Making Music

Making Music

It’s come to pass now. I’ve just been to New York City for a rehearsal. It was my first time playing with other musicians in almost two decades. And it was fun.

But it was also work. I had learned my parts, yet I’d still missed a few details. The music director and the leader were kind about it though and helped coach me as best they could. But in the end, there were a few nuances I couldn’t get in the moment, and which I promised to make good on by the time we met in Chicago for our first show.

I know I talked too much. I’m accustomed to being the funny one, the one in charge, the most colorful character in the room – but it wasn’t so in this situation (nor was it really appropriate for me to add my unnecessary commentaries). For as many times as I scolded myself during the rehearsal to please stop talking, I failed at that effort. It had been so long since I’d been in the company of professionals that I felt downright provincial, and it threw me off. I felt like the chicken farmer from upstate who couldn’t stop chittering about how exciting it was to be in a big city and playing with a real band. Sheesh.

But all in all, it went well. And it’s going to feel like heaven when we’re all assembled on stage and playing (we have some guests for the upcoming date in Chicago who are joining us – it promises to be a night of gorgeous sounds). How perfect is it that our first show will be in my hometown? It seems like something from a dream. And yet it’s real. Very real. When it’s all said and done, I will have driven a few thousand miles and moved a whole lotta gear. I will have spent hours upon hours learning and practicing. Man, it’s just such a lot of work. But strangely, that seldom enters my mind. It’s just what one does in order to play music. It’s a challenge, but it’s also a joy. And not everyone can do it, so I’d be foolish to waste such a gift.

It does make one wonder, though, why in hell would anyone go to all this trouble and invest all this time and money only to end up barely breaking even? Any sane person would question the whole thing. But musicians, we don’t tend to focus on the effort or expense. If we did, I can promise you there would be no live music! So why do we do it? For me, honestly, it feels like I’ve never had a choice. And look, I know, no one made me do this. But I’ve always felt that playing music was so naturally a part of my life that there were no other options. I did go to college and I tried to do things the “right” way, but it simply wasn’t my path. Learning, rehearsing, loading in and loading out, it’s been part of my life ever since I was sixteen and my mom drove me and my suitcase Rhodes to rehearsal in our powder blue ’65 Valiant.

This new situation is more than just about the opportunity to play music, it’s about the opportunity to work with people who are very good at what they do. Over the past fourteen years I’ve been so musically lonely. When I lived in Chicago there were so many excellent and talented musicians with whom to work that I never experienced a shortage of projects, and I was always challenged. But here in my country life I haven’t had any musical relationships at all. Of course I’ve been busy raising a child, but still….

So this is why I bought a new keyboard, spent hours learning material and just drove four hundred miles for a rehearsal.

So I could get back to making music.

Imposter’s Roster

Imposter’s Roster

All in all, things are going so well these days that I’m starting to become suspicious. I’ve had such a challenging run over the past fourteen years, I can hardly believe the recent and rapid cascade of events.

Firstly, I have been welcomed into a new band under the leadership of one very intelligent and creative individual, a man whose work has been known to me for many years.

There was a time when I’d held him in such high esteem that he seemed altogether in another league. And I still assert this to be true; the guy is super-prolific and uber-talented. But, if I will remember my own sentiments from a recent writing, he is still just a man. I get this. I’ve spoken to him on the phone and very much enjoy his energy from those conversations alone. And after having watched a few interviews and having begun to read one of his novels, I’m feeling much more familiar. I can feel the love and sincerity present in him, and frankly, I’m beside myself with happy anticipation at our first meeting in just two days’ time. I so seldom meet individuals whose energy comes close to mine, and this time I think I will definitely have met my match. I cannot wait.

At this writing it is Thursday, and my very first rehearsal with the new band is on Saturday in Brooklyn. I’m hoping to capture my experience as it unfolds, because this, the “time before”, will be an interesting thing for me to look back at some day. It feels a bit bold to be revealing this part of the experience; is it not cart-before-the-horse? Is it too much like a flat-out diary entry? Perhaps. Nonetheless, I shall continue to document the process.

I keep telling myself to be realistic; things could still change. I might not be a fit. I might not be good enough. Oh, but man. I know I am. I just know it. But wait. Do I?

There is a constant feeling living in me these days which I must combat. And having learned recently that it’s an identifiable “thing”, I feel a bit better. Perhaps I’d heard the term at some point in my life, but previously it had meant nothing to me. “Yeah,” my friend had said as I described the unpleasantness I was experiencing, “You’ve got ‘imposter’ syndrome.” “Yes! That’s it!” I’d shouted when she named it. What a relief! She told me that as a working architect she too often wondered if she hadn’t been fooling people all along. “I think to myself: Why am I here?” she said, “There’s got to be a mistake, do they understand it’s me?“. Exactly. That was how I was feeling too. Somehow, I musta fooled someone. Right?

Likely not.

It’s just that is has been nineteen years since I’ve played in a band with other musicians. That’s a very long time to be on hiatus, and it makes me wonder if it’ll be just that easy to get on the horse again. And I can’t say that I don’t write that with a bit of inner animosity; curse those musicians who had supportive spouses to share the load of a household. Curse all of those people whose lives didn’t change with the advent of children, whose music didn’t come to an abrupt halt. I admit it, it makes me jealous. But keeping in mind the wondrous result of my almost two-decade hiatus – a successful, creative and thriving child – I can temper these thoughts and instead focus my energy on the adventure that awaits.

As some readers may know, I recently had a piece of writing published in a very public way. It happened so very quickly, and with no foreknowledge whatsoever. I’d been upset at the headlines surrounding the death of drummer Taylor Hawkins and immediately set out to express what I was feeling. When I finished, it was 1 a.m., and as an afterthought – I have never once submitted a single piece of my writing to anyone before – I decided to send it to a couple of newspapers. I perused their requirements, amended the piece accordingly, then sent it off to the Boston Globe, New York Times, San Fransisco Chronicle, and lastly, from my hometown, the Chicago Tribune. I had a tiny voice inside my head saying that the Tribune would pick it up. Ages ago I had written a grant proposal and mailed it off, never thinking of it again. Turned out I was the winner. The grant had been from the Chicago Cultural Center. So, I had a feeling.

I slept very little the night after I’d written the piece, and by the time I arose and checked my inbox just a few hours later, there it was. A rejection from the NYT, but a letter of interest from the Trib. I was excited, but I was conflicted by the subject matter. Seemed strange that I should revel in a success made possible by a man’s death. I smiled to myself all morning, but then would scold myself for doing so. Just how was I supposed to feel? Within two days the paper’s syndicates had in turn published the piece for their weekend papers, and shortly after that my inbox was filled with emotional letters from people all over the world. This time, however, there was no imposter thing going on. These folks all just wanted a witness to help them process their grief. I set aside several hours to respond to all of them. It was the necessary and right thing to do. For once, I knew that this was my job, and I was good at it.

I’ve got some exciting but rather intimidating challenges ahead in my immediate future. I suppose just meeting the fellows in the band and spending an afternoon rehearsing in earnest will be the first thing on the list. Then comes the show in Chicago. And then comes a photo shoot. And finally, on my 59th birthday, I’ve agreed to perform some absolutely on-the-fly, improvised and through-composed songs as part of a storyteller’s program. When the host asked me, I didn’t allow myself to say no. Many have been the moments I’ve wanted to call her back and tell her to find someone else, but I can’t. These days my life is about saying “yes”. Even when I am fairly certain there must be some mistake, I need to behave as if everything is just fine.

I’ve got to trust that people know what it is that I am capable of, even if I myself am still not quite sure.


Visit my future bandmate Wesley Stace (formerly known as John Wesley Harding) here.

Death of a Drummer (Original Post)

Death of a Drummer (Original Post)

After giving birth to my son almost nineteen years ago, I pretty much checked out of pop culture. Being essentially a single mom from day one, I didn’t have the time or energy for anything else. So yesterday, when I heard of drummer Taylor Hawkins’ death, I wasn’t hit hard the way so many of my friends and fellow musicians were. What had bothered me were the headlines that told us “10 different substances” had been found in his body. The implication was tawdry and disrespectful; it was sensationalistic language that didn’t demand a backstory. It basically left readers with the takeaway that this was just another sad and perhaps unremarkable casualty of rock ‘n’ roll. Who needed to read further? Not having any previous sentiment for the man, I was surprised at how offended I was by these cheap headlines. There had to be more to the story.

Indeed, there was.

I read the Rolling Stones interview with Taylor from June of last year. Despite his expletive-rich conversation, he revealed himself to be soft and vulnerable on the inside. I recognized in Taylor an aspect of myself. I saw this tender fallibility in many of my friends, too. This man was simply trying to do his job, just trying to get through. Imagine a musician playing huge arenas who must fight his fear to even be on that stage! There’s no place to hide. All he can do is power through it. Or medicate through it. A human does what he or she must, simply in order to get through.

It’s so easy to be star-struck. I’ve met a number of famous people in my day, some who inspired me to offer up some inane fan-banter, and some who later became known to me in human and intimate ways. At first, you feel their energy, their focus, and perhaps you sense that they are existing in something of another world. And there is no doubt that their hard work and rare talent should be respected, and it is often true that their thinking takes them elsewhere. But at the same time, one must always remember that people of elevated visibility are not gods or goddesses. They are humans. And they are also just doing their best to get through.

My father was a harpsichordist of some note. His esteemed career took him to many stages in many countries. As a child, I would see him as two different men; the fellow who shuffled around the house in his slippers and bathrobe, doting on his beloved cats, and that other man – the one who wore a white bow tie, tux and tails, who warmly received us backstage, the gentleman who greeted fellow musicians in French or German. When I visited people in the early music circles, they would often ask if Robert was my father. It was a point of pride for me, but it also gave me instant credibility, and just a hint of my own star power by proximity. What I did not know about my father til just a few years ago – was that he struggled with stage fright. He may even have dealt with panic attacks. From what I know through my experiences, and what I’ve pieced together from anecdotes told about him many years later, I’ve come to suspect that I may have inherited my genetic predisposition for depression and panic from him. My famous yet fearful father.

For many years I was married to a well-known musician. Although I did enjoy most of the experiences that came with the territory, I’ll admit that I had very little tolerance for the super-intense fans. They seemed somehow clueless to the fact that this man also shuffled around the house in his robe and doted on his cats. (There is one thing to be said for people who achieve a certain level of fame: they become quite adept at graciously interacting with fans. I’m not sure I could successfully cultivate this important skill. My ex was, and still is, expert in this area.) These people didn’t seem to get that he was just a guy. I know that it’s what being a star is about – cultivating an other-worldly aura – but still, that fan behavior never sat well with me. It seemed such an unrealistic burden to cast upon someone. Whenever I meet someone of high esteem, I try to relate to them as honestly as I can. My goal is to bear witness to their humanity, not their star power.

It’s the humanity of this fellow Taylor that endears him to me. It’s the fact that he was not an irresponsible or reckless person, but rather a man dealing with recovery, with fame, with stress. Such a potent mix of things – a situation that few of us can understand. That this man dealt with insecurities and fear – even when he was at such a high level of fame and accomplishment – is a testament to the emotional frailty that is present in all of us. Human beings are all just doing the best they can, just to get through.

None of us is the person we would have the world believe we are.

Let’s try to realize that there is so much more to every story than we will ever see. We must trust that no one is having an easy time of it; this is a hard planet.

Be an attentive and forgiving audience; everyone is putting on the best show they possibly can.

A Greeting

A Greeting

This is an unconventional post for me; I should like to briefly introduce myself – and in some way, qualify myself to a completely new and unforeseen audience.

My name is Elizabeth Conant. I’m a 58-year-old woman, originally from Chicago, who has recently concluded a 15-year run as a single mom in rural upstate New York. Although I’ve worked mainly as a piano teacher and accompanist in this past chapter, in my previous city life I was a working musician.

This blog began in earnest some ten years ago when I desperately needed a conduit to the word in the wake of a traumatic divorce (I know, what divorce isn’t traumatic?) and cross-country move.

I’ve dealt with depression and panic attacks since adolescence. Thankfully, these issues are currently much less acute than they’ve been in past years. That may well be because I now stand at the threshold of a curiously inviting time of freedom and possibility.

In some respects this collection of writings might be construed as an online diary, but I hope that readers may find contained within the 650+ posts some substantive content which pleases or inspires them.

Welcome to The Hillhouse and thank you so kindly for stopping by.


For a peek into our life here at The Hillhouse, please visit our Instagram page.

Link to the Chicago Tribune piece on the death of drummer Taylor Hawkins

Star Shooting

Star Shooting

My thick, arthritic fingers give me away first. Next come my crepey neck skin and disappearing jawline. Then there’s the thinning hair. Seriously. Did the universe not receive the directive? I was supposed to get a moment of glory after the kid launched, right? Understanding more fully the unforgiving nature of aging, and learning in some bright new way that I’ve not been given any pass on account of merit – I have taken to saying “yes” to opportunities these days, cuz who knows how many more lie ahead?

That little word has opened a lot of doors lately. I would’ve said no to a few invitations but for that ticking clock in my head and the agreement I’d more or less made with myself that I would dive headfirst into life while I still had the physical ability to do so. “Want to come to Vegas with me?” Yes. “Want to record something today?” Yes. “Want to come on stage and sing with us?” Yes. “Remember that comment you’d made about wanting to play in the band? Were you serious?” Yes.

Add to that list taking a zipline above the rooftops of old Las Vegas, driving cross-country (panic attacks took that off the table for a number of years) and flirting with men as if I were twenty years younger – and you’ve got a little thumbnail of the way I’ve spent the past couple of months.

Just to keep things real, however, I will add that when I’m left to my own, and without an agenda or a goal, I tend toward the same old familiar depression. But with these new recent experiences afresh in my mind I have learned that there are some things I can actively do to prevent the slide back down into hopelessness. (I’m grateful that my situation is not as intolerable as it is for many; I’m lucky, and I realize this.) There have still been short stretches of time in which I’ve felt the despair begin to take me over, and it’s then that I force myself to take some sort of action. Write, play the piano, learn a song, take a walk. Something, anything. Any sort of activity… simple, home-bound and doable.

And then there’s the complicated, far-flung and seemingly impossible stuff. That’s fair game too.

When I took my recent trip to the Midwest to visit friends (which happened after my initial week’s adventure out west, a nod of appreciation going out to the minor rock god), the entire experience flowed like pure magic. I kept marveling over it, hour by hour, as the serendipity continued without pause. Wasn’t the other shoe going to drop sometime soon? No! Why the hell should it? I’d tell myself, somehow actually believing it. The ‘old’ me would’ve prepared for mishap at every turn.

But not this new me, apparently. And friends, let me tell you, during my three weeks of travel and adventure I did not once succumb to such thoughts – and it was to my great surprise, I assure you! Just who was this woman? This lucky, lucky woman? Surely it was not Elizabeth! How could this be? Feted by friends, appearing places at just the right moment, having my tab picked up by a stranger, finding a parking space right in front of the club. I’m not a believer in instant karma (not sure anymore how I even feel about long-term karma, to be truly candid), and while it’s tempting to chalk it up to a happy reimbursement from the universe for the many years of good, solid and solo parenting – I don’t think it was so. Rather, it was my happiness, my exuberance – these things paved the way.

I can’t account for the flawless timing of things – but I’m still a believer in the magnetism of energy, the attraction of like with like. I dunno. On paper it seems to go well with a belief in karma, but the jury is out on all of this stuff. All I know is that I felt powerful and engaged with everyone I met. I was of course on cloud nine to finally be amongst my brethren, but it was more than that. As I’ve said before, it really was magic.

Aside from the many memories I now have and treasure, I came away from the trip – and the past couple of months, too – with a new sort of awareness. I’ve always fancied myself an observant and somewhat contemplative type, but I also know myself to be an overwhelming energy in the room; I am an interrupter, a talking-over-the-other-person person; I am often insensitive to people even when I like to think I’m anything but. And I’ve been wishing to change this, so I made an effort to visit with friends in person (I put hundreds of miles on the car in side trips) even when I’d had online communication with them. And the more I met with folks, the more I realized the insight that in-person contact provided. I felt I began to understand my friends in deeper ways. Some may say this is simply a post-covid response, but I know it not to be. I will say however that being sequestered in the country and having no peers or creative life to speak of over the past fourteen years has probably contributed to my appetite for connection.

But it’s more than that. I’m gonna take a guess and posit that perhaps, in some way, I am finally growing up. Maybe. At the very least, I’m living with a keener sense of mortality.

Time tells me that I can’t fuck around anymore. If I’m gonna do something, if I’m gonna learn something or have a new experience, it’s going to take effort. It’s going to take being brave, taking a leap and saying “yes”.

When I visited my hometown, I stopped by the Baha’i temple near the house where I grew up. It was nighttime, and the enormous, dome-shaped building was brightly lit and simply majestic against the black sky. I stood there for a long time taking it in. After a while I glanced at the clock in my car, it was 11:22. Hm. That was my old address in Chicago. I’d gone back there to visit too, and had been happily received by my old neighbors. In every way things had continued to line up on this trip.

My eyes returned to the view, and I noticed an amber glow in the sky to the west of the dome. My first thought, of course, was that it was a plane. My second thought was that I wished my son was here to see it with me. The glowing light traveled above the temple in a path toward the lake to the east. It appeared to break up shortly after it passed over the dome, and then, silently, it disappeared. I stood there, amazed. My linear mind wrestled with the details; it was amber, not white. There were no red and green lights on the sides. It was silent, it didn’t look like fireworks…. But in the end, my magical mind let it go. I had witnessed something lovely, something breathtaking. It simply couldn’t matter what it was. It was now another part of my stunning journey.

It felt as if I’d been given a wink from the cosmos. Something was telling me that I was on the right track. I was exactly where I was supposed to be, and I was doing exactly what I was supposed to be doing.

I was shooting for the stars.

Over and Out

Over and Out

There is no more waiting. No more positing about how it will feel. The “just imagines” aren’t needed, nor are the observations about how changed this place will be from here on in. No more wistful reflections are really called for at this point. It’s been in the works for a while now, and it’s finally come to be. Elihu returned home to help do the deed, and now it is done. The flock has flown, and the coop is finally empty.

There will be some poignant moments yet ahead I’m sure, but this chapter needed to come to a close, and it’s not hard to understand why it was necessary. Elihu has set out on his journey, and now it’s time for me to fully commit to the adventures that await. Personally, I know it’s still going to be a challenge. For almost fourteen years I have identified myself chiefly by the descriptors “single mother” and “farmer”. Now these occupations have (for the most part) concluded.

People can understand what it means to be a mother. It commands its own kind of respect, that’s a given. But learning to inhabit the culture of animal husbandry in earnest is no small feat, and it’s not understood by just anyone. Those of us who have known what it is to really live in that world know that this title identifies you in a way as few others can. To put it in simply, being a farmer pretty much “grows your ass up” in a big way. (So too does being a single mom.) For a long while now, these two titles have done well in telling my story. But once again, things are going to change, and so too must my roles.

It’s strange to think about the “me” that came before. The person I was in my past life seems to have had so very little to do with the woman I was yet to become. But I think that a good number of people share this experience. It’s fascinating how many personas we inhabit during the course of one long life.

In my earlier years, living had been all about me; my life had all been about what I was creating and doing – it was all that I knew. Aside from teaching (which is what just about every musician must do to pay the expenses of living), my life was all about me. Yeah, I had a partner, and a couple of cats too, but for the most part, no one’s very life depended on me. My cats could’ve lived with a neighbor, my husband could’ve taken up with another partner (and he did, hence the chapter which followed). I myself wasn’t critical in determining anyone else’s prospects for a healthy and successful future. In short, I was an autonomous individual. (Please don’t read any subtext into this; I thoroughly enjoyed myself and it was a very fine way to live at the time!)

It goes without saying that having a child changed things. But having my husband leave me for a much younger (and pregnant) girlfriend, going from a privileged existence to poverty, and then moving from suburbia to the country – all of this happening in one fell swoop – that’s the stuff that really transformed my world and launched me into the roles which were to become my life’s main work.

In the following stage of my life things would no longer be about me. The health, comfort and safety of my child became the single driving motivation for every choice I made. There would be no sending in of subs, no calling in sick, no sleeping in late. For a good long stretch, it would all be on me, and everything would be about the welfare of my son. Stepping up and pulling through had felt like something of a triumph for me. And when I was fully under sail and somewhat in control of things, the terms “single mother” and “chicken farmer” certainly helped describe to the world who I was.

After a while, being these things became a point of pride, too. I’d made it, and I’d also done a pretty good job. Frankly, it was the first time I’d been exceptional at anything. Previous to being mom and chicken farmer, I’d always just done what was asked of me, laying low for the most part, rising to challenges only when I absolutely had to. (That being said, I have always shown up.) I hadn’t always been a super-hard worker in my previous life, but I’ve certainly done a respectable job at raising creatures here at the Hillhouse, both human and otherwise.

And now that job is over.

Frankly, if I’d allow myself to think about it too deeply, I’d likely lose myself in weeping. But that would enfeeble my spirit, and I can’t afford to do that. Now, more than ever, I need to rest, regroup and restore my energy. I need to renew my focus. Cuz things are changing. Movement has begun to pick up again. I’m gonna need my stamina to follow this next wave to its crest.

Some might say it was a fluke, others might say it was the infinite wisdom of the universe doing its thing. Either way, recently things seem to have worked out quite nicely…

Once, I’d made a comment on a Facebook post made by an old musician friend of mine regarding a group he was in. I wasn’t proud, but I’d been flushed with envy when I saw the keyboardist, and when I’d heard the beautiful sounds she’d made. I shared the compliment with him, and he forwarded it on to her. She’d appreciated it. That made me happy. It was, I’d thought to myself, the closest I’d get to that life again. I half-joked to my friend that I was jealous of the keyboard player; I so wished I could play in that band with him instead of her. (I was not joking. I was jealous, and I longed to play in that group.) Fast-forward a month or two, and can you guess what happened?

The timing was not great; I was sick with a very unpleasant 24-hour stomach bug when I first heard the news. I was reeling with nausea and fever. My friend had texted me to ask if I’d meant what I’d said, because the keyboard player had just quit. Rehearsals would be on the east coast somewhere. New York City, Philadelphia maybe. Was I interested? Even with a fever and a pounding headache I didn’t need a second to consider. Yes! Yes, yes, yes! Before the afternoon was over I’d spoken with the band leader and the music director. I’d agreed and they’d accepted. Immediately after, I puked my guts out and went back to bed, achy and disoriented. What had just happened? I’d make an inventory later. It sure didn’t feel like a triumph. I couldn’t digest. It seemed that I’d need to learn some software or get a new keyboard. I’d have to learn a bunch of new music. And the logistics weren’t clear. There would be stuff that needed to get done, but I couldn’t sort it all out. First, I needed to rest. It seemed as if my body was collapsing after a marathon.

A few weeks have gone by since I said “yes”. I’ve purchased a MacBook, begun to acquaint myself with some new software, and started to learn the new music. The tech part of the equation is far more daunting than the music, but before long I suppose I’ll figure it all out. I can’t think too long and hard about it all, as I don’t want to give traction to panic attacks, or just good old-fashioned self-doubt. Because I know I’m the best woman for the job. I do. I just don’t know quite how I’ll get there. But I will.

Cooped up no more, Elihu and I are lifting our wings and rising into the sky. Higher and higher, over the treetops and out into the great big life beyond.

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P.S. The flock has been moved to two different locations, one lovely farm is about a half hour’s drive away, and the other one just across the road. We have visitation rights at both. Our birds are going to have wonderful lives in their new homes, and this helps us to accept the change. It is already quiet here, and the coop is dark. Tomorrow morning there will be no crowing to wake me. The first few days will definitely be a time of adjustment, for both me and the birds. But I know that all will be well. Onward we go….

Shift

Shift

It’s here. My new, post-child life. The one I’ve both dreaded and longed for. What will occupy my time? Will I ever know a social life again? Will I ever travel? Perform music? Will my life expand – or will it contract?

Without any preparation or forethought, a few lovely things recently appeared on my horizon and have now been firmly penned into my calendar. In due time I’ll share my progress, but for now, suffice to say, life has thrown a couple of sweet surprises in front of me. Certainly the aging thing isn’t slowing down, and my fingers are looking more like my 87-year-old mother’s than the ones I’ve known ’til now – yeah, the mortal shit continues to do its thing – but on a personal level things look promising. I don’t make any more money than I have in the past – in fact, I have less of it than ever before – but I’m not lacking in things I need. I’m lucky.

My son spent almost two weeks here with me after returning from holiday break at his father’s, one week being a bonus of time due to extended virtual classes. Just last night I drove him to campus, and he was beyond thrilled to be back. Having used his extra time studying and preparing for his new courses, he was more than ready. Plus, in the extra week, my son had also taught himself to play trumpet. Shortly before I left, he was standing with his eyes closed, playing variations from the Carnival of Venice. When he hugged me goodbye – my son is not a hugger, mind you – he squeezed me really tight and told me that he loved me. Oh, his joy. My joy. Truly, a mother could not wish for more.

From the parking lot I can see Elihu’s dorm room window, and before I drove off into the night, I stole one last peek at him. He was still playing his trumpet.

It’s one thing to leave a happy child to his bright future. It’s another thing to return home to one’s own bright future. How grateful am I that this moment in time, one which I’ve dreaded for ages now, does not bring with it the despair it might have, had things worked out otherwise. I now have things to look forward to. But, beforehand, there’s a lot on my plate which needs my attention: figuring out my way around a Mac, gaining facility with a new program, learning a bunch of music (maybe you get where this is going). So before I can fully enjoy the experiences ahead, I have a lot of work to do. For me, it’s fairly daunting. I’m not a techie, and I really don’t like dealing with gear (least of all new gear). Thankfully, I have friends who can help. And, as my son always scolds me when I ask him for answers, there’s always an Indian dude on YouTube who can tell me how to get the job done.

On a personal level there is also a nice treat headed my way in the next few weeks. I’m going to drive my deer-battered car to Chicago, where I will not only unload all of my vintage gowns and dresses, but I will stay with my bestie from high school, visiting a handful of old friends while I’m in town. There will be food to savor, sights to see and memories to revisit. Plus there’s another little excursion I’ll make in addition to my midwestern trip. This is a piece of seriously serendipitous magic at play. (I’m sending a demure wink of appreciation to the party responsible.) Hopefully these adventures will refresh me and prepare the way for the rigors ahead.

Thrilled am I at the changes that await. Thrilled am I to be at the doorstep of my life’s next big shift.

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Please forgive the mom brags to follow, but I feel compelled to elaborate on my son’s progress in life, and at RPI. I hope you might find it interesting…

Firstly, Elihu has made his autonomy more real than ever; he has deleted all of the videos on social media in which he’s appeared in a humorous or childish manner. He wishes to present himself as professionally as possible – and home vids are not something he wants in that mix. It presented a true shift in the way I had to think about him with relationship to me; I could no longer casually involve him in my posts. His role as my child is ours alone, it is a private thing. I get it, I certainly honor it, but I kinda mourn the change too.

My son is an Aerospace major, and a Chinese minor. He taught himself how to write and speak Mandarin before he went to college, and just this past week he tested into Chinese 3 for the spring semester. Elihu had a nice piece written on him for the school blog, he played solo tuba at the school’s fall concert (go to 3:07 to hear RPI president Dr. Shirley Jackson give him a lovely introduction, or go to 25:10 to hear him play Bach), he played in several ensembles (jazz, classical and early music) and has been invited by the outgoing president to perform at her invitational farewell concert. He’s written a tuba concerto as well as auditioned for soloist with the orchestra. In an effort to keep up his beloved German, he began a German conversation club with happy results. He also tried to start up an indoor model-building aviation club, but sadly there were not enough takers. He’ll persist, however, and I have no doubt he’ll be successful. He’s won numerous scholarships; not a penny will we pay in tuition, room, board or materials – all due to hours upon hours of his hard work. (He knows damn well it’s far beyond this mother’s purview!)

As an avid linguist (he is conversant and literate in five languages now) Elihu is thrilled to share the company of students from all over the globe, giving him the opportunities to hear and practice new languages. His roommate is Chinese, however the student’s first language is not Mandarin, and his accent makes understanding tricky – but this is precisely the stuff that inspires my child; he’s using this situation to expand his understanding of Chinese languages.

Elihu has made friendships with several PhD students and faculty members. He is networking and enjoying the camaraderie of similarly-minded (um, shall we just say “brilliant”?) folk. And as you can easily understand, all of this fills my heart to bursting. Funny, but of the twelve schools that Elihu applied to, this one was last on his list, and it was the only one (we still don’t understand this at all) which accepted him! It was RPI which awarded him a $100,000 scholarship should he choose to attend. And yet even still – it was last on his list. Isn’t it strange how life works? It seemed such a disappointment at the beginning, and yet it’s turned out to be that Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute has provided the very best situation for my son. I still can’t believe how it all worked out so well. It wasn’t what either of us had envisioned.

A most amazing shift indeed.

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Elihu’s Instagram

Stillhouse

Stillhouse

Things here at the Hillhouse are quiet these days.

There are still the comings-and-goings of piano students and their families, and the chickens mutter to themselves and scratch in the leaves all day, a familiar sound which is almost always audible through the thin windows of my vintage ranch house. There is animation here; there is still a lovely sprinkle of energy from the visitors, both human and animal, which prevents me from feeling the absence of my son too acutely. And of course, there’s music; now I finally have time to practice a bit, to learn new material, to try things out. That helps keep the house from feeling as silent as it might otherwise.

But even so, my feeling about this new single life is tenuous.

My mood continues to ride the crests and valleys of a mildly manic state. I don’t reach the absolute lows that I know some people to experience. Rather, I sense what I can best describe as a loss of hope, a state which I can feel coming over me the way a person might feel a migraine coming on. I try to get ready; I check the calendar for my next student, my next appointment, my next diversion… Mindful of the imminent low, I try to find the footholds that will get me through.

And while I don’t experience the true euphoria of a manic high, some mornings I awake with my chest bursting with the thrill of possibility; my head swimming with enough ideas to fill a book. I pen dozens of notes to myself in a handful of tiny spiral notebooks which I keep throughout the house, having the absolute conviction that I will revisit these ideas, flesh them out and convert them into insightful posts. (A more honest part of me knows that this is not likely to happen.)

There are mornings when I lay in bed (grateful to finally be able do so!) and I wonder where my reason for living will come from in the day yet before me. It’s not a down place, it’s just a medium place. It’s where I live most of the time, actually. The to-do list always pulls me forward, but it’s certainly not something which gives my life meaning. (Lest I give the idea that I’m inert these days, let me assure you that I am not. Yes, there is a new, relaxed pace to my life, but it is still rife with a myriad of tasks and errands, many which have me grumbling ongoing complaints.) But in those first, quiet and undefined moments of the day, I am without a sense of purpose. I am adrift.

Like today. I awoke feeling neutral. Feeling nothing. The time of day was not apparent by the diffused light, my body felt good, rested and free of pain, my mind was empty. For a moment I did not even quite know where I was. Glorious absence it was. And then my critical mind awoke and reminded me: this was too much absence. Wait, was I here for some reason? I couldn’t remember. Figure it out, Elizabeth. Get up, do the morning’s chores, and figure it out.

These days I feel the need to get out of my tiny environment. To see old friends, to relax into relationships that I miss, to see people who already know me. Friends from the time that came before parenthood and life in the country. I need a respite, a change of scenery, a little dose of the city. I dunno, just something else. For the most part I am a homebody to be quite sure; I love my bed, I love my home, I love living far from the road surrounded by nature… I love all things familiar, comfortable and easy. But this place of domestic peace will always be here. My opportunities to get out and enjoy life will not. I’m getting noticeably older with every passing month (my arthritic hands are getting worse and worse each week), so if I’m to travel, to get up and out and far away from here, I need to do it soon. Soon.

Recently I’ve begun to consider more seriously the idea of giving away my flock. I don’t see how I can ever leave this compound if they are still my responsibility. Having my son go away to college has been immensely freeing – no meals to cook, no shuttling to school and back – and yet I can’t take full advantage of this new situation as I might like. I’m deeply conflicted about this.

Recently I asked a farmer friend of mine if she’d like to take my flock. She said yes, but then asked me “Are you sure?” Yeah, she knew. I did too. A move like this needed some serious introspection. Having a flock of chickens all about the property is a lovely, life-enhancing thing. They improve the mood of all my visitors – and they always improve my mood, too. If they were gone this place would be very, very quiet.

So this is where I find myself now. Suspended between my old life and the new one ahead. Seems I need to be brave and wrap up this era for good.

Just not absolutely sure if I’m ready for the still to follow.

Storm of the Eye

Storm of the Eye

Today my son is a high school graduate, and I am free.

One year ago today I injured my eye, and I have found myself a prisoner of that event ever since. Today, standing in the bright morning sunshine of a fine spring day (floaters still clouding my vision and an ever-present feeling of a foreign object still being in my eye), I find myself wavering between elation and terror at the future ahead. What will describe this new chapter? My opportunity or my injury?

I cannot convey the depth and breadth of our experiences over the past year, for they have been many and mighty. And today, as I sit in a house filled to the brim with the mess of one final week of tumult and year’s end chaos, I panic slightly at the idea that nothing will right itself on its own. All of it rests on me. I realize that my son and I have just concluded, and very successfully so, this era in our lives, so I should take heart. I just need to do this one final time. In the future there will be no such messes, no such disorder. All I have to do is muster the fortitude to do this once more. Somehow, however, this doesn’t seem to make it any easier. This time I don’t know where or how to begin. And so I nibble on the leftovers from last night’s graduation dinner, I pick at the frosting from the cake, I take a sip of the last dregs of a can of Mike’s hard lemonade I found in the door of the fridge. I feed the chickens, refill the suet, make the coffee. I begin a new post. I look over my Facebook feed. I stall.

Inside, the house is a riot of unwashed dishes, half-cut onions, piles of unopened mail, schoolwork and artwork and piles of musical charts to be filed, dirty clothes in heaps in nearly every room, and pair upon pair of muddy shoes, too (how do two people amass such a mess?). Clean laundry that languished too long before I could dry it (and now smells slightly funky) confuses the system in my mudroom and will force me to start the whole shebang all over again. The lawn is knee-high and rife with land mines of fallen branches and rocks that must first be found and marked before the grass can be cut. (And this is five open acres, no small task) The coop looks like a right proper hillbilly homestead with traps set, both humane and lethal, retired kiddie pools, garden tools, a few pumps and pond paraphernalia, a wheel barrow full of plastic junk and two metal grain bins, knocked on their side by the white whale of raccoons (who evades me still), their contents now fermenting and turning rank in the wake of recent rains. All a girl can say is oy.

This day is further loaded, as I think on it. Funny how June 12th used to mean different things in different chapters in my life. In my married years, it was my parents-in-laws’ wedding anniversary. Many years later it became known as the birthday of my former husband’s out of wedlock child, the day that changed everything for Elihu and me. The day that launched us on our voyage here at the Hillhouse. For years I was conflicted about the day: should I curse it or thank it? I certainly cannot curse any child, for his birth is not his own choice. But you can understand that it was a shocking time for me, all those years ago, and were it not for the miraculous way in which our lives turned out, I might still be nursing my wounds over it. I can’t say that June 12th doesn’t bring a bit of reflection. I have never before felt such acute emotional pain as I did on this day, thirteen years ago.

And now, the date has yet another meaning. Another change of plans that I must somehow accept. An injury that I must see as a catalyst to a yet unseen future that awaits, one that otherwise would not have been possible. Thinking back over the past year, I realize that I sought out new experiences as a means of distraction from my discomfort, and I can clearly see what the injury has offered thus far: my first forays into relationships with men since my divorce, a new awareness of physical health and fitness, a bad outcome with a relationship which offered an opportunity for me to step into a better sense of self-worth (the caveat here is that this is, sadly, still a work in progress), and lastly, a host of music performance videos and the small victories that I achieved as I learned how to organize and present myself in a new format. Overall, it’s been a good year. Every time I started to sink into self-pity, I used a new goal to pull myself up and out. Yeah, for the most part it’s worked. Mostly.

As friends and regular readers will know, I tend to indulge in excessive amounts food and alcohol to take the edge off when the shit just feels relentless. But somehow I managed to pull up and out of the habit last summer. I began to see an opening, a time when life would be mine again, and so I wanted to prepare myself, to lean in… I wanted to forget this troublesome eye injury and set my sights on the future… While I did get leaner and became increasingly dedicated to my physical improvement (and really came to look forward to my workouts), I suffered a bad muscle injury, and within weeks of a diminished routine, I fell off the fitness wagon entirely. This in turn had me newly depressed and brought along with it a resurgence of daily episodes with panic attacks. I kept up with the challenges as they arrived, but it was a struggle.

Added to the frenetic pace of Elihu’s final year and all that went on with me personally, stress began to mount… I lost a good portion of my hair inside of a few weeks in late winter (whether due to stress or changing hormones, it’s an alarming experience to say the least), the arthritis in my hands became significantly more advanced in a short amount of time (my doc said it was one of the worst cases of OA he’d ever seen in the hands of someone my age), and I saw a dear friend through a year of health problems which ended in her death two weeks ago. It’s definitely been a trying chapter. So naturally I fell back on the self-soothing mechanisms that I always have. The pendulum began to swing back, and I just let it. Knowing that I was creating a situation that would have consequences down the road, I continued on anyway, savoring the hell out of those carbs which I’d fastidiously ignored since last summer. Watching as one glass of wine with dinner easily turned into a whole bottle. I jumped into the pool, right into the deep end. And so here I am today, treading water, wondering how I’m gonna make it out again. I know I will, but the side of the pool still looks to be a long way off.

Things ebb and flow, and today I’ll just have to take it easy on myself. This day has become a strange landmark in my life, and I should pause to take stock: what does June 12th mean this time around? Might I look at it perhaps as a day of hope? Today is the first day I’m not the full-time mother of a high school student. The first day in which I have nowhere to be, no one to answer to (let’s forget for the moment about the some two thousand emails and two full voicemail accounts which must be gone through on Monday). Today I’m not waiting for the other shoe to drop, it already has. It’s what happens after that which intrigues me, and keeps me from giving up and crying into my hands. How can I give up? My son is about to launch himself into the world – a prospect which is nearly as thrilling for me as it is for him. I have my book to look forward to (yes, friends, I am going to set about the task of editing and formatting content from this blog for a publish-on-demand book) and there is the business of getting healthy and fit again. Lots to do, lots to do.

Once I can get this house in order again, I’ll begin to figure out what this new game’s gonna look like. If I can just hold on to that feeling of hope again, if I can just remember that out of chaos comes order, that a catalyst is necessary for growth, that growth, change and evolution are what this whole silly planet is about…

If I can just get myself there again, it’ll be a perfect storm of possibility, and I’ll be right in the eye of it.

Middling

Middling

In this first week of March, Elihu and I exist in an interesting and unique place in our lives.

Today we are at home, each of us ensconced in our own projects, each working in our own individual spaces, yet each of us knowing and feeling the other to be not far away. We are together, yet alone. Every so often one of us will approach the other to share our most recent achievement, and the other will bear witness. We offer praise, critique, input, advice. We share a moment together before retreating back to our respective workplaces. And I love this way of living. We two are so comfortable together, so attuned to each other’s nuances and ways of thinking. Elihu speaks aloud his newly learned Chinese vocabulary, and I repeat it to the best of my ability. I see that the tree sparrows have returned, and he joins me at the kitchen window to watch them on the feeder while we marvel together at their precisely timed arrival. Elihu references a beginning line from a Tom Lehrer parody, and I finish it. I play an arrangement idea at the piano for a pop song I’m working on, and then Elihu plays me a favorite passage from a Brahms symphony. Sometimes we’ll play a short improvised duet of tuba and piano. And after we’ve enjoyed the other’s company for a short while, the moment concludes most naturally, and we each return to our solitude. But it is a safe sort of solitude, as in the back of our minds (at least in the back of this mother’s mind) we both know that the other is but a room away. And this, at least for me, is the key element to this current state of domestic bliss.

March is a time which has always been both hopeful and trying; it is the time of year when trees begin to drip their sap onto the car windshield, assuring us that the cold will break before long, yet it is also the time of year when the winter can offer up its worst in ice storms and heavy snows, burdening our hearts with a desperate feeling that the green will never reappear. For me, March has always represented the flat and still center of the year. A day in mid March has a strange, etheric, out-of-time sort of feeling to it. Neither winter, nor summer, neither active nor passive. It is the still center of existence. This day in particular has felt just like that. Not only in that is is that time of waiting for Nature to shift, but this year it is also for the fact that Elihu and I have no idea whatsoever where he will be going to college. Having heard from only one school (which although a top-notch institution, is his last choice), we are left to wonder at the trajectory of his life, even at this late date in the academic year. While most of his peers have been accepted and are already shifting their thinking to what will be their new homes and lives, we are left unknowing. We are left with a great expanse ahead with no landmarks. It doesn’t bother Elihu though, as he is deeply embedded in his senior project, and spends most of his waking hours in his workshop. He is engrossed, he is focused. And besides, my son is a person who knows how to fully inhabit the present. So he’s ok. And me? Yeah, I’m ok too I suppose. But I’m also not ok. Like March, I’m somewhere in between.

Not knowing isn’t so bad, actually. In fact, it’s kinda fun. It reminds me of how I used to feel, when as a touring musician I’d wake up on the road in a strange new place and for the first few minutes of consciousness in the morning I would try to recall where I was. New York? Ohio? Georgia? Was I in a closet? In a living room? A motel? I would enjoy those first few moments of not knowing. It was a short suspension of reality. I was awake, and yet it was like being in a dream. A strange in-between. And so it is in a similar place in which I find myself to be these days. Existentially in the middle. But truthfully, it feels good. Today we had no place to be, no deadlines to meet. We had only to do what we pleased. Me, I was upstairs at the piano working out new arrangements and making videos, while Elihu was at his bench, wiring up the the innards of his morphing-wing airplane. We crossed paths a few times, laughed at every meeting (ours is a relationship filled with humor) and enjoyed the alone-but-not-alone way of life in our tiny cottage. It was a kind of heaven for us both.

I mentioned to Elihu this concept of not knowing. The idea that at this very point in time, today, March 7th, 2021, we had absolutely no idea where he would be living for the next four years. No idea where life would take him after the summer. I marveled over how odd it felt – after all we had always been ones for planning and knowing. This was an unusual phenomenon for us both. He stopped on his way back downstairs, pausing for a moment on the landing, and considered the idea more deeply. He agreed. It was rather a strange situation to be in. We both stood for a moment, feeling the silence, feeling the unknowing. Then we parted and returned to our workspaces. Before sitting back down at the piano I looked out of the east-facing picture window in our living room. I could see the thawing surface of Saratoga Lake some ten miles distant, and I saw the Vermont mountains behind in the waning sunlight of late afternoon. The poignancy of the moment was acute; this life of ours had always been so full, so busy, so relentless, so unending…. And yet now the end of it all was finally within sight. The late afternoon light gave me that sad, distant and aching feeling in my chest, adding to the gravity of this impending farewell. How many times had I looked out at this same view and felt content, secure in my heart that life was full and good? Sure, many times I have lamented the load I’ve carried without benefit of a partner, many times I’ve grumbled aloud about domestic chores and the drudgery of it all, but many more have been the times I have reflected on how full a life I’ve had, and how lucky I am to have shared much of this adventure with such a person as Elihu. Many times over the past twelve years I have stood at this same window, looking out at the expanse beyond, feeling so deeply fortunate to be in the midst of a pretty wonderful life.

This is a fascinating place in which to exist. If I’m to be completely honest, I fairly dread being without my dearest companion close at hand, but at the same time I am also eager for it to begin; I have so many projects and interests. It always amazes me when people find themselves bored after retirement. It also amazes me that my mother asks what I’ll do with “all of my time” after the kid is gone. How do I begin to answer that? There is always so much to do! So much to learn. Too much! I’m confident things will be ok, I’m fairly certain that I will find my new groove before long. My son will have some major adjusting to do as well. But he’ll do fine too. We’ll both be ok. Knowing that we have both been actively preparing for these upcoming life destinations, I can rest easy in this space in time. Oh and what a rare thing it is not to know where the future will take us! It is actually a pleasurable sort of suspense.

At this moment we are just where we’ve always planned on being. We are ready. Plain and simple, we are here. At the end, at the beginning, and, at the same time, right in the very middle.