unique as her namesake.

IMG_0014I don’t cry anymore when our animals leave us, but my heart still breaks. I’d hoped to have a living remembrance of Martha here on our tiny farm, but I’ll have to let go of the sentiment and attachment. Sorrow and regret can zap a person of their hope, and I need to keep mine strong and healthy. Goodbye and thank you, tiny, feathered friend.

IMG_0002It’s not exactly in my backyard, but Saratoga Lake’s not terribly far.

IMG_0011Our house on the hill lives in the middle ridge of this photo – in the darker blue section just above the treeline, with the Adirondacks beyond. For me this is a new body of water, a new horizon. This beautiful view gives me a new perspective on things, and that’s something I could really use right about now.


       Post Script: Martha suffered a stroke in the mid 80s which left her left side paralyzed. While she was able to drive for a while, and did far more than one would expect for a person in such a situation, she was clearly stopped in her tracks by this life-changing event. It has been posited that her stuff remained in disuse because she was never again able to resume her activities and projects as she’d planned after her stroke. Heartbreaking to think how everything can change in a minute. A good reminder for us all to use our lives as fully as we’re able, and while we’re able, too.

 

Paperchase February 23, 2015

Paper has followed me closely throughout my life. Of course it started for me as it does for all my brothers and sisters here on the planet; there were the requisite forms my parents filled out on my behalf shortly after I arrived, and the stamp of my inky footprints in lieu of a signature to kick things off… And before I knew it, my relationship with paper had begun.

In my earliest years the collection took the form of preschool art gems. Over-sized pieces of thick, fuzzy paper frozen into stiff waves by watercolor paint… Next came the phonetically spelled messages that immediately preceded my learning to read, and shortly after that I was in school and churning out a respectable daily output of used paper. In high school I filled my paper with far less academic focus; endless doodles lined the margins of my Latin notes, I drew floor plans on any remaining space in which I didn’t doodle, and I wrote the name of a certain cute senior boy (who played bass) – both forward and mirrored backwards, too – across every page of my notebook during sophomore year. I was a doodler. Later came sheets of classical music, lead sheets, chord charts, string arrangements, production notes and set lists. More paper, much of which is now deeply infused with the memories of those projects and the time in my life which they represent. I find it impossible to simply toss the stuff. And so instead, I file it away. I can totally understand hoarders. It’s a safe feeling to have tangible evidence of your life’s favorite moments within easy reach. For the most part, it’s not a drag. What to me is a drag are those piles. The ‘to-do’ piles all over your office that don’t ever get done.

But that’s only one kind of paper battle. There’s the other sort that most folks deal with daily. The better part of my mother’s life these days is spent just keeping up with the shit that she finds stuffed in her mailbox each day. Unlike me, she takes her mail up to the house and goes through each and every piece, whether it’s a solicitation for money (free dream catcher inside!), another outside agency offering to provide electricity at discount prices (never a deal) or life insurance offers (for just pennies a day and no medical questions to answer!), she gives each its moment of consideration. Piles of envelopes wait patiently on the desk for her attention, while correspondence of a similar sort over at my place gets unceremoniously dumped into the recycling bin on the way back to the car. More than enough crap has made it past my front door – I have no desire to give myself yet more things to purge. If I ever become flush with cash, I’ll give some to my friend who digs wells around the world. That’s it. Real results, no waste. If I ever need a discount on my electric, I’ll consider going solar. And as for insurance, they can keep their brochures. If I die, my kid gets all my stuff and then goes to live with his dad. Nuff said.

Having finally put ‘like with like’ over this past, kid-free week (Elihu’s been in Chicago with his dad for winter break), I am finally able – after living here over six years – to know where everything is. Got my old files down low, new ones up high. Seriously old stuff – as in those doodles from the early years (along with Elihu’s thousands of bird drawings) are sealed away in labeled boxes. I know where they are, but they’re tidily out of sight. Finally I have a handle on it. And the relief is almost physical.

Between the logging, the random life adventures and all the organizing I’ve been doing this week, I’ve been going nonstop. Elihu returns tomorrow, and I’m finished with the office just in time. (I have spent several hours trying to get my computer to see my piano keyboard to no avail, and am also having some deep frustration with my new computer and it’s ‘non relationship’ with my printer. So in truth, nothing’s truly resolved and over. I’ve just reached a nice, temporary hiatus of sorts.) Elihu will return this time with his new tuba in tow, so of course we’ll be off into a whole new adventure as soon as he steps off the train.

The logs from our property are ending up going in all directions and will be put to many uses. A local school will be burning the chipped tops in their furnace, some nice looking butternut made its way to a local clock maker, and some of the fine, long hardwood will even find its way across the globe to far-away furniture makers in the not too distant future. And some of the haul will even be made into – you guessed it – paper! Let the chase continue…

IMG_2192My little aviator, ready to fly.

IMG_2204How is it that this never grows old? A plane is always an exciting, enticing sight.

IMG_2222There goes my baby…

IMG_2241Lost in the snow.

For me, this never grows old either.

IMG_2265Leaving the airport I saw hundreds of puffy sparrows hunkered down in the trees, just waiting out the brutal, sub-zero weather as best as they possibly could. Poor creatures!

IMG_2308I had planned to have a mammogram one morning, but found I was driving on a totally flat tire and ended up cancelling. I suspected the loggers might have some compressed air to get me to the garage…

IMG_2320Easier said than done. Their equipment is always breaking down. Steven did a good job of nursing the compressor pump motor along. It took some real patience in the frigid weather. And see – he’s not even wearing gloves. But given the finesse he had to use in getting the engine going, I can understand why. Even I took off my gloves to unscrew some nuts on the tire. Sometimes you gotta feel what you’re doing.

IMG_2342My tire was truly busted. No repairs to be made there. Time to use that spare. So unbelievably cold in spite of the sun, and again, no gloves! These guys were so kind and helpful, and I am extremely grateful for their help. I’ve changed tires myself before, but I was a lot younger then – and it was a whole lot warmer out too! I think I’ve finally reached the age where I can comfortably allow younger people to do things for me.

IMG_2370Now I’m heading out into the woods with forester Dick, so he can show me how the cut looks. (The hat I’m wearing was knit by Lydia, my maternal grandmother. I like that I have something functional – and quite attractive – that she made. She’s been gone since I was twelve, but this makes me feel connected to her.)

IMG_2376Here comes the skidder. Sometimes you can hear the engine but can’t see it for all the trees – until it’s right up on ya.

IMG_2354They cut and drop em in a line…

IMG_2358…then grab em with that giant claw and drag them back to the landing where they’ll be sorted and stacked.

IMG_2383A load slips by while Dick checks out the cut.

IMG_2395It’s the fellow manning the claw who makes all the decisions about what trees should go to what vendors. He stacks them, cuts them to size and then either feeds them to the chipper or loads them on a truck as logs. One full 40′ semi trailer holds 30 tons of chips. Think 15 elephants. !

IMG_2411The dark center is called the heart. While this looks pretty here, this soft red Maple (which is a hard wood – go figure) is not worth as much because the ratio of heart to light wood will make the resulting cut wood irregularly colored. Apparently people want uniformly colored wood.

IMG_2409Now these guys look pretty good. The smaller the heart, the more value to the log.

Love listening to these guys talk.

IMG_2405Dick goes over the pile to see if he agrees with the head logger.

IMG_2423I head home to assess my mess.

IMG_2420Gotta keep at it. Put in over 30 hours just filing. Whew.

IMG_2427Ahh.

IMG_2428Three ring binders are this girl’s best friend.

IMG_2480And finally… at week’s end! Not once in my six years here has my office ever been so organized. Maybe I’ve finally chased the bump under the rug into the next county. Maybe. At least my paperchase is done for now.

 

Stuffed July 6, 2014

We are a culture of stuff. Crap just seems to find most of us, regardless of whether we are filthy rich or dirt poor. Our contemporary American culture grooms us to become professional consumers and collectors from the earliest age. Even our organic, untouched human nature, regardless of cultural affiliation – always in search of wholeness, satisfaction and existential peace – places great importance on objects to help us fill those voids and still that pesky uncertainty. We all know that a flag is really just a piece of fabric, but plenty of us are still a little squeamish about seeing it hit the ground. Trinkets and mementos tug hard at our heart-strings by offering us tangible evidence of long-gone memories.  Finery represents to the world our good taste and our economic success. And then of course, there’s that ‘new-from-the-box’ rush against which few of us are immune. Stuff is comforting, it’s exciting. It’s what we crave. To many of us, our stuff really, really matters.

To some of us, our very identities are completely identified by and wrapped up in the stuff that we own. Most of us live with a low-level of this affliction, but as the current run of tv programs on hoarding will bear out there’s also a growing population of people who act like absolute magnets for matter; people who feel somehow safer, more emotionally protected and at peace when completely surrounded by stuff. All contingencies of life are potentially prepared for, all heartbreak warded off, memories continue to live, and past hopes and dreams, whether realized or not, linger comfortingly in the physical realm. Most of our stuff is merely a collection of inert, valueless objects, but to the super-invested owner, the very experiences or memories those objects represent – whether either in the past or possibly yet to come in the future – are one in the same with the object.  Owning an object also seems to mean owning control over the thing that it represents. And control gives one a feeling of comfort. Of predictability, stability and ultimately, of safety. To have control is to have the illusion of peace. And the illusion of peace can sure feel better than no peace at all.

Stuff helps cover your shit up. It weighs you down and buffers you from any possible hurtful, frightening or unpleasant experiences. Stuff insulates you from pain of living – but only temporarily. It can help mask the fear, yeah, maybe, but in the end, stuff kills. In the end, it’s the stuff that has the control over you, not the other way around. If you’re a person that doesn’t feel the nagging tug of stuff, count yourself lucky. I know you’re out there; I’ve met a few folks for whom it’s never been an issue. “But what about all of your schoolwork, your artwork, your… you know, all your stuff?” I would press them, but the response from these folks would often come easily, matter-of-factly. They didn’t remember really, they guessed that they just didn’t ever think about it much. Their stuff just kind of disappeared over the course of their lives. Who knew? That kind of answer always blew my mind, because I myself have been in a constant battle with stuff since I was a young girl. A hand mirror given to my by Louis and Patty, a stuffed suede dog from Switzerland that Hannelore brought me, an empty spool of thread my grandmother left behind or an ever-growing box of my drawings and writings. I kept tight watch over my stuff and it broke my heart to think of it lost or gone forever. I try to imagine what it’s like not to live as I do, and I just can’t.

My basement is currently under siege; stuff from toys to clothes to aquariums to old paper mache costumes take up valuable space in a humid and dank, ever-shrinking space. Gifts of hand-me-downs sit in bins, waiting for their seasons, or perhaps even to be given away, broken candles await the winter project of making shiny new ones from the remnants, lps line up on sagging bookshelves, volumes of photo books too take up more shelves. Stuff just blooms from the corners and the mass seems to have grown bigger than the last time I took a casual inventory. For someone whose main goal in life is to live simply, I am years away – or at least many hours away – from that goal. And whenever I make some headway, it seems something throws me back again; a kindly drop off of clothes or toys by a friend or classmate, a couple of ‘bird things’ from grandma here and there, oversized drawings of Elihu’s, or hundreds of his unique paper airplane designs that now require storage in an enormous plastic bucket. When assessed one object at a time, most of them seem reasonable enough on their own. But there comes that certain threshold in the accumulation at which it all of it seems equally deserving of a rented roll off container.

A short time after college, and long before it was hip, I worked as a personal organizer. It was a short-lived endeavor, as I felt that most clients needed both a psychologist and organizer in one, and after a certain point, I didn’t have the skills to wrest unhealthy people from their hoards. ‘Assess a Mess’ ended before it might have realized a good measure of success; the job took a huge amount of energy and stamina to do right, and my own personal energies were going in a different direction. So it makes me wonder; if I didn’t have the stamina to deal with people’s messes back then (when I was young and had more oomph) how on earth will I deal with this mess, now? Plus there’s also another phenomenon to purging and cleaning out – it’s easier to do it for other people than it is for yourself. It’s simply not as easy to make the hard decisions when you’re so emotionally invested in things. But I also know this about cleaning house: when the time is right, you find it in yourself to get the job done. I’ve also known major cleanouts to happen around big life changes. Obviously there are the stories of death and divorce, cross-country moves or major career changes, but there are physical and emotional chapters too which play a part. When I was twelve, shortly after I’d first gotten my period, I did a heroic job of cleaning and organizing my hugely sloppy and congested bedroom. Martha, family friend and matriarchal figure, asked if I’d ‘just begun menstruating’. She seemed to have skills of divination; how on earth did she know? She laughed and told me that often ‘when girls become women’ they do something of that sort. I guess it’s kind of like the nesting that soon-to-be mothers are famous for.

There’s definitely change afoot in my life; I’m pretty sure it’s part of what’s been contributing to my panic attacks and bouts of deep depression lately. And if change is what I need to get this massive clean-out underway, I have a hunch that I’ll find it in me to get this thing nailed. Gotta unload a little of life’s ballast to set sail for new seas…

kitchen hoardThis is my brother’s kitchen, it’s a mixture of garbage and non-garbage items. Hard to tackle even if you’re feeling strong and of good spirit; how on earth can someone so compromised by depression even begin?

kitchen clutter

And here’s my mess, after coming home from a friend’s house and receiving the contents of her pantry and other assorted things after her recent out-of-state move. It was daunting, so much so that I hired a neighbor girl to help me get it packed away.

IMG_7558I’ve spent hours upon hours excavating my cellar and garage. It’s not quite organized yet, but at least it’s out in the open where I can see it all… I’ve posted ads in Freecycle and Craiglist hoping to give it all away. Maybe the key words ‘free stuff’ will move it out faster.

IMG_7721Sure enough, folks were coming by long before the thing was even supposed to start. Drat, I forgot to post ‘no early birds’. That’s ok. Everyone’s lighthearted. One woman even went to get me coffee when I mumbled something about not being ready so early (and also kindly invited me to visit her church one day)… I met a bunch of very sweet people that afternoon.

IMG_7710It’s sad for me to see things go… this little blue trike my kid dubbed “Mongey” when he was four. Never a cuter sight than that tiny boy pedaling along furiously, his baby curls blowing in the breeze…

IMG_7716The wizard, acquired at a truck stop and now missing an arm (which always inspired us to cry ‘it’s just a flesh wound’) has found a new, enthusiastic owner. (Btw – if you, new owner, should read this post, I have the power supply – find me and I’ll get it to you.)

IMG_7718There goes a model of the Tally Ho. I once jumped off the cap rail of that boat and kept this for years as a memento of that day.

IMG_7729Told this gal she’d have to wipe it clean; it was too hard for me to do.

IMG_7731My grandma Lydia’s raccoon coat is simply too musty for me… hope this woman will give it another go.

IMG_7775This cherub poster hung over my marital bed for years – in the early, posters-as-art days… My ex felt it should be on our walls here to help give Elihu a sense of continuity. ! I’d felt there were other, more important symbols of ‘continuity’ than this, and it’s been languishing in the basement ever since.

IMG_7767I’m even willing to part with my Noel candle, purchased at the Jewel in Wilmette (the one on Greenbay that had the escalators) as I, at the age of six, repeatedly begged to have it. (It lasted, untouched til the last of the giveaway, so I ended up sneaking it back into the garage. Shh..)

IMG_7769I was giving it all away…. I wanted stuff to move, after all. Ended up making $25 in tips. Good karma sales.

IMG_7821Unearthed from the vaults. Those on the top are from the bicentennial! And the Eli business was a nod to both Yale (founded by Elihu Yale, and my father’s alma mater) and a mentor figure of dad’s at Yale, who’s name was actually Elias. When my son’s name finally came into my head (he was nameless for a good week) I first saw in my mind’s eye this license plate. Crazy, huh.

IMG_7755I remember many nights going to bed with this fan in the window. It used to scare the pants off of me. As kids, Andrew and I would fake dare each other to stick our fingers into the unprotected metal blades. They don’t make em like they used to – and it’s a good thing, too!

IMG_7754Look – made by Montgomery Ward. A drop of oil and you’re ready to go.

IMG_7749It’s this young girl – also named Elizabeth – who’ll be enjoying the fan next.

IMG_7766More sentiment. This is the main activity that kept my son busy on our drive here when we left Illinois.

IMG_7806This is what’s left of an impressive Quetzacoatl/Archaeoptyrix (yikes, I don’t remember which!) costume I made year before last (complete with 12 foot wingspan on a working pulley system), and in the upper right, a goofy but earnest portrait of a young Navy man that I would love to pack up and send to Evanston’s Lucky Platter. Evanston peeps, ya think?

IMG_7804What’s a girl to do with an enormous monarch caterpillar costume?

IMG_7799I’m running out of steam…

IMG_7738Keep it going… I see some shabby chic makeovers in the future..

IMG_7740Make yourselves a big ol load of stuff…

IMG_7820The next morning, I’m left with just a few things..

IMG_7818A bunch of trash…

IMG_7819Some wonderful clothing which will go to a local community center…

IMG_7810And soon we’ll have our own Burning Man here – only it’ll be Burning Gingerbread Man…

IMG_7816Bald Mountain approves of the tidy garage.

IMG_7823Ya know what happened at the end? A really nice man named Dan showed up, and while my offerings disappointed, he did end up with an Oliver Sachs book, a couple of nice planter pots, plus he was a saint and helped me schlep all of the remaining items to the roadside for passersby to pick up and whisk away.

IMG_7826Good Free Stuff. Well, kinda. At least it’s free. And so now am I.

Aaaahh.

 

Nostalgia August 19, 2012

My ex always used to say that I spent much of my energy in life looking back, while he spent much of his looking forward. I wouldn’t argue with that. I am, fundamentally, a sentimental person. And with the recent death of dear Von Freeman, something deep within my melancholic nature has been stirred. I’m made keenly aware of time’s passing. Elihu is no longer a very young boy, my father is now a very old man, and my hair is run through with silver. I’ve been here in New York now four years to this month. Time enough to have graduated from high school or from college. I’ve completed a four year term of life, and now, before I embark on the post-graduate study of life to come, I need to assess and file away what I’ve learned and accumulated thus far.

Over the past year I’ve been working at sorting through all of my household stuff, so that I might know the contents of my house – of my life – down to every last one of my mementos, recordings, art, writing and possessions (and the same of my son’s). Now I have reached the final – and most challenging – phase of the project: my office. Going through this archive of my life is an emotionally charged job. In some way it seems I’m bearing witness to all I’ve done and created thus far that I might now lay it to rest and begin the next chapter of my life’s work with renewed enthusiasm. When this room is finished, when the evidence has been considered and put away, it will create a good, clean emotional place from which to go forward into the adventure. But with all the retrospection going on today and all the poignant discoveries, for the moment I’m feeling a little sad, a little hesitant to say goodbye. A little stuck.

In this room is the fountainhead of all the things I’ve ever created and saved: work from grade school, papers from college, art, recordings, photos, writing, old programs from early in my dad’s career, ticket stubs, backstage passes, bits and pieces from every corner of my forty-nine years on the planet. What to do with it all? My goal, as I sit right now in the midst of a room full of paper, is to create systems. Binders will house the finest pieces of art, file boxes for the rest. Much has already been burned, much more is yet to be. Items – things – the stuff I really have no room for, it will be thinned to a manageable amount – put into a clear plastic box (for if it can’t be seen, it can easily be forgotten) and then onto a shelf. When will they lose their meaning? Will I end up tossing them or will that fall to Elihu after I’m dead? I am stopped by the quandary of stuff. What have my peers, my friends, my readers done with the sentimental things from their lives? I wish I knew. I’ve culled the best I can, I must simply store the rest that I can’t say goodbye to. I’m not good at taking my own advice. These things are not the person, not their love, not the memory, I know, I know… Yet I can’t throw out the postcards from my grandmother, nor the clay figure I made in second grade… I’m in a sentimental fog, and I’m trying to clear my head.

My load has lightened, it has, yet there’s still so much crap. Driving down the road today, I saw an open garage whose wall was covered in boxes. Likely the boxes that never got unpacked after that last move. I personally know plenty of folks with that story. So what then? And what, exactly, is actually in those boxes? Me, I’m finding mostly art in my boxes, some letters and lots of musical programs. I find a box of tax docs from our old Cafe and realize I can toss em now. That helps. Physically it gives me some room. Psychologically it frees me up. Ok. Progress is slow, but it’s there. One box down is one box down.

Then I come upon some photos of my last recording session. It was with Von. Wow. I look so much younger. And thinner. I remember – I was newly pregnant then. What a good time that was. It reminds me, and I’m happy to find these. I’d forgotten all about that session, I’m so grateful to have these pictures. I remember Von had said he thought he sounded like Ben Webster on the ballad… yeah, I remember that. I still have that recording. It gets me thinking. Maybe I should release it. Don’t know, but it’s something to think about. It’s a possibility.

Everything is a possibility right now. In a way it feels like I’m about to emerge – in earnest – from my old life. While reading my old letters to Fareed still brings tears, and while it’s still not easy to understand that Elihu has two brothers and a sister I don’t even know, things are better these days than they were in the beginning. Things are settling into their own new pattern. No longer is my story new and fresh. The hurt is there, but truly, it has dulled with time. I’ve come to realize that I love living alone, that Elihu and I have great adventures together, and that yes, two people can constitute a family. I’ve examined my life, and now I’m examining my possessions; taking a full-life inventory. I’ve moved through a phase of aging, of growing, of learning these past four years. I’m ready to move into my future.

Ever onward, yet ever mindful of the past. Nostalgic yes, but eager to create new memories. I think I still have a little space for a few more boxes….

 

Clean House August 12, 2012

Almost there. Hoo boy – I can finally see the light at the end of the tunnel. Spent a good ten hours yesterday in my office, filing and tossing reams of paper. The recycling boxes fill up and the inbox goes down. Finally. After months and months of piling up. The going isn’t so easy at first; I find it hard to stay focused, hard to work for more than fifteen minutes in a row. The piles, the boxes, it all looks like way too much. I reward myself with snacks, with little trips outside to check for eggs or other domestic details that could use attention. I file for ten minutes, then I fill the bird feeder. I file some more, then I go upstairs and wash the dishes. Finally, my house – the upstairs, that is – is as put together as a model home. There are no more distractions. I need to get down to it now. Sigh.

In the end, it was the Turner Classics channel that got me through; a James Mason marathon, from ‘Journey to the Center of the Earth’ to ‘Lolita’ kept me entertained as I slogged through the monotonous project . It’s a mind-numbing, exhausting job to file a year’s worth of life on paper. Divorce, bankruptcy, health issues, governmental assistance, the life of a low-vision advocate – it’s all represented here in papers I must keep somewhere. Papers I must be able to locate easily. Somehow I’ve managed to navigate through the past four years without much of a permanent filing system; my life exists in two boxes: one marked ‘current, to-do’ and one marked ‘archive, done’. Not the most efficient system, but in the eye of the storm, in the midst of a full and busy life, it’s easy to let it go. So far I’ve made it work, but every time I sit down at my desk there’s a knot in my stomach. Am I sure where my auto insurance policy is? My income and expense sheet from last semester? My masters for teaching handouts? Kind of, but not really. I admit it, I’ve had a problem with paper for years. It was even a source of stress between me and my husband. I always contended that I needed time to set up a system, and that I felt life moved too fast for me to catch up. In some ways I still agree with that – there’s always been so much going on that it always took a back seat. But no more. Finally, I have the time and space to deal with it. I’m catching up. Getting my system in place. And man, it feels great.

A big part of my current paper-related challenge is the volume of Elihu’s artwork. I know many moms probably share this struggle; what to keep and what to toss. I once asked friends of mine who have four children how they decided what to keep and what to get rid of. They told me that they saved much of it, and at some point had each child go through it and save what was meaningful to them. I liked that, and have used that technique myself, but in of itself it’s not enough. My son is an artist. Prolific, yes, but honestly, he is good. I mean really good. So I can’t just toss his work. I have to go through it. Elihu’s got a thing, and in going through the past fours year’s of his artwork, I find myself fascinated with his evolution. In the end, I managed to negotiate my way through the huge catalog by dividing his art by not only years but by the quality or the ‘importance’ of the work. I found dozens of incomplete drawings in which I can see him working on ideas, a wing or body shape, perspective and such, and so I keep a few of these in a file to be tucked away, but I reserve only the very best and final drawings to be inserted into a large book. I put all the art into plastic sleeves and in turn put them into three ring binders. Two large binders end up representing his work so far – along with a letter from David Attenborough and one from Senator Farley commending him on his art – and they are now tucked neatly into his bookshelves in an exceedingly tidy and organized bedroom.

As for the garage – the ultimate vortex of crap – I have managed to heap all the trash outside and have cleaned and set aside useful items for their new owners to come and pick up. The breadmaker and lamps left today, more toys will go tonight, and tomorrow I’ll deliver a few things on my round of errands. The rest will go to the Salvation Army, and the garbage will be picked up by Frank, my favorite junkman. (Not without cost to me; it always takes a good $75 to rid myself of the final dregs. I just hope this is the last time I’ll need to call him in for help.!) I stand so very close to completion of this project that I find myself in a constant state of low-grade anxiety about it. I look at the piles waiting in the driveway and tell myself ‘just a few more days…’

My office isn’t quite finished, however. I have piled boxes of all sizes on a wall of bookshelves which I have covered in a sheer film of deep orange curtains. Just sheer enough so that I don’t forget the task ahead of me, but just pretty enough to allow myself some peace when I sit down at my desk. CDs from old bands of mine, master DATs, probably now degraded beyond usefulness, unsorted photographs, schoolwork of Elihu’s kindergarten and first grade years, tax docs from my married years, paperwork from the Cafe I used to run back in Dekalb, pens, pencils, office supplies and every manner of long-forgotten but hard-to-let-go-of mementos from years of travel… all this and more await my attention. Yesterday tackling the wall seemed insurmountable, today it seems vaguely possible. I stare at it, taking it all in, and I wonder, how do other people deal with all of their life’s crap? Years ago I had a woman help me organize my files. She and her husband were able to keep their possessions to a mere couple of file drawers. They moved frequently, and were able to pick up and pack up in short order. How? I grilled her – where were the postcards from old friends, the letters, the key chains and tchotchkes? Apparently they had none. I still didn’t really come to understand how they came to live a life so free of physical stuff. Apparently she approached life in a far different way than I. So often I’ve encouraged friends to get rid of stuff by reminding them that the stuff is not the love they shared with a person, nor is it the person, nor does the loss of the stuff remove the memory or the experience from their lives. I tell myself the same things. In fact, I have to coach myself hard and heavy when it comes to letting things go. Throwing things away. Jesus warned us not to ‘store up treasures of the earth’… Good advice. I’ve already learned how much heartbreak comes of mice and moths.

So I power on. I steady myself for the final wall, for the last few weeks of vacation and a child-free life and the ability to get it all done without interruption. The final weeks of my intensive house cleaning and a very nice end to a wonderful summer. What a fine thing it will be to start the new school year with a clean slate – and a very clean house.

 

Overwhelm July 17, 2012

I don’t know when ‘overwhelm’ became a noun, but it’s probably a useful thing. I could just as easily say “I feel overwhelmed”, but I will defer to the cultural climate of the day and say instead “I feel overwhelm”. I’m not besieged with some clinical sort of ADD, but I may as well be today. I am faced with the post-vacation, post-big dump project of sorting all the detritus of our trip and putting it away.

The first day back it was nearly 90 degrees in our little house, the humidity was just as high, but I was too. High on our success, high on the fact that we’d pulled it off and returned home safely. Like a robot I waded through laundry – that from before our trip and that from after – sheets towels, clothes, the gamut. And I’d sorted paper from stuff, toiletries from mementos, books from books on tape. All table space has been occupied the past two days with endless piles. Now… to put it all away.

My birds needed food this morning. Six a.m. I lay in bed, still tired, but my mind swimming with things to be done. The chickens were hungry and depended on me. As if sleepwalking, I rose from my bed and went to the car. Gone are the days when I can carry a 40 pound bag of feed to the bins – now I must drive them. I discover both the feed bin and lid have been covered in fresh, goopy chicken poop. Really? I douse them as best I can in the water left from Max’s pond. I do my best to get things squared away. The shell collection from the Cape gets unceremoniously dumped on the floor of the car and I use that bin for the bird’s calcium. Mental note to transfer it later to the correct bin. Mental note to fill water bins, replace nesting box perch. Ich. It’s this little shit that zaps me of my forward movement. I am ready for bed and I haven’t been up ten minutes.

I can’t complain – I mean, how can I? You, my friends, have just made this amazing trip possible. There’s no way I could have gone without your help. I am a lucky, cared-for woman. And yet, in moments like this, I’m tending toward a smidgen of self pity. I mean how can one person deal with all this? My son needs something to do – and it’s just me. Not only am I pooped at the thought of all yet before me, but then I have to tend to him on top of it all. I wish he had a friend. In the end it really is just the two of us, and there’s so much grownup work to be done. Guess it’s another day for the great babysitter of YouTube.

See, I have other things besides just the crap to put away. (Btw – the laundry’s done, yes, and most of it folded – but put away? Hardly…) I was the unlucky recipient of some little surprises while I was away which I need to deal with as well: I’d bought us some ice cream cones the day before we left – before the donation money had cleared and was safely in my account – and that little charge of $4.50 caused an overdraft that cost me $25. Guess I should be glad it wasn’t $35 as it usually is with my credit union. Then a few more hit too after that – my chiropractor deposited the check I’d asked them to hold for a week – and boom. Another fee. Ok. Guess that’s ok. Keep your chin up, I tell myself. It’s just money.

Then there’s the ticket thing. So there I am, literally seven blocks from the Holland tunnel, following the car ahead of me through a green light when it stops in front of me. I try to inch forward as much as possible, for the cars on either side of me slid through with no problem. My lane’s not moving. Oh well. I inch forward as best I can and watch as the commuters snake through between our bumpers. Ugh. I notice the truck I’d asked for directions that was next to me seconds before is now halfway up the next block. That’s ok. We’ll be out of here in minutes. Then there’s a tapping on my window. It’s a young cop. I roll down the window. “Can’t block the box”, he says. ?? The only other use for the word ‘box’ I know of is an off-color reference to a certain part of a woman’s body, and instantly my mind races back to the 80s on the west side of Chicago. (Anyone remember the south side’s ‘Copherbox’ II Lounge??) I look at him quizzically. He repeats. “You can’t block the box.” I finally get his meaning. “I’m not trying to block the intersection” I offer. “I’m trying to get through. The lanes on either side of me did, I naturally thought I would too. This is not intentional.” I’m not sassy. I’m not even pleading. A passerby, carrying a large light fixture under his arm, stops to assist me. The cop asks if the man is ‘trying to tell him how to do his job’ and tells him to move on. I try to convey my thanks to the man as he leaves. The young cop has already written my ticket and points some beepie thing at the sticker on my windshield. My heart sinks. “How much?” I ask. “You can read the ticket,” he tells me, then adds how lucky I am that he didn’t put any points on my record. (This business of points in New York is still new to me.) Thanks for the big favor, I think. He leaves me with this floppy scrap of paper that will cost me $115. My heart sinks again. But I will not let it get to me; we’re almost out of the city.

Or not. It literally took us three and one quarter hours to get to and through the tunnel. Seriously. Now – now – I’ve seen everything. And I’m proud of us – we didn’t fight, we didn’t get cranky, and thankfully neither one of us had to pee. Rather than let it ruin us, we stayed merry, listening a second time to a book on tape, playing the alphabet game (Inside the car, that is. Elihu can’t see the signs outside. Clever, huh.) and doing our best to keep things light. Our family mantra is that everything happens as it is supposed to. Hours later a heron flew over our car. “See Mommy, this is why we had to get stuck in traffic! To see this heron!” Lemons into a sweet, summery beverage indeed. Good boy.

Ok. So we’re home. Then I check the mail. I’d forgotten about the speeding ticket I’d gotten last month on the way to pick Fareed up at the airport. (Don’t those just bother you? Everyone is going ten over – but you get pulled over. Sheesh.) There’s another $150 shot. Man, I’m working hard just to stay afloat, then this. Will there be a second leg to our trip? Will we get to Philadelphia at all? Doesn’t look it from here. I try to set it aside emotionally, and I wonder deep down what the hell it is that I’m supposed to learn from this. Seriously, I must have some deep-seated, karmically installed money issues. Keep goin, I think to myself. Although I haven’t bought a new pair of shoes in years, the Aerosoles catalogue has a particular sting this time. Can’t even rationalize fantasizing about getting a pair. I don’t even bother to find the recycling bin. Into the trash it goes.

So I guess that brings me to this moment, as I sit in my chair, wondering if I might be able to lie down again for a few minutes before the kid wakes up. The piles are everywhere. I can’t help but wonder how everyone else does it. Families with more than one kid – how is it possible? I can understand how my childless friends deal with physical crap – I managed my own for years. Daunting before and after a gig (women have not only gear and charts to deal with – but makeup and clothes and jewelry – that adds a whole nother layer to the potential chaos) but I could still stay on top of it. But right now I think I’ve lost it. Unless I can find Elihu a playdate I don’t know where I’ll get the resolve.

Wait. I remembered something. When we stopped at the convenient store our first day back I got one of those little energy shot thingees. Yes. Yes? Was that what fueled my insane initial cleanup? I think so… Seems like it. Wow, and I’d never had one before. Can’t make it a crutch, but sounds good right now. I begin to see some possibility here. Ok. Kid’s still out. I think I know what I need to do… I need to overwhelm my overwhelm. Back in five minutes. I’ll let you know…