The Hillhouse

The Journey of a Mother and Son

Up Is Down December 27, 2015

coop pic

The day after Christmas we buried our beloved red hen, Thumbs Up. Elihu wasn’t here, but he was on the phone with me as I placed her in the ground. I put the phone on speaker and set it down as I shoveled the dirt upon her, my son sobbing along with me the whole time. Chickens may live well over a decade, yet this gal hadn’t quite made five years. Somehow we’d always thought she’d be here as Elihu grew up. With a personality more like a golden retriever than simple red hen, she animated our household in the most delightful way, and it’s hard to imagine how different the energy will be around here now that she’s gone. I’m almost surprised at how deep my grief is over this loss. My father died two years ago tonight, and while it should go without saying that I dearly miss him, this recent loss is just so fresh and acute that I cannot shake it. And with my son so very far away, my heart is breaking all the more.

These days I’m larger than I’ve been in years, and that too is nagging at my heart. Being unable to fit in my beautiful clothes, and becoming out of breath just going up a flight of stairs, all of this has me grieving for a time when I felt and looked my best. In the past I’ve managed to pull myself up and out of my funks, and I’ve shed as much as fifty-five pounds in one year, but I don’t know where the resolve will come from now, and I’m beginning to doubt that I’ll ever turn things around. My fingers are getting knobbier and ache with arthritis each day; this alone is a hard reality to accept. Every evening I take my relief in glasses of wine, the worrisome double-edged sword; it’s the much longed-for and soothing end to my day, yet it’s a source of countless useless calories that only add to my problem. I manage to pull myself through the days until that blessed evening hour when a sleeping pill will take me away from this waking world. And when the next morning arrives, I am once again overwhelmed and under-confident that I can do anything about it all.

When I hear about successful people who have jobs, money, families and such, becoming overwhelmed with depression, it’s hard to understand. Me, it seems that if you can pay your bills, then things couldn’t be all that bad. Right? But then I look objectively at myself; I have a lot going for me, so this current state of my spirit can’t really be justified. But still, I can’t help but wonder how differently I’d feel about life if only I had a little bit more money. If I had a job – and a paycheck. I know how glorious I feel each year when I get my tax return – the whole world opens up. Fuel oil, a haircut and color, new shoes for the kid, a barrel full of scratch grains for the flock, dinner in a restaurant – all sorts of things become possible, and with that possibility I feel a certain spiritual uplifting. It’s crazy, honestly, because none of this shit really changes my day-to-day reality, but somehow, having just a tad more than enough can feel so very, very good.

Recently I learned that Facebook had been charging me methodically over the past few months for many small commercial posts. Somehow (and I am not alone judging by the hundreds of comments just like mine, oh how I pray it comes to a class action suit one day!) I misunderstood a one-time ‘boost’ for a contracted series of boosts, thereby creating a slow but devastating hit to my PayPal account. Now this is the ‘slush’ fund I count on for Christmas and other treats. Imagine my surprise when I went to buy a couple of gifts for my son to find under the tree on his return, and there was nothing left. What the hell? Following the charges, I found the source of the problem. And I realized it was a case of ‘me versus the machine’. I would not win this fight, nor would I ever see that $300 again. Holy fuck. I was feeling shitty enough right now. Now this. Mom had made it plain that she was unable to help at this time – property taxes were approaching – so I knew I couldn’t go to her. I asked an old friend if he could loan me the sum – just til early January, as that’s when my students were returning – but after a few days there was no response. Feeling ill about having appealed to him for help, I’d been wishing I could take it back. But that wasn’t possible. What was posted was posted. Ugh.

Phooey. Thumbs Up is dead, I’m broke and fat, and my kid is a thousand miles away.

The up side is that my mother is still here, my neighbors are all wonderful and supportive, and I have friends who help buoy my spirits through the lifeline of the internet. My house is warm (bless this mild winter!!) and my son is has two goddam tubas and a myriad of instruments to keep him happy. We have six happy fish, three happy frogs and fifteen remaining fowl. I have a view of Vermont and a fucking grand piano. Ok, so my Wurlitzer needs a bunch of work, but hey. I have one.

Looking back over the years I see this same sort of lament over and over here on the blog. And it gets a little tiresome, I know. Sometimes it kinda feels like reading the journal of a middle school girl: ‘poor fat me, no one has it as bad as I do, no one understands me’ again and again. Things aren’t really so bad, I know it, but still…  I haven’t figured out how to pilot this Studio thing, I haven’t approached anyone to join the board yet, and my office is a fucking nightmare of unfiled paper and undone to-do lists. Yes, the refrigerator is organized, the pantry tidy, and the floors are as clean as they’re going to get for now. My house is in order now, but my life is not. It’s up to me, I know it. Holding out hope that I’ll find the oomph inside me to get the Studio going, to lose twenty-five pounds, to get my teaching materials filed and organized. But from where I sit today, I can’t imagine how I’ll get any of this shit done.

Yesterday I was rocking my sweet Thumbs Up after she had died. I was holding her against my breast, her neck against mine… I looked out past the Christmas tree to the hills beyond and remembered the year before last; I had been rocking in that same chair, looking out over that same view, tears streaming down my cheeks as I anticipated the imminent death of my father. Here I was again, so sad, so sad. Still, this was part of life. Nothing so wrong with being sad, I thought to myself. Maybe the best thing one can do is just invite the sorrow in and push through it hard. Sad doesn’t last forever, after all. Nothing does. Which ultimately, I suppose, is a great gift.

On Christmas morning I rose in an uncharacteristic panic; in my gut I had felt something to be very wrong. I sat up in bed and felt fear wash through my body. Without second-guessing myself I ran to the coop. The backyard was eerily quiet… where was Bald Mountain? I opened the door – the coop was nearly empty. Had there been an attack? Had the automatic chicken door opened too early and allowed a predator to enter? Adrenaline flushed through me. There, on the top roosting bar, were two old gals. Usually there were three. Shit. Thumbs Up…. where was she? I panicked, opened the other door and searched the run. There, in the far corner, was my girl. Hunkered down, seeking solitude, I knew in an instant this was a bad sign. She’d been in and out of the kitchen clinic several times over the past month, and I knew things weren’t good with her. But I didn’t know they were this bad.

I rushed her inside and this time decided to demystify her ailment. I knew it was an impacted cloaca of sorts; she couldn’t pass normally, and this was dangerous. I risked cutting into her flesh and creating a possibility for infection, this I knew, but I had to do something. So I did. I removed strange-looking tissue and tried to relieve her as much as possible. I bathed her and dried her and returned her to a bed in the mud room. We’d lost a hen here just a few weeks ago – this was ominously familiar. I stayed with her for a while, talking to her and taking photos that I knew in my heart would be the very last ones…

I called mom, the one person on the planet besides my son who ultimately has my back at the end of it all – and told her what was going on. God bless my mom. Offering me guidance and advice – here she was at nearly 81, and here I was at the age of 52 – and my mom was still my mom. It almost felt physical, the relief upon hearing her consolation. I was touched by her care and concern for me. She was saying things that made me feel better… Even if I might have said those same things to myself, hearing it from my mother was different. Yes, we agreed, there was nothing left to do for Thumbs Up. I might as well go on with my day as planned. I would go to the nursing homes and visit those who had no visitors.

With a book of carols and a harness of old-fashioned jingle bells in my bag, I headed out. First I visited my old next door neighbor who was happy at my unexpected visit. Her daughter and son-in-law soon arrived, and it was nice to see her tiny apartment full of people and holiday spirit. Satisfied to know she would have company for the day, I took my leave and went to another retirement home nearby.

The second nursing home was empty save for one woman who sat alone in the lobby while Christmas music played quietly, almost as if mocking the cheerless atmosphere. A large tree and a multitude of poinsettias beside a gas fireplace tried to give the place a cozy, home-like feel, but they were too contrived to do the trick. There was no one at the reception desk, in fact the office and dining room were dark when I arrived. I walked up to the woman, sat on the couch beside her and began talking. We passed a half hour before we saw another resident walking past. The woman I’d been speaking with said her son was coming to get her, but she didn’t know when. I’d begun to wonder if these plans were real or imagined.

The woman who next joined us was tall and lean, with her shoulder-length silver hair in a striking blunt cut. She, it turned out, was from Holland. She recounted a long life; how she’d come here at the age of 23 knowing no one, how she ended up going back to school for chemistry, how she married and had children, settling in a well-to-do New Jersey suburb. She wondered at her old home, the one in which she and her husband had shared over fifty Christmases. “Ach” she said, waving a hand in the air, “It was sold years ago. Who knows where all my things have gone. All my chairs, the curtains, the paintings….” She seemed disgusted, heartbroken and resolved all at the same time. My heart ached again, but I didn’t let on. Here it was my job to be the giver-of-cheer and hope. I asked if I might see her room here, how she had decorated it, where was it that she now lived. Both she and the first woman enthusiastically offered to take me on a tour.

We passed the rec room, which I knew to have a piano, as I’d played it years ago for a program my friend had organized. I sat down and opened the book of carols. The room was half-darkened, and the carpet sucked up every sound. In the quiet I began to play “O Little Town of Bethlehem” to which the ladies began to sing. I moved gently into several more slow and beautiful melodies, after which I felt it best to conclude. Then we three moved down the long corridor to the first apartment. It belonged to the tall Dutch woman who had introduced herself as Nellie; I learned from the plaque on her door that her full name was Pietrenelle. Adorned with white ceramic windmills and wooden shoes, her room was much as I would have expected. We moved on to visit Phyllis’ room, after which we headed back to the lobby. Two more folks had arrived in anticipation of dinner, and soon the smells of food began to waft into the air. I was surprised to see a middle aged man accompanied by a bulldog come through the front doors. “Dan!” Phyllis said, her countenance lifting as she saw the two. “Are you Dan?” I said, looking at the man and then gesturing to the dog. “He should be Dan!” I laughed. “He is actually a she...” he responded. Dan had not a clue as to the reference I was making (Yale’s school mascot is a bulldog named Dan. My dad was a Yaley, and of course, my son shares a name with the school’s philanthropic benefactor, Elihu Yale.) “…and her name is Lucy”.

I assured the women that I would be back to visit again, and I could see happiness and relief on their faces. This, if only a small bit of hope in the world, was better than none. I had done something. Not much, but the last two hours had been very pleasant, and I hoped the effect would last a little while.

When I arrived home I saw a horrible sight: Thumbs Up had fallen from the bench and was now propped up, wings spread, on the laundry detergent bottle. She was breathing in and out very, very fast. I tried to move her, and her head wobbled. Then she erupted in a spasm of movement, writhing her way across the floor, faltering on wobbly legs. This reminded me of a nervous disorder, but until now it had only seemed a gastric affliction. None of this mattered now. I gathered her up and put her in a nest on the floor. I tried to share her experience, breathing in and out breath for breath. Shit. This was horrible to watch. I couldn’t touch her, it would have caused her more pain. Her eyes were half opened; she was trying to maintain. Mom was waiting for me; she’d gone all out and made a thirteen pound turkey and all the works of a Christmas dinner. I really did not want to leave my precious girl. My heart yearned to hold her as she died – but I knew it could be an hour yet. Showing my mother love by being with her for supper was ultimately more important. I left reluctantly, and before I closed the door I told my beautiful red hen goodbye and that I loved her.

When I returned two hours later Thumbs Up was dead, as I’d expected. But her death had been violent; she had gotten up and out of her bed and died a few paces away, her bowels evacuated on the floor. I imagined her last minutes, I knew they were painful. The only consolation now was that she was gone. I was surprised by my immense and immediate grief; I ran to her, held her close to my heart and wept as I hadn’t – in two years.

She died on Christmas, and I placed her underneath the tree that night. The next morning I held her for a long time before I dug the hole, called Elihu, and finished saying goodbye. Yesterday I made my errands, and today, while I’d planned to finally assess my overflowing office, I’ve done nothing but choose photos and write. As casual as this blog may appear, it takes hours to create a post – even longer when dealing with pictures. Uploading is tedious and time-consuming. In between I take little breaks to look at the tree, or out the window at my flock. Like prodding a fresh wound to see if it still hurts – I’ll rest my eyes on the little white marker under the flowering quince bush.

Everything has its time, everything has its season. We get fat, we get thin. We get sick, we get better. We lose our way, and then we find it. We all flourish, we all fade. And whatever goes up, no matter how we might wish it otherwise, will eventually come back down. What a path is this life! Bless us all as we make our way through this great, mysterious journey. A hearty thumbs up to us all, and also to that little red hen who gave us such delight along the way.

IMG_0486I got to spend some time with Miss Lucy, the newest addition to the neighborhood. That was a treat.

IMG_0528Got busy getting down to all that grunge at the bottom of everything. This takes time. Glad it’s done.

IMG_0557The day before Christmas. All is well, and it sure doesn’t look like anyone will be dying anytime soon. Thumbs Up is the light red one on the left in back.

IMG_0576Butt shot – look away if you find it gross. Part of chickening. Austin, our comic guinea fowl enjoys the platform feeder. He thinks he’s a songbird.

IMG_0567Thumbs Up was calm in her bath as I removed scar tissue and gunk. It almost seemed as if she knew I was trying to help her. Such a good girl.

IMG_0594Getting her warm and dry. Again, while many hens might have protested, she stood there willingly. Perhaps because she was almost done with it all… Who knows.

IMG_0700Christmas day, she was different. After all, she herself had sought seclusion. I brought her to the stoop for a last visit with her flock.

IMG_0755I opened the door, and as she has so many times before, she hopped up and walked inside. I know no one else would have been able to tell, but she had an unsettled look about her. She made strange sounds and stood a little too erect, plus her eyes had a distracted appearance. Call me crazy, but hey, she died only hours later. I try to honor the ‘God voice’ when it tells me something. It’s a mistake to ignore it.IMG_0759Specks, the only hen who we’ve had longer then Thumbs Up, watches as her sister comes inside.

IMG_0650See how her tail is drooping? This is an unhappy hen, likely in physical discomfort.

IMG_0762I would take her pain on myself, if only I could. How can I love a hen so much?

IMG_0790My new friends at the nursing home, Phyllis and Nellie. Oh, and Lucy, the bulldog.

IMG_0824A sight I’ve seen all my life. Mom does it all.

IMG_0835Always superb.

IMG_0834This silver had been in my father’s family for a long time.

IMG_0857I smooch my old cat, Mina. She can’t live with us as Elihu is very allergic. My ex husband and I got her over 15 years ago. She is ancient now, and she won’t be here too much longer herself.

IMG_0885I expected to see Thumbs Up gone when I got home, but it was shocking nonetheless. My heart positively broke. Strange that we’ve butchered and eaten so many of our own birds, but this, somehow, was entirely different.

IMG_0957So beautiful were her colors.

IMG_1067I finally place Thumbs Up in her little grave. Pumpkin, the only remaining red hen, comes to see what’s going on.

IMG_1080A small piece of limestone marks the spot where Thumbs Up rests under the flowering quince bush.

Thank you, little red hen. Don’t tell the rest of the flock – but you were always our favorite.

 

 

Panic 1-1-1 September 7, 2014

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It’s the infinite possibility that gets me. The unfathomable, unknowable vastness of situations that exist – the organic events going on, right now, in the very spot of grass beneath my feet, the goings on of people and commerce in my town, across the whole state, the whole country, and at the same time all the like going on in other towns, in other countries, even on other continents… It’s the weather systems that surround our globe and the super-heated action taking place miles below our feet… and then of course some similar sort of activity also taking place on some other planet so far away that you could never even begin to comprehend how far away it is, much less come to understand and know all that goes on there, too. Oh, and then there’s the microscopic, unseen world that supports and makes up the world that we do see; events of commonplace chemistry and basic physics taking place that have unto themselves limitless interactions, relationships and morphing outcomes ceaselessly going on – no matter whether you’re paying attention or not. The whole bloody lot is always moving, reacting, growing, decaying…. Life always moves. And life is e-normous. Limitless, in fact, many would agree.

Which of course is fine, and all is as it should be, I suppose. Everything nests somehow into everything else, and therein lies the beauty of it all, the Godliness of it all. It’s just that it’s so much. And perhaps I’m short-circuiting or something, but lately I’m highly inclined to want to get a grip on how all of it works. Now I realize how silly that sounds, honestly, I do. But that’s the thing with problems that arise from your thinking process; they can be downright illogical. And no matter how illogical, the thinking still appears to be real to the thinker. And so that hyper-awareness of the largeness, the unknowability of it all then helps to tip me into that most unpleasant state of panic once again. I hate it, but can’t seem to stop it. I’m walking a fine line here, even in the wake of Robin William’s depression-related suicide – because I do not relish the idea of people thinking I’m crazy. But having panic attacks is in of itself is a kind of crazy – as is depression, or being manic. And so many of us suffer in some way during our lifetimes from some kind of mental health issue. So many of us have lived our own kind of crazy at one time or another. Really, how in hell can you live on this planet and not lose it from time to time?

These days, in addition to the run-of-the-mill panic attacks which come on through obviously stress-induced and rather specific situations, I’ve been finding that unremarkable events are also acting as triggers for my panic. Because, as I’ve just pointed out, nothing is really all that unremarkable when you think about it. I even find that glancing at clouds can frighten me, because I realize how big they themselves are, and how high up they are too, and I begin to experience a mild fear of heights even at that line of contemplation. Sort of a sympathetic vertigo, you might say. Conversely, when I try to pull my awareness back into my immediate sphere of experience (as a means of calming myself), I cannot help but then become acutely aware of the activity all about me – the activity of cells, the movement of insects (they by themselves spin me off into a world of disbelief and wonder – how in hell can something so tiny have all those systems packed inside? And don’t get me started on nano technology – the subject can literally make me light-headed and slightly dizzy. Really.). So my challenge then becomes how to tame this mental mess. And believe me, I’m working on it.

Sometimes, when my life’s a wreck or I can’t pull myself out of an undesirable situation, I try to imagine what advice I would give myself if I were somebody else. An objective outsider. Because as we all know it’s much easier to tell someone else how to change their life than to actually make those changes for yourself. ! Using that tactic, I find it’s easy to coach myself. And so I make a list of categories which might benefit from a little assessment: Financial, Professional, Physical, Spiritual.

Ok, number one: there’s a lot of uncertainty ahead, what with the Studio, the lack of a real job and income – and so it’s easy to understand how I might be panicking just a little. So what can I do? What action can I take to mitigate the financial stress? Cut down (on what?!, the cynical voice inside me bitches) on expenses, be frugal with all food, drive as little as possible, take extra piano students as I can. Ok. Not much, but something. And The Studio? I’m doing what I can; bought my first rolls of insulation, watched some YouTube vids, consulted a few pros and have assembled my tools. I’ll begin installing it this afternoon. The new electric lines are in, and the heating units go in next week. There’s networking to be done, so I need to meet with a couple of folks over the next month. I’m still a bit overwhelmed, but what more can I do right now? (If I began to contemplate the legal issues ahead I’d feel as if I were back to square one. Maybe the lesson here is ‘one step at a time’). At least I’m doing something, and the situation’s in hand.

Next is of course, are the health issues. The arthritis in my fingers has accelerated rapidly over the past month, and where before it was merely unsightly, now my knobby distal knuckles are warm and painful nearly all the time. I’m only responsible for playing three classes at school this year, but even so, with my fingers getting stuck in between the black notes and aching as they do, I wonder how it’ll work out. I’m back on the glucosamine regimen, plus have added some Chinese herbal supplements, topical applications of essential oils, I’ve begun acupuncture again and will shortly try a few rounds of electromagnetic therapy. I’m not sure how I’ll sustain such treatments on such a tight budget, but at least I’m underway. Doing what I can.

Also, I’ve gained a lot of weight over the past few months, and I’m a little frightened by it. So, again, what action should I take? I know, join the Y. Check. Joined at a discount, no less, thanks to the scholarship program (some red tape and hoops to jump through, but I’ve come to understand that being poor is in of itself a part-time job.) Ok. Done. Now, what to wear? I donned my old sports bra the other day, but I’m so much larger than I was the last time I wore it, the damn thing ripped in two when I tried it on. Ich. Ok. Just gotta replace it. An unforeseen expense, but as my local health-nut and excavator friend Al said to me this morning (on his cell phone in the middle of a 20 mile bike ride) “Just get a new one and keep going. Keep going.” Mom’s underwriting my new Weight Watchers membership – and that starts Monday. I simply cannot imagine going back to such an austere diet. I once lost 55 pounds on WW, after the birth of my son, so I know the culture well. (Atkins is more fun, but WW is more realistic and its success longer-lasting.) But honestly, it comes with hunger pangs and an undeniable lack of satisfaction. I suppose the loss of extra fat on my frame and improved numbers (bp and cholesterol) should make up for the near-constant feelings of hunger… that’s the idea I guess. And hopefully, after I’ve made movement a part of my routine, I’ll just plain feel better. I know it’s true, I’ve experienced it before, but it seems ridiculous to me from where I stand right now. Life without a few glasses of wine each day? Life with portions a mere quarter of the size I’m accustomed to? Sheesh. It’s but a day off, yet I still don’t believe it’s coming. I don’t suppose anyone is ever ready for major change. Just gotta jump in. (Or as my buddy Al would say, “pull the trigger”.)

Now to the spiritual part of the equation. Got much of that down I think; I spend a lot of time in nature, I express gratitude all over the place and I’m always reaching out to people and spreading kindness and love where I can. But I can’t lie; I’m still dealing with feelings of betrayal and anger towards my ex husband – I’m still upset that he doesn’t support us better, that our poverty is just fine with him and his parents. It still angers and frustrates me that I don’t have a partner, a spouse, someone to take up the slack every now and then, help with homework, maybe even vacuum or make dinner once in a while… And I know, as a student of basic spiritual concepts, that ultimately that shit comes back to me. But still, it’s on my plate, and six years later it’s a larger issue than I’d like to admit. And in addition to the forgiveness thing, maybe some mental silence might serve me too. I think I could muster ten minutes a day concentrating on nothing but my breathing. Twenty, probably not. But ten, yeah. And perhaps in the realm of intention, a little more controlled thought also might serve me well… That is to say, replacing the doom and gloom imaginings with lovely visions of what the Studio might look and feel like when it’s up and running and inhabited by happy folk. Ok. Begin minimal meditation practice. Replace negative thoughts with positive ones. Good. Sounds doable.

The list seems so short when I see it here, so why does it feel so daunting? And good Lord, it seems I’ve been through all this before. How have I not made more progress, I wonder? I remind myself that if I could just live panic-free and enjoy both mental and physical fitness, life might be a lot more enjoyable. Cuz right now, it’s only minimally so (hence the comfort of food and wine. We all know that drill). As I watch people go through the activities of their day, I often wonder: what is life like on the inside for them? What are their demons, their challenges? To what degree would they consider themselves to be content… happy? One cannot judge a book by its cover; I’m fairly sure no one is quite as put-together and problem-free as they might seem. But then again, maybe there is a sweet spot on the other side of all this self-improvement. Maybe one can be happy, content. Fit. All at the same time. At least one hopes.

Yesterday I saw a man riding his bicycle down our road. He was loaded down with stuff – a bedroll, bags, pieces of cloth, a crazy-looking horn, baskets brimming… Clearly, he was not out for a day ride. Unable to forget the cyclist, I turned around a couple of miles into my commute and doubled back in time to see him tackling the great cemetery hill – a hill which even as a healthy young child I would walk my bike up, rather than ride. I carefully passed him, pulled over to the side of the road and waited. I watched as he rode up the steep incline in a serpentine fashion. Interesting technique, I thought. He was actually making it up the hill – and with a full load, too. This person was impressive, and I had to meet him. He might be just the inspiration I needed.

As soon as he’d come down the other side of the hill, the man pulled into a church parking lot and disappeared around a corner. I walked around to the back, and announced myself first, lest the poor rider be seeking a bit of privacy to relieve himself perhaps… As I entered the church’s back yard, I saw this slender, tanned man sitting in the cool of the shade at a picnic table, a veritable banquet spread out before him. He was digging into some bread and hummus when I joined him. I learned that he was from Oakland, California, and had left the day after Christmas, last year. He’d made it to the Canadian east coast, and was now heading back. Altogether, he was very unaffected and matter-of-fact about his journey; when I asked him questions he answered them directly, and for the most part he didn’t seem aloof or coy, just possessed of a quieter nature, and perhaps exercising just the tiniest bit of caution in the face of my enthusiasm. I had so many questions for him, and had I not needed to get Elihu’s bass delivered to him in time for orchestra, I might have been a bit more focused with my inquiry.

Among the many things I wondered, the most prominent question was: what occupies your thoughts as you ride? He admitted to a certain incessant, repetitive nature to his thoughts, and offered that it was in fact, one of his main challenges. What criteria did he use to choose his route? How could he afford to do this? What had he done before? He was a little cryptic with some of his answers, but I sensed he was the sort of fellow who would have declined to answer if he felt it beyond his comfort. He told me that he’d just turned 65, so there “was no job to go back to now” as he was officially retired, but that he had worked in the flower industry. Still so enigmatic. As a day laborer? As the CEO of a company? In what way had he worked? He said he was “used to being outside” with his work. Ok. That narrowed it down some. But so many more questions burned, and as we got off into tangential topics of getting fit, perhaps having a dog to inspire daily activity, what programs might exist to help pay for the cost of a dog if I did get one, how different regions of the country dealt with recycling and such, I got further away from my informal interview and settled instead for a gentle, enjoyable conversation. How I had come to live here, how Chicago had been so brutally cold when he’d ridden through it last March… There wasn’t enough time to learn from him what I’d hoped. But I suppose there is no possible way to truly understand such an enormous undertaking unless you, well, undertake it. And perhaps that was the most important lesson here.

I gave him my card and encouraged him to stay in touch by email when he checked in with the world at his next library stop. I hoped so dearly that he would, but even if he didn’t, no matter. Phil had added to the quality and fullness of my life just through this simple meeting, and if I never heard from him again, this would have to be enough. It certainly was a dose of inspiration come to me at a time of need. Maybe that itself was more than enough.

Lately I’ve been seeing a lot of ones popping up during my days – and my nighttimes, too. And while I’ve made an effort not to get too terribly esoteric in my writing here, nor to explore in-depth some ideas that have long been a part of my life – for fear of turning some folks off for good – I will admit a completely open mind when it comes to matters that our mainstream culture still doesn’t treat as legitimate. Like ghosts. Or apparitions that appear to people who are dying, and unexplained experiences like music in the air, or the scent of flowers – just as real as the real thing – arising from nowhere. Or like repeating numbers. I won’t go and tell you that I think God is directly communicating with me and offering me a personally targeted message in my time of introspection and need, but I will say that something is happening to me these days. I’ve seen the number 111 pop up in all sorts of places, and finally, it’s caught my attention. In fact, I’ve seen the number 111 appear so frequently over the past week, that I’ve taken to photographing it. I awoke last night at 1:11 and grabbed my camera. I am not nuts. It’s happening. A quick Google search helps fill things in, but still, I almost don’t even believe my own story. Have I been seeing what I want to see? Have I been exaggerating the truth? Am I just looking for help, in any form at all? Am I leading the witness?

In the end, who really knows? No one. It’s just one more event taking place in this endless maelstrom of life. And happily, it doesn’t make me panic. Instead, it gives me a tiny seed of hope. And that’s something I need to cultivate these days. So who cares where it comes from? I’m going to take it as a little knowing wink from the universe telling me that things are going to work out just fine, and I’m going to keep on moving forward into this worldly adventure, taking each moment one by one… by one.

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Off Balance June 15, 2014

Since Madeline’s been gone, it’s just felt different around here. Elihu’s noticed it too. The small flock that remains is a rather dull bunch, as something about the attack on the coop the other night has the birds behaving a bit less like themselves – and ironically, perhaps in some cases, a bit more like themselves – than before.  For the most part the gals all meander about as they’ve always done, only we notice they’re not quite as brave as they used to be. They don’t take over the porch (a frustrating but endearing activity), they don’t seem to make it as far as their once-favorite flowering quince bush, and in general they stay uncharacteristically close to the house most of the day. Austin, our slightly neurotic guinea fowl, deprived the past few months of his best pal Maximus, has been acting quite nasty to his coop mates, challenging poor Baldy, pulling every last feather from his royal rear end, as well as running after the hens in fruitless circles as they cluck in distress. And since Madeline – the one rather calming element in the the group – has been gone, he has become something of a bully. Elihu and I both know we need to get him some hens, but emails to local chicken friends turn up no prospects. He’s becoming a drag on the flock, and his bursts of incredibly loud calls of  ‘chank chank chank’ (I suppose him to be expressing some inner conflict – at least he can get it out, good for him in that regard) that sometimes last for five minutes at a stretch and permeate every closed window with ease – well, this is becoming much more than an occasional nuisance.

The absence of our goose Maximus has changed things too. We hadn’t lost any hens to predators over the past two years, the time since we’d had him. But with the coming of warm weather, we’ve had a handful of losses. No coincidence. I guess a two foot tall white gander made an impression on the neighborhood fox and raccoon. With that imposing figure no longer standing guard in the door of the coop at sunset, the critters have nothing to dissuade them. And no one to slow them down, either. Poor Bald Mountain did his regal best the night we lost Madeline; he had put up something of a fight with the attacker, and was covered in new, open scratches and was limping even more than before (in the past he’s lost a spur and returned home quite beaten up after fending off potential invaders). The back half of Baldy’s comb had been bitten off, and though the wound was beginning to clot, he was covered in fresh blood when we first saw him.

We came home shortly after dark to a message on our phone machine from our neighbor. He had discovered Bald Mountain on his front door step. Putting the story together it seems that after the confusion of the attack, he’d ended up fleeing, running through the woods and across the field to our neighbor’s house, where they found him on the stairs of their front door, seeking safety. Neighbor Chad was more than a hero, and wrestled the rooster onto his lap, driving him home on his four wheeler. But by then the damage was done. Madeline had been lost in the skirmish, and Azalea, as we later came to learn, had hunkered down in the darkness for her survival. What a good boy is our Bald Mountain, what a fight he must have  given. How stunned and impressed we were at how far he’d traveled to save himself (it is quite a distance). And that he sought out a house, a light, something he clearly recognized to represent the safety of home – it all has us even more grateful for our poor old fellow. Now, if only Austin, that damned nuisance of a guinea, would let poor Baldy alone.

It occurs to me, as I look about at my tail-less rooster, my psycho guinea fowl and my frantic hens, that this is no longer a harmonious homestead.

It’s also becoming a drag to go out these days. To get dressed, to make myself presentable enough to go before people. Somehow I made it through the last few weeks of school, but these days, like a blossom bursting forth overnight from a tiny bud, I too seem to have expanded my own previous dimensions in a very short time. Regret mounts when I think back to last summer; I inhabited a body of a sexy size 10 (for me this was a huge personal victory) and yet now I find I’m surfing Ebay at 2 am searching for fat shirts with empire waists and stretch waist pants, some even size 16. Sixteen? When the fuck did this happen? I ask myself over and over as I find myself unable to button the waist on the few remaining ‘fat’ pants I find in some long-forgotten storage bins. Seriously, how did I get here? Oh, I know how. The stress of this past year really got to me – the new music I’ve needed to learn and play, the unpredictable and horrific panic attacks I’ve suffered with (yes, they are no mere annoyance, they are irrational yet real experiences of pure terror) and the relentless nature of single motherhood have called for a deep soothing, one that only entire tubs of hummus and double portions of curry chicken with a half bottle of red wine can provide. Yeah, I’ve been riding this train for a while now, and now it’s finally arriving at its destination.

The kid”ll be gone on Tuesday for a good month and a half stretch, and finally I won’t have to concern myself with the preparation of three meals plus snacks all day long. I have no new music to learn, no one to perform for. ‘Me’ time is finally here. But then there’s that catch – the one my astute child himself brings up when I talk about how much ‘progress’ I intend to make in his absence. “I know what you’ll end up doing, Mommy” he says, his voice dripping with cynicism, “You’ll say how fat you are, you’ll look at all the work you have to do at the Studio and all the stuff to do around here, you’ll feel sorry for yourself and then drive to Stewart’s and get a bag of chips and a bottle of wine. Then you’ll tell yourself it’s just for tonight. But it won’t be.” Really? Am I that bad? I wonder. Am I that obvious? Crap. With a month to myself stretching before me, I feel hope and despair rising up inside of me all at once. Ich.

I haven’t done my taxes yet this year either. Filed for an extension. But I’ll need to file for another soon. Plus I need to re-apply for food stamps, something which in of itself is very much like filing taxes. This is support we desperately need at this point; living these past three months without that help has been pretty brutal. Between having to eat and wanting things such as a bike, a bike rack to carry said bike, orthodontics and bass lessons, it’s been tough. Time’s been at a premium too, as with all the outside work my new job requires, I just haven’t had the time to sift through a year’s financial information. So this too is something I have on my growing to-do list for the time ahead. And then I remember the bag of chips, the bottle of wine… Yeah, this kind of a desk-bound project is likely to inspire a desire to consume empty calories. When you’re at this end of the spectrum, it’s kinda hard to remember what it was to live at the other end of it – it’s almost impossible to remember what it was like to be the super diet-conscious, portion-conscious, yoga class-attending person that you once were long ago. But I’ll find my way back, eventually. I hope.

There is also the garage to deal with. Looks like a bomb went off inside. The detritus of a long, unforgiving winter. My office is filled with bins marked ‘to file’, ‘to archive/scan’, ‘to do, medium importance’, ‘to-do, urgent’ (now that’s kinda funny, the bin’s been sitting there for months, untended), piles of Elihu’s art need to find a home, piles of clothing I can no longer fit into sit, waiting, while mice leave tiny turds all over them and begin to pull at the threads… Water continues to seep into my basement, and a white, fluffy mold has burst through my paint job of a couple years ago, sending a funky smell (and millions of funky-smelling spores too, no doubt) into the air. Piles of hand-me-downs sit, waiting to be put away, as well as do a thousand other tiny artifacts of our life. I know that my situation is not so far from most folks, and certainly I am not the only single parent with an extra heaping of life on their plate. But still… I just shake my head in deepest wonder…. How does everyone else do it?

Elihu and I spend a fair amount of time on the streets of Saratoga, watching the people walk past. He busks, I sit on a bench, read and watch. And I wonder about each one of these people. They all look so well-tended, so healthy. They wear trendy clothes, they sit outside at the hip restaurants and spend $200 on dinner without batting an eye. How do they do it? What do they do for a living? Do they have bins of un-filed crap at home like me? Yes, they’re out strolling the boulevard, looking fine, but are they happy? What kind of thoughts do they have? What motivates them? Do they feel fulfilled? Empty? Searching? If one didn’t ask these questions, it would seem that everyone is doing just fine, doing exceptionally well, thank you. I search their eyes for answers, I lean in to overhear bits of conversations in hopes of finding answers. They give no clues away. Perhaps their basements are moldy and full of piles too. Maybe not. They just look so good on the outside, there’s no telling.

I think back on the chapters of my life in which I felt the most promise, the most fulfilled, the most in balance. And, ironically, for all the moaning I’d done last year about turning 50, I can in retrospect say that for about half that year I felt the best that I had in a long time. And the time before that in which I remember feeling really good about things was when Elihu was a toddler – I’d successfully lost 55 post-baby pounds, I had a husband, a child and a home I loved, I was singing regularly in front of a top-notch, swinging big band, and life felt wonderful. Before that, it was a time in Chicago when I was playing in tons of bands, on the move all the time, making music I loved and being nearly constantly in the company of dear friends. These were the times I felt things to be most balanced in my life, and thank goodness I have those memories – they remind me of how it felt, how it might feel once again, if all goes well. It may take a little alone time to consider the new recipe I need these days to find myself living a balanced life once again; it’s my hope that a little reflection will re-invigorate my quest and bring some answers to light.

I know it’s important that I use my time wisely and get stuff done – but I also know it’s important to find peace in doing simply nothing at all. And, somewhere in between, lies that perfect balance. Here’s hoping I can come close.