The Hillhouse

The Journey of a Mother and Son

Morph August 1, 2018

Waiting. Waiting three weeks for my son to return from China. Waiting to muster the resolve to stop drinking empty calories in wine and light beer to help make it through. Waiting for the renewed oomph to workout regularly again. Waiting for the hope, the inspiration, the vision. Waiting for the skills to run this silly arts venue. Waiting not to be afraid. Waiting for the arthritis in my body to cease its progress. Waiting to play more interesting solos. Waiting to learn how to earn a livable wage. Waiting. Waiting for something, something to change inside of me…

I suppose that’s not completely accurate. I’m changing alright. Without my understanding – and before I could gather my wits and fully understand that it was truly underway – my body joined that population of the fading. Of those past their physical prime. Past their mental prime too. It feels like very little prime overall is left in my own personal pump. But I need to make what’s left last just a while longer. I’m bitching, whining, doing this passage-of-time thing without a lotta class, and I know it. Searching rather desperately for ways to age without losing me. How do I do this? Waiting for the answer. Reading essays of those who’ve gone through this themselves, remembering how my ancient father lamented that as a little boy he’d watch men like him and think that he would never become a tottering old man himself, and yet there he was… Watching half a dozen monarch caterpillars turning into butterflies in my kitchen. Posting a pic of the glorious new creature perched on my nose. Noticing the vague new contours of my face. Realizing that the changes that await me are not like the those of the caterpillar. Thinking back… just when exactly was I a butterfly? And when I was a butterfly, did I fully understand how glorious it was to fly? Not completely. But now, of course, I begin to get it.

When I awoke early this morning, at around 4 am, I checked my phone and saw that my son, who had not texted or called me anytime in the past few days, had arrived with his father and the ‘other’ family in China. I have a friend in Beijing who told me not to expect communications of any kind, so this was a surprise, and a relief. But with this news a queer and foreign feeling entered my consciousness and made me feel almost weightless and sick: my only child was without me on the other side of the planet, and I had no control over a single thing that would happen to him. I felt as if I were in a dream, I felt untethered and all of a sudden, without a distinct purpose.

You may say that my child being half a world away is the reason behind all of this self-sorry nonsense. And goodness, Elizabeth, we all age. Mine are first world problems, are they not? I suppose if I knew how it was that I would make a living for the remaining several decades (something tells me I’m not off the mortal hook for a while) I might rest easier into this shift. But facing growing old and having no substantive source of income is a huge stress to me. I suppose I could get a job as a clerk at some shop in town – but the last time I did, upon moving here ten years ago, it did not end well. I have never done well at traditional desk/cashier/clerk-type jobs. But I have enjoyed moderate success at hundreds of unusual jobs; I’ve been everything from Tony the Tiger (yes, costume, paycheck from Kellogg’s and all) to deckhand on a boat. I’ve also typed, answered phones and fumbled at cash registers, I’ve taught classes, I’ve hosted radio shows, I’ve raised chickens, sung a cappella in front of thousands of people… Oh so many jobs, hats, achievements, and yet… These days if you ask me what it is that I do for a living, I do not know how to answer that.

Folks are fond of telling me that “I should write a book”. Yeah, I dunno. Isn’t that what this blog already is? And who needs another memoir on their bedside table? I would like to pen a Wikipedia page for my father, but even that seems just insurmountable from where I sit right now. There are too many things to do, too many administrative tasks that need my attention. (How on earth would I manage to organize my content into a book when I can’t even keep my website updated in a timely fashion?) So many ruminations thread through my brain in the long hours of the night when I cannot sleep, but retrieving them while sitting at the keyboard just isn’t happening even as it used to a year ago. In real time I forget words and names which I know I wish to use, yet cannot retrieve from my mind. Things are indeed different now than a couple of years ago. It seems I am truly entering into a new personal age. I just don’t know what the fuck it will be about.

I also worry that there will be no one with whom to share it with. But is this not a choice? I see my mother and several other older friends who deeply cherish their independence and solo lifestyle – just as I do – and I see their individual worlds contracting. My mother tells me she has so much work to do, and then I see her at her desk attending to a stack of solicitations from Native American groups and alley cat rescues. A pile of dream catcher key chains and return address labels with cat photos attest to her main business these days. I can’t begrudge her this; it is her role at this late stage of life. These are the tiny reasons that drive her, that help to give her a purpose. I get that. And she funds much of The Studio’s ongoing needs too, so she derives her sense of purpose through this as well. If only I could.

The Studio, the few students I have and the even fewer gigs, none of it serves to define my reason for leaving a carbon footprint. I have three more years to shepherd the kid into college – and that alone will be a part-time job, with all the scholarships and such that we must hunt down – but when he is launched and out, what then? I have told Elihu that I intend to follow him. That I will not be a burden, but that I will also not allow myself to live far away. I want to know his wife, my grandchildren. I wish to be solitary, but not. Kind of like my mom and her son. Just enough, but not too much. So this plan lingers, somewhere in the not-too-distant future, and that helps. But the space in between now and then is still fuzzy. Waiting. Waiting…

A couple of the chrysalises in the kitchen have stopped in the middle of their process. While one hatches, the neighboring package turns darker still; no patterns begin to show beneath the papery outsides. For some unknown reason, the change has ceased. There will be no butterfly, there is nothing more to wait for. It’s tempting to see this as some cryptic sign from the universe, but I scold myself that it is not.

For these creatures, stopped in the middle of their great changing, the waiting is over, the most exciting parts of their lives are history. I wait, and I wonder. Will another change arrive for me? I am fairly sure the most exciting parts of my life are over too, and I am certainly not going to grow wings again, but I hold out hope for one more chapter, just one more adventure… I await one more chance to morph.

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Dear Readers: Although I thank you in advance for your sincere love and concern, please do not send me private messages suggesting I seek professional help, do not suggest that I take a 9 – 5 job, that I hire someone to do the admin work for me (with what money?) or offer solutions. If you have a good house sitting gig in Saratoga, or wish to simply underwrite my low-key life in the country, that’s fine. Otherwise, don’t fret. (Also, haters, please, don’t share your hate or contempt for my feelings. There is nothing productive that comes of all that nonsense.) This too shall pass, and please remember that this blog has always represented my deepest, most uncensored expression, and if we all took an honest look inward I’m pretty sure our revelations wouldn’t always appear as the bright and shiny aspects of our best selves that we might wish them to be.

 

Time Game April 24, 2014

For a few months now I’ve been toying with the idea of drawing up a timeline for my life. To make a visual representation of it, sort of like a roadmap from the known into the unknown. I’ve been, as regular readers may know, in sort of a sentimental funk recently, and having made a near-complete inventory of my life and its landmarks, as well as having become more familiar with those of my parents and their parents too, it seemed both a sensible and tangible way by which I might begin to better comprehend and really understand what my own finite life might look like. It might seem a strange project; trying to posit the year in which I might possibly die, maybe it might even sound a bit morbid to some. But I think not. I need to get a handle on this mortality thing by whatever means necessary.

I’m not a person who can simply tally things up in my mind with ease. I’m just not great with numbers. In math class, word problems had me wanting to chuck the book over my shoulder like the characters in a Peanuts cartoon, and if anyone ever asks me to count change back, it takes me a minute to wipe the glassy look from my eyes before I can get down to business. I’m hard-pressed to tell you how old I’ll be in thus-and-such year, because I was born in a ‘3’ year, which prevents sums from rounding to a tidy 5 or 10. (Yes, I could simply take away three or add seven – but this is precisely the kind of stuff that rattles me.) I do know that my son is 40 years younger than me (minus 9 days, but who’s counting?) so thankfully I always know where he and I stand with respect to each others ages. But exactly how old will I be in 2045? That just sounds so Jetsons-ahead that I cannot begin to comprehend it. It makes me think of my dear old father. How in hell must he have felt to hear that it was the year 2013? Dementia aside, anything past the year 2000 – even for middle-agers like me – always felt like some far-off futuristic land into which we would never enter in our lifetimes. Even though we knew that in all likelihood, we would. I don’t know about you, but ten mintues to midnight on New Year’s Eve, 1999, I still didn’t really believe where we were. (I had the honor of counting down the new year to a very high-brow and refined crowd at a tony downtown Chicago restaurant; the smattering of muffled applause at the event was a bit underwhelming after all the hoopla working up to it. Woo hoo.) So imagine a cat who was born in the 1920s finding his daughter informing him ‘Dad, it’s the year twothousand thirteen‘…. How crazy must that have sounded? How does a fellow who’s losing his memory deal with that unlikely-sounding date? Myself, I don’t want to be caught off guard. And so this morning I made myself a map.

At this point in our futuristic present, I suppose there’s probably an app for making such a timeline. (If there isn’t, you’re welcome.) And given the enormity of this world, I must remind myself that the chances are pretty great that something like it has been done before. (I remember thinking at dad’s ‘living wake’ how novel that was – but I didn’t kid myself to think we had been the only ones to do so. Anecdotal stories poured in shortly thereafter confirming my suspicion.) I made my timeline by parceling off a hundred and fifty years in five year increments, noting the births of my parents, my birth and my son’s, and then the death of my father. I made a bracket that spanned the eighty-five year lifetime of my dad, and then I took that eighty-five year measurement and used it as a measure for a possible projected lifetime for mom, Elihu and me. It was interesting to see actual dates to represent our potential years of death. Even though my mom is now seventy-nine and likeliest the first of we three to go (I still don’t actually believe my mother will ever die), I’ve still never found myself literally considering how much time she has left. And me, of course, why I’ve always just envisioned my own life trailing vaguely off into the murky and unseen future without ever really coming to any definite conclusion… (Because I too, in my heart of hearts, will never actually die, you see.) Ah, but even though I do in fact understand that I shall be dying one day, I’ve never stopped for even so much as a minute to envision how, where… or when. You can see the insight this exercise provides, right? Now I have number. A target to be mindful of. A bit arbitrary, sure, but much clearer than no idea at all. And my son? Well who in hell ever stops to ponder the time in which one’s own child might leave this earthly plane? Me, apparently. So, you may wonder, what is the data? What do those numbers show?

Well, if we were all to live as long as grandpa, then mom will die in 2021, I’ll die in 2048, and Elihu in 2088. Man, that last year just sounds off-the-hook wrong. Two-thousand eightyeight? That sure seems far-off. But aside from the shock of seeing that distant-seeming year in black and white, I am just a bit stunned at what I now see before me. Damn. Ok, so this may not seem groundbreaking or revelatory; I realize that I can easily just add 85 to anyone’s birthyear and arrive at the posited year of death, but to see it all in a linear form in front of you on paper is something completely different. At least for me. One thing that caught me a bit by surprise was how small the area was in which my father’s and my son’s lives intersected. Dad had this long, full life, but only a tiny portion was shared with his grandson (and to make it ever a bit more heartbreaking, Elihu hardly knew his grandfather as the elegant and eloquent man he once was). And if I pushed the timeline out a bit to encompass the births and deaths of my grandparents, what struck me then was how far apart our generations were. My grandmother had my dad when she was 45, I had Elihu at 40, so already you can see how wide the space becomes. Also, my son was born exactly one hundred years after my maternal grandmother; on both sides we’ve given wide berth between generations. To give it an even more surreal touch, my great-grandfather (dad’s maternal grandpa) served in the Civil War! He was young, 16 or so, when he as a drummer boy lead the troops into battle. (Obviously he came back safe and sound, because here I am.)

But for how much longer am I here? And once again the largest question of all comes to the surface: just what the hell is it that I am supposed to be doing while I’m here?

I’ve suffered with panic attacks since the age of fourteen, and can say that a contributing factor to panic is the sense of this world being too goddam and overwhelmingly big, and me, the experiencer of panic attacks, so goddam small and powerless within that big world. In large part panic attacks are about control – or more accurately, lack of control. It comes from being acutely aware of just how immense the world is, how limitless the options, how daunting the task of finding that one reason you’re here, that one thing that only you can do… My most difficult challenge in life has always been to truly feel that I’m ok at what I’m doing. That I’m not just existing for naught. Spinning my existential wheels, so to speak. I don’t have the tenacity or desire to be truly outstanding at anything, but at least I’d like to be comfortable just being here. I might not set any records, but I still want very much to feel like my tiny life added to the value of the planet. Having never paid much attention to the constant escape of time, I’m all of a sudden feeling a mild level of panic rising inside… is it too late? And if it is too late – for what exactly is it too late?

In my job at the Waldorf School I am blessed to have personal relationships with a great number of children, from first graders to twelfth graders. Having been there for two years now, I can begin to see how it is that children grow from teeny to teenager. I can now look at an eight year old and begin to guess what she’ll look and act like as an eighteen year old. Sitting at the piano looking out at the second grade class, I realize they’ll be freshmen in high school when my own son is a senior. These tiny babies will be lumbering, smelly, adult-sized humans by then. Truly unfathomable for me only a few years ago, before I came to know what it was to have a child of my own grow older, but now, today, I can begin to get it.To truly see it in my mind’s eye. Seeing the process up close like this fuels the fire and once again the nagging question burns; am I too late? What have I not done yet that I need to do before it’s no longer possible? Until only a few years ago, I had all the time in the world and nothing seemed impossible…but not so now. Now I know about things like arthritis and bad knees. The concerns of old people are becoming concerns of my very own, and it’s got me feeling the heat. Now I can finally hear the ticking of the clock…

At the time of this writing I have 2,050 subscribers. I look at the number and no longer think of two thousand and fifty people, instead I think: how old will I be in the year 2050? Now I know. I will be 87. If I make it. And if I do make it, what will I be doing with my life? Will I be doing good work on the planet, or merely existing? To have an end date in mind really does wake one up. It renews a sense of urgency where there was once nothing but exhaustion, frustration and run-of-the-mill complacency. I may still be a bit crabby about being here, I might still feel I have more on my emotional plate than I’m capable of successfully dealing with, but at least now I have a better idea for how much longer I might even have the opportunity to be such things at all. Maybe, with an ending in sight, I’ll find the resolve to get down to business. To write more thank-you cards, smile more at strangers, tell more people how much I appreciate them… And maybe I can find the courage to give myself a list of the things that I’d always thought I might do ‘one day’…. The days ahead may well be fewer than the ones behind. If that isn’t enough motivation to square away the proverbial bucket list, I don’t know what is.

To make life seem a bit easier and a little less daunting, I sometimes like to think of it as a game. You gotta play by a handful of rules, you get to use your natural talents when making your moves, and if you apply a little clever strategy you can accomplish things beyond the ordinary, expected outcomes. I’ve got a modest bag of skills to play with, but more importantly, I have an eye on the clock and I’m ready to play the second half. Ready, I suppose, as I’ll ever be. Yeah, guess it feels like game time now…

Post Script: It’s amazing how quickly my math skills have improved since I linked them to this little age experiment! With each handful of new subscribers I find myself easily computing my corresponding new ‘end age’. It’s motivating, for sure. I’m fairly sure I won’t make it this far (Elihu and I have agreed that 90 feels about right for me – but tell that to me when I’m 90) and at current readership, I’m now 96. Yikes. Goodbye dear world! I enjoyed the ride and learned a lot… hope to see you all again some new day….