The Hillhouse

The Journey of a Mother and Son

Bag O Dad October 9, 2015

My father’s ashes have resided on North Broadway in Saratoga Springs for nearly two years now. We pass the funeral home each morning as we drive to school. Some mornings we wave and say hello to grandpa, sometimes we call out to him, letting him know that we haven’t forgotten, and we’ll come to get him soon… but most days we do forget. In our minds, that historic mansion on North Broadway is just where dad lives now. Among the tony, gentile and wealthy folk he so often joked about. He had liked to speak in different accents, and would happily interject “I weesh to be reech” into conversations – he even said it again just a few days before he died, with a smile on his face and a twinkle in his eye. Many were the times he would tell us how life would look for a gentleman of such means; he made mock instructions to his imagined staff, told us how he’d lunch with Marylou or take tea on the veranda. For as long as I can remember, he would make good fun of the money’d folk and their upscale habits, but deep down, I don’t think dad would have minded one bit if such fortune were to have befallen him. Had he the money to express himself fully in this world, I have no doubt he would have surrounded himself with the finest of everything (most notably wine and double-manual harpsichords.)

We’ve always liked knowing he was there, quietly resting on a shelf in the fine home. It feels familiar now, to know that dad “lives on North Broadway”. As I said to the funeral director on the phone today – when I finally felt it was time to see if dad hadn’t overstayed his welcome – that it had been dad’s pleasure to have lived across the street from the Riggis, he generously offered that it instead was the Riggis who were honored to have had him as their neighbor. The Riggi’s enormous home – one which they themselves like to call the ‘Palazzo Riggi’ – has become something of a tourist destination, especially on Halloween. Readers may recall that Elihu won a $100 bill from Mrs. Riggi herself last year for his unique costume. While I posed with the Riggis and my son for a quick selfie, I noticed the Burke Funeral home mansion just behind the camera, and in that second the clash of realities seemed surreal. I said a quiet hello to him as we left the decadent celebration, and once again I wondered how long it would take for me to face the idea that dad was now no more than a shoebox of dust. It still didn’t feel real. Telling ourselves that dad was there somehow offered me some comfort. But the idea of actually seeing – and holding – the small box of his remains felt too real. Last fall I still wasn’t ready. God bless those folks at the funeral home. They’d never once called to tell us to come and pick him up. In fact, the funeral director had even said, shortly after dad’s death, that there was no hurry. I’m not sure most funeral homes are so lax. Don’t know, but I’d like to believe that we’ve been given some good, old-fashioned small-town care here. Yeah, it’s felt nice to know dad was there, taken care of and safe. I feel silly saying that, but there it is.

And here we are. I think we Conants are ready. Tomorrow would have been mom and dad’s 56th wedding anniversary. They married on 10/10 in Manhattan’s upper East side on a fine fall day. After their service they celebrated at the Harvard Club (a Yale man at the Harvard Club? Shhh…) and as they entered the limousine to take them away into the night, they received a telegram of congratulations. Can you imagine? There’s a photo of them, somewhere, in the back seat of the car, leaning in to read the message. It was truly an entirely different era. I think it’s just as well my father’s no longer here with us in this modern world; he was an old-school gentleman and scholar. His was a world of typed correspondence and hand-written notes… it was a slower, gentler world; a world of telegrams, paper and ink.

Although my mother doesn’t come out and say it in so many words, I can sense she might be starting to wonder at how things will end for her. I’m sure she wonders how long she’s got. How can you be 80 and not have such thoughts? I know that I, at 52, have come to understand in a much more profound and real way just how limited our lives are. As comfortable as we humans may have become at ignoring our ultimate fate, there still comes a moment or two when the idea finally gets your attention. I tell ya, knowing that in the next couple of hours I’ll be putting a box with what’s left of my dad’s body into the back seat of my CRV is a little surreal. And it makes this whole idea of actually dying begin to feel very possible. ! Look, I know this is business as usual; all of us deal with death. And at some point in many people’s lives they’ll be faced with the receipt of a loved one in powdered form; in a box, a bag, or if the comedy of life insists, all over the kitchen floor. (I was greatly relieved when Danny told me that the cremains were inside a bag which was then inside a box. !) I shouldn’t be making this such a big deal. But when it’s your first time, when it’s your deal, it is big. I do feel I’m readier for it than I was a year ago, but to be honest, my heart begins to race at the thought of holding dad’s remains. This morning I was missing my father deeply. Maybe having what’s left of him back home again will help soften that. And then again, maybe not.

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The experience of ‘picking dad up’ was made easier by the good-humored funeral director who welcomed us inside and never let up with amusing anecdotes and corny jokes. It wasn’t a show meant to distract – it was this fellow’s genuine personality. He recounted stories about terrifying nuns at Catholic school in his youth, and allowed Elihu his own boisterous expression as he bounded through the halls and jumped down half the staircase on our way out.

We then took dad out to lunch before heading back to mom’s. We hadn’t prepared her for his return, but in that I’d mentioned it recently, I suppose it wasn’t such a surprise. Mom doesn’t let on much of her inner feelings, and while she didn’t cry, I think I saw her eyes moisten just a bit. I’m glad that dad is home again, on this, the eve of their 56th wedding anniversary. Very likely he’s still somehow nearby, smiling and wishing his love upon us all, hoping that we can still feel his presence, and wishing very dearly that we should not be so sad… After all, this is a family of some deep-seated good humor, and we’re also pretty good about getting back to the simple things in life, which at the end of the day, are the reasons we’re all still hanging around.

IMG_0146A fine, rainy fall day as we head out.

IMG_0155Nostalgic for the way things used to be, I swing by Martha’s on the way to town. Still can’t believe she’s gone, too.

IMG_0166One year ago this week Saratoga’s Banjo Man, Cecil Myrie died. I see the Jamaican flag on Broadway and it reminds me… It was purely by coincidence that the Jamaican flag had been hung above Cecil’s makeshift memorial last year. Now it’s hanging at the other end of the strip. (We’ll be planting a memorial tree for him soon. Took a year to pull off!)

IMG_0179The Burke Funeral Home. One of the famous North Broadway mansions of Saratoga Springs.

IMG_0186Ok, this seems quite unexpected and unrelated… But our host insisted on showing us this very fancy, custom shower from the ’30s. Water came in at ya from all directions. Turns out mom and dad had one very much like it in their first NYC apartment on W 57th. And why shouldn’t it have had the finest appointments? “It was a very high class building” she reminded me, citing neighbors like Jose Ferrer, only a few doors down…

IMG_0189Elihu jokes around a bit with Nancy. She is, as my mother (also named Nancy) would say, “a good egg”.

IMG_0188So this is it. Sheesh. No pomp or ceremony. Tom just finds our box in the pile of other folks waiting to go home too.

IMG_0196I take a quick pic of the Palazzo Riggi from the second floor window.

IMG_0202Elihu’s like a ghost as he runs to the door, while I and my host (whose hand is in the far right) are making a much more measured and middle-aged descent down the carpeted staircase.

IMG_0203 (2)Finally, here we are. They even gave me a carryout bag. ! Oy. Bob in a bag. ! I do like the way it matches the mums, I suppose. !?!

IMG_0214Now this is the life to which my father could have grown accustomed with little effort. This fine Saratoga home belongs to the Wait family, the matriarch of which was once a board member for dad’s Festival of Baroque Music.

IMG_0234We’re at the Olde Bryan Inn. It’s a cozy place, perfect for a rainy afternoon lunch with dad.

IMG_0218Hmm, do ya think anyone suspects dear old dad is sitting right beside me??

IMG_0222Ah well, here’s to you, dad. Miss you.

IMG_0258We didn’t give mom much warning, but she seems ok. As she gives dads remains a heft, she says that she misses Annie (her cat who died two weeks ago today) a lot too – letting on that she must also be missing her husband. She never says so, that’s not her way. But she’s gotta be missing him, and especially today, on the eve of their anniversary.

IMG_0271She assesses the box, and the accompanying note of verification. (Dad’s correct date of death was December 27th, but as we couldn’t get anyone to formally pronounce him dead until the 28th – he died shortly before midnight – it will forever be legally recognized, albeit incorrectly, as the day he was legally pronounced dead. Oh well. We know.)

IMG_0302Within moments, it’s life as usual. The box sits in and among all the other day-to-day crap and clutter. Mom goes back to unpacking her groceries, and Elihu’s got his nose in a book on amphibians.

IMG_0307A closer look at the newly discovered book given to him by grandma.

IMG_0310And shortly thereafter, a live specimen in hand.

IMG_0324You’re a good-looking creature, little one. Please hunker down safely before winter, won’t you? You are one of the simple joys that keeps us going here on this sad, funny, ridiculous, heartbreaking and incredibly challenging planet. Good night frog, good night to all. And welcome back, dad. I know it’s not really you there in that box, but still.

It’s nice to have you home.

 

Hope Burning March 3, 2015

I’m trying to imagine how everything might look right now if I knew I were dying.

Tonight the moon is out, and from every window in my house I see a gentle, rural scene. Beyond my kitchen window to the north I can see a thinly wooded forest through which the moonlight passes, leaving slender shadows in the sparkling snow. To the right of that there is a deep swath of open yard which stretches up and over the rise; it’s defined at the far end by a stone wall and row of trees beyond which lies another large field. I can also see the lights from my neighbor’s homes in the distance, and it feels nice to know they’re not right upon us, but still, just close enough. I like knowing that. Through my living room window to the east I see the ridge of the horizon, and lights twinkle from the hills beyond the Hudson River. There are people living out there, under those twinkling lights, and I like knowing this, too.

It’s a modest house for sure, but it’s cozy, it’s comfortable, and I think that most of the people in this world would be happy to call this place home. For just a second or two I’m able to conjure the feeling that I’m looking at it for one of the very last times, and for however many times I’ve so deeply missed the homes I’ve lived in before this one, for however many times I’ve lamented ending up here, alone at the end of a long, country driveway – now, in this moment, this place feels like the most important place of my whole life. Tonight, this place is my only home. It’s where I want to be. And until recently, it’s where I’ve always felt safe from the world.

Less than an hour ago I heard that a friend, who’d discovered her breast cancer in what she’d thought to be its earliest stages, had learned through her recent surgery that it was worse than previously thought. The cancer had spread to her lymph nodes. A diagnosis I’ve heard many, many times in the past decade of my life… It doesn’t always end the same way, but it’s a long, difficult road to travel no matter the severity of the disease, and I don’t envy those who’ve had no choice but to take up the charge. I’ve seen friends fight tenacious cancers, some triumphing after incredibly brave battles, some succumbing after equally courageous campaigns. And in the end, who in hell knows why some people make it, and some people don’t? No one, of course, deserves to get cancer. And no one deserves to die of it either. But when the patient is either the parent of a young family or a practitioner of the healing arts, it somehow seems all the more unacceptable.

Last night, Elihu and I had dinner with a neighbor, who brought up the subject of another town resident who was, although putting up a kick-ass fight, dealing with a lethal cancer. His mother had died of it, and he himself hadn’t even discovered it until it until quite recently – when it was already stage four. He was a relatively young guy, and with three young children he had a lot to live for, but still, it didn’t look good. Truthfully, it looked bad. But in spite of how imminent his death appeared, my heart lightened to hear a new tone in our hostess’s voice as she offered rather brightly that of course he still had a chance. (Funny how one latches on to hope – however small or unlikely it promises to manifest.) I myself had only learned of his diagnosis a few weeks back – after, I’d seen him in a local liquor store and given him some grief about his newly launched vodka business. He’d cited some local lore on his product label about which I questioned his firsthand experience. But he sure showed me; he’d known more about it than I’d thought he would, and even had the class to acquiesce about a point on which he may have put something of a romantic spin for the sake of salesmanship.

After my needless challenge of his new product line had concluded, he cheerfully asked after Elihu, remembering his charismatic performance at the Greenfield Elementary Talent Show a few years back. Our kids had ridden the bus together for a few years, and Elihu, whether this man knew it or not, had fairly idolized his namesake son. Maybe I should have told him? I wasn’t sure how relevant it was at this point. Just as well I didn’t go on…. In hindsight, I so wished I’d have stopped babbling sooner, and just played it a bit cooler. I had remembered to congratulate him on the new business, but still, I guess I just feel as if I’d been a bit foolish, a bit trivial spewing all that ridiculous banter to fill the space. I know it’s the common, everyday stuff that matters – it’s banter mostly that keeps the world turning – I just wish I’d been a little less enthusiastic in my pursuit of it. After all, there was some serious courage on display right in front of my eyes, and here I was chattering on as if it was a day like any other. Of course it was a day like any other – and when you’re sick, don’t you wish for your life to go one all around you as if it truly were business as usual? But then clearly, it is not just another day. A confusing mix of realities.

Both my parents have had cancer. My cousin’s been undergoing repeated rounds of chemo over the past several years in an effort to keep her colon cancer at bay. Our grandmother died of colon cancer. I myself, for the second time in as many years, have pre-cancerous polyps growing inside of me which need to be removed. The office gal at the gastroenterology group is nonplussed at my status; it’ll be months yet before I can even get in for a first appointment, much less get the things lopped off. “They’re slow growing” the gal on the other end of the phone tells me in a near monotone, the subtext being “We know what we’re doing. Don’t freak out here.” In past years it’s been another thing to tick of the to-do list, this year it’s something that begins to really frighten me. I mean, what if? What’s to say it shouldn’t be me too? There is no fucking justice in the assignment of disease. I am just as human as the dad down the road with the young family, or my friend and acupuncturist with the breast cancer. I am just as unsafe as they are from a surprise diagnosis. Nothing saved my old college beau from dying of Leukemia before he turned forty, or my dear musician friend dying from esophageal cancer shortly after that, or my old childhood pal passing from lung cancer before fifty. None of those jovial, loving and spirited young men deserved to go, nor did their loved ones deserve to lose them. From my earth-bound perspective these good souls deserved none of the shitty hands they were dealt.

In spite of the cheery demeanor that goes out before me in the world, I live my life in an ever-present, low-grade state of fear. And lately, I’m more keenly aware of just why. Making my way through life feels like I’m walking through a field of land mines. And now that I’m past that fifty mark, people in my life have begun to leave at an increasing rate. Right and left I hear stories, I learn that ‘so-and-so is gone’, or ‘didn’t I hear that she had only months to live?’ or ‘it was so sudden, and then he was gone’… It almost doesn’t shake me quite so much – at least not as much as it did say a couple of years ago. And also because many of my friends who have died have been out of my immediate, day-to-day world, their deaths have seemed somewhat unreal and distant. But the frightening reality of death has settled in all around me now, and I find that I’m even giving my eleven year old son simple directives should it be learned that I too have something possibly terminal. I’m not sure how comprehensive Medicaid is, but I am surely at its mercy. If a treatment isn’t covered, it isn’t going to happen. I feel a growing pressure to archive the work of my life, to get it organized clearly – so clearly that someone other than me could go through the mementos and understand their context and stories. I want my footprint to be tidy and identifiable, even if I know it will only eventually recede back into the rolling sea.

We passed a house today that I’ve always liked; it was a small cottage nestled into the side of a mountain, part of it was made of local stone, the rest a deep gray clapboard with white trim and tidy black shutters. Many were the daydreams I’d had about what life might look like if I myself lived there… Today I saw that it had recently suffered a fire. Gutted. It was black with soot, and dusted with the flurries that had started to fall again. I know most people’s first hope would have been that the residents got out safe. Somehow, I always take that as a given. Instead, my first thought is usually I hope they were able to save a few favorite things. But this time, after a moment’s more thought on the matter, I changed my mind. No, that wasn’t what I hoped for this time. This time I really did hope that they’d made it out safely, and hadn’t dawdled on account of the memento box.

My arthritic hands have started to make playing the piano painful; they’re beginning to twist in different directions and ache all day long. My vanity had already given up, but this new physical challenge of simply playing – of doing the only thing in the world that I’m truly qualified to do – is breaking my heart. It’s making me fear for the shape my fingers will be in ten years from now if they continue at this rate. But then, I remember my friends and what they face. And as with everything in life, when the road gets harder than you could have ever imagined in your worst dreams, the unimportant stuff somehow falls away. It’s not about living so much pain-free as it is about just plain living. It’s not so much about grabbing a box of mementos on the way out. It’s about steeling yourself, gathering your courage and getting the hell out of harm’s way.

Tonight I’ll be thinking of my friends – all of those who face deeply frightening health challenges at this time – and I’ll be sending them as much love as the airwaves can hold. I’m surprised to find I’m not quite out of hope yet, in fact I’m turning up the dial now, and I’m emitting as much hope out into the world as best I can… I pray they receive it, and like some sort of beacon, it will help them find their way out of the burning house in time…

 

Breaking Ground January 31, 2015

For the next month there’s going to be a lot going on around here. The loggers have started to work, and as the money comes in from the harvest, it’s going to go out just as fast, as we rebuild and repair the aging Studio building. This alone is great news, and that we also get a ‘free’ parking lot out of the deal is beyond my wildest dreams. Truly, it feels like a gift from the gods. I am beyond grateful for our situation and am these last few days in an almost continually upbeat mood – something uncharacteristic of me, prone as I am to frightening bouts of anxiety and moments of profound depression (yes, I’ve wondered sometimes if I’m not bipolar – but think it’s more likely an old-fashioned case of artist’s temperament coupled with that stressful lack of money thing). I’m almost waiting for the other shoe to drop right now – I can’t remember feeling so happy for this long at a stretch.

(I realize this ‘depression talk’ may surprise some readers, but know that I write about a mere fraction of the life that I experience. There simply isn’t time to convey all the inner crap that I wrestle with… Suffice to say my ongoing issues with panic likely indicate larger issues beneath, but in the end, the reason’s not so important as is just going forward as best I can. Your friendship and company on this adventure help a great deal.)

Yeah, I’m fairly brimming with hope these last few days, and I can’t stop the visions for the place from crowding my thoughts… I have to keep reminding myself just to keep to the tasks directly ahead. One of my young piano students gave me wise words I replay in my head daily: Start simple. Right you are, Brett. Thanks for that. It’s so easy to put the cart in front of the horse, to count my chicks before they’re hatched, to scheme too big in the beginning… But at least things are moving now. My plans can become more than just that… finally I can act on them. It’s been an excruciating wait for this influx of cash – we’ve been talking with the forester for two friggin years about this job! That they’re finally here – that they’ve been careful to keep my favorite trees, that they’re all super-polite, super-nice, that they’re also pretty damn cute (!) and that they have no problem with me being a hovering client – all this is more icing on the cake than I could ever have imagined. Really, how can a gal feel so good? I have to keep telling myself it’s ok to feel good. My inner Woody Allen imagines all sorts of horrific glitches, accidents or illnesses befalling me at this critical time, and I have to speak to it sternly. Goddam it, I am going to enjoy this moment!

At the end of the day (more specifically, at the end of yesterday when I finally saw the wide open expanse of my new parking lot) I am brimming with excitement. Every cell of my body is invigorated and ready. The last time I felt this thrilled for the future was when Elihu joined the Waldorf School. That was the beginning of his new life, and this is the beginning of mine. Yes, this is a very special, ground-breaking time.

IMG_0120Logging begins on the property. In order to make room for the massive equipment, the guys need to make a large opening in the woods. They call it a landing. I call it a free parking lot. !

IMG_0035The sun came out as they began to make the roadway in. (They moved a stone wall, inserted a huge culvert and covered it in crushed stone.)

IMG_0054A right proper, two-lane road in. Hooray!

IMG_0084They’re working their way in to the woods. Notice how things look now; in a couple of hours – at the end of this post – it’ll be a whole different landscape. I need to leave and do a few errands now; I’m sorry to miss some of the action.

IMG_0020We have other concerns back at home, including a sneezing Thumbs Up who has been living inside and receiving antibiotics for the past few days.

IMG_0105Elihu tried to squeeze her into his backpack. Sorry, no chickens allowed in school!

IMG_0113After six years of talking about insulating the attic, we’re finally able to! With single digit temps it comes just in time!

IMG_0133The only access to the attic is above the pantry.

IMG_0137Here’s the fellow stoking the machine…

IMG_0138… and here’s the fellow blowing the fuzzy stuff in. Not as messy as you might think. Sure hope it helps keep us warm.

IMG_0348I passed one of Saratoga’s many galleries after dropping Elihu off at school and saw this outside on the sidewalk display. Instead of this image of Chicago making me homesick, it made me happy. Love that city always, but it’s becoming clearer that my future lies here for now.

IMG_0298Back to the job site. Mid-day it started to snow, but it didn’t slow em down a bit. This machine is called a buncher. That big wheel is a rotating chain saw. You should see this thing in action (and you can, in a video below) – first it snaps the tree like a twig, then it picks it up and sets is aside in a pile to be cut and stacked later.

IMG_0261See?IMG_0314In just a couple of hours they’ve cleared a huge space. You can see the Studio now!

IMG_0186The back hoe’s job is done for now, as all the stumps have been cleared.

IMG_0197Here’s the buncher in action. Seriously, it carries trees like they were tiny plants. Crazy.

IMG_0246By lunch there’s a road and completed parking lot. I love trees, and yes, it can be hard to watch them being cut down, but this sight is glorious to me. Like a cathedral in the woods.

IMG_0287$$$

IMG_0242The beautiful, snowy road in front of neighbor Tom’s place. Sadly, one of our five resident deer was hit and killed (instantly, thankfully) here recently. Happy ending to the story however…

IMG_0239Tom, industrious man that he is, he dressed the deer and put some gorgeous-looking meat in his freezer! How kind of him to give me some too! I love rare meat, and this venison couldn’t be a more beautiful color. (My spirit would like to be a vegetarian, but my body is so not there. !)

IMG_0365Back inside I have a small project of my own to attend to. Remember when I lost my favorite earrings this past fall? After much searching, I found a new pair of go-to favorites which clamped safely shut on my ears. Not safely enough I guess. In a last-ditch effort to save it from the drain after losing it in the shower, I am trying my luck to retrieve it with a shop vac and some plastic tubing.

IMG_0363We have really hard water, can ya tell? I could clean the iron stains away and they would return in a week’s time. Our teapot routinely coughs up thick chunks of orange mineral deposits. Oh well. We like to think it’s good for our health. One hopes. Oh, and the earring? Sitting next to the other lost earring somewhere in the bottom of the septic tank. Oh well. I tried. And I learned how my drain works, too. So not a total loss. Restored my DIY spirit if nothing else.

IMG_0352Home from school now, Elihu takes his first peek at the site.

IMG_0357Watch your fingers. !!

IMG_0098Inspired by today’s physics class and learning about Thales of Miletus (the first guy to discover static eletricity), Elihu gives me a little demonstration.

IMG_0367I know what we’re having for supper!

IMG_0370A little German influence in tonight’s menu: Braised venison with rosemary mushroom sauce – I even made my own spaetzle and mixed berry sauce on the side.

IMG_0359Life is so busy these days that it makes us appreciate the peace and quiet of our home all the more.

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Some videos of the main event…

See how effortlessly the buncher snips this cluster of trees – as if it were a bunch of flowers.

Not the best camera work, sorry, but here you’ll see a giant white pine fall.

You’ll be able to see the whole site in this clip.

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More to come over the next month as the loggers work their way deep into the ‘back forty’…

 

Our Way September 10, 2014

As so often happens with my plans for things, everything I had on my list for the day has changed. The cable company is working on the line at the moment, so there’s no internet, no phone. The builders are moving my driveway right now, so there’s no way to leave the property to do errands. Elihu’s home sick anyway, so everything I’d hoped to do today is postponed until the next window of available time. He’s put in some time practicing his bass, so I suppose I might follow suit and get some time in at the piano. By now I do have some experience with unexpected changes, so I’ve gotten pretty good at rolling with it. Might just be an opportunity today to do something I might not have done otherwise.

We’re not quite in our new groove here at the Hillhouse, but we’re on our way. It certainly feels this year as if we’re at the doorstep of a new age in both of our lives. To me, it feels like that past six years here were about learning this new way of living; being a single parent, raising chickens, beginning a garden, making some fixes in the house, figuring out how to go it on our own, and in general getting our feet firmly planted on our own soil, as it were. The neediest days of the tiny child are now gone, and so too are a lot of the unknowns that came with our new life here. Now I know how to start my furnace, how to butcher a bird, shoot a gun (not that I’ll ever do it again), and prepare my garden. I’ve learned how often I need to clean out the gutters so my basement doesn’t flood and how many mice I can expect to get rid of in a week. I’ve got skills I didn’t have when we started out on this adventure, and I’m far less intimidated by the varying routines that go along with the changing seasons.

Elihu has also got a good foundation for himself; he’s a good person, with sound judgement and a good heart who eats well, plays well, learns well and has a wonderful, witty sense of humor. With his tinted contacts in (the new pair just arrived!) and his braces off, his chickens, his sketching tools, a string bass, plus his new ability to ride a bike – it feels like he’s ready for anything. Finding the Waldorf School a couple of years ago was one of the most important pieces in the puzzle. Elihu loves going to school, and for that I feel beyond blessed (in fact he really didn’t want to stay home today, but his asthma was bad, so I insisted. He had done his homework early, so that helped in my decision). Lately I’ve been teaching him how to prepare some basic meals, and I feel he’s able to fend for himself in a whole new way. Truly, it offers me some relief now, and allows me to invest some of my energy in other directions.

Our new direction is becoming clearer, but it feels like it’s been hard to actually get underway – there have been so many small detours. Elihu gets his contacts, but the first time he puts them in, they rip. I get the supplies to insulate the Studio, but can’t find the time to do the work. I left my job to free up more time, but ironically, the few classes I play end up cutting my day in awkward sections, leaving me too little time to drive back to Greenfield and get any work done. Plus the cost of gas will just about match the income. Not good, but I remind myself, not permanent. Nothing is permanent. I just have to be patient, and prepared.

It feels like we’re at the bend of a road now, but the straightaway is just up ahead… My neighbor came over last night with her three kids, and we chatted as the four children bounced on the trampoline. She too felt as if a big change was underway in her own life. Could be that we both see the new house that’s going up in between us as somehow symbolic – it certainly is for me, but there’s more to it than the changing landscape. She and her family have put their house on the market and hope to move. That means change for us, too. Two new families will soon be living next door. The dynamic of the neighborhood is yet to reveal itself.

Then of course, there’s the Weight Watchers adventure beginning anew. It’s not a complete unknown to be sure, but something feels different this time. At my age, I feel I have less time to horse around – with my health and with my happiness. So I’m thinking more about balance – I’m more about the long haul than I am about just getting it done. And I can’t help but see it as a metaphor for the way in which I might want to approach all the new projects coming up. Low and slow… Take more time if need be. Get it done, but take care to do it right. No more quick fixes.

I was eleven years old when my parents built the Studio. I still remember well running through the skeleton of the structure with my little brother, I remember first seeing the plans, then the cardboard model of the building, and finally, after one busy summer, there it was. It’s funny, but I don’t remember much of my life before the Studio was there. That means that in some way that my truly conscious life began at eleven; the same age Elihu is now. That thought intrigues me; both my son and I coming to know this new incarnation of the Studio in the same year of our lives. It gives the shift a certain symbolic emphasis, and it helps inspire me. And I can use all the inspiration I can get. !

I hear the earth-moving equipment busily re-directing the trajectory of my driveway as I write this, and it too seems like another metaphor. The next time we leave our property, we’ll be heading out in a new direction, and in the next couple of years, our lives will be going forward into the future in a new direction, too. Our plans might change from day-to-day, and we might sometimes take the scenic way over the highway, but in general, we know where it is we’d like to go. We have our destination in mind, even if we still don’t quite know our way.

IMG_2715Back to bass-ics. Sorry.

IMG_2861Okay, maybe this is overkill. But those ones are still showing up.

IMG_2876Dare I? I awoke last night, and this is what I saw. Ok. I’m done now, promise.

IMG_2843The sixth grade will be working towards their Medieval Games at year’s end. Here’s one of their first archery lessons.

IMG_2839I think it’s pretty funny, the blind kid shooting an arrow. He’s been successful in hitting the bag, now he hopes to get closer. Problem is that while he can see the circle, he cannot make out the tiny arrow tip in front of him, so lining it all up becomes something of a crap shoot. He’s not daunted, however.

IMG_2791Finally getting to the big burn pile. Local folks boast that they like to ‘burn things up, Greenfield style’.

IMG_2786This is high Greenfield style. Burning things up in my bathrobe under the light of the full moon.

IMG_2858This gal has a beard. She’s one of the new flock Elihu calls Sylvia.

IMG_2835Thumbs Up is not as innocent as she seems; if I hadn’t caught her she would’ve been pecking her way through the groceries. No kidding. She can ruin a loaf of bread while your back is turned.

IMG_2723We love our Baldy. He’s still king around here.

IMG_2749One of the new gals surprised me by landing on my arm from out of nowhere.

IMG_2772Now this is kickin it Greenfield style. On my last hurrah before WW, I’m enjoying a glass of wine and some salt and vinegar potato chips while still in my bathrobe. (Don’t we love Sundays?) Hoo-haw!

And this is Elihu kickin it with Austin, our crazy guinea fowl. He adds a great dose of comic relief to the joint.

IMG_2719Here’s the new house smack at the end of our driveway. We can see it from many rooms in our house. Oh well. Time to plant some trees, I guess.

IMG_2879The driveway as it looked this morning, by this evening it will have been slightly modified. That’s ok, it’ll still lead to the road. All that matters is that we can still be on our way.

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Just a friendly reminder that if you’ve enjoyed my posts and would like to buy me a cup of coffee (that’s a blogger’s euphemistic way of saying ‘give me a small tip’) you can click on the tip jar icon at the top right of this page and it will allow you to do so rather effortlessly through Paypal. Thanks for considering, and thanks even more for contributing to the coffers of this writer and mother.

 

Raking It In October 14, 2013

Ah, such bounty in our lives these recent days. Too much to recount each sweet detail. Suffice to say we’ve been visited by friends, we ourselves have trapsed through the woods and across fields to call on our neighbors, we’ve enjoyed time outdoors in the finest fall weather we could ever hope for, and we haven’t encountered a truly bad mood all week.

Today we spent the whole day outside in the warm air, under a brilliant blue and cloudless sky which was framed by intense yellows and reds. Our birds freely roamed the woods and fields as they usually do, adding to a certain picturesque quality to the property. Once or twice Elihu and I have had a conversation about doing away with the whole chicken thing altogether, but we simply could never do it. We both agree that our avian companions add more than just charm to the place; they give it a certain energy, and they bestow a certain gentleness upon our small farmstead and soften the hearts of all who visit. And then there are the eggs. It’s nice to be able to have our pick of ‘free’ eggs each morning. Of course when the male-to-female, layer-to-non-layer ratios are off, the chicken thing begins to become a bit more of a burden that I’m comfortable with – as we must continue to buy feed for them with nothing to show for the investment. If it weren’t for my suddenly very busy work schedule I’d take em to the Amish farmer and bring em back in a cooler. (Yes, for this year we’ve put our lofty goals of butchering them ourselves on hold – just too much going on right now for one woman to handle!) But I can’t get it scheduled in for another week yet, so til then I must continue to feed the whole loud gang of crowers. It’s ok. I might even miss the ruckus when they’re gone. Maybe. I do know this: the chicken stock will be off-the-hook good, and it will feel very good to eat nothing but happy birds for the next coupla months. No more turning our consciences the other way when we eat our grocery store-bought meat. Not a huge step, but a step nonetheless.

Today was a day of leaf piles. Thank goodness that at ten my son still finds great joy being buried in great mounds of em. It’s one of those eras of youth that goes by too quickly – yet the memories stay with you forever. And when you’re in the middle of an afternoon of leaf pile play, it’s just the sweetest time. Playing in the leaves has been a two-day activity here, and while my ultimate goal was to make a tiny dent in the fall cleanup, Elihu’s was to remain hidden in the largest pile on the property as long as he could possibly hold out. I can’t finish my cleanup til that last pile goes… And as of tonight, one final (and enormous) pile is still there. He was so joyful all afternoon. Every now and then he’d bring a chicken in with him to his cozy nest in the leaves. (His nest-building was very determined and ‘Bower bird-esque’ we decided. ) I took pictures and more pictures, some worth sharing now, some only worth sharing twenty-five years from now when his own children want to see what he did when he was little… In the end, it’s enough to remember the way we laughed and laughed, the bright blue sky above us….

In the late morning we decided to embark on a little local adventure and find our way up a small mountain to a long-abandoned graphite mine. It was opened in the first decade of the 1900s and closed only a few decades later as a cheaper source of graphite was discovered in India. Crazy, huh? We did a little sleuthing online and saw a picture of the men at this graphite mine posed around a train bridge over a river, saw some buildings around them and a few barrels here and there. A small operation, it had from 50 – 100 men employed there and who lived on location. Hardly a handful of decades have gone by since then, and yet through the natural degradation that’s taken place it’s hard to even imagine such an endeavor thrived there once. It really does blow the mind how fragile and temporary we are, both man and machine. When we came to the foundation that looked much like the place they might have lived, we found some enamel food bowls, and while no barrels, we did see pairs of barrel stays, trees now growing tall up and through them. Another sixty years and I’m not sure anything will be visible. It was most fascinating to see the right angles and footprints of the former buildings and their tall walls built down the many feet of the mountainside to the ravine below. The place was once big and rockin, with a small guage train running up and down the mountain to carry the haul and the supplies. Lots of industry took place here once, but in the quiet woods of fall, all of it now softly covered in leaves and lichen, it just seems like something from a dream. We took a shortcut back to the trail, and as I grabbed for a root to pull myself up by, I saw something shiny and black, picked it up and – whaddya know, it was graphite! Sweet! When we got home, Elihu drew a picture with it. It chips fairly easily, so we’ve decided to keep it in a small plastic bag. Nice to have a real, ‘working’ memento of our impromptu hike. Btw – the place is only four miles on the odometer from our house (woulda been less had we just trekked directly through the woods from our place), and the whole thing took less than an hour. We experienced some impressive elevation and some dramatic scenery as we walked the edge of a very steep ravine and had some lovely views to Vermont on the way back. A fine, easy hike. Just right for my current fitness level. !

We’d hoped for a ride through the local wooded trails in neighbors Zac and Stephanie’s ‘Doodlebug’, their old model T with wagon in tow for mom and kids, but the motor started smokin a bit too much as they headed out over the field and so sadly they had to turn back. A slight disappointment, but in that our garden needed to be cleaned up for winter and we were still of a mind to remain outdoors, we put the change in plans behind us and meandered down the hill. Seeing all the devastation from our local wildlife population again was disheartening, but it doubled our resolve to learn from our mostly failed year and make the necessary fixes next year. Live and learn. We removed the rocks and threw em back onto the stone wall, picked off seed pods to save, rolled up remay and pulled the already ripped landscape fabric up and exposed the garden once again. We clipped back the tenacious arms of the ubiquitous privet plants and gave the place a much tidier look. Ready for next spring’s tilling and grand start-over.

We got our birds in and collected eggs, and stopped for a moment at the hammock on the way in. We both lay back, me with eight eggs on my chest (see where this is going, right?) and wondered aloud to each other if this old hammock could still take two of us. I said I’d never known a hammock to break – and no sooner had I said that then WHOOMPH it broke, and with it, several eggs all over me. ! Thankfully we weren’t hurt, so were able to get quite a chuckle out it. It was dark before we realized, and so without the need for Elihu’s dark glasses now, we enjoyed another hour on the trampoline. After snapping dozens of frames of mid-jump poses we finally went in. Not yet done with our day, once inside I went to the piano and began to practice Schumann and Beethoven while Elihu took a refreshing dip into the world of his Nintendo DS. If ever my son has had me worried he might be a bit too nature-loving and earnest about things like practicing and doing his homework, thankfully I have the video games to even things out. Whew. ! Nice to have a kid who’s got it good either way. (Once a school chum came over to visit and saw that our living room had only a piano, a harpsichord and some hand drums. “Why don’t you guys have a tv?” the kid asked. “Are you poor?” ) Wasn’t that interesting that the first thing he noticed to be missing in our house was a tv. Hm. Just have to add that that particular boy – and every other kid who’s ever spend an afternoon here – has never, ever lacked for something to do. But all that good old-fashioned nature type stuff aside, I am actually happy that my son has a video game of his own to retreat into. Hey, I like a bit of brainless FB surfing every now and then. Keeps things in balance. Right?

We did learn one not-so-pleasant piece of news earlier this weekend… and while it hasn’t spoiled our time, it had gotten us thinking about our small paradise here with a renewed sense of gratitude… Elihu and I had intended to walk to grandma and grandpa’s through the woods, but stopped at our neighbor’s en route. Our other young neighbors were there too – a nice surprise, and of course the grown ups ended up sitting down for a chat while the kids played. We never made it to our original destination. I’d turned down my neighbor’s invitation for a glass of wine – but changed my mind and accepted when I heard the news. Someone’s bought the tiny spit of land – the field that our driveway runs through – and is going to build on it and flip it. Don’t even know who will end up living there. Likely, given the numbers we knew, it would be a crap house too. I suppose better than one of those inappropriately huge McMansions, but still. Likely they’ll take down the island of woods that buffers us from the road. Very likely. That sure threw a downer into our day. Into our life, really, as pretty soon things will be much different. Our dark and quiet corner of Greenfield will soon be brighter and louder. If this were the suburbs it might be easier to take. But it’s not, and so all our hearts begin to break. As the two of us walked home through the field Elihu cried when we passed the stand of trees. “But that’s where the oven bird nests!” he protested, asking if we couldn’t perhaps reason with them on this account. But he knew better, and so did I. At least Crow Field – the much bigger area to the East where the Woodcocks nest and where we fly our kites and witness butterfly migrations – at least that’s untouched for now. But we all know it’s just a matter of time.

Since I’ve heard the news I’ve spent a lot of time just looking down our driveway towards its idyllic end at a pair of ancient wooden gates, permanently opened with wear and age. The driveway then takes a sharp left at the stone wall, revealing a vast, golden field beyond. This is the spot where a new house will soon stand. And I can’t stop thinking about it. I just can’t. While I’ve always known during our five years here that it wouldn’t always be thus – it simply kills me inside to understand that the change is finally coming. But for now I manage to shake it off, and throw myself back into the present, because it is, after all, such a beautiful one. And for now we have everything we need. Including an abundance of leaves for the most amazing leaf piles ever.

 

Winter Home December 29, 2012

Fareed is here, Elihu is here, I am here. In the living room of our small house, cozy and warm inside, playing with new Christmas toys while it snows like crazy outside. Elihu and his dad are supposed to take the train to Chicago in a few hours. I don’t like to think about that now – because it’s just so nice having a house with the sounds of people – with the sounds of a family. It doesn’t happen often, so I try to savor it. Right now I’m sitting in the corner just beholding. Elihu is so happy once again. Both his parents are here, and for now the feeling is gentle, relaxed, very nice. One of our chickens is baking in the oven and the house smells good. 

I am so enjoying this moment; listening to Fareed play the guitar, watching Elihu play on the living room floor – and for now, knowing I don’t have to be a single place except right here. It sure feels good to be home.

 

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.