The Hillhouse

The Journey of a Mother and Son

Witching Window February 21, 2017

middle-age-now

It is late, and my son is in his room watching aviation videos. And I am in my room, reading about death. Yeah. That just about sums it up I guess.

It’s not as if my interest in death has come all that recently, but it is only of late that I’ve begun to actively search out books on the subject, and to think of it so much more personally than ever before in my life. My son, however, at thirteen, is about as far from thoughts of death and mortality as any one human could be. His thoughts are consumed by flight, by what makes it possible, by how me might build a craft to fly so successfully himself. He is also about numbers, about math, about language (German mostly, but some Japanese and Vietnamese, too – and French, if you press him), and he is about the tuba parts in the polkas he loves. He is about his birds. He wishes our rooster Bald Mountain goodnight in a sweet little voice that still sounds more boy than young man most of the time. He is only just about to embark on his young adult life. I however, am trying every single day to call up the nerve to say goodbye to my younger years with some small amount of dignity. It’s not as easy as I’d thought it would be, and I’m not going about it with a lot of class. Of this I am sure. For one, I still color my hair. For another, I still think my son actually enjoys my company… Sometimes he still does, but I can feel the curtain of adolescence descending between us, and it reminds me daily that I really do need to start to figure out how the next part of my life will look. How to embrace this growing older thing. Cuz as of this moment, I am still not down with it. Somehow, I still cannot believe it is happening.

After returning from a short but lovely evening of music at Caffe Lena (we heard Golfstrom, a talented group that plays Jewish popular music, mostly European, from around the early part of the last century, to put it succinctly) we retired to our rooms. In chasing a tangential thread from a Facebook post, I came upon the Obamas dancing their very first dance as President and First Lady. The first thought I had was: how young Barack looked. OMG. Truly, he looked like a young man. I have always been keenly aware that he was elected to office shortly after I moved here – and that he and I are very close in age. In fact, until just a few weeks ago, Obama had been president for the entire time we’d lived here in New York. (I remember well the night the counts came in; the sound of the cheering crowds in Saratoga – most likely from Skidmore College – was audible from three miles away. Even individual shouts carried across the forest to reach my ears as I stood, so deeply thrilled and full of hope, on my porch here on top of the hill.) Back then we really did look much younger, Barack and I. Often it throws me for a loop and leaves me in a mild state of panic when I see his head so much grayer, his face etched with such deep lines. As a woman I can play the game a little longer, and dying my hair is one of the main tactics I use. But my face has begun to change, and of course, my neck as well. And try as I might, I can’t ignore it. At every turn a reflection is available to me. At every glimpse my mortality faces me, and leaves me no possible way to pretend that things haven’t changed.

Tonight, in surveying the room I was struck by one thing: these were essentially my peers. And man, they look old. Yes, perhaps, most of them may have been older than me by a couple of years, maybe even a generation ahead, but by and large, they were ‘my age’ – that is to say ‘middle aged’, and the majority of them were gray-haired. A very few of the women had boycotted their changed appearance by dyeing their hair; one woman even had a head of brilliantly bright red hair in a blunt, modern cut. Still, I could tell, she was older than me. So what was the answer? What determines ‘real’ age? Should one not go ahead and present to the world how they felt on the inside? Just how was one to age gracefully and with class? Go with it? Fight it? Deny it with a head of bright red hair – or celebrate it with a head of bright red hair? (My mother-in-law went with fire-engine red hair into her 80s!) My dark hair almost made me feel like a poser in that room of silver. Like a complete fraud. My face told the real story though. The ‘smile’ lines that ran from the corners of my mouth to my nose now created an honest-to-goodness triangle. They weren’t likely to invoke friendly, truth-softening comments like ‘oh  it’s not so bad. No one else notices them the way you do’. No. They were as deep and age-revealing as the facial contours of any other women in that room. I was not a forty-something anymore, for sure. I was whatever the hell it is that comes next, goddammit.

Watching images of the elegant First Couple dancing, my mind wandered, and I began to wonder what it might be like if I’d never left Chicago. Part of me began to happily envision a scene at The Hideout, or the Green Mill perhaps, where certainly I’d see dozens of people I knew – and who were happily my peers. But then I thought again, and realized that most of my clan had grown up too. They no longer spent their weekend nights at alt country clubs or jazz joints – they, like me, were busy shepherding young children into middle school or high school – some might even be seeing theirs off to college. (Few children of my peers are married yet. Some are, but more still are not. And that somehow comforts me. But it won’t last long.) Today’s lively nights of jazz at the Green Mill might themselves prove to have me feeling old and past my prime for similar reasons. My peeps aint there no more. My scene is gone, my day has concluded. That chapter is past. Young folks can party, middle-aged folks are too busy to party, and old folks have the time to party, but the energy? I’m not so sure.

Just today, as we drove home from school after a special delivery of duck eggs (Mrs. Duck is really producing now – perhaps in anticipation of Spring…) Elihu and I both mused on how fast time seemed to be passing these days. I remarked that time didn’t feel so fast when I was a kid. I was surprised that he – a kid himself – also perceived time to be moving faster than ever before. “It’s a provable theory of physics” he told me. He promised that this wasn’t just some new age theory about the speeding up of time – it was a viable, measurable fact. “I’ve been thinking about time a lot these days” he mused from the back seat. “I mean, time is just change. So if time didn’t exist, would nothing change? Or if nothing changed, would time cease to exist?” We batted this idea about for a while, but by the time we were turning into our snow-drifted driveway I’d already decided I really didn’t care either way. Because whether fast or slow, some shit in my life was definitely changing, and quite honestly, I wasn’t a fan.

When I was in my early forties, I remember being caught and successfully reeled in by a made-for-tv commercial in which actor Victoria Principal extolled the brilliant, natural and effortless products in her new skin care line. As prudent a consumer as I had thought myself to be, even after some lengthy internal debates on the subject, I’d finally chosen to buy in. But first, I engaged in a little due diligence, calling the customer service rep to get a little more specific information on their products. How old was I? the woman had asked me. When I told her, I remember hearing her hesitate for a moment. As a woman at the dawn of her fourth decade, she’d advised me not to purchase a particular set of products, because women didn’t usually start to need “that sort of help” until they were in their late forties or even early fifties. Hmm, I’d thought. There was a timetable here that people had agreed on? There were actual landmarks I might look for? There was a timetable that might help me to anticipate – and emotionally prepare for – certain changes? Nobody had ever told me this before! No one had ever gone so far as to break down the aging process into stages. But clearly, some people, somewhere, had agreed on this stuff. (Granted, this was a pre-internet world with less information available to the armchair consumer). It did also occur to me that this particular Guthy-Renker employee might have been a bit too honest for her own job security.!

After my chat with the rep, I ended up buying a few products. I can’t say that a one of them made any noticeable difference in my appearance (however I grew to love the very subtle scent of the lotions which I have not been able to find again, as they were discontinued several years ago) but shortly after that experience I did come upon a ‘miracle’ cream which promised to firm skin as nothing before. This product, I can report, did exactly what it purported to. But at the age of 42 I had no idea what ‘real’ aging skin looked like, and the mild tightening this cream provided was just enough, and under makeup, sometimes it really was like a sprinkling of fairy dust.

About five or so years later, I remembered the product and thought how it might really benefit me in my new state of sinking skin, so I tried it again. But this time, rather than gently pulling my face together in a smooth, tighter version of itself, it pulled my skin together like a bouquet of tiny wrinkled lines, all gathered at the point of the cream’s application. My neck skin bunched in horrible lines where none had even been before; it was a situation made much, much worse. But also, it gave me an idea as to how my neck might look a couple of decades hence. Crap. I’d always thought this shit was for everyone else. Somehow I knew that I was just too cool for that sort of old lady thing to happen to me. That shit was for clueless losers who somehow didn’t care. Or not. Man. Really?

These are the days when things start to change in earnest. No more ‘almost’, no more ‘you look fabulous’ as in you really do look fabulous. Ok, I suppose if you shift your frame of reference from a forty-something mindset to a sixty-something mindset you can say those things and mean it, but if you’re like me, and you’re stuck in your head at 44, unable to fully comprehend that 44 was now a decade ago, then maybe you’re not ready to accept ‘you look good’ means just that, only within the context of a whole new framework.

Oh how I wish we didn’t pretend this stuff doesn’t bother us the way it really does. Mech, I suppose there are some enlightened souls out there for whom this process is interesting, new, fun, exciting and a welcome challenge. It’s a challenge all right, and I am eager to learn how I end up meeting it, but I’d be lying if I said this was a process I was enjoying. Nope. Not so much.

Yesterday I woke up with an unusual sensation: Nothing in my body hurt! I was in a joyful mood all morning because it was the first time in months and months that my pulsing, arthritic fingers and stiff hips weren’t the first things I was aware of upon awakening. I took it as nothing short of a small miracle. Plus it offered enlightenment; not feeling my body all these years until now had actually been a blessed and wonderful thing!! A miracle of sorts unto itself. Ah well, better I suppose to be thankful at this point than never at all. I mean I know what’s happening, and I’m bitching and moaning about it most of the way, but at the end of the day I have it pretty good, aches and pains aside. Yeah. I do. But still…

My young piano students are always talking about how much they can’t wait to be older. They can’t wait to be 8, to be 10, to finally be a teenager. I remind them that older people at some point start to wish they were younger. A crazy kind of predicament. “So what is, from your perspective” I’ll ask them, “the most perfect age to be?” Most have answered from 18 to 23. Which I think is interesting. Yeah, that was a good chapter. But the truly golden chapter? Want my answer? From 25 to 45. Yup. That would be it. And maybe, if I were to commit to one perfect, golden year, it might be 32. Good times. !

I remember in my mid to late forties thinking “Hey, this isn’t so bad! I still look pretty good!” (I hadn’t yet put on the extra 20 pounds I live with now, so factor that in too…) And in truth, I still looked pretty much as I had over the past couple of decades. At least I was recognizable to friends I hadn’t seen in years. And that’s often the main ‘test of time’. We all know the importance of name tags on the gentlemen at our 20th high school reunion. Those poor guys either lose their hair or succumb to the gray. The women, on the other hand, have the culture’s permission to color and highlight their hair, augment its volume or length too; they are encouraged to whiten their teeth, they wear beautiful dresses and use makeup to augment their fading beauty. Men have so few tools with which to make up for what they’ve lost. Men must bear the progress of time in all its daunting honesty. Then may get off easy in so many other ways – but when it comes to aging, most of ’em can’t hide.

Allow me to advise those who are behind me in their progress… The magic years are, in my experience, from the mid 20s to the mid 40s. By 48 or 49 one begins to change, but it’s subtle. As with all organic changes of life, it seems to happen slowly, and the one day you notice something that wasn’t there the day before. This sort of thing seems to happen more and more frequently after 50. Hell, even 50 wasn’t all that bad. But over the following three years shit has just seemed to change in all the wrong ways. All the stories I’d heard uttered from the lips of my ‘older’ friends is now becoming my own personal experience. And this, I think to myself, is likely only the beginning. My chin is strange and saggy, my face looks older for reasons I cannot quite pinpoint, and my so-important fingers are now routinely dropping things and can no longer grip into fists. They throb, they ache, and they do not bend as they did even one month ago. Last night, when I sat at the piano to enjoy the final brisk measures of the Italian Concerto just for fun, I realized that my fingers did not posses the dexterity or strength that they had only before Christmas. My physical abilities had waned in just weeks. Strange, and hard to really understand.

And so another chapter closes, and a new one begins. Mr. Obama does not look older because of the many stresses and challenges over the past eight years of his presidency, no. He looks older because he is older. And I look older now because I am too. It is a hard thing to come to terms with. When I was a singer and presented all those great torch songs from the early part of the last century, I’d often remind my audiences that the topics of love, jealousy and revenge were nothing new or exclusive to this generation. In fact, the only reason we were all here today was because – wait for it – our grandmothers got laid! Maybe it was a little forward, and maybe it made people squirm a bit in their seats, but whatever. It’s true. Every generation is as hip as it gets. And if we live long enough, we then ourselves become no longer hip. Doesn’t mean we don’t remember what it felt like to have all that power –  oh, we do. That’s precisely why it’s so challenging to release the past and so bittersweet to remember it.

Please take this to heart, all my young and beautiful friends: there is an end to it all. Savor the moments as they unfold, for one day your sexy and exciting present will be just a memory from long, long ago. You too will pass through the witching window, and find yourself on the other side, a mere mortal with crepey skin, graying hair and a treasure trove of memories. Know it, but don’t linger too long in the thought. Instead, let it inspire you to take some risks, put yourself out there and grab all the life experiences you can, while you still have the strength to hold on tight.

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When Is When December 16, 2015

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Our sick hen holds back from the flock and stands still in the sun to keep warm.

Our urge, as humans, is to help other living creatures survive. (For the sake of expanding on this idea, for the moment let’s forget that we humans have also created entire industries and careers out of actively killing fellow humans and creatures as well…). Although most of us will probably squash any spiders found ‘trespassing’ inside our house, there remains a part of the population that will search out a cup and piece of paper, and safely transport the innocent to the great outdoors. That is a population to which I belong. (My own fine line is drawn at mosquitoes, however I have been known to offer apologies and ask forgiveness before smacking the little devils into the next plane of existence.)

Recently, we had a chronically not-well hen take a downward turn. For months I’d seen the way she hunkered down on the floor of the coop at night instead of joining her mates up on the roosting bars. This alone told me something was amiss. But aside from keeping good coop hygiene and feeding them a robust diet, there was little else I could do without stepping into a whole circus of tests and expensive dietary supplements. I wasn’t going to give the whole flock antibiotics, as that would have rendered all the eggs unsafe for eating (and cost us our modest egg-selling business). Naw… Aside from saying a little prayer for her each night as I closed up, and telling her softly that I loved her and was on her side, there was little to do but wait and see how things would turn out.

About a month ago I’d had her in my kitchen, along with our treasured Thumbs Up and another new white hen. The young leghorn had a chronically prolapsed cloaca; the last bit of muscle of her digestive (and laying) tract kept coming out. I would oil up my hand and massage it gently back in, but within hours her body would begin to push and squeeze it out again – against her own will, poor girl – and I could see the look of distress in her eyes as a plum size piece of her insides (which was bright red and quite challenging for me to look at) would emerge, unable to retract back inside the poor hen. After two days of physically manipulating her back into shape only to find her elongated and pushing uncontrollably, we knew there would be no lasting fix for this gal. So our neighbor Zac helped us out by chopping off her head in one deft blow, ending her misery and pain. (We call this method “Zaxupuncture”. Sometimes the most humane of all.)

vigilThumbs Up kept the vigil with her ill flockmate for a long time. I was also amazed to see our nervous, perpetually-moving guinea fowl, Austin, walk up to the sick hen and stand there by her side, virtually motionless for a good ten minutes. Animals just seem to feel when things are changing in the creatures around them.

Recently, the chronically not-well gall, whom we call “Mother of Martha” had begun to hang around the kitchen door, almost as if suggesting she might like to come in for a respite. Thankfully, the true, biting cold of winter hasn’t arrived yet, so our flock is still in relative comfort. But this is a gesture that shouldn’t be ignored; it can be a sign that something in the bird’s constitution is amiss. And so I took her inside. But instead of perking up after a few days of r&r, she flagged even further. Home-made concoctions didn’t even do the trick this time. Believe me, I waffled inside. Was I prolonging her discomfort? Was I making her out to be more important (read: anthropomorphizing her) than she really was in the grand scheme of our small farm? Did she warrant – more to the point – did she herself even want more assistance?

Hen in A BucketThis appeared to be a sign of vitality, but ultimately it was just a last blip of activity.

Just a few days earlier she had been ticking her way across the wooden floor to observe a piano lesson one minute, head deep in the birdseed bin the next. Seemed she was doing pretty well. But the following day, she hunkered down in her corner and took on the look of an animal waiting for its time to go. And so at this time I chose not to fight it; the tiny ‘God voice’ inside me told me to just leave things be. Instead of intervening, I turned the heat up in the mudroom and made sure she was comfy with water that was very easy to get to. What else could I do now? It was really up to her. It truly felt as if she was finally at death’s door. So, having done all I could, I retired to the downstairs office to get some work done. A couple of hours later I had gone upstairs fully expecting to see her on the floor and gone from this world, but to my great surprise, instead, I found her bed empty. Keep in mind that she had been pretty well snuggled in there, and she’d been hard-pressed to move at all the last time I’d seen her; it woulda taken good bit of oomph to get up and out of her nest and onto the floor. But somehow, up and out she had gotten herself. I was so moved at seeing her silhouette in the hallway, standing there alone, waiting for someone to watch, to follow or sit beside… She was seeking some final companionship, I think. One can never know of course, but it sure felt like it.

IMG_2883Mother of Martha came out into the house for one last visit with me. This was quite a surprise, as she’d been too weak to move only hours earlier.

She stayed with me in the living room as I taught a piano lesson. But before we wrapped, I looked up to see that she had left us. Later, I found her close by the heaters in the mudroom. Now I got it. Yup, now it was probably time. I made one final effort to feed her; I slid the eye dropper full of probiotics along the length of her beak, hoping she’d take it on her own. She did. She swallowed dutifully, and uncharacteristically, without protest. Her eyes remained closed the whole time. But this time, something was very different. She clamped her beak tightly shut as I attempted to feed her the remainder of the dose. I tried a bit to pry them open, and if I’d put some more muscle into it, I might have. But somehow, it didn’t feel like the right thing to do. So instead I gently wiped her chin clean, hoping to restore whatever appearance might be necessary to maintain her avian dignity, and then let her be.

After a few hours she was unchanged, eyes closed, breathing in and out. I tested her strength, seeing if she could stand, but she collapsed under her weight. No point forcing things. Rather than leaving her to sit in her mess and all alone in the mudroom, I made a brand new and clean bed for her and placed it in between the two radiators by the kitchen table. There was privacy enough, yet she was still within our sight. I turned up the heat to make sure she was comfortable. And then we waited.

IMG_2962At last she’s resting comfortably in the kitchen. We’re just waiting now.

A friend dropped by and he joined us for supper. We were a noisy bunch; laughing, talking and continuing to live life as usual. When our guest left, quiet finally returned to the kitchen. I sat beside the hen for a while. I didn’t stroke her; that would have been more for me than for her, and by now I felt strongly that she needed to be left alone. So instead, I talked to her in a low tone, and assured her that she was loved, and that she’d been a good hen. I thanked her for all the eggs and told her what a good job she’d done, and then I turned out the light and said goodnight.

That night I’d had a feeling she’d leave us, and as I’d expected – and at this point had hoped for – I found her dead in the early morning light. I’ve come upon several dead hens in my day, and none has ever succumbed in such a graceful pose as she. I took the one breast feather that had fallen from her as a keepsake, then put her body to rest in the screen porch until I found a moment (albeit several days later) to bury her.

Soaring HenShe left us like an angel in flight.

She now rests with the other favorites; King George, the button quail who lived with us cage-free and nightly uttered his plaintiff wail for a mate as he scurried along the baseboards of the house (imagine that at the same time we also had a cat – and the two of them were absolutely oblivious to each other), and there was Molly, our very first hen, white with a necklace of black dots, as well as a few songbirds who’d crashed into windows. Our three-legged gecko was also buried in this small plot by the flowering quince; this little girl had had a cancerous rear limb amputated shortly after we’d moved here (the vet took pity on our heavy emotional load at the time and did the surgery for free). Our little pullet Martha rested there too, and now her mother had come to join her.

I’ve been present at the end of a few friend’s lives – as well as a few pet’s – and from those experiences have come to recognize the ways in which living beings behave as they near the end. My father’s passage was my most intimate experience with the death process. I remember wanting desperately to know exactly when it would happen. What to look for, what signs might immediately precede the moment of death, so I would somehow be readier for his leaving us… I remember hounding the hospice nurses for more information as they cared for my father, and as his life’s end grew obviously closer. As Martha approached her death this past summer I felt more familiar with the process, and although hers was also a welcome end to a full life, it was nonetheless a deeply strange and sad time. But sad as it may have been, I was relieved to actually recognize some of the signs and events in her progress towards death, and it made me better able to handle it all.

But that’s clearly not how everyone feels about things; my mom just couldn’t seem to adjust to the reality that Dad was on his way, and for a long while she seemed to think that somehow, somehow, things might still turn around for him. Signs that were obvious to me were easily ignored by her. Funny what comes to mind – but I remember how Dad had come to a point where he could not drink on his own; a time when he needed a straw. I remember suggesting this to my mother, but she strongly resisted the idea. Inside I’d gotten very angry inside about this – couldn’t she see what was happening? He was dying already! He was thirsty! He needed to drink, and he needed our help! What on earth was she waiting for? “Someday when” was here; ‘when’ was now! Until the very last few days I don’t think she wanted to believe it. But even she had to acquiesce, and realize that ‘when‘ had finally arrived.

Every day I pass the spot where a nineteen year old boy was recently hit by a car, shortly after which he died. It’s very much on my mind these days, as there is no avoiding the roadside memorial. Also, the boy’s middle name was Elihu, and so the tragedy has fixed itself even more personally in my thoughts. I think of his mother every day too, and naturally think then of my own child, and how his life gives so much meaning to mine. I take not a moment with him for granted. Also, the older I get, the more deeply I understand how very important it is to live fully, courageously and compassionately in the moments still remaining. Those flowers at the side of the road will not allow me to forget this.

The other day at breakfast Elihu asked why grownups were always so worried about the past and the future. Why, he wanted to know, were we always worried about ‘when things were going to happen, or what things were like back when‘? “Forget the future!” he said, almost angrily as he swept a hand in the air. “Forget the past! Now is all there is! Now is when!” He apologized for sounding annoyed. I told him he was right, and that I heard him. I agreed with him that we can’t always make plans for ‘when’, but as humans, it was what made us feel safer in the world. Then I thanked him for expressing himself. I told him he really was right. I sat in our little kitchen and looked in wonder at this insightful, loving person whom I’d been so lucky to have beside me in my life, and I breathed in, grateful. Yes, Elihu was right. The most important when of all – was now.


Post Script: A heartfelt thanks to those who contributed towards our campaign to expand our media storage here on WordPress… We were able to purchase a package that will likely support us for another couple of years. Thanks to you we can continue to post new photographs without saying goodbye to the old ones! Yay!

 

Memorial Tree December 4, 2014

It would be the closest thing to a formal ceremony my family would ever have for dad. The funeral home that handled dad’s affairs held an interfaith service and candlelit walk the other night in memory of those who’d died this past year. Time feels very different these days, and truly, it is hard to comprehend that it’s been almost a year since my father’s been gone. Christmastime will forever carry with it a different sort of mood. But it’s ok; his life ended in as near perfect a way as we could have hoped. For the most part, dad was dad up until the end. In spite of that, I do know that the last year or two wasn’t necessarily enjoyable for him. The last month was the worst of it, really. So it was a good thing that he finally left.

Time has taken some of the edge off; the hurt isn’t so acute as it once was, but instead, now I find that his death has become a regular part of my life. I must think of dad several times each day, missing those little, familiar details I can never again hear or see… Daily my sorrow is refreshed in little ways. It’s a selfish thing though; I personally believe he’s enjoying a much more harmonious, peaceful and loving existence wherever it is that he lives now. It’s just this damned one-way mirror makes it impossible to confirm my hunch. Man, sometimes this life thing really pisses me off. And sometimes I think it’s all a very clever way in which to stoke our sense of hope, and strengthen our ability to have faith. And then again sometimes I feel like it’s all a stupid, hurtful game, and I’m done with it – I’m out of patience with the whole ridiculous, painful joke.

Death wouldn’t be so bad if we could just get a little note from our departed loved ones, just to let us know that they got there ok, that maybe they miss us, and that they want us to know that it’s not so bad. Not bad at all, in fact. Oh, and if they could just assure us that we’ll be fine too, and before we know it, somehow, we’ll be together again.

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 Elihu put his dove on the tree in memory of his grandfather. He started to sing Kum Ba Yah on the walk back to the church. I sang harmony with him, and our song ended just as the candlelit walk was over. Kinda perfect. And Elihu was the first to remember some funny anecdotes about dad at the end of the evening, bringing a bit of spirited joy back to the night. Thankfully, he’s kept his outlook positive and hopeful around this sad change of life, even down to the parting words he last spoke to his grandpa: See you shortly…

 

Time Neverlasting May 6, 2014

Tomorrow, on the 7th of May, 2014, I will be fifty-one years old. The novelty of turning fifty now past, I find myself wondering how to emotionally approach this very average-sounding, non-landmark of a birthday. It’s interesting to me that although aging is a concept I admittedly have a hard time with, I haven’t invested a lot of energy or thought into it – certainly not the way I did last year’s birthday. And when I do pause for a moment to consider what’s happening here, I feel a bit stuck. I’m getting older, but somehow I’m still not adjusting. Somehow, I still don’t believe it.

This time last year I was twenty-something pounds lighter after a long and successful campaign on the Atkins diet. I passed my fiftieth summer looking and feeling great. I even got to visit Chicago, got to sing in front of some audiences, eat some fabulous food, visit much-missed friends and favorite places… And all while not being two dress sizes too big for me. (Say what you will, I don’t care. You’re right, I am not liberated, modern or emotionally responsible about this; life just feels a whole lot better as a size 10. Sorry, but for me it’s true.) There were some moments in which I felt absolutely glowing and good; positivity and energy radiated from me without effort… It had been some years since I’d felt this way, and I was a bit surprised to notice how familiar a feeling it was – and how not only enjoyable it felt to look and feel good, but how powerful it was too. To have virtually no reservations about how I visually presented to people. I zipped up old favorite dresses and they felt as good as super-hero costumes. But this year, I live in a different body, and the thought most forefront in my mind each day is this: man, I fucking blew it. And once again, I look and feel frumpy. Tossed many of most of my fat clothes last year, and bought a couple new skinny outfits too, which now I simply cannot wear. Crap. Choosing clothes was hard enough, now it’s an extra tricky challenge. Oh dear Lord, whatever have I done to myself? No matter, it is what it is. The question that I’m left with now is this: what do I do next?

Ok, so I’ve quit smoking, I’ve done the fad diet thing, I’ve gone months without a glass of wine, I have myself a brand-spanking new giant tv and a dvd player and all the Richard Simmons workout videos I can ever use. The trick here seems to be to get it all going at the same time. Since being a mother I haven’t ever had my game on like I had in the old days. Almost… but not quite. Like a bump under the rug, one weakness or another shows up in a corner while the rest of the room looks tidy and put together. So the game plan for going forward seems obvious, but daunting: just get plain healthy. It makes sense, really. It would be so much more enjoyable to feel lighter, more flexible, less driven by a jones and more by an organic desire just to be well. I can guess such a world exists, but it may as well be on another planet the way I feel right now. Gotta be honest here, food is the great reward at the end of a long and tiring day. The pure pleasure of sitting down to a tub of hummus and a stack of pita break with my kid when we return home is a highlight of the day. What would replace that? What will I look forward to if I don’t have my snacks, my wine? I have to figure it out, because I can’t eat as I used to, and while I may love my after school snacks, I sure don’t love the new body that came with em. So one goal for the ‘new year’ might be an overall re-tuning of my routines. A more watchful eye on portions and a workout time scheduled into my day just like I’d make time for practicing or teaching. I guess. A healthy, flexible and trim body sure would be a nice birthday present to give myself. And if I plan on going low and slow, it’ll probably take me a year to get my gift ready…

The eighth grade is doing “Tuck Everlasting” for their class play, and I’m playing the music for it. Even though Elihu read the book rather recently himself, and even though it’s something of a kid’s classic, I hadn’t read it myself and wasn’t even sure of the premise. As I sat there today composing little pieces for the interludes between scenes, I learned about its theme of accidental immortality and the frightening repercussions. And then in the midst of pondering my own process of aging and the reservations I still had about it – it hit me: Yes, I actually do want to grow old. Yes, my God, I do. Can you imagine not growing old? Staying just as you are now – forever? I know there’s nothing new to this message, but still. As I sat there, watching the characters talk about living until the end of time… I could feel the terror in it. And I thought of my father and his life, well-lived, perfectly wrapped up, ending with closure and rightness. Why should I fear concluding what is happily finished? I’m not done yet, and have much still to learn, but I can’t bring my experience to a happy ending unless I grow old first. So I guess I kinda need this birthday tomorrow. I remind myself that at least we’re all going at the same speed. And we’re all headed the same place, so I may as well relax and try to enjoy myself along the way.

My mother had a little accident a couple of days ago. Don’t want to say that she had a fall – it sounds like such an old-lady thing to have happen – but that’s exactly what it was. She said it was because she ‘broke her own rule’ about running for the phone. She turned and stepped on her gym bag and fell. The irony was a killer – she’d just gone to the Y to begin working out again after years away (hmm, do I sense a trend?) and had only just placed the bag there. She’d injured herself out of her effort to improve her health. ! (And who was the caller? You guessed it. I do feel kinda guilty about it.) Thankfully, she didn’t go the ultra old-lady route and break a hip, instead she just really whacked her back and kidneys. She’s so sore she thinks that she may even have fractured a rib. I was on the phone with her today as I sat at the piano between classes when the eurythmy teacher came up to me showing surprise on her face –  as I wasn’t supposed to be using my phone inside the school. But when she heard the conversation I was having with mom, she lightened. When I hung up she advised me that it wouldn’t always be like this. Being there for my kid, then for my folks. One day they’ll all be gone, and it’ll be just me again. And then, how did she put it? I’ll be free to work on ‘my own biography’. I added that it was a pity that I’d have to be doing it without benefit of youth. But she just waved her hand in the air and made a face that said ‘nonsense’… She insisted that most women found their most fruitful and enjoyable years to be in their fifties and sixties. Could be. She herself was good evidence of that. She definitely had an idea that I needed to add to the pot.

As my father would struggle across the floor with his cane he’d tell me that he remembered as a boy looking at old men like him and thinking that he’d never be like that… and then he’d laugh and say, ‘but look, here I am!’ I’d chuckle along with him, deep down thinking the very same thing that he once thought as a boy. How self-righteous of me! Ah, but how human. How mortal… Thank goodness there’s an end to it. I like the process of learning things, of doing things, but I also love being able to cross things off the list too. And one day, there’ll be an end to the to-do list that is my life. So for now I’ll just have to throw myself into it, while I’m able, because I think I’m beginning to understand that it won’t last forever.

IMG_2637An abstract image (the most forgiving type) of me, a guinea feather and dad’s wedding ring on the eve of my 51st birthday

 

Offense and Owls March 29, 2014

Unfortunately, I just can’t seem to sleep in this morning. While I’m sure I could use the extra rest, my mind and body are awake now, and there’s no going back. Maybe it’s my age, or the two glasses of wine I had last night with dinner. Either way, I’ll take it as a rare opportunity to have the house to myself for a while, as Elihu continues to sleep deeply. And I know that boy needs it. Yesterday, finally in the car and on the way home after school, he asked me if this hadn’t been the longest week of our lives. Poor kid had been sick the way I’d been the previous week, and he plays a rather large part in his class play, so had been rehearsing all week as well. I knew how he felt. For me, the longest week of our lives had been the one just before.

In addition to the drama onstage, there’s been a good deal of interpersonal drama going in private. The situation with Elihu’s classmate – or with his classmate’s mother, I should say more correctly – finally came to a head. And after more than four months of my having waited to learn which of my many trespasses offended her so deeply, we finally got our answers. Let me tell you, this experience has taught me a few things. Firstly, there are many ways in which to live; you cannot for one moment take any of your own beliefs, values or customs to be the clear and obvious path. No matter how sensible you may think your own approach to life, I can guarantee that some aspect to how you live will offend or frighten someone. Secondly, every now and then you’ll need to apologize as humbly and simply as possible, without caveats or explanations – even when you know your intention was good and wish fervently for the offended party to get that. Yeah, sometimes I guess you just gotta let things go. It was a great exercise of restraint for me to pen a simple letter of apology (my third or fourth apology, but perhaps a physical card in hand will seal the deal) without qualifying myself. Just had to say I was sorry. And crap, I am. I will live differently from now on.

So, just what was it that I did to convince a fellow mother that her child should not be allowed to be in my or my son’s presence outside of school? Firstly, I used profanity. (Old friends will likely be nodding in agreement. This will not come as a shocker to some.) Last Halloween Elihu and I had been invited to join his classmate’s family and another one as well for some dinner and trick-or-treating. We met at an Irish pub, enjoyed a meal and a couple of beers (I waited to order one until I made sure the other adults were drinking. In the Waldorf community I’m usually careful to observe before I jump in. It’s still a fairly new world for us, so I watch things first…) Apparently, I swore ‘more than once’ during the night, and made a ‘sexually lewd’ comment when in my car, with the windows down for her boys to hear… I don’t doubt that I swore. Rain was coming down in buckets, and I was having trouble getting my kid’s elaborate costume in the car without smashing it. I’d had two drinks (not as an excuse, but hey, I don’t drink often, and when I do, I feel it, and so does my tongue) and I can totally see my cursing the damn thing as I wrestled it into the back seat. Yes, I am fairly confident I used profanity. And at the table too – I mean, what the hell? I’m finally out with grown-ups, the kids are running around the restaurant being silly and there’s a general volume level in the room that just seems to soften the blow – if not flat-out invite – words of color and emphasis. Ya know? Course I do admit to having far more of a potty mouth than would be acceptable in many homes, but then again I’d been hearing about “Jesus H. Christ and his twelve raggedy-ass disciples” since I could remember, and I’d known since an early age that many things in life weren’t worth “a pinch of sour owl shit”. Nuff said.

The bit about a ‘sexually explicit’ remark still has me scratching my head… I run through the likely culprits, and I find none fit. I admit that I enjoy punctuating language with an occasional well-placed swear word, and I have hung out with enough men and musicians to have become fairly adept at sexually crass expressions of speech, but man, I could not for the life of me I imagine what it was that I’d said. And she’d said she didn’t care to repeat it either, so I’ll have to give up on learning from this one. Hey, if she was looking for bad parenting choices, she might have found greater offense in the fact that I paid our $44 tab entirely with singles from my kid’s tip jar. I didn’t know we’d be joining them til the day before and hadn’t set any extra funds aside for it, so I was fairly panicked when the check arrived and I didn’t have quite enough… but Elihu did. Hey – I wouldn’t doubt it that this had me swearing under my breath! It had me feeling like a crappy mom for sure. I told him that I was using his money and assured him that next pay-day it would all be returned. Then I slunk over to the hostess’ station and asked her to please swap out my many small bills for some larger ones. I didn’t want the unnecessary embarrassment of paying our portion with forty-four singles… I was trying to stay as ‘normal’ as possible that night. But I’d used my kid’s money to pay for my beer and I’d sworn like a sailor. Not so normal, I guess.

Then there was the owl. The one from which the two boys had removed feathers and talons. That I had allowed the boys to ‘dismember’ this creature was deeply offensive to this family’s Native American beliefs. (Blonde haired and blue-eyed child, I would never have guessed.) What we’d done that day had shocked the parents – so much so they weren’t even able to share it with me; these past four months I was none the wiser for what I had done. But I too had my own feelings about the owl….We knew this owl personally; it was our own Barred Owl – the one that always hooted at two in the morning and once sat on a branch above our heads and allowed us to look our fill at his black-eyed beauty. We’d shone a flashlight up at him and watched as he did what owls do. He would sit still as a stone for minutes on end, then in an instant rotate his head nearly all the way round. He was mysterious, grand and silent. We tired of watching him long before he flew away, and left him in the darkness again, telling him with our hearts how much we loved him as we headed back down the long driveway to the house. How grateful we were that he lived here. It made us feel deeply good to know that he was always somewhere about. Heartbreaking news arrived one day when neighbor Zac told us he had a dead barred owl for us – it had been hit on the road – and he’d bring it over for Elihu to see. We just knew it was our owl. It was with mixed feelings that we beheld the giant bird up close, but it was smashed and dead, all we could do now to honor it was to bear witness, maybe to save some feathers and talons, and to wonder how it was that such a creature survived year after year…

I’d saved the owl in an enclosed tub for several days (otherwise he’d have been dinner for someone else), knowing that Elihu’s classmate was coming over. I’d thought it would be interesting to see it up close, and the mementos would be an unexpected treasure. After all, how often do you get this kind of opportunity? I wondered at what else we could do; taxidermy cost too much. Leaving it out in the woods – as we do with sick, dead hens, that didn’t feel right either. Hell, nothing felt right. Might have buried it, but the ground was already cold and hard. So I decided we’d harvest what we could, then burn it with a little ceremony. Have not cultures been reverently burning their dead since ancient times? I got a woodpile ready as the boys began to learn just how hard it really is to remove feathers from such a robust creature. Pliers were required, and as for the talons, wire cutters were the only tools that worked. I can’t say that there wasn’t a slightly violent feeling involved in the process, but I kept reminding myself that we’d have these feathers and talons – and this remembrance of our friend – for years to come. (Butchering chickens is a kind of violent act as well, but we eat them, so we feel it’s only correct that we must know what it is so kill them, too.) I reminded myself that this creature’s soul had now returned to its creator – that it was now just decomposing matter. If life on a farm teaches nothing else it teaches this: once something is dead, it’s gonna get stinky and messy real soon. Unless you’re gonna eat it – get rid of it. When Elihu and I throw out dead organic matter – whether eggshells for the compost heap or dead hens for the resident raccoons – we always say the items are ‘going back to God’. And that, I believe, is the best way to throw things out. To release them back into the cycle; to allow them to integrate back into the substance from whence they came. Look, getting rid of a dead creature always evokes queer feelings. Sorrow, honor, regret, wonder…. finding a good point of resolution isn’t easy. The day my father was cremated was difficult for me; I still have a very hard time in knowing that his beloved body no longer exists in this physical world… But in the end, when soul and spirit have departed the mechanism, we are left with something that is indeed only physical matter. I don’t believe it hurts to remember the soul that once animated the body by saving just the smallest token. I still have a lock of my father’s hair…

So, after over four months of wondering, the case was finally solved. Foul language and removing parts from a dead owl were my unknown transgressions in the eye’s of our friend’s mother. But I still think that trumping these was the third and still unforgivable offense I’d originally thought was long off the table: that of having once posted an image of her happily smiling child on this blog. Upon learning her feelings about it, I removed all mention of her kid without a moment’s hesitation. I’d not only apologized in a couple of emails, but in person too. I made a point of checking in with her, asking if we were good now. She’d said yes, but clearly was being polite to avoid any confrontation (this is to me ironic in that by profession she counsels others). So here we were, back at the largest issue in her mind: the fact that I had exposed her child to the internet. A place she suggested in a recent email that I must certainly agree is known by all to be a ‘VERY’ (her use of caps) dangerous place. (The world itself is a dangerous place too, but one cannot stay indoors all of one’s life.) Ok. I understand how it can be, but do you really feel your child’s well-being is threatened by one lone image of his smiling countenance on a blog? Sheesh. I obviously do not share this woman’s feelings. But I respect that she feels the danger is very real. But besides taking action, and apologizing, what more could I do? No more, but no matter, the damage has been done. In her mind I had been crossed off the list. She wasn’t going to take any chances on a wild card like me.

In her mind proper values are self-evident, obvious. But in my mind, there’s an interesting twist to this whole thing… What I myself find a little hard to understand is that her child routinely rides on a motorcycle with his father… This is a risk I personally am not willing to take. When I lived in Chicago I once had a motorcycle, and I loved riding. But when I got pregnant, I decided that I couldn’t justify that kind of risk anymore. Someone depended upon me now – there was no room for accidents or injury in my life. When my child is out and on his own and no longer depends upon me, I may get back on a bike again. But not before. This for me is an unacceptable risk, one I feel is far more real and dangerous than mention on any blog. Amazing, isn’t it, how differently people feel about things? I’ve learned a lot from this chapter. One thing is for sure – I’m not going to go around sharing with folks whom I don’t know well that ‘I have a blog’. Too much of a hot-button issue. You just don’t know how it’ll resonate with people. Instead – from now on I’m simply going to say that I’m a writer. I like that better anyhow. And writers can use all the colorful language they like.

Last night mom, Elihu and I went out to dinner at the iconic Hattie’s – a place where the fried chicken still tastes the same as it did forty years ago – and then enjoyed a show afterward at the high school. Each year they produce a top-notch quality musical. This year it was Footloose. Doesn’t seem old enough yet to be hip or ironic, but I guess it’s enjoying a resurgence of sorts, and in spite of having played some of the songs to death in wedding bands years ago, it was still fun to see. The choreography was impressive, and we all enjoyed it. The angel of serendipity was again on our sides; we got a parking spot in front of the restaurant, and then three seats together in the front row – and in front of the percussionist no less. Afterwards in the swarms of people crowding the lobby we ran into two girls we knew from their days at Elihu’s old elementary school – and it made me so happy to see them now as such talented, beautiful young women. It was a nice way to end the evening for Elihu to hug them and say hello. We headed out into the foggy night and in less than fifteen minutes Grandma was dropping us off at home.

The calm inside our house was such a contrast to the whirlwind week now behind us. We were delirious with anticipation of what lay ahead… ‘Imagine’ I said as we smiled to each other… ‘we have NO plans for two days!’ I tried not to dwell on the mountain of dishes, the baskets of laundry, the mess of recycling strewn across our yard… Yes, there was work to be done. But nowhere to be, no one to answer to…. no one to offend. And maybe, somewhere out in the vast, dark woods, there might still be an owl sitting patiently on a branch, waiting, like us, for the first faint stirrings of Spring…

 

Gray Area March 2, 2013

A few months back, I posted a question on Facebook: to color or not to color? I was wondering what the current cultural concensus was about covering up the gray hair. My young son had been hoping that I’d give up coloring my hair for two reasons; first, because of the potentially dangerous chemicals, and second, it was not natural. If my hair was now turning gray, that was how it should be. To Elihu, interfering almost seemed like questioning a divine natural plan. He really wished I’d just leave it be and accept the change… And so for several months I have let it be. I’ve entered into the experiment with an open mind. And after all, winter is a good time to go into chrysalis mode and try things out; grow out hairstyles, lose a few extra pounds, rethink the wardrobe… But each day, when I take a peek into the rear view mirror and see that ever-lightening pate of mine, I wonder. Am I big enough to do this? Am I laid back enough, accepting enough, natural enough? Can my ego handle this, I mean, really? At first I was invigorated – just think how free this will feel! No more roots to stay on top of… my look would be proud, natural, all me… I was beginning to see it… and wouldn’t ya know, there were even folks out there cheering me on! Just not the women.

That Facebook tally? Just about half and half – out of dozens upon dozens of responses, it really was split down the middle. Surprisingly, all the men voted for going gray. And all but just a couple of women voted to keep on coloring. We women just can’t seem to give it up. The thinking is, as best as I can understand, that if we have the means to look younger, and if culture is accepting of our doing so… then why not? Hmm. Well, I guess my kid came up with two good reasons not to. But the more I look at the top of my silvering head in the rear view, the more I falter…  I can understand why the men vote for going gray and the woman don’t; our culture doesn’t really support men dying their hair, so they’re more at peace with the idea of turning gray. (Hell, many of em have to deal with losing all of their hair! Makes going gray seem easy.) When you see a guy whose face says 70 but whose hair is a rich, dark brown – don’t you wonder about him? Don’t you kinda wonder if he thinks it actually looks good? I mean, does he think he’s fooling us? But then again – look at his wife. She’s the same age, and her hair is also an unnaturally dark and even color. But we allow that – and think little of it. Interesting. We’ve definitely got a double standard going. So why would I want to play into this whole charade? Am I really so shallow?? After living with my witchy gray hairs for a few months, I can now answer that question with a definitive ‘yes’.

Another thing about growing out your gray is that it can take a long time. My hair grows terribly slowly, so it might take four years to get to the length it is now. And I really don’t want to wait that long for the ‘complete’ look, nor do I want to cut my hair off. I’ve given this lots of consideration. There have been days when I’ve worn my new gray proudly, but in the end, it aint working for me. There are those for whom the graying process turns into quite a boon, resulting in a gorgeous new look for later in life – but that’s not my story for sure. I am not aging like Emmy Lou Harris here. I had a dear friend who once said that ‘men go gray, but women go silver’, yet despite that gentlemanly thought – and despite my own son today laughing with delight at the way my ‘silver’ hairs sparkled against the dark ones… I’m not feeling it. So I’ve decided that when I’ve lost 15 pounds, I will allow myself the royal treatment; a professional cut and color. And if my wallet can support it – maybe even a blow out. Whoo – gawd that’s gonna feel good. And I’m not a spa kind of gal. Never once in my life had a manicure – never mind a pedicure. Had a massage once, when I was eight months pregnant. No, I don’t spend money on extras like that. But it’s time. I’ll be fifty in May, and my fragile ego needs a good send-off into the second half of the century. A good cut and color should help – and since God apparently means to have me age in the usual way (although I still think there’s been a huge mistake here somewhere), I’m going to need to do what I can to soften the transition. 

So how jive is beauty that is so ill-gotten? Can one have a somewhat manufactured sort of beauty and still maintain one’s integrity? I struggle with this still, but have come upon a few more clues to help me sort it all out… The Waldorf School presents the perfect, supportive environment in which to ‘grow out ones grays’, and yet there are more than a few women there who continue to color – and who make no bones about it, either. We all know that Dolly Parton has been nipping and tucking for years – and has never been anything less that honest about it. And does this woman not have integrity? Good Lord I should say so. Integrity – and wigs, too. That’s a whole ‘nother level altogether.

So I guess I’m feeling better about my decision now. I feel empowered just imagining how I’ll feel with fifteen pounds shed and new, beautiful hair. And quite honestly, I’ve been feeling just about anything but empowered these past few years. I could use a little boost. A little pretty time. So after a good deal of thought on this subject, it’s with great relief that I can now say it’s no longer a gray area for me.

Or is that grey area? Hmm…