The Heart of a Moth

The Heart of a Moth

If one were to believe in karma, or in a certain “this-therefore-that” way of thinking, a belief that each event is the product of other events, all serving to bring forth one particular outcome, then things would be easier to justify, easier to handle emotionally. But these days I’m not too confident about it.

Once I was. And it was a less stressful way to live. Everything happens for a reason. Easy.

Sure, one can see in hindsight with some clarity how things build upon each other. Some consequences are so clearly related to things that came before that one can’t help but make the association. And there are those segments of our lives when things just seem so perfectly scripted that it’s hard to believe it wasn’t all “meant to be”, or that we might not have just earned the perfect outcomes through a withdrawal from some sort of energetic bank account.

I’m a mass of conflict these days. Just a few months ago I could not have felt stronger, more hopeful. Great things were within my grasp – I’d say I even sat squarely in the middle of some moments of pure perfection. Things I’d dreamed of for ages had finally come to fruition. And somehow it felt as if I’d earned all of it through my years of sacrifice and toil and hope… The world owed me some good shit now, cuz I’d been through a lot, and I certainly deserved it. Right?

A lot of people deserve good things. And a lot of people will never, ever receive these things. Most people on the planet will live fairly crappy lives, ones in which merely existing is the only goal, lives in which nothing out of the ordinary will manifest. But what on earth have they done to deserve these horrible fates? Not a bloody thing. Not in this life, at any rate.

Where is the parity? There seems to be none.

Not to say that there isn’t a direct correlation between hard work and its reward. Of course that can exist. But to me, that kind of opportunity seems a luxury. For me personally, I feel that reward doesn’t always seem to be a reliable outcome of hard work. Cuz I work a shit ton. I toil, I clean, I sort, put away, file, fix, tend, check in on, shop, cook, learn the tunes, learn the gear, teach the students. All for what ends up being not enough income to pay bills in anything like the real world. Were it not for the home provided for me by my mother (the Hillhouse itself), I truly would be out on the streets. And at 59, that’s a crappy thing to know about myself. All this work, just to exist in another person’s dwelling, and without the means to sustain myself in the most primitive way. Demoralizing.

Yes, I might see my reward as existing in my son. He is undoubtedly a remarkable human, and he’s destined for great things, he’s happy and launched. Yes, I’ve enjoyed a life densely packed with experiences that most folks don’t have.

But here I am on the other side, with the remainder of my life an expanse of nothingness. No rewards in view, no destinations. Got some ideas, a couple of projects I’d like to accomplish, idealized visions of what I’d like to write or perform. But any one thing on the list seems to require an investment of energy which I just can’t seem to summon anymore – or money, which I simply don’t have. My gear is old, my clothes are outdated, and the blog isn’t free. So what now? As I see it, it’s a game of waiting and simply slogging it out, hoping for a few more good moments before the finish line.

My inner conflict is further stoked by a secret disdain which I feel for some people. Shameful, but true. Look at those ham hock arms, listen to the horrible way in which they speak to their children, look at that antagonizing shit they post across their vehicles… And then I realize that if there were to be a catastrophic event and we were all thrust together, I would see their humanity first. My heart would soften when our eyes met… I would see the fragile person within. I would feel forgiveness, and I would understand that their life was a product of the situation into which they were born. And I wouldn’t care that they still believed in Trump. (Many of my friends would disagree with me on this quite fervently, but I say humans are humans at the end of the day. I don’t have to hang out with them, but I don’t have to hate them either.) How dare I feel so superior?

As I was standing at the window just now, looking out at the tall weeds surrounding the vacant chicken coop with a deep feeling of despair growing inside, my eyes landed on a moth, clinging to the wall. That creature and I both have hearts, I thought. A vague feeling of hope overcame me. For just a second, I felt some relief. It felt as if we were all in this together, every creature on this globe. Good outcomes and bad outcomes, we all experienced them. Moths too. Imagine flying towards a thing that your whole essence tells you to be the ultimate goal, only to find your life extinguished? That doesn’t seem fair, to be sure.

“Who ever told you life was fair?” my mother would often say to us as children. I could never form a response, shamed, scolded and immature as I was back then, but now I understand what I had been thinking but couldn’t articulate. “Everyone”. From the time we’re tiny, we’re told to play fair. What a strange incongruity. Play fair, nothing in life is fair. I suppose that both are true.

We earthly creatures are all linked in some way, sharing this bizarre brew of the tragic and the magic. And strange as is may seem, in view of the unfavorable odds with which we are presented, it appears that each one of us somehow manages to maintain a tiny feeling of hope. Each one of us has a heart which continues to beat.

Even a moth.

For Now

For Now

My son is at the kitchen table adding to an already thirty-five thousand word essay on his unfavorable feelings about Abrahamic religions, and I am sitting just outside the door in the sunshine, putting the world off just a bit longer, myself also writing. Or at least trying to. The material isn’t coming the way it usually does. There is a dull sense of dread present in my gut today which is making everything much harder to do. There is quite likely a bit of unpleasant news waiting for me soon in my inbox, and I cannot bring myself to look. And there is some information forthcoming from my mother’s doctor which also might not be good.

This day, however, is a counterpoint to the threatening unknown which awaits.

It is the most perfect sort of late spring day one could wish for – clear skies, just the right temperature and no heavy humidity to weigh things down. The occasional breeze delivers the rare scent of irises. Every so often a single-engine plane buzzes by overhead, preparing for its descent into the nearby community airfield. Water trickles endlessly over the rocks in our small pond, and the usual backyard birds do their thing. The chipmunk who I hand feed each morning has paused for a very un-chipmunk-like length of time in a crook of the apple tree, as if he too knows how perfect a day this is and wishes to take it all in. Knee-high grasses dotted with stands of pink and yellow flowers bend in the wind, common fritillaries and the occasional Karner Blue butterfly dancing among the blossoms. This is a moment I do not take for granted. I hope to linger in this pleasantness of the day and in this state of unknowing for as long as possible.

My mother has had a recurrence with breast cancer. She’s 87, so when I heard this, my first thought was that this was the ‘get out of jail free’ card she’d hoped for. There would come a decline in her health, a need for increasingly generous doses of morphine toward the end, and then finally she’d die a peaceful, pain-free death at home, something she’d long made clear that she wanted, and something which I had promised her I’d make happen when that time arrived. Instead, she is choosing to have a mastectomy, followed by a home-based recovery. No chemo, but likely radiation. If she were a decade younger, it might not concern me as much as it does. If her strength and mobility were a bit better I’d be more confident that the surgery would do more benefit than harm. As things stand, I’m apt to think this action might make her remaining time on the planet less than ideal.

I think some skilled nursing might be in order after the surgery, maybe a few days at a rehab center. But my mother is insisting that I’m making a big deal out of this and says if her doctor’s not concerned, then why should she be? She insists that she won’t need help and reminds me that there’s hardly anything left of her breast now anyway, as if that somehow mitigates the trauma. But she’s a good planner, and so has already made and frozen food for the recovery period, something which will certainly help. (Recently she made a slightly dramatic comment about maybe finally being able to get her favorite pizza after the surgery – as if for the past several years she has been actively prevented from enjoying this perceived luxury. Her Silent Generation stoicism and predilection for passive-aggressive comments drive me positively nuts.)

So tomorrow we’ll learn whether the cancer has metastasized or not. Mom got a funny feeling from the way in which the doctor talked about her case, and it has her suspecting that the news might be bad. I’ve got a funny feeling about a recent situation in my life that has me suspecting bad news, too. And so here we exist, in this perfect spring day, neither of us knowing the outcomes that await us.

My son being home offers a nice distraction from my empty calendar and ignored inbox. There are still meals to be made and a bit of shuttling around to be done while he’s here. Errands, haircuts, doctor appointments and prepping the Airbnb all help to fill the space. But my students are just about wrapped for the summer, and there are no gigs on the calendar, aside from a few solo shows in the fall. There’s time for a few farmers market dates I suppose, but still, those offer very little motivation to get out of bed in the morning. When Elihu goes to Europe with his dad for the summer (he leaves in a week), I will be faced with long days. But then again, mom may need my help. From where I sit right now, I just can’t tell.

The following few months contain a lot of unknowns.

It’s times like this when I need those lists, those spiral bound notebooks which I filled up when I was light-of-heart and full of inspiration. It’s times like this when I’m so grateful to have reconnected with my high school bestie. There is no tribe to which I belong in this town, and now that my son’s life is expanding and taking place mostly elsewhere, it has me further questioning where home should be, and what it is that I should be doing in this world. I almost don’t even feel that I can say with complete integrity that I’m a writer or a musician, when there is so little pay and work isn’t consistent. The only thing I’ve ever known myself to be with absolute conviction is a mother.

I hear Elihu moving about the kitchen making some food. He and I have both done very little today. I didn’t make anything to eat, just couldn’t find it in me. I called out to him to bring me some naan just now, and he did. I’m glad for the company, and for the bread. I’m glad for the fine spring day.

For now, I’m glad for the simple things.

Growing On

Growing On

We are put upon this earth without our consent. We are launched into a life incarnate without our choosing and by the time we’ve finally gotten our wits about us, many of us may come to realize that we might not have signed on for the experience if we’d been given an option at the outset.

This may sound deeply cynical, I know. But please understand that although I may often feel as if I don’t wish to be here, it’s not to say that I do not bear profound witness to the unfathomable marvel of this planet and the mortal life we share. Daily I am astounded by the complexities around me in the natural world. Daily I am fairly tortured by my desire to know more about my fellow humans and what motivates them to move through their lives and into their futures. Who among us is enthusiastically participating in life? Who among us is caring principally about advancement, who is working simply to avoid the pain, and who is altogether unaware that his or her own existence even merits examination?

From my privileged seat in a commercial airplane I can see vast tracts of land below me, all organized into human-sized portions. Suburban grids by day, cobwebs of light by dark, our handprint is ubiquitous. While I know there’s plenty of magic taking place here, I can’t help but feel the collateral despair. I imagine all of the strife, all of the heartbreak and loss. All of the fear, shame and regret. Perhaps it’s this way of thinking which has motivated me to live a more colorful life than some of my peers. I wish to avoid undue toil and discomfort in favor of the more pleasurable experiences. I am interested in reaching people and connecting. I am attracted to candor and insight. My goal is to bring comfort and witness to people. You can count on me to be the ice-breaker at a party, or the one who gets the silent old man in the corner to smile.

But sometimes, none of this is what’s appropriate or necessary. Today I learned that lesson again, and it has me stopped for a moment of reflection.

As I look out at the disheveled property that surrounds me, it cries out for me to surrender. This is the summer when it seems I will have to relinquish any illusion of control and simply let everything go….

The lawn is already up to my knees, the downed trees are becoming overtaken with vines, the retaining rock walls are tumbling down the hill, and my perennial garden looks to be nothing more than stinging nettles and goldenrod. The many hours of labor I spent tending to the garden last year appear to have been in vain. My arthritic hands hurt and my once-broken neck is becoming more of an issue each day; I just don’t see how I can wrestle the patch back into shape the way I’m feeling now. I honestly don’t think I have it in me anymore. And with a recent surprise turn of personal and professional events, my energy reserves feel even more depleted. As some might say, “I haven’t got the bandwidth” for it all. Truly, I don’t.

This will also be the final year for me at the helm of the Studio. It will conclude a decade of my hard and unpaid work. Work that was, at its core, a Sisyphean task. That’s not to say that it was a waste of time and resources – to the contrary, it was the birthplace of many great works and memories. Audiences leapt to their feet in applause at inspired performances, people of all ages danced, sang, acted and played music. Artists painted, writers finished novels, dance troupes worked out choreography, yoga teachers held workshops, kids enjoyed summer camps, elders convened to talk about death, people were married and neighbors drew into a circle to play drums together. There was even a workshop in which participants (of which I was one) walked barefoot over hot coals. Truly, a wide net was cast. I cannot say that it was not a success. In many ways it was an astounding success. But that era is over now, and I need to find something which better suits my waning energy and stamina.

I have to wrap while I can still feel the afterglow of the good things that happened there. If I stay at this too long, I’ll resent it. Time to stand aside now. Time to let things be.

What will come next is truly unknown to me. There will be music, there will be new gigs, new jobs. I know this. Just not sure where, or with whom. Not entirely sure I’ll even stay here at the Hillhouse. For now it’s where my piano is, so it’s where I am. But like the Studio, this place may have served its function in my life. Not sure. Much is yet uncertain.

The only thing of which I can be sure is that with or without me, the grass will continue to grow.

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.

_________________________________________________________________________

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.

______________________________________________________

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.

____________________________________________________________

Elihu’s Instagram