The Hillhouse

The Journey of a Mother and Son

Whirlwinds of March March 13, 2017

This past week we’ve experienced a good dose of dramatic and angry-sounding winds here in our corner of upstate New York; several mornings we’ve awoken to see fresh tree limbs scattered across the property. Daily the coop door bangs shut even after we’ve made an attempt to prop it open, and at night the wind through the forest that surrounds our house can sound like a swarm of enormous jet engines passing us on all sides. It’s been cold too, as in single-digit cold, which can make it feel like an all-out assault mounted against us by the elements. The snow is almost all gone now, due to a few unseasonably warm days, but the game is still on; winter is by no means done with us. Truly, we are exhausted by it, but at least we know that it won’t last much longer. Elihu’s birthday is on April 28th, and by then the snow will be gone for good. Each year at about this time, when our patience is at its very end, we remind ourselves of this definitive marker, which promises us unconditionally that there are just a few weeks left. !

Day before yesterday the air was a bit warmer, the wind had calmed down, and as I was outside fixing the fencing and making minor repairs to the coop I heard a new sound… At first it registered as familiar, but it took me a minute to really get it. The red-wing blackbirds were back! Every year our amazement at the turning of the seasons is refreshed; it’s nearly impossible to imagine how different things will feel in only a month’s time, and even harder to grasp that such a change will truly happen at all! Today it sure doesn’t seem as if anything will ever change, but before too long, a few early robins and a line of turtles sunning themselves on nearby pond banks will seal the deal for us. At the moment, however, I pray that all those dear creatures who presently remain suspended in winter’s torpor will stay there for just a little bit longer, as it is still bitter cold outside. (Also, our snow-less terrain will be changing again soon, as there is a winter storm warning for the next two days promising 12 – 18 inches of snowfall. Oh well.)

The recent weather in our interior lives has been a bit windy and dramatic too. A recent heated exchange with Elihu’s father over his attending the Waldorf School including some angry emails from him prompted me to pen a terse response. I knew, even as I posted my note to him on Facebook (polite, to-the-point and with a small degree of good humor), that it wasn’t likely to serve me in any productive way. Yeah, I knew it. But being told “Fuck you” by my son’s father as I tried to defend the importance of Elihu’s school, man, that was too much. Seriously not cool. In hindsight I can understand that he was stressed, and in no frame of mind to respond kindly. Lots on that guy’s plate: travelling internationally (and with a Muslim name no less in this crazy Trumped-up world), having his time with his son challenged (on account of reducing unexcused absences in high school), having to keep up with his financial commitments. Yeah, I get it. In future I think my own policy should be to wait at least 24 hours so I can cool down a bit before firing off a response to his angry communications. But regardless of the situation, regardless of how carefully I might intend to preserve what remains of our relationship, I will never get my props from that guy – and I think I understand that fully now. No well-written letter, no physical evidence, not even a happy and thriving child will get any witness – let alone gratitude – from him. But that’s OK. I have a full plate, and a happy kid. I had my life with Fareed, and in that wonderful life I made friends, I became part of a very unique family, I traveled, I became a better musician, and I learned things – and in the end I got a wonderful child out of it too. So that relationship fulfilled its role in our lives. Yes, it was a good chapter. (The transitional one that followed, er, uh… maybe not so much!) But I’ve been learning throughout the entire journey, so nothing has been lost. All is as it should be… OK. Next adventure?

Elihu himself has had a magical week. Yesterday he played an adjudicated tuba performance (NYSSMA – New York State School Music Association) and received a score of 97. As his teacher told him earlier today at his lesson, this is a pretty important accomplishment in that just over a year ago Elihu had only the most rudimentary reading skills. (Yes, he knew his bass clef, but finding the notes on the tuba made it a whole new ballgame.) The judge made some lovely comments about Elihu’s interpretation and musicality, and this, although perhaps not entirely surprising, still kind of shocked us both. We’d prepared for some level of disappointment, so this was a pretty thrilling conclusion.

Another magical element to the week was Elihu’s successful and short-lived GoFundMe campaign to raise money to buy a collective pitch/3D RC heli. It’s been a while (in the helicopter world 1 year = 5 years of ‘normal’ time) since Elihu’s had a brand-new heli. He’s fixed up the old ones and done his best to keep everything in the air, but at the end of the day, many of his craft weren’t designed to be fixed, but rather simply replaced. And now that he’s got some skills, he really wanted a craft that could support him as he learned a new, more sophisticated technique of flying. But on a $5 weekly allowance, the $250 heli he wanted (by his 14th birthday) would take a loooong time to save for. I made the suggestion that he could start a campaign – but the content was on him. We posted a couple of pics and he wrote the text. It took about a half hour to create, and in a only few hours’ time after posting it he’d reached his goal. He was running around the house laughing and laughing and gleefully jumping over the furniture (well, he does that anyway, but still…).

He promptly ordered the heli, making sure the guy at Horizon Hobby knew of his past disappointments. And wouldn’t ya know, the box arrived FedEx like 2 days later… I missed the first delivery and had to cancel some appointments to make sure I was here to receive it the following day, but oh how worth it it was. !! A triumph, a moment, a rite of passage. Let’s just hope he goes slow and takes all the advice he’s given. This will take a whole new level of skill. I’m confident he’ll do fine, I just hope it doesn’t take him one broken-up craft to get there.

When Elihu told me at the age of six that he wanted to play tuba, I knew he meant it. But who coulda known just what that would mean a few years down the line? And when Elihu began his obsession with birds, and then in time aviation, how could I ever have known the adventures that would ensue as a result? When he was told he needed to play bass before he could play tuba, who woulda thunk he’d take care of business as he did? Me, I was always a path-of-least-resistance kind of person from the start. I did the bare minimum I had to in order to get by. My kid, he’s not like that. He’s one to face stuff head one, assess it, devise a strategy and then dive in. When Elihu does something, he fucking does it. And he does it with such deep interest, such integrity, and such modesty. And the thing is – he does things with true joy. Not the laugh-out-loud sort necessarily (although sometimes that is how it manifests – like when he’s flying a helicopter or playing his djembe and he just can’t stop grinning), but rather it’s something that’s deeper, more lasting. He spends a lot of time in thought, and a fair amount of time reflecting on all the things he’s learned. He’s a fun kid to have around, and many are the times I’ve thanked him for choosing me to be his mother. I’m learning right along side him, and I’m enjoying myself too.

It’s a good thing that things are going well on the kid front, because challenges abound regarding The Studio these days. Forget about updating the website (one can clearly see that I have indeed forgotten about that!), there are mechanical issues popping up as we pilot our way (we? Make that ‘me’) through our second winter. Pipes are freezing, despite my cranking the super-expensive baseboard electric heat, renters are still enjoying last year’s prices (oy, I started so low I cringe to think), the terrain is either too muddy, too icy or piled too high with snow, and mom is still essentially funding the balance. We had a productive board meeting recently, but until we have a larger board, and until I can start assigning people tasks (I suppose in the real world we’d call those ‘committees’) it’s going to remain just lil old me doing it all. But overall, things are so much better than last year at this time, and I have to constantly remind myself of that.

Over the past month I’ve experienced some personal exchanges with folks who’ve stepped up to tell me they think this Studio thing has been a big mistake, a personal detour of sorts, and that I should just let it go. Some folks have wondered why I don’t just work for someone else and give myself a break from all the stress. I myself had some similar thoughts recently, and it was my mother who quite angrily insisted that quitting wasn’t an option. I suppose an existential crisis is inevitable along the path to creating something new like this. All I need to do is read back over this blog through the past few years to see just how far I’ve come. It’s easy to miss in the thick of it. You know, forest for the trees. This weekend has been another in a series of challenges, and thankfully the renter was very kind about it. It’s all been a huge learning experience. From how to run a business to how to maintain a building – to learning how to deal with a variety of different personalities and expectations. Huge. Learning. Experience. (I’m not such a fan of that “word/period” technique, but it does kinda Make. The. Point.)

Now it’s late and I’m losing my recall for the events of the past few weeks. Now I need to summon the focus to wake bright and early tomorrow and start hittin it all again. Make lunch, breakfast, do the chickens, check in with renters at the Studio, get kid to school, hit the Y, do some fast grocery shopping, prepare for a new student, learn the new score for the kid’s musical, put the groceries away (sometimes that’s easy to overlook!). Then there’s the small matter of tweaking the Studio’s bylaws, CCing everyone on the changes, and a few other Studio-related items which are too mundane to list, but can easily eat up the hour I may (or may not) have left after all else is checked off the list. Not sure I’ll get to the website. My taxes and school tuition assistance forms and the monthly emailing will also have to wait another day or two. A girl can only do so much! Maybe after the kid’s in bed…

You too? Yeah, I kinda thought it wasn’t just me. Every last one of us in this contemporary world is busy, busy, busy. But what an adventure, huh? Just today Elihu remarked that neither one of us tended to do things by “half measure”. When I looked to him for his reasoning behind it, he swept his hand in an open gesture toward our small living room. “You don’t just have a piano, you also have a harpsichord. I don’t just have a tuba, I also have a bass. And I don’t just have an alto recorder – I have em all! And we play all of them, and we enjoy playing all of them. And I don’t just love aviation, I live aviation. You don’t just love meeting new people and experiencing new situations, you live for that. And we don’t just keep a couple of chickens – we actually hatch our own flocks right here in our own little incubator.” As I looked around the room with a fresh new perspective, I nodded in agreement. I told him I hadn’t thought of it like that, and I confessed that I often felt our simple life here had sometimes become way too complicated. “We just don’t do things by half-measure” Elihu repeated. We stood there together for a moment in silence, looking out at our cozy room. “But we love it that way, don’t we?”  Yup, I guess we do.

No, there’s nothing half-hearted or half-measured about our life here. And I’m sure my son is probably right. Neither one of us would truly enjoy a static, predictable life – even if it meant all the warmth and sunshine of Florida. And while we treasure our peaceful and quiet time at home, sometimes it’s still a lot of fun to live in the midst of a whirlwind.

The eighth grade class jokes and just kinda hangs out… Elihu, meanwhile is…

Teaching himself Japanese. Not a huge surprise. He’s got a handle on German, so it’s time to branch out.

Back home, Elihu brings Mr. Duck inside for a quick visit with Grandma.

Just look how this kid is growing! See how short both his pants and shirtsleeves have become!

We’ve finally discovered why hens like to park underneath Bald Moutain’s belly: he is covered with a huge number of poultry mites. No amount of topical treatments have rid him of these pests which cause him to itch all over, and without respite. Some hens like to crawl underneath him and pick off the mites as little snacks. I called the local vet and can you believe I have a $156 credit there?? That means that this coming Thursday Baldie will be getting the full-on salon treatment via some internal medication that will put an end to this 8 year old roo’s troubles.


Elihu loves so many animals. This tiny, dime-sized poison dart frog lives with two others of another variety in a vivarium that is self-sustaining. Elihu spent months researching the construction of this sophisticated environment online before putting it together himself. All I can say is God bless the internet, and go YouTube!

Elihu and a new craft made entirely of his own design.

It’s a ‘scale’ paper model. Looks nice and flies surprisingly well. Who knew?

This is the constant state of our kitchen table. I’m ok with it now, but check back with me in a couple of months. !!

This is the super-blah looking time of year. Sigh. And still so cold!Ah, but Sunday morning breakfast makes it better.

So does a quick smooch with Alden, Bald Mountain’s son and the father of future flocks.

Sundays around here mean tuba lessons! In this pic Elihu’s magnificent teacher, Mike Meidenbauer, goes over some smaller points regarding the interpretive aspects of the tuba concerto Elihu will be playing at NYSSMA, an adjudicated performance which is graded and requires scales, sight reading and performance. We adore Mike for many reasons, and perhaps top on our list (although he is a highly regarded low brass instructor) is his joyful and humorous way of interjecting colorful language into a lesson. (He also has chickens!) Mike, Elihu and I are cut from much the same sort of cloth. We find his natural, humanistic way of teaching beyond refreshing.

Warming up, Elihu said he felt like “an elephant in an aviary”.

Kid did well, and he wore my dad’s shoes, too. That made us both happy. Hope it made grandpa smile, too.

Who woulda thunk? Neither of us! Wow!!! and Phew!!!

Proud Mama keeps on boasting…

Back at home, I’ve missed the Fed Ex driver once already, and knowing how precious his delivery is, I make double sure he doesn’t pass us by a second time.

I realize that sometimes our ‘doorbell’ confuses folks. The real bell is an actual bell that hangs on the side of the door. It came from my father’s childhood summer home on Paradox Lake in upstate New York, and it was likely used to call my dad and his brother up to the house for dinner. I just love that the same sound is now a familiar part of our life here. So far, however, very few folks have been brave enough to actually use it.

The package did arrive. !!

Here it is!

Suh- WEET!

Elihu has lamented for a while now that he doesn’t have a YouTube channel, but he has so much information to impart, and he thinks his input could be of value to someone out there. Finally, I sat down and got to work creating a channel. We took his first-ever formal “video” of his heli’s unboxing (which I’m told is definitely a “thing”) and uploaded it. He is now probably the happiest boy that ever walked the face of this earth.

Whew! What a whirlwind this March has been!

Link to Elihu’s new YouTube channel: Copterdude

(For some reason the link cuts off the start of the video – scroll back to catch it from the top.)

P.S. Even though you don’t need one more item in your inbox, I hope you’ll consider subscribing to Elihu’s channel. Thanks for considering!

 

And… Scene August 14, 2016

It’s taken me thirteen years to get back on the horse. Until day before yesterday, I hadn’t played piano and sung since before my son was born. Even so, regular readers and friends will know that the past decade has not been idly spent; I have learned so much and come so far. And it’s not as if I haven’t played piano over the past years, I’ve done plenty of that. Accompanying kids’ plays, choruses, dance classes, talent shows (and tonight you can add something new to my resume: Vacation Bible Camp. Oy!). It’s just the solo thing has been elusive. And I’m not kidding myself to think that playing one little date at a farmer’s market changes everything, and yet somehow, symbolically, it does. Plus I recently learned that the songs I enjoy playing (which heretofore I’d been labelling my “Guilty Pleasures Book”, sounding way too much like a condom ad for my comfort) are actually part of an identified genre. It’s called Yacht Rock. Those who know me from my ‘past’ life may know that I have crewed on boats, spent lots of time sailing, and yearn for the water like nothing else. Finally, something that marries my love of Pablo Cruise with the sea….

This past month I’ve also performed as a jazz singer for the first time in a long while. I’d been searching for a chord-melody style guitarist for years now, without much luck, and finally found my new pal Dan. Ok, not a glamorous start to our career perhaps, but a nursing home job is better than nothing. Plus he’s hipped me to a couple new tunes, some even with verses that were new to me – and that’s always like finding treasure. We rehearse once a week (in the Studio! Nice to have a joint of my own in which to work!) which gives us a nice momentum as we work on our book and our arrangements. I had forgotten how much I love to sing, and how natural it feels. As they say in showbiz: it’s good to be back. !

So that metaphoric hump has been traversed. I’ve got my gear, my book, my gameplan. All good. And today marks four years since I quit smoking. Nice. The Studio has a full calendar of rentals, including recording sessions, meditation workshops and weddings. Yes. My bedroom has been painted for the first time since the house was built in 1970. Whew! Elihu has been gone for one month, and I have been busy, busy, busy since he left. It’s a great relief not to have to make food three times a day, not to have to keep track of another person – and not moving that silly tuba every week is pretty nice, too. I’ll welcome the routines when they start up again in a few weeks, but for now I’m using every moment to its fullest and ticking the boxes off as best I can. The list, however, never, ever ends, and I’m realizing (have I not realized this before?) that I must somehow make peace with that reality of life. One project wraps successfully, and then something new pops up. One issue resolves, and another beckons for attention.

Like my weight, for example. It’s a damn good thing I didn’t toss my ‘fat’ clothes a year ago – cuz I’m back in em again. When I’m busy, I tend to eat crappy, carby, salty, fatty foods. Who wants to nibble on kale when filing? A bag of potato chips is so much more motivating! And my reduced-fare membership to the Y ran out, requiring a new application process that will take a month til I get in the system again. So that’s kinda fallen off the map. I have never been this large before in a non-pregnant state, and it’s really, really disheartening. I don’t know how I’ll find it in myself to find the discipline it’ll take to drop twenty-five pounds. I’ve done it half a dozen times before, I know I can do it, but each time it gets just a little harder to summon the oomph.

A week ago we Conants lost our eldest cat, Mina. That too was a major change in life for me. Mina was originally found in a junk yard in the Hyde Park neighborhood of Chicago, and she’d come with me from Evanston to Dekalb to Greenfield. She was a tortie with tiny tufts of black whiskers on the top of each ear, and she always had sort of an annoyed look on her face, which was part of her charm, really. She was a sweetie to be sure. Not a big cuddler, but she always purred when you were near. She lived next door with my mother, as Elihu’s allergies are just too dire for us to share space with a cat. But in spite of the different address, she was a part of our life. I really think she resisted leaving us; it took her a long time to die. Finally, after a vigil of several days, and with no energy left to sit, she lay on the island in mom’s kitchen as we talked to her, soothing her as best we could, telling her how much we loved her. She would occasionally meow, something very uncharacteristic of her, and we knew she was in a disquieted state. (Mina also meowed twice just seconds after my father died. You can think what you will, but for me, I knew that she sensed his departure.) Finally, at 6:45, I bent over and looked into her glassy, tired eyes… I told her that she needed to leave us by 7 o’clock. I told her that it was ok, we’d see each other again, and that it would feel like no time had passed, I promised her that everything was honestly going to be fine. I thanked her for being such an important part of our lives, and I told her we loved her. Five minutes later her heart finally stopped. Mina was a living link to my past life. And now that link is finally gone. We buried her under the flowering quince bush, next to Thumbs Up.

The other night I finally spoke to Elihu. I’ve talked to him only three times since he left to be with his father. That’s ok though. He himself says that he’s fine until he talks with me, and then he starts to miss me and get a little homesick, so it’s just easier not to call. Which I totally get. It is hard to switch gears. While he was speaking to me the other night, I went to the piano and tried to match the pitch of his voice…. “You’re trying to figure out how much lower my voice, is, aren’t you?” he asked. I confessed. He laughed. When he left his eyes were level with the bridge of my nose. I almost dread how tall he’ll be when he comes home. Sometimes I wish that just for one moment he could be a five year old boy again, and that I could scoop him up in my arms and hold him tight…

There are just a few things left on my list. Then Elihu returns, and the new school year will start with many new elements; the eighth grade will now reside in the high school building, the Studio is now up and running as a real business, I have a duo partner for my jazz gigs and I’ve finally found a way to brand my solo act. That’s all got me feeling pretty hopeful for the future. Ok, so the arthritis is still an issue, so is my weight, and man I don’t know if I’ll ever get on top of the clerical crap that goes with life. But hey. Things are, from a wider perspective, much better than they’ve been in a long time.

And…. Scene!

 

 

 

Five Hundred and One October 21, 2014

This is my five hundred and first post. I hadn’t intended to pass up post number 500 on such a mundane subject as Spam, but very anticlimactically, there you have it. It seems the tally of my published posts was one behind, causing me to miss my landmark. But then that’s not so very important as is the fact that I’m still at it, over three years and five hundred posts (and dozens of unpublished posts) later. The result represents several thousand hours of writing, editing and re-writing. And while I don’t yet deign to claim that I’m a professional writer, I do however, with a small amount of confidence, now identify myself to people as a writer. Not a blogger. I’m a writer with a blog, not a blogger who writes just to generate content. (Lord knows generating content has never been my problem. !)

Bloggers enjoy making entire paragraphs out of one single sentence for effect.

Not me. Well at least not yet. Never say never.

That’s precisely what turns me off when I visit other blogs. That silly, truncated format, those tiny look-how-clever-I-am paragraphs, that sing-song, cutesy tone. Just doesn’t do it for me. Kinda like the Dead. You either dig them, or you don’t. The typical blog format either works for you or not. A particular style of music can either fill your heart with joy – or make you want to rip the radio out of the dashboard. Me, I don’t write in order to have a blog; I write because I’d probably go nuts if I didn’t have an outlet. To be entirely honest, I’ve come to rely on you guys. Having an audience – dare I even say a family? – with which to share my ruminations and experiences is what has motivated me to get out of bed on many a morning.

I don’t think my writing is necessarily great stuff (no false modesty here, I really do think it’s improved in some ways), but I believe what gives it integrity is that I actually write down the things that run through my head. I don’t believe that I’m terribly different from most folks – I just think aloud, that’s all. But in that lots of people get a kick out of watching other people’s tiny dramas – or in some cases rubbernecking at their worst train wrecks – I figure at the very least The Hillhouse offers up some form of entertainment, if nothing else.

Elihu and I went to see comedian Steven Wright the other night (first time I’d popped so much money on a ticket in my entire 51 years on the planet. Hope the kid treasures the memory, at least I know that I will…) and in the days that followed I began to think more critically about what made comedy compelling. What made writing compelling for that matter. And while it may seem simplistic, it seems to me it’s mainly about the truth. Why are some things so goddam funny? Why is some writing worth reading? Because either you’ve already thought the same crazy thought yourself (and thought it was just you thinking it) or have never heard a certain situation expressed before in such an obvious, truthful way that it gets your attention. It’s either been your truth at one point too – or at least you can feel the truth in it. You get it. And that’s why I’m here. Because I need to know that you’ve been here too. Or at least that somebody else gets it. I don’t have the immediate feedback of hearing your laughter, but I do feel the presence of somebody else in the room, and it feels nice.

I’m so glad you’ve stopped by here at The Hillhouse to share in a tiny portion of our life. You’ve given me such a gift in your audience, in your emotional support and input. It continually blows my mind that we’ve had visitors from over 170 countries now, many now regular readers (before this experience I wasn’t even aware that there were so many countries in the world!). I still wonder at who many of you are – expats lonely for home, far-flung childhood friends of mine, people who arrived here on a late night Google jag…? Just who, I wonder, are you? I do know one thing: you are my friends, wherever you are, whomever you are, and whatsoever brought you here. And in exchange for your love and support I send you my energetic good wishes for a life as free from emotional stress and strain as possible, and for many wonderful surprises in the future.

My grandma taught me that the best way to accept a gift is with sincere thanks. And so tonight I thank all of you with my very warmest regards, five hundred and one times over.

 

One Gone October 1, 2014

IMG_4914

Yesterday I lost an earring. It was one of the pair that I’ve worn nearly every single day since I left Illinois, now just over six years ago. They were a lovely pair of ‘little nothings’ the shopkeeper and I had agreed when I bought them as a memento to mark the beginning of my new life. Tasteful, elegant, simple and understated. A pretty pale blue, a color that might match the water or the sky on any given day. Perfect little accessories; always there, always giving me the confidence to feel put together and tidy, even when I mostly wasn’t. You’d hardly even notice them on me, yet still, they did their job, and when I went without them, I always felt unfinished. Those sparkly little nothings did their thing just as they were meant to. Except when all of a sudden one was gone.

Somehow, either while planting the new trees at the end of the driveway, or more likely, while getting a quick shower in before running out to teach, one had silently freed itself from my ear. Instantly, the one remaining earring had become completely useless. Instantly alone. All of a sudden this thing that had always been there, was not. These earrings weren’t given to me by a friend, they hadn’t been in my family for generations. They shouldn’t have meant so much – and truly, after all the loss I’ve learned to accept over the years it really is nothing – and yet, still, they meant a lot to me. As a pair. But that one, lonely remaining earring had no purpose anymore. All it did was make me sad. It reminded me of what was gone, of things that can never be retrieved. How perfect things had been, and how perfect they no longer were. How things change in an instant. How one thing can make all the difference. This musing launched me into a new line of thinking and I began to miss other things too; landscapes, homes, bands, people – things that were once here but are now gone. Things I miss still. I’ve been missing my dad a lot this past week, and this one remaining earring makes me think of him again. One thing without the other. Ich.

We’re about to lose another precious thing right now, as Saratoga’s beloved banjo man, Cecil Myrie is in his final hours. His bone cancer has accelerated rapidly over the past few weeks – just since Elihu and I popped over for an impromptu visit and short jam last month. We both feel very lucky that we were able to sit and make some music with him one last time, because it would be our last opportunity. Our jam was cut short by acute pain in Cecil’s chest, and we left him in hopes of taking him out to play on the street one more time. When we called next, he was feeling much worse and declined to go. I was relieved to hear that some of his friends had been able to catch him on a good day and did in fact get him out on Broadway for one final performance. I just can’t get it through my head that we will never again hear strains from Cecil’s banjo floating over the Saratoga streets again, the backdrop of that town for the past three decades. For as long as I can remember – either while living here or visiting – Cecil was always present. He was as dependable and permanent it seemed as the buildings themselves. Slowing to a stoplight on the main drag of town, windows open, there he was. Singing out “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” and accompanying his song with that signature, folksy style that shouted Cecil’s name alone. My son had grown up knowing him, and in fact, as I think back on our relationship with the man, I recall something special… The first two dollars that Elihu ever made busking were given to him by Cecil, from his own banjo case. And we have them still. Above Elihu’s bird collection, tucked away in his closet, are those two dollar bills, kept as a reminder of this very generous gift, one which essentially started my son’s career as a paid musician. It was certainly an inspirational moment for Elihu. For us it really was the beginning of an era.

A now here we are at the ending of an era. It’s so sad, and it makes us feel that we feel we need to do something. But what? Hoping to create some way of honoring our friend, Elihu and I come upon an idea. When one thing ends, another thing begins, right? It seems a good idea, so we make some plans… After Elihu’s bass lesson today, we’re going to head over to the hospital to say our goodbyes to Cecil. Elihu is going to ask Cecil for his blessing to play banjo and sing on Broadway. Elihu and I have been wondering lately how he might increase his musical offerings, and this seems a natural fit. Elihu sings loud and well, he’s gifted with stringed instruments, and Cecil had been his first mentor on the street. Certainly Elihu can do this with love in Cecil’s memory with or without his blessing… But just maybe it might mean something to our friend. It’s one gift we can give to Cecil before he leaves us. He’s given us so much; it lifts our hearts to think we might be able to give something back to him.

Who knows, maybe one day we’ll hear those familiar songs brought to life again in a new way over the streets of Saratoga; a living remembrance of that one, cherished voice that we’ll always miss so dearly… the one that’s gone.

IMG_0889Bringing flowers from our garden to Cecil, not too long ago.

IMG_0903Cecil shows Elihu the bass box.

IMG_0934Cecil gives me a little lesson.

IMG_4850The last time I saw Cecil out on the street, he was in a wheelchair being pushed by his wife – they were passing this vacant lot in their neighborhood when I waved and shouted hello to them. A perfect place to pick some flowers for him.

IMG_4848Sunflowers for Cecil.

IMG_4856A very sad time.

IMG_4866Marianne and her son-in-law Prince, both from Cecil’s church, come to pray for him and say goodbye.

IMG_4867Nurses do God’s work on the planet. Dan’s own young sons have grown up knowing Cecil and his music.

IMG_4855A view to the south from his windows.

IMG_4928Cecil’s youngest son Josh.

IMG_4930Elihu sang a beautiful song for Cecil and told him that he loved him. Hard to believe that Elihu’s known Cecil for more than half his life. Cecil even tried to speak and opened his eyes while we were there. We know he was with us, even if he couldn’t communicate well.

IMG_4852Some of Cecil’s discography on display.

IMG_4853Now this is how we all remember him. Our banjo man on Broadway.

Goodbye and thank you, Cecil Myrie, we love you so, and we’ll miss you dearly.

And to use Elihu’s parting words to his own dying grandfather, we’ll ‘see you shortly’.

A video of Cecil playing Don’t Worry, Be Happy (a little too dark to see him well).

A much shorter video of Cecil at his post on Broadway by the now-gone parking lot (here you’ll see him fine).

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Here’s a link to a post from two years ago in which Cecil played a part…

 

Song of the Spheres January 1, 2012

It was on a New Year’s Day, more than half my life ago, that I heard it. I’ve only told the story a handful of times; I’ve seldom felt that anyone would really believe me. I’ve also never felt brave enough to take the chance that my listeners might think me crazy. In the telling of this story they’d know that I wasn’t entirely legitimate or believable anymore. There was the great possibility that my audience might think that I experienced something entirely in my imagination. Maybe even pity would ensue. “And she seemed so together..”. What still surprises me about this event long ago was that I was in no particular way educated or prepared to receive such an experience; I wasn’t focused on things metaphysical or spiritual nor was I in any special state of mind that day when I set out for a walk in the woods. It was a snow-covered New Years’ Day like any other here in upstate New York.

It was cloudy and gray on that first day of January. That’s always been my favorite kind of weather – I love the mood it sets. Timeless, directionless, calm. It just feels centered, peaceful. We four Conants were in our tiny farmhouse, each doing nothing much out of the ordinary. Without much to occupy myself, I decided to take a walk outside. All my growing up I’d spent hours upon hours in the woods in wintertime. My brother Andrew and I had so much fun as kids playing on the frozen expanses of water that lay in low spots in the forest, breaking the ice like glass and marveling over the beautiful shapes and patterns it made. Today, rather than head out to the low parts of the woods, I thought instead I would head up the hill and explore the woods just beyond the edge of our open yard. There was a stand of many uniform-sized Scotch pines that clustered together in that spot, creating a space in the woods that was unlike all others. Only recently did I learn that the trees had been planted there by the property’s previous owner. That explained the perfect, almost surreal quality to the area.

I’d been walking only a very short time when I arrived at what seemed to be the center of the trees. I drank in the vision; hundreds of pine trees, all the same shape and size, going on in each direction as far as I could see – trunks, straight and black against the snow, me in the middle. Me, nowhere. Me, anywhere. I might even have panicked as to how to get home but for the tracks I left in the snow. I was truly free to feel the essence of what it was to be here, now. The forest was quiet. Not a snap of a twig, not a rustle of a rabbit, nothing. All was softened by a foot of snow. Then, after a few moments of silence, something began to change, almost imperceptibly at first. I may have thought my ears were ringing. I do remember wondering – if only for a split second – if I might not be hearing music coming from the old house. But any wondering vanished as the phenomenon began to grow. Something was happening. I was imagining nothing. I was hearing music. Gorgeous, sophisticated music. This was very real.

I don’t remember feeling scared. I do remember feeling a sense of urgency; I knew this was a rare phenomenon and that I had to understand it as best I could, and as quickly as I could. I would be methodical and identify its elements. First, where was it coming from? I turned in circles, looking out to the branches, hearing the music flowing around me, from above, from below. From everywhere. As soon as I thought I’d found the right direction, and stood facing it, even cupping hands to ears, it would slip somehow, and it then seemed to come from another direction. And I cannot say it changed directions, it was more like it truly seemed to come from each  direction equally. “Ok”, I thought, “Forget that. Just try to concentrate on what kind of music it is.” So I listened a moment more. It was contrapuntal, with several different voices. They were moving toward each other, away from each other, moving in parallel – many lines that wove themselves together in the most organic way. The first thing that came to my mind was Bach. That would have to do for now, I had to identify the instruments. I listened. Bells, clear, pure-toned bells. Yes…. No… As soon as I was satisfied with my answer, the sound morphed. Into voices. Yes, voices. Male? Female? Can’t tell. Both? Yes… No… no, wait… then again, it changed. It became horns. Pure, sine-wavelike tones that seemed to be French horns, no, kind of, but not exactly… I realized that the music was all these things at once. After I’d spent maybe three or four minutes trying to identify its components, I realized that I’d done all I could. All that was left was to simply enjoy it. To soak it in. So I just stood there, marveling. Dumbfounded and yet not. I just stood there, alone, in the music.

Within maybe a minute of having given up my efforts to identify the music, it began to fade. Now I did panic. I remember calling “No! No! Please, don’t leave!”, turning in circles, trying to recapture the source, the moment. I was begging it not to leave, and realized that tears were coming down my face. But it continued to fade, as gently as any sound could ever disappear, and then in a few more seconds, it was gone. And the woods were quiet again. Not a thing felt any different than it had just a few minutes earlier. I’m surprised I wasn’t more shaken up. Rather, I wiped away my tears, collected myself and stood there. Wow. What had just happened? Why had it happened? Did it have something to do with it being New Year’s Day?? I knew it might never make sense to me as long as I lived. But even then, I knew I had been very, very lucky that the music had chosen to come to me. It would just have to be my secret.

I didn’t spend any more time in the woods. I walked down the hill, back to our small house. Without disclosing too much, I thought I’d at least inquire whether Dad had been playing records on his mother’s ancient all-in-one stereo cabinet, as he sometimes does over the Christmas holidays (I can hear him in my mind singing in a bold voice along with the music…”dance then, wherever you may be, I am the Lord of the dance, said He…”) but no. He hadn’t. “Why?” my mom asks, facing the sink, finishing some dishes. “Oh, I thought I heard some music when I was out in the woods.” I answer in the most non-committal way possible. Even if he had been playing records, there’s no way that tiny box could have carried all the way out there… “Maybe you heard something from the Michel’s?” she posits. ‘Forget it’ I thought, and let it drop. I didn’t mention it again to anyone for years.

A few years later, my parents sold their home in Chicago and moved year-round to upstate New York, where they then built their dream home, just up the hill from the small cottage where we’d spent our vacations. Once, after one of my father’s Baroque concerts, a group of friends and musicians enjoyed some food and drink ‘up at the house’ afterward, as was always the tradition. A woman who’d known me all my life, and who in the early years had sung at my father’s music festival was in the group that night. Perhaps because she was a dowser, and unapologetically so, as well as being a church-going woman of gentle character (loved by all who knew her), I felt comfortable enough to tell my story. I remember Ruthie looking at me, with that smile of hers, unsurprised, listening. When I finished, no one but she had anything to say. She pointed out that the house itself stood where those trees once did. Perhaps, she suggested, that the universe may have known of things to come. Hmm. Was that all it was? A heads up? A little nod from spirit that this is an auspicious spot to build a new house? Perhaps it was part of the equation. Don’t know. And ultimately, it doesn’t matter. I was very lucky that day. So I’ll just take it at that.

There is a sad and beautiful song called “The Night We Called It A Day” in which the lyrics mention hearing ‘the song of the spheres’. Sometimes, when I’d sing that line, I’d think to myself that I actually had heard that song. I wondered, had Mr. Adair? Or was he just using it as a poetic lyric? Just how many people had actually heard the ‘song of the spheres?’ Besides – was that what I heard? If so – if that music had been given a name – I must be one of many who’d heard it too. I’ve googled and searched. Never found any account similar to mine. Not until this past summer. I finally met two other people who’d also had their own unique and unexplainable auditory experiences. Made me feel a little better to hear their stories. Validated. Not so crazy, not so alone. That feels good. And I’m getting braver. That feels good too.

Now I’ve told my story. A nice way to start the new year, I think. May we all grow braver in the coming year, ears attentive and hearts wide open.

 

City Stage, Historic Field June 20, 2011

Filed under: An Ongoing Journal...,Birding,Mommy Mind — wingmother @ 2:27 pm
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My head is brimming with images from the weekend as I sit at my desk contemplating the weekday’s tasks. An enormous bowl of fragrant rose petals sits on my piano, telling me that the Saturday when my nature boy was enthusiastically collecting them in his plastic grocery bag was not so long ago as it now seems. Somehow, at the beginning of a week, the past two days feel to be a month ago rather than mere hours.

Elihu participated in his first official talent show in Schenectady on Saturday as part of the 11th annual Juneteenth celebration at the city’s grand municipal park. Having learned that the holiday commemorates the end of slavery in America, at first I doubted the appropriateness of his performing there. Then I reconsidered the bigger picture and the benefits of his experiencing what it is to be the only white person in a black event. I thought back to my days playing in R&B groups on Chicago’s west side; I remember being the only white person among thousands of black people and at the time thinking how lucky I was, as a white girl, to know this experience. I wished all white people in America could have this experience just once. For one teeny moment in time, I could see through that window and feel what it was to be the only one ‘of my kind’ in a crowd. I wasn’t sure this would even register to Elihu, and while I didn’t want to make it an issue, I did have hopes that this opportunity might get him thinking.

As we sat in the wings waiting for his turn, he told me his heart was beating fast. “Feel it” he insisted, taking my hand and placing it on his chest. I took it to mean his joyful, unselfconscious days were coming to a close; he was now aware that he was going to perform in front of hundreds and he was getting nervous for the first time. He’d been a little nervous before, but this seemed different. Without a list to refer to, we sat waiting for the MC to call his name. The nice twist here was that, in this world of foreign-sounding, black-culture names, his was not met with an uncomfortable pause. Instead, the huge man announcing the contestants gave the name his best shot, got it right, and then politely and with good humor inquired if his pronunciation of it was indeed correct. “Yeah” I thought. This was a nice start.

Elihu picked up his djembe and walked briskly to the stage, where he sat down to play. He’d sat with the monitors downstage of him, as a smart performing boy should; those are the speakers you hear yourself in. However, with him being so little, and the stage so big, the MC asked him to move all the way to the front so as to be seen. I hoped this didn’t throw him off his game. He moved, took no time to compose himself (oh-oh) and began. He started his groove a little too fast I thought. I remembered my mother gasping under her breath when my father, at the harpsichord, would sometimes start a Scarlatti sonata at a gate that she feared he could not safely execute. I too felt that concern, but no matter, he would make it work. He got going and just when he had momentum, threw in a false stop. (Good boy, just like mama told you.) Then he resumed in the smattering of applause resulting from the fake-out and threw in some of his quarter note triplets. It all felt good. A little fast, but good. He knew the right time to stop, and I was proud. He even remembered to bow just before he left the stage, inspiring a third wave of applause. Good little man.

The competition had a table of judges on stage, and although they were just about to offer their critiques and opinions, Elihu fell apart when he walked back to me. “I want to go now! I’m tired! Please, let’s GO!” Having the video going, and wanting to hear the remarks, I managed to quiet him long enough to record it all. We ended up staying for the young girl who sang after him, as Elihu was now curious to see what kind of competition he was up against. The 16 year old girl sang her own song to a track she’d produced herself. When she started, Elihu whispered “I give her a 10”. But as the track got longer and showed little variation in arrangement, and as her pitch got funkier, he leaned in and amended his score “I give her a seven”. Somewhat invested, we stayed to hear her results. Surprisingly, she scored a perfect 40. ? I guess it was impressive that she did it all herself. Execution and editing will come with time. We decided to take a break and come back later for the final scores.

It was refreshing to see so many black, asian and indian faces at the festival.  Since leaving Chicago I’ve been disappointed to find myself living in such a homogenized, white world. This summer festival lifted my mood. Elihu and I passed some time at the duck pond while we listened to the competition ringing out from the amphitheater over the large city park. Near its conclusion, we walked back to learn that he had placed second, and two acts tied for first, the young gal we’d heard after him being one of the winners. With no farewell save a quick swap of business cards with the MC, we made our way back to the car to head out of the tangle of roads that traversed the lush greens and ponds.

Nearing the exit we discovered the largest, most gorgeous rose garden I have ever seen in person. Elihu, nearly as infatuated with flowers as with birds, agreed whole-heartedly that we stop and see it for ourselves. Not five minutes inside, he discovered that many of the thousands of blooms were fairly falling off the stems as they had gone by. He begged I find a bag somewhere as he meant to collect them. Slowly we made our way through the grassy aisles, smelling and oohing over each and every variety. What we’d thought would net a few handfuls of petals became the next hour’s obsession, and as we left Elihu had a bag full to bursting of fragrant petals in every color. During our visit to the garden I offered to take photos of couples who tag-teamed solo pictures of each other, and I had them do the same for us. (I have so very few pictures of Elihu and me together – is it not always the mom absent in the bulk of family photo albums?) A wedding party was also there taking pictures. It was hot and humid and the young tuxedoed men mopped their brows while their dates giggled.

An ice cream truck pulled up beside the garden and sounded its mechanical tune over and over, calling everyone to line up. Elihu had never heard an ice cream truck before, nor was he aware of ever having seen one. I explained that it was a thing, and that he had to take part – even if he didn’t like ice cream (he’s his mama’s boy, we choose salt over sweet any day of the week, and ice cream is not a temptation to either of us). We stood in line with the well-dressed wedding party and enjoyed the playful vibe as they teased each other about the silly names of the treats they were getting. I decided on our confections quickly – with so many waiting behind us there wasn’t the time to explain the choices. Elihu was surprised that it wasn’t actually ‘real’ ice cream, but rather an ice cream-like thing on a stick in a gooey wrapper. I explained that this was also part of the experience, and that in towns and cities all across America this was actually a beloved part of summer.  So we gave it the old college try, trying to stay ahead of the sticky drips as we sat eating our whatever-they-were treats on a stick, sitting on a bench in the rose garden. Ok, got it. Done. We tossed our treats long before they melted to resume our tour. After a nice chat with some nuns from a nearby Catholic church (and also taking a couple of group photos for them) we returned to the car to head for home.

We took the long way back. Since we are reading a historical novel set around the battle of Saratoga in the Revolutionary War, we ended up making our way north via some landmarks we’d read about in the story. Starting in the tiny town of Stillwater on the Hudson river, we then went north toward the sight of the battle we were reading about; the famous surrender of General Burgoyne to our Generals Gates and Arnold. Not even realizing the serendipitous nature of our mistake, we ended up entering the service entrance to the battle field in an effort to perhaps hear some meadow birds. A vast field, sweeping towards the sky beckoned. We pulled over, got out, and prepared for a walk.

Only the horizon and sky could be seen at the end of this lovely, gravel road which cut through the tall grass. As we walked nearer the summit, I could now see we were exactly in the middle of the very battle field we’d been reading about! Ahead was the small, restored cabin where the generals had studied their maps and made their strategies. Once atop the hill, the view towards the east, Hudson river less than a mile away in that direction, was stunning, windswept and vast. The foothills on the other side of the river were distinct and easily seen – I could make out silos and barns, fields and hamlets within the dark cover of forest. Beyond were the mountains of Vermont. Truly a stunning sight, made even more exhilarating by the huge breadth of the great lawn on which we stood. Even Elihu got it. Although through his eyes the mountains were no more than a bumpy, fuzzy horizon, the sheer expanse was still evident to him. Plus, there were more birds singing in this spot than we could ever recall hearing in one place. We two lingered there, as the sun began to set, with no need to leave, to return home, to close this moment. We unlatched the shutters to the small cabin and peered inside to see the desk, quill pen and spectacles laid atop an ancient map. We stood on the porch of the cabin, wind in our faces, and tried to imagine this place, so different, so hectic and busy and important all those years ago.

As we began to walk back down the hill through the tall field, we heard more birds still. Elihu’s frustration at not seeing the Snipe was finally too much, and he burst out angrily that it wasn’t fair that he, of all people, should not be able to see the bird when he knew so well what it looked like. But, God bless that kid, he didn’t dwell on it, as he easily could have – at least it would be entirely understandable if he did – and soon he was in joy again at his luck to have at least heard this bird for the first time.

In the car, we resumed our drive home – one we’d chosen to match as carefully as possible the route that our heroine took in the novel – and managed to make only one impromptu stop in order to smooch some cows as they were given their last meal of the day. I had a short conversation with the farmer, a tall, German-born fellow whose accent made it difficult for me to learn much more than that these gals were for breeding and not for milk. Pulling Elihu away, we got on the road and once again made for Saratoga.

As a means to more fully understand what it was to travel nearly 300 years ago through the woods at the pace of a horse, we took one final detour through Yaddo, an artists’ retreat on a lovely, wooded property just outside of town. Once inside the gates, we rolled all the windows down and merely idled. “This is as fast as she could go?” Elihu was going for complete accuracy. “Yup, just about”. After five minutes of this, we both got the picture. Mosquitoes came in the car, the humidity of the outside world closed in, and we were glad for our horseless carriage with the power of several hundred. Finally, we headed home.

The day was such a complete buffet of experiences. We’d started in the city, and ended back here putting our chickens in for the night. We both fully felt our good fortune and the magnificence of the day. We were in a fine mood as we sat to dinner Saturday night. I recounted our day, and in particular wanted to know more about his experience at the talent show. “So you were nervous for the first time, huh?” I asked, dreading his confession. “No! – I was excited! I couldn’t wait to play!” he protested. Wow. I was so thrilled. Good for him, good for him.

With our first-hand visions of the story’s setting freshly imprinted in our brains, we settled into bed eager to finish the final chapters of our historical novel. Some days it seems we’re writing a novel of our own, and this day had been a particularly enjoyable chapter to be sure.