The Hillhouse

The Journey of a Mother and Son

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.