The Hillhouse

The Journey of a Mother and Son

Prime April 13, 2014

Being the mother of a young child – and especially so as a single mother – means living life in an almost constant state of ‘game-on’. Daily your child is learning and doing things for the very first time ever, so your main task is one of great finesse; you want to teach your child in such a way that they get it – plus you want to make sure they feel inspired and encouraged and can build on what they’ve learned without your help. Sometimes this task requires great restraint (especially with an admitted control freak like me). Parents on a schedule will agree it’s often easier just to do something yourself than to wait around for your kid to get it and then do it himself. Thankfully, most times when I feel the urge to step in, I hold myself back and allow Elihu to figure it out himself. These days especially. He’s reaching this new age now – and together we’re discovering some unknown territory that has us both in an active, ongoing conversation about how best to strike a balance. He desperately wants to do more, and I really want to empower him to do so. There are also emerging issues of modesty and sexual awareness. I have learned to give him privacy, yet step in when I’m needed. We’re in a strange in-between sort of place these days; one minute he wants to be alone and needs no help, soon after I hear him calling “Mommy!”… I admit that I probably step into his world more than I ought to because of his vision issues. I still don’t quite know what he sees well and what he doesn’t, so I admit that I might be more in his face sometimes than I should be. It’s also a challenge for me sometimes to keep my dramatic, passive-aggressive, oh-I’ll-just-do-it-myself expulsions of air and eye-rolling to an absolute minimum; my kid is doing his best and I need to support him. I remind myself often that I’m giving him all the tools I so wish I myself had had when I was young. I want to empower him to be independent and capable. To be the best he can be.

The new surge of capability and independence I’m seeing now in my son has me thinking about myself a bit differently. I’m seeing him grow, and can now begin to envision him as an older kid – I can see him as a high schooler, maybe even a young man leaving home. A short time ago I couldn’t have begun to see it, but now I can. And that, somehow, has changed how I project my own image into the future. I guess you could say my son’s helping remind me of my mortality. It’s easy to forget such things when you’ve got a tiny child and you spend your life nose to the ground, making sure you never leave the house without a bag of goldfish, a matchbox car and a sippy cup… But as life moves on and your child gets older, your vision lifts again, and you make your first scan of the horizon in quite a while. And in the time you’ve been gone, you discover some things have changed. I realize my son hasn’t been truly tiny for a few years, but it only seems that now I’m beginning to lift my gaze to the world beyond and the future yet ahead of me…

I suppose a sort of shift took place recently when my father died; if my age itself hadn’t convinced me I was middle-aged, his death did. And while I’ve certainly wrestled with issues of vanity over the past couple of years more than I’d thought I ever would, I thought I’d been handling it alright. Until lately, as in the past week in particular, during which things have been hitting me harder than usual. I readily cop to having spent several valuable hours of my life over the past few years agonizing over ‘then and now’ pics of friends and celebrities, yet through it all I’d felt some queer sort of distance from the process of aging. But now that false sense of immunity is beginning to crumble, and it’s got me wondering how I’ll make it all work. Yesterday, while plucking my eyebrows (in the car’s rear view mirror as that’s the only place with enough light to do a proper job of it with my middle-aged eyes), I saw my image in the mirror as if I were a stranger. I no longer looked with the familiar, forgiving awareness that this was me, that this was normal, that this image was the same one I’d seen looking back at me for decades… In one instant, I saw a complete stranger. I saw an older woman. It was a mere flash of insight, but it jarred me. It passed almost instantly too; perhaps an on board self-preservation instinct or something, I don’t know, but a second later my image seemed to return to a more normal state. Nothing had changed. And yet… everything had changed.

My mom’s been going to Weight Watchers for months now, she started even before dad died. She’s succeeded in losing some thirty-plus pounds and is for the first time in many years, skinnier than me. By a lot. At first I thought she’d been losing the weight in order to have her knee replaced, but it appears it’s not a current goal. I can understand her wanting to maintain her new weight (unlike her daughter who promptly blew her successful weight loss with one season of home-baked pies and bread), but she seems so vigilant, and I can’t help but wonder – why? What is the end goal of all this dieting? I suppose that’s not really a fair question. Who enjoys carrying around an extra thirty pounds? I know it’s got me puffing and cussing under my breath… But sometimes I think that maybe I still have a shot at dating, meeting someone, maybe again one day. And for me, vanity is the driving force for diets and weight loss (call me shallow, I accept; I just don’t feel good enough in my current state to even consider anything resembling a romantic relationship). Could some form of vanity also be a motivator for my mother, a woman who we can probably assume won’t be dating again in her lifetime? This has me pondering the power and makeup of self-image, of what makes a person feel they are looking the very best that they can, and how important (or not) it is in the overall scheme of things. It seems that the concern never really ends.

Vain though I may be, I find mobility and flexibility are probably most important things to maintain as one grows older. What has me scared is that I see these things already eroding in my own body lately. In chatting with folks about when they began to feel a marked difference in their bodies, I’ve heard a few cite the window of 46 – 50, while others (my mother in this group) felt a noticeable decline in their abilities towards their late 50s. Some folks just experience a barely perceptible decline which never quite slows em down all that much. Hell, either way, it’s coming. I wish I felt more empowered to do something. Instead I feel like a deer standing in the middle of the goddam road. I feel so zapped by life’s commitments that I have no oomph left to shape up. And I remember when I worked out six days a week… I remember a 10K in Bermuda that had me going up and down the steepest grades in tropical humidity… I remember when riding my bike to downtown Chicago was nothin but a thing, when I loaded and unloaded hundreds of pounds of gear in and out of my trunk all day, from rehearsal to show and home again… No one helped me, nothing hurt, and I didn’t think twice about my abilities. But now… Seriously, isn’t this shit the stuff that’s supposed to happen to everyone else but you? Well, me, I’ve always been vain enough to think so.

Because of her months-long deprivation, recently my mom’s been craving a good, rare piece of red meat. Planned for weeks now, Elihu, mom and I finally went to Cliff’s on Saturday – the local joint known for its steak. I myself hadn’t had beef in a long time and I enjoyed every last bite of my gorgeous (and rare) filet mignon. (Mom was so jonesin for rare/raw meat she first asked if they had steak tartare. This is a hometown steak joint in the US of A. Mom’s disappointing but predictable answer was ‘no’.) When we first walked in I saw two enormous chunks of meat on a table and had to stop to inquire as to the type of cut they were. “Prime rib” they answered, “the twelve-inch”. I’d never before seen such a thick cut of prime rib, and there were two thicker cuts yet available. The slices were nearly the diameter of the plates and stood an inch and a half tall. Prime for sure. It had me considering the true meaning of the word. Just a few days ago I was discussing the definition with my son, and even more recently one of his classmates and I had used the word… Yeah, the word ‘prime’ was kinda loaded for me right now.

Elihu and his fifth grade class had gone this past week to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. Thanks to some schedule-shuffling and calling in of small favors, I was able to go along too. Can’t begin to express how needed such a trip was; it was soul-restoring. The first faint image of the distant skyline, the great chunks of graffiti-covered rock that grow up on either side of the expressway, the first blocks of relentlessly unending brick apartment buildings – all of it finally giving way to the glorious and elegant upper East Side, with its mature elm trees and bustling streets… It’s been a while since I’d seen humanity like that. Not even Chicago comes close. Nay, there is not a city in the world like it. I imagined my parents, some sixty years ago, the beginning of their courtship here, their first jobs as young adults, here. I remembered too my ex-husband and our many cherished moments in the city, I remembered performing here, eating here, exploring here… To think of it all makes me feel young, invigorated. For just a brief moment, I feel anything is possible. For the electric kind of hope I’m feeling inside my chest, it’s just as if it were thirty years ago, and everything is yet before me…

In the lobby our docent stopped in front of a large, Egyptian sculpture of a seated pharaoh. Shirtless and buff, she meant to use him as an example… “What age does this man appear to be?” she asked the group. There were varying answers – from seventeen to twenty-nine (a reflection of our modern, expanded idea of what constitutes youth and its vigorous appearance). While depicted as a young man, this king lived to be quite old. “Why did he have a statue made of him like this? Do you think he should have had one made of him as an old man?” she baited the kids. “NO!” they all screamed, and the adults all smiled knowingly at each other. “He’s in his prime” I leaned in and said to Ben. “Yeah, I know.” he answered. “And you’re past yours!” he added, perhaps a bit too loudly and while smiling with great enthusiasm. It didn’t hurt, it didn’t zap me, but I did feel something. That little tug that I keep trying to push away. Ben is a bright kid, and not insensitive, but I didn’t expect an apology, so I was surprised when he turned back to me and leaned in close, saying “No offense” with great sincerity. I assured him none was taken. Call it a defensive response if you like – but my mind drifted to all the ways in which I had become such a better person since those days of my heavy lifting. Really, I had so much more together. I pondered how I might relay this insight to my son’s classmate, but in the chaos of the echoey Great Hall there was really no point. He’d know it for himself one day.

The other morning, as Elihu and I lay in bed talking about everything from incubating eggs to making delta wings, we struck upon the idea of growing up, and growing old. I told him about my experience with Ben. He was quiet for a moment. “It’s just not fair”, he said. “What’s not?” I asked. “That you have one thing but not another. That you’re either young or you’re old. Why can’t you have it all at the same time?” “I guess that’s just God’s way of keeping it all even.” We lay there, looking up at the origami cranes hanging from his ceiling. “I guess.”

I get a kick out of asking kids what age they think they’d like to be. Which age seems to have it all. It’s fascinating to me the times that we choose to round our ages up or down. In the beginning it’s all about the weeks. Then the months. And then, something happens… Young children can’t wait to be one year older…. it’s always about the older kids, their freedoms, their abilities… and then… What the hell happens? It does seem that kids these days are pretty realistic at least when it comes to matters of age. What then is the ‘perfect’ age? My very casual observations is that elementary school kids seem to think it’ll be in their mid twenties. Yeah, I can get that. Certainly a more realistic answer than ‘seventeen’. But what of the behaviors and emotional maturity of a twenty-something? I read some of my writing from those days and I want to hide under a rock. How self-absorbed and ridiculous. Ok, so maybe I’m still fairly self-absorbed and only just a bit less ridiculous, but the blog doesn’t make me want to cringe the way my twenty-something journals do. So when I take in the whole mix of all the elements in my life, I guess I can feel ok about it. Not great, but better when I think of my personal progress. I’m definitely a more insightful human than I was a couple of decades ago.

It might sound like sour grapes here. Yeah, maybe in part it is. I would by lying if I said I was good with this aging thing. I’ll figure out how to adapt as we all must, but I’ll probably always think of myself as a thirty-five year old woman in my heart. And the next time I hear someone say that ‘age is nothing but a number’ I might just tell em that’s bullshit. But hey, what can I do? Gotta retain a little dignity here. I’ll go along with the program and consider myself lucky to have the opportunity to grow older. After all, we can agree that a truly outstanding cut of beef must be properly aged before it can reach its prime.

 

 

Bothering To April 1, 2014

“Ask yourself this,” Elihu suggested as he paused at his breakfast, “What wonderful thing or possible surprise am I excited about having happen today?” I let a moment go by as I took in his words, and then let him continue, “Just imagine for a minute, what things might happen today? Will there be surprises for you in your day? Things you couldn’t have expected?” He stopped talking for emphasis and let some silence pass. “I mean, if you don’t think so….” He shrugged his shoulders and raised his hands in the air,”Then why even bother?”

We were having one of our existential conversations at sunrise which had come about as a result of my morning mood. I was unusually tired upon waking and so was a fair bit grouchier than usual. Most times when I’m feeling a bit like pouting I keep the darker stuff to myself – or at least under my breath. Today I was shuffling around the kitchen talking to myself at full volume and just radiating doom and gloom over a day hardly yet begun. I felt put-upon, I felt alone in my plight, without peer to share my load, misunderstood and underappreciated. I was singing the self-sorry single mom song, and God bless that young boy, he took a moment to turn things around and rope me in. He repeated his coaching, “Really, Mommy, I mean it. Ask yourself this: Might some amazing things happen today? Think this way. Otherwise, seriously, why bother?”

I know he’s right. I also know that some days I am just plain out of steam, out of inspiration, out of reasons – other than that GD to-do list that never stops – to do things, to keep on going. Don’t get me wrong, this isn’t a passive-aggressive cry for help, this is not code for planned suicide – nothing so dire as any of that. It’s just life-business as usual. Chef, cleanup crew, administrator, counselor, taxi driver, instrument mover, musician, worker bee… all of it. Sometimes it’s just too fucking much. So sometimes it’s a wise question to ask myself: might amazing, surprising, unexpected things happen to me today? I have to believe they will, otherwise….

So what does keep me keeping on? I wonder that myself, the introspection inspired by this morning’s ministry… I suppose, at the end of the day, I might say that I do things for my son. I do things that I might make his life less stressful, more joyful. I also live because if I didn’t, it would break my mother’s heart. And yeah, it would break Elihu’s heart too. And honestly, aside from just sticking around for the sake of my mother and my son – I can’t just check out. I’ve got work to do here. I’m pretty sure of it. (Not entirely convinced, but fairly sure.) I have my father’s legacy to continue, I have love and compassion to contribute to the world through this vehicle of the Studio, and through teaching and playing…  Yeah, I guess. It’s just that there’s so much crap to slog through first… “Ya think I’d be happier (read here ‘less bitchy’) if I knew I was going to work at the Studio all day – doing things I really loved?” I’d innocently asked my son. “Oh yes” he answered most emphatically without missing a beat. “You’re going to be doing the things you love the very best. So of course.” No sooner had I asked the question I was feeling some shame over having even said it out loud: because not only do I really love my current job and appreciate it daily, but I realize it’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. I see my son each day, I’m around all those wonderful children, I get to play a variety of music which I enjoy, I learn new things daily. The very school itself is like a large family. It’s a joy to have it as a destination every day. So why the mood? The questions? The doubting?

It’s just that this school has become such a committment of time – both there and at home learning new music – that I haven’t any time at all to build this new dream of the Studio. Makes me wonder what my plan is. Or if I’ll ever get to that next chapter. But when I pull back and relax a bit into the moment, I can understand that even this very day – the chapter I’m living here and now – that this in of itself is important in the evolution of the subsequent one. Each builds upon the other. My son will be in this school for three more years (and then four more in the high school). These are the Waldorf years. I may as well just hunker down, learn all I can and savor the moments, because all too soon I’ll be looking back at it in nostalgia the way I do to my younger years as a musician in Chicago. I have to remember that each era has had its own time and place and its own gifts; each era of my life has served its own unique purpose.

So for now my time and place is here. It’ll shift again one day too, as everything shifts. And as I sit and watch my son’s fifth grade class rehearse their class play, I can feel the supreme loveliness of this window in time. The children still seem small to me; the boys still with voices to match the girls. Their limbs are all long and thin, and all of them are still shorter than me. But one look into the sixth grade class (which, as an added metaphor for leaving their youth, move into a downstairs classroom for the first time) will tell you how much will soon be changing. The sixth graders seem so different, so much older, bigger… Such a different sort of tension too between the boys and the girls. The qualities that these fifth graders yet possess become exquisite, precious; something to be savored, and remembered for always. While the truly tiny years – those of the tooth fairy and Santa – may be behind us now, somehow these children are still our babies. So there’s no doubt, I am savoring this precious time for sure.

It’s just the logistics of life, I suppose, that have me in a bit of a funk. Just plain living takes so much work. But when I stop to realize that I have a child wise enough to be so contemplative about things, a child who daily expresses his love for me, who sees the beauty in nature, who lives as gratefully and thoughtfully as he does – then I remember. Then I get it. This is why I put up with all that other crap. Because joy and hope live in my son, and with the right sort of thinking, joy and hope can live in me too. Thank goodness the kid takes the time to remind me. ! Ok. So the dishes still won’t wash themselves, but somehow, things look a little bit brighter now. Because at the very least, now I think I know why I’m bothering.

 

 

…And Found August 7, 2013

Filed under: An Ongoing Journal... — wingmother @ 9:44 pm
Tags: , , , ,

Guess I indulged in a bit of old-fashioned self-pity yesterday. Thanks to Jim for so candidly suggesting that perspective. Had me stop and re-assess for a moment. As I said before, I do know things are ok. I’m at a fine place in my life. And I can’t compare my current life to my old one, because it’s an entirely different set of circumstances –  and that’s really as it should be. One’s life at 50 shouldn’t look too much like one’s life at 25 –  at least not if things are moving along as they should be. And hey – if my life was simply puttering along without a whole lot of new experiences or opportunities to learn, I might be whining for different reasons. ! Very likely I woulda been. Cuz while I crave solitude and a somewhat consistent routine in my daily life, I also need new challenges to keep me intrigued and happy about waking up in the morning. Ok, so maybe this last life-changing round of challenges was a wee bit more than I might have bargained for, but I can’t change it. All I can do is keep going. A sense of humor helps, and so does a mind open to the potential lessons disguised as a crappy situation. Personally, I feel that difficult chapters in your life give you the chance to get some new skills under your metaphoric belt. That might mean learning to identify feelings of guilt and letting them go, learning how to forgive someone a painful transgression, or it might even mean learning to make simple fixes around the house without calling a handyman. Unforeseen situations really do open some interesting doors.

Lest I sound like a proselytizing pitch-man for a series of self-help DVDs – I want to make clear that while I do believe it’s usually wisest to roll with the punches of life and get right back in the ring, there are just some times when the room spins and I see stars, and I don’t have the oomph to get back up. You know, like yesterday. It was the second such day of a low and dark mood, and of course it was natural to me that I write about it. Maybe I sounded a bit too pitiful, but the writing here in this forum is by nature exposed – and very much about the experiences I’m living – while I’m living them. I hope you’ll forgive me if from time to time I lose my good cheer. Certainly we all lose it every now and again. In the wake of my post I heard from old friends, received an amazing and unexpected gift, plus of course there were comments left here, and personal emails too. It’s easy to forget anyone’s ‘out there’, so thanks for reminding me once again that I’m not alone. How blessed I am to have the love and support of friends. I send you all my love right back. If ever you should need my help, please seek me out. I would like to return the favor some day.

Ok, I’m gonna quit my bitchin now. Cuz I know that I got it good. Was lost, but now am found.

 

Lost August 6, 2013

Kid’s been gone over two weeks. Maybe it’s three by now. You’d think I’d know, but I don’t. Been busy, busy, busy, trying to get all the things done that I simply can’t during the year. I suppose now that he’s ten it’ll become easier for me to do things. He can get himself something to eat or entertain himself easily enough. It’s just that I always feel badly about digging into solitary projects like filing, organizing teaching materials or other time-consuming stuff when he’s home. Which is why I’m hitting it so hard now. But today I feel stopped. The sun is shining and the day is bright, yet I can’t shake this feeling that the world is passing me by. I’m here in my windowless basement office, going through boxes and files and papers that just never seem to end. And I wonder, as I have so many times before, how on earth do working people deal with all this crap? There’s never an end to things that need tending to, never an end to the drawings and schoolwork that needs to find a home, there’s never an end to the personal correspondence, the filing, the bills, the paper…. And yet, at the end of the day, when someone asks me “what do you do all day?”, I’m hard-pressed to properly explain myself. Which leads me to this very moment. Right now, I’m feeling tetherless and lost.

In going through my music closet, and in finally opening great manila envelopes marked “to look at and file”, my past spills out onto my lap in old set lists, cocktail napkins scrawled over with chords, laminates and other small, useless items that only break my heart today. I remember the feeling of hope that went along with that time in my life. Our lives seemed all yet ahead of us then. Yes, I can say that I knew I was enjoying a good time in my life, and I did enjoy myself. I loved doing what I did, and I never took it for granted. But there was always another show coming up, another project, another seed of hope… I was always swimming with a fast-moving current. There was never anything static about that time in my life. But my life now is very different. Aside from my beloved son, I have to admit to myself, there’s very little of that sort of hope inside me today. There just doesn’t seem to be any forward pull. Yes, I have my writing, I suppose. Dear friends and readers who check in to bear witness to our tiny adventures, but is that in of itself a destination? What, I wonder, as I hold the evidence of a life once fully lived and enjoyed, just what the hell is my ‘thing’ now? Mom? Part-time accompanist at my kids’ school? Goddam recess monitor? Man. So much hope, so much forward-looking energy in these old scraps of paper. Yet where did they land me? I haven’t touched my Wurlitzer in ages. I haven’t played in a band since I left Evanston. It’s been two years since I’ve sung a proper show. And I miss it all like crazy. I fully admit to flat-out jealousy when I see the Facebook updates of my friends who are still making music. How lucky they are to be playing. To be doing what they love. I do know that I’m lucky to be here, and to have this new chapter from which to learn and grow, but still….

I can’t make much progress as I feel right now. I have no food left in the house, and I’m hungry. My hunger is no doubt helping to make my mood even darker, and I’m trying to muster the resolve to do something about it. It takes some gas and time to get into town, and I just can’t find it in me to go. I’m almost out of cash now too, cuz kids don’t take piano lessons in the summer (I sure never did), but that doesn’t stop bills from coming. August is always something of a financial challenge, and especially now in the wake of our July trip and some small home improvements. I know this has been a great summer, and I was so blessed to have visited Chicago (and to have eaten all that gorgeous food!), but it seems the spark has worn off. I know things aren’t bad by any means. I do. And I’m doing better than I was a year ago. I know it. Plus I’m home, surrounded by things I love, by nature, by a beautiful summer day. Even so, in this moment I’m still not quite sure where I am.

 

Dream Tears May 10, 2013

Guess I’m still workin it out. Every now and again I’ll wake up in the night, racked with sobbing. It’s the physicality of it that wakes me, and I always stop and spend a few minutes trying to piece together the events of the dream that led up to it. In the ‘beginning’, that is to say within the first few months of my ex’s news, I’d find myself waking in tears several times a week. In the years that followed, it only happened every other month or so. This past year it’s happened only a handful of times, so even in my groggy state I was rather surprised at it. Even more surprised to remember the situation surrounding it. Last night was a brand new theme; usually it was me begging him not to go, or being surprised once again at his news, but this time it was quite the opposite; I had just told Fareed I couldn’t marry him. Everything was in place for our ‘second’ marriage; somehow he’d left the anonymous other woman he’d been with, somehow things were all set to begin again. His uncle had even come to my house to discuss some plans… But I couldn’t. I remember it being the hardest decision I had ever made. In some ways I could think of no greater relief than to be reunited with this person with whom I’d shared so many years of my life. His company was agreeable, he was an intelligent person, we shared a common knowledge of things musical; there were a lot of reasons to make him the simple, easy answer for a life partner. But something in me knew, and finally I had the balls to face it. And in the eleventh hour, I informed him, his parents (and his uncle), that I was not going forward with the plans. This dream was long and involved, and as I lay there trying to calm my breathing, reconstructing the events of the dream, I surprised myself at the number of details I was able to recall. Fascinating. I had been the one to end things this time, not him. Guess deep down I needed to reclaim the power I must have felt I lost in being the partner ‘left’. The right decision, but a tough one, and it still involved enough conflict to break my heart once again.

A friend suggested on my recent birthday that I look back over my old posts so that I might fully appreciate where I am today. Sometimes – most times, I think – distance from life events is required to formulate perspective on what’s happened. Understanding and insight cannot be rushed, they are organic and need to grow and evolve before their ultimate lesson can be recognized. My friend’s idea was a good and fitting one for such a landmark birthday, and it reminded me of an experience I had back in the beginning of this blog regarding perspective… I recall writing the very first post here, entitled “Snowflakes”, and in it saying something about knowing that things had happened as they were supposed to; that my situation had actually served me well in some ways. Immediately upon writing it, it occurred to me that although I was certain it was true, it didn’t feel true yet. I wondered if I might edit it out – because honestly, my heart hadn’t caught up to the platitude. But some two and a half years later, I finally feel it. Makes me wonder how my current experiences will resonate with the me two years down the line. Funny how some things can’t be rushed. They just need to happen on their own timeline, no matter how much you wish things would hurry up and resolve themselves.

Some five years later, it comforts me to learn that my sleeping self is still tending to its healing. Woulda thought that was all history, a done deal by now. But apparently not. Guess that’s what dreams and tears are for.