The Hillhouse

The Journey of a Mother and Son

Slaying the Dragon October 10, 2016

elihu-leads

Around this time of year my son’s school celebrates an event they call Michaelmas. During the course of the day the children, from first through eighth grade, (with the eighth graders acting as leaders) must go on quests throughout the nearby woods, gathering clues, assembling objects, traversing obstacles and learning to work together toward a shared goal. As they emerge from the woods, the leaders carry a staff from which flies a colored banner for each of the challenges they met. When all the students finally converge at the shelter there is a large, outdoor enactment of St. Michael (pronounced “my-ky-EL”) slaying a great dragon. The action carries the metaphor of courage, of surmounting obstacles and facing down fear. A large feast of vegetable soup and bread – made by the older high school students – awaits them at the end of their full day.

In the days of old, this autumnal season of gleaning and preparation for the long, cold months ahead required courage, planning, and a supportive community. All of those elements are represented once a year in this magical and transformative day. This year, my son Elihu was a leader. This year was also the very first Michaelmas for which I was not present: I no longer work at the Waldorf School, and so as a parent and not an employee of the school, I was not allowed to participate. Rather, I had to drop off my child, knowing that this day would be different from all those before. He was on his own now. So too was I. As I watched my coonskin-capped son disappear down the wooded path, I turned my car for home, my own dragons waiting there to meet me.

Those who’ve read this blog from time-to-time will be aware that I have endeavored to start a small business. It’s a community art center which still awaits its proper non-profit status from the IRS, however I have been advised by my attorney and my accountant that I should continue to operate as if I were already a true 501 (c)(3) corporation while I wait for the determination. And so that’s what I’m doing. There’s been a board meeting, there have been open houses, art classes, concerts, jam sessions, workshops, seminars, yoga classes, meditation circles, community gatherings – bills have been paid and the electric hasn’t been cutoff yet. (Well, ok, once it was. But it was one of those ‘crossed in the mail’ deals. It was restored within hours.) It’s beginning to look like it might just work. I’ve known for years that it was my fate, but my stomach was queasy at the notion. I, after all, have spent my 53 years on this globe deftly avoiding anything that resembles a ‘day job’. And here I am, formally still unemployed, and yet with a great job before me.

And until a few hours ago, it looked as if the path might be getting a little clearer. A local historic folk music venue had planned on holding all of their concerts throughout the next two months at the Studio while their venue underwent a renovation, however I am deeply sad to report that today I learned it wasn’t going to happen. And so, after feeling the greatest relief I have felt in a very long time at the prospect of two months solidly booked, I am back in the thick of the woods, feeling the dread once again begin to creep in around me. This is a time in which I need to steel myself against my own dragons. I need to raise my own staff now and win some banners of my own. How this will happen I still don’t know. I feel very much as if I am off the path and merely guessing at my way. All I can tell myself at this point in my quest is to keep putting one foot in front of the other…

This past year I’ve spent a good deal of time in my office; at my desk, organizing, planning, filing, (and stalling) – and eating. The weight loss I enjoyed a year ago is history. I’ve accomplished a lot, yes, but in some ways I’ve taken some steps backward. My hands are much thicker with arthritis than they used to be, and my old broken neck injury is manifesting in some new tension and discomfort. Yeah, things are becoming more challenging than they used to be, and it takes more energy and resolve than I remember to tackle this crap. But this is the terrain I’ve been warned about by friends a decade or two ahead of me on the path. The aging thing in of itself is a quest that requires courage and tenacity. And then there’s the starting of a new business. For me, a musician and free spirit by nature, it’s not something that comes with ease. I’m willing to work at it, but it’s still a little more daunting in real life than I’d imagined.

Guess it’s time to slay a few dragons….

 

 

Hope Burning March 3, 2015

I’m trying to imagine how everything might look right now if I knew I were dying.

Tonight the moon is out, and from every window in my house I see a gentle, rural scene. Beyond my kitchen window to the north I can see a thinly wooded forest through which the moonlight passes, leaving slender shadows in the sparkling snow. To the right of that there is a deep swath of open yard which stretches up and over the rise; it’s defined at the far end by a stone wall and row of trees beyond which lies another large field. I can also see the lights from my neighbor’s homes in the distance, and it feels nice to know they’re not right upon us, but still, just close enough. I like knowing that. Through my living room window to the east I see the ridge of the horizon, and lights twinkle from the hills beyond the Hudson River. There are people living out there, under those twinkling lights, and I like knowing this, too.

It’s a modest house for sure, but it’s cozy, it’s comfortable, and I think that most of the people in this world would be happy to call this place home. For just a second or two I’m able to conjure the feeling that I’m looking at it for one of the very last times, and for however many times I’ve so deeply missed the homes I’ve lived in before this one, for however many times I’ve lamented ending up here, alone at the end of a long, country driveway – now, in this moment, this place feels like the most important place of my whole life. Tonight, this place is my only home. It’s where I want to be. And until recently, it’s where I’ve always felt safe from the world.

Less than an hour ago I heard that a friend, who’d discovered her breast cancer in what she’d thought to be its earliest stages, had learned through her recent surgery that it was worse than previously thought. The cancer had spread to her lymph nodes. A diagnosis I’ve heard many, many times in the past decade of my life… It doesn’t always end the same way, but it’s a long, difficult road to travel no matter the severity of the disease, and I don’t envy those who’ve had no choice but to take up the charge. I’ve seen friends fight tenacious cancers, some triumphing after incredibly brave battles, some succumbing after equally courageous campaigns. And in the end, who in hell knows why some people make it, and some people don’t? No one, of course, deserves to get cancer. And no one deserves to die of it either. But when the patient is either the parent of a young family or a practitioner of the healing arts, it somehow seems all the more unacceptable.

Last night, Elihu and I had dinner with a neighbor, who brought up the subject of another town resident who was, although putting up a kick-ass fight, dealing with a lethal cancer. His mother had died of it, and he himself hadn’t even discovered it until it until quite recently – when it was already stage four. He was a relatively young guy, and with three young children he had a lot to live for, but still, it didn’t look good. Truthfully, it looked bad. But in spite of how imminent his death appeared, my heart lightened to hear a new tone in our hostess’s voice as she offered rather brightly that of course he still had a chance. (Funny how one latches on to hope – however small or unlikely it promises to manifest.) I myself had only learned of his diagnosis a few weeks back – after, I’d seen him in a local liquor store and given him some grief about his newly launched vodka business. He’d cited some local lore on his product label about which I questioned his firsthand experience. But he sure showed me; he’d known more about it than I’d thought he would, and even had the class to acquiesce about a point on which he may have put something of a romantic spin for the sake of salesmanship.

After my needless challenge of his new product line had concluded, he cheerfully asked after Elihu, remembering his charismatic performance at the Greenfield Elementary Talent Show a few years back. Our kids had ridden the bus together for a few years, and Elihu, whether this man knew it or not, had fairly idolized his namesake son. Maybe I should have told him? I wasn’t sure how relevant it was at this point. Just as well I didn’t go on…. In hindsight, I so wished I’d have stopped babbling sooner, and just played it a bit cooler. I had remembered to congratulate him on the new business, but still, I guess I just feel as if I’d been a bit foolish, a bit trivial spewing all that ridiculous banter to fill the space. I know it’s the common, everyday stuff that matters – it’s banter mostly that keeps the world turning – I just wish I’d been a little less enthusiastic in my pursuit of it. After all, there was some serious courage on display right in front of my eyes, and here I was chattering on as if it was a day like any other. Of course it was a day like any other – and when you’re sick, don’t you wish for your life to go one all around you as if it truly were business as usual? But then clearly, it is not just another day. A confusing mix of realities.

Both my parents have had cancer. My cousin’s been undergoing repeated rounds of chemo over the past several years in an effort to keep her colon cancer at bay. Our grandmother died of colon cancer. I myself, for the second time in as many years, have pre-cancerous polyps growing inside of me which need to be removed. The office gal at the gastroenterology group is nonplussed at my status; it’ll be months yet before I can even get in for a first appointment, much less get the things lopped off. “They’re slow growing” the gal on the other end of the phone tells me in a near monotone, the subtext being “We know what we’re doing. Don’t freak out here.” In past years it’s been another thing to tick of the to-do list, this year it’s something that begins to really frighten me. I mean, what if? What’s to say it shouldn’t be me too? There is no fucking justice in the assignment of disease. I am just as human as the dad down the road with the young family, or my friend and acupuncturist with the breast cancer. I am just as unsafe as they are from a surprise diagnosis. Nothing saved my old college beau from dying of Leukemia before he turned forty, or my dear musician friend dying from esophageal cancer shortly after that, or my old childhood pal passing from lung cancer before fifty. None of those jovial, loving and spirited young men deserved to go, nor did their loved ones deserve to lose them. From my earth-bound perspective these good souls deserved none of the shitty hands they were dealt.

In spite of the cheery demeanor that goes out before me in the world, I live my life in an ever-present, low-grade state of fear. And lately, I’m more keenly aware of just why. Making my way through life feels like I’m walking through a field of land mines. And now that I’m past that fifty mark, people in my life have begun to leave at an increasing rate. Right and left I hear stories, I learn that ‘so-and-so is gone’, or ‘didn’t I hear that she had only months to live?’ or ‘it was so sudden, and then he was gone’… It almost doesn’t shake me quite so much – at least not as much as it did say a couple of years ago. And also because many of my friends who have died have been out of my immediate, day-to-day world, their deaths have seemed somewhat unreal and distant. But the frightening reality of death has settled in all around me now, and I find that I’m even giving my eleven year old son simple directives should it be learned that I too have something possibly terminal. I’m not sure how comprehensive Medicaid is, but I am surely at its mercy. If a treatment isn’t covered, it isn’t going to happen. I feel a growing pressure to archive the work of my life, to get it organized clearly – so clearly that someone other than me could go through the mementos and understand their context and stories. I want my footprint to be tidy and identifiable, even if I know it will only eventually recede back into the rolling sea.

We passed a house today that I’ve always liked; it was a small cottage nestled into the side of a mountain, part of it was made of local stone, the rest a deep gray clapboard with white trim and tidy black shutters. Many were the daydreams I’d had about what life might look like if I myself lived there… Today I saw that it had recently suffered a fire. Gutted. It was black with soot, and dusted with the flurries that had started to fall again. I know most people’s first hope would have been that the residents got out safe. Somehow, I always take that as a given. Instead, my first thought is usually I hope they were able to save a few favorite things. But this time, after a moment’s more thought on the matter, I changed my mind. No, that wasn’t what I hoped for this time. This time I really did hope that they’d made it out safely, and hadn’t dawdled on account of the memento box.

My arthritic hands have started to make playing the piano painful; they’re beginning to twist in different directions and ache all day long. My vanity had already given up, but this new physical challenge of simply playing – of doing the only thing in the world that I’m truly qualified to do – is breaking my heart. It’s making me fear for the shape my fingers will be in ten years from now if they continue at this rate. But then, I remember my friends and what they face. And as with everything in life, when the road gets harder than you could have ever imagined in your worst dreams, the unimportant stuff somehow falls away. It’s not about living so much pain-free as it is about just plain living. It’s not so much about grabbing a box of mementos on the way out. It’s about steeling yourself, gathering your courage and getting the hell out of harm’s way.

Tonight I’ll be thinking of my friends – all of those who face deeply frightening health challenges at this time – and I’ll be sending them as much love as the airwaves can hold. I’m surprised to find I’m not quite out of hope yet, in fact I’m turning up the dial now, and I’m emitting as much hope out into the world as best I can… I pray they receive it, and like some sort of beacon, it will help them find their way out of the burning house in time…

 

Rough Road August 5, 2014

It’s stressful driving at the moment. The countryside is changing rapidly from familiar to foriegn, the road is getting trickier to navigate, and there have been more than a few unanticipated detours along the way. But on I drive, hopeful that there’ll be a light in the window and food on the stove when I finally reach my destination. For now, that’s still a way off, so I need to stay awake and alert. I need my eyes on the road and a firm grip on the wheel.

The week hasn’t gotten off the best start possible, as there was a minor incident on Facebook last night between my ex and me, but hopefully my private email to him made better of it. The date of Elihu’s arrival home has changed a handful of times since we began to make plans months ago, and I expressed my frustration at it. I’d thought nothing of it in fact – it was tossed off as an FB shout out in the manner of any other mundane affair of everyday life… Most recently he had moved his return up a day. He says it’s been on the books for a couple of weeks (it’s one man’s word against the other; my date book tells me otherwise). Secondly, he took a last-minute job on Friday which precluded his staying here with Elihu and me for a couple of days, something our son had dearly hoped for. I didn’t even learn it from my ex himself – but rather from the woman with whom Elihu was staying as a guest for a couple of days (while dad had a gig out of town). My ex felt it a low jab that I expressed my disappointment on Facebook, and vehemently asserted that it did not accurately reflect the truth.

And so here we are, about to see each other in person for the first time in many moons, and bitterness hangs in the air. Nothing to do but be as civil as possible – sadly it won’t be the happy reunion of a family I’d hoped for, but there it is. He’s not happy with my blog because he feels that I air our private affairs here. (Kind of ironic, as it’s been quite a while since I’ve had much to say about him, and today it’s the very topic that kicks off a post.) My ex cites my previous mentions of him in this blog as inflammatory – as well as an example of bad parenting, because he points out that Elihu will one day be free to read all of it for himself. Yes, I agree, he will. And I have no problem with that; I don’t see that as bad parenting. I have never once asserted that my ex doesn’t love his son – nor have I proclaimed him to be a bad father. I have, however, expressed my experience of this divided family as I have seen it from my own perspective. He’s welcome to start his own blog on the subject if he feels so motivated. (If it means he spends less time scrutinizing this blog for perceived attacks, I’m all for it!) Now, back to life here at the Hillhouse… Plenty of nail-biting scenes here, no extra drama necessary…

At this moment, we’re all poised in a bizarre holding pattern as we wait to learn more about a planned intervention for my alcoholic brother. One childless day left in which to strike, and a narrow window in which to pull it off successfully. This eruption of anger from my ex at this particularly delicate and stressful moment in my life has succeeded in raising the already high-alert level of stress around here. I’ve tried to shake it off as best I can so that I can turn my attention back to this critical moment in my own inner circle.

It seems the stars have aligned themselves almost flawlessly in our favor; the motor in the minivan that Andrew drives is shot on account of having run dry of oil. It doesn’t seem it was Andrew’s fault – the car was old and leaked oil badly. Now it’s no more than scrap. Thankfully that leaves him without the ability to kill someone in a drunken, late-night drive back from Martha’s. In the past his routine has been to assist her with her nightly routine and to see her safely in bed, after which he hits her liquor cabinet and then drives home. I’ve long been sounding the alarm, but with no one else to take care of Martha, and mom having ownership of the vehicle and not wanting to make waves, I’ve been virtually powerless to stop the situation. Every day that’s gone by without incident has been, in my opinion, a minor miracle. This past week I spoke up on the subject once again, heeding that persistent internal nagging that had begun to grow louder in my head of late. Thankfully, this time it ended differently than it had in the past; in addition to the van becoming undriveable, my new friend and retired state trooper threw his hat into the ring and offered a sobering perspective on the potentially ruinous legal implications of a drunk-driving related incident. This tipped the scales – it got mom’s attention, and I immediately contacted a local hospital and began familiarizing myself with the process of detox and rehabilitation. Talk about timing. Everything seemed to be falling into place.

Introduced to me by a mutual friend on Facebook, Ken and I first met over a sandwich and coffee just about a week ago – and then proceeded to spend the next three days together. There’s no reading between the lines to be done, we’re simply friends and there’s been no romantic interlude taking place (despite the potential that might have to drive an exciting new story line. !) Rather, Ken and I have become as comfortable with each other as if we’d been friends since ‘back in the day’. Just a year apart in age, that alone gives us a lot in common. We’re both parents (each with an eleven year old son), both living in the wake of a long-term relationship which has come to an end. And the potential for humor in many a situation isn’t lost on either of us – the sight of a large, bald black man and me – a woman who doesn’t really keep company with anyone save her chickens – might be cause for a double-take or two in this neck of the woods. Yeah, ordinary situations have the potential to become comedic acts with my new friend hanging around. And thankfully, in addition to a good sense of humor, he comes with some experience in law enforcement, and he kindly offered his assistance in our plan to get Andrew help.

As Ken and I studied the situation and began to consider the many different ways in which to handle an intervention with Andrew, he cautioned me that his major concern was safety. He wondered if Andrew might have any weapons in his home, and went on to posit some possible scenarios that might unfold. I hadn’t really considered all the many ways in which things might escalate. But my brother is full of rage, and if anything threatened to push things to a head, this was it. When Andrew was at a doctor’s appointment a few days ago we decided to do a little reconnaissance on the matter of weapons – but learned that he’d kept his door locked. As serendipity would have it, I suddenly remembered a key I’d saved – not because I thought it was of any use, but because it was attached to a tag on which my father had written something. I’d tossed it in the junk drawer as a matter of sentiment, but when we tried it on the remaining door – it worked! (Thank you, dad.) Inside my brother’s house was a sight so decrepit that even this seasoned vet admitted to having seen few homes worse off.

How to explain it? If you’ve ever seen some of the currently popular shows on hoarding you may have some idea – but truly, it’s not possible to convey the filth, the state of decomposition of things organic, the layers upon layers of paper underfoot everywhere, the lack of space, the claustrophobic feel of tiny rooms cramped with piles upon piles… The walls were coated in sheets of cobwebs, each darkened with years of dust, black mold crept up over the walls, the air itself was more than oppressive, it was caustic, and Ken couldn’t remain in the place any longer than necessary, as his eyes began to tear and he soon became congested. We took a couple of photographs in case we needed evidence of some sort, he satisfied his concern for hidden weapons (of which there were none), and we retreated the way we’d come in.

As I write this, the events of tomorrow are uncertain, and the situation continues to change. Enter Chris, a man about my age who’s been friends with my family – and Martha too – since his childhood. A longtime member of AA and potential mentor for Andrew, I contacted him for advice on the situation. He graciously stepped up and reached out to Andrew just this evening, resulting in a near two-hour long conversation with my brother. There were tears shed, and thankfully, at the end of it all Chris felt there was a hint of hope. He said he’d seen a ‘light’ in Andrew’s eyes… Although we’d planned on an intervention the following morning, Chris urgently asked me to trust him – to give him a week with my brother. He insisted that Andrew had agreed on going to an AA meeting each night this week, and Chris felt this would create a better platform from which to appeal for Andrew’s participation in rehab. While I put my faith in him and gave him my approval for the week’s plan, my heart began to sink a little when Chris went on to say that Andrew ‘might not even need intervention after all’. Good Lord. Was Chris himself fooled by Andrew too? I know unquestionably – more than 100% so – that Andrew cannot live successfully on his own. Had Chris himself not warned me of the phenomenon known in AA circles as ‘the Pink Cloud’? (The point at which a recovering alcoholic mistakenly thinks he or she ‘has it’ and can now live without any help or back up because they feel so good again, so normal.) Had we not had that discussion? My ex husband and I had hosted Andrew in our home for a year and seen him recover, only to tank even more profoundly when he stopped taking his meds. Shit. It seemed we were gaining a toe hold here, I prayed we could continue the progress.

No news is good news sometimes. Guess that’s what I’m to take away from the lack of communication from mom this evening. As things stood a half hour ago, we were hoping that Andrew was going to an AA meeting with Chris this evening. Andrew must be driven to Martha’s, and as of this moment in time, he hasn’t shown up at mom’s in need of a ride. Mom will end up tending to Martha if Andrew goes to the meeting; no matter what, we’re both on the ready for whatever needs to be done… So as I sit here writing, I have no idea whether Andrew has gone to AA, or drunk himself into a stupor inside his shithole of a house. I’m gonna guess the former, but honestly I can count on nothing. As a relatively intelligent person I’m often tempted to think that I know what’s going on around me, but clearly I’ve missed that boat before. Lived for years thinking I knew what was going on in my marriage when in fact I hadn’t a clue. I’d like to think Andrew’s introducing himself to a room of fellow alcoholics as I write this now, but Lord knows things could’ve just as easily swung the other way. For the time being, I know nothing.

Still, I continue to hope for the best in spite of what history has shown thus far. There’s a lot more road ahead, and I mean to drive right on through this next challenging stretch – and then watch it disappear in my rear view window. There’s just gotta be a reason we’re all on this confounded, circuitous path, and I won’t pull over til we get there, goddamit, cuz I’m still convinced that the destination will actually be worth this crazy, unpredictable ride on this long and rough road.

 

Michaelmus September 27, 2013

The name ‘Michael’ in this case rhymes with ‘nickel’, and the ‘mas’ sounds just like the one in ‘Christmas’. And there you have the name of a holiday known as the Feast of Saint Michael the Archangel. In heavenly terms, Michael is the angel who defeated Lucifer in the great battle of heaven, but in more earthly terms it represents the coming of the Fall equinox, and the shortening of days. In the context of the Waldorf school, the story told is that of Michael (here it’s pronounced ‘Mike-ay-EL’) and how he summons his courage to slay the dragon. During the course of their day, on this, the school-wide celebration of Michaelmas, the students find themselves faced with challenges they must overcome; faced with their own personal dragons to slay. A boots-on-the-ground adaptation of the metaphor provided by the legend.

The morning is spent by all twelve grades in the local state park. The home base of the site is located under the generous canopy of a common shelter which sits next to a wide open field, all of which is surrounded by forest. There’s a great deal of variety in elevation throughout the enormous property plus a river running through. All in all, nature is well represented in this place. In the first few hours of of their day, the children wind their way through the woods from station to station, solving riddles, creating solutions to problems and performing various physical challenges. Each team is lead by an eighth grader who carries a staff that represents the group. Upon completion of each challenge, they’re given a pennant to fly from the staff. A few hours later, when they emerge from the woods, their group’s staff is flying a colorful assortment of banners from the stations whose challenges they met successfully. The kids are in obvious good cheer by this time (and as I came to learn later on, my own son was enjoying a deep sense of pride in his accomplishments as they returned to the shelter).

The events of the day, as I understand, are created to help foster self-reliance in the children as well as encourage them to work together as teams. Both seem to have been done very well. Kudos to the amazing, talented and loving teachers and administrators of this Waldorf school, for they pull off feats in education and personal inspiration few can. That they make their teachings so alive, so real – and that their work is just so infused with love and genuine respect for all the kids involved – it all just blows my mind (and especially in this day and age – and in this country as well). Can’t say enough about this magical school. I know one kid whose life will never be the same on account of it. !

late Sept 2013 123Here’s the dragon that started it all!

late Sept 2013 125And the twelfth grade, post dragon-slaying skit, complete with St. Michael riding a real horse!

late Sept 2013 136The kids have just returned from their quests

late Sept 2013 031The high school kids remained behind to cook vegetable soup and set the tables

late Sept 2013 064the high schoolers serve the littler ones

late Sept 2013 086groups eat at tables marked by their staffs

late Sept 2013 074Hi Sadie!

late Sept 2013 156Hunter on Hyrum’s back

late Sept 2013 104Elihu visits Lucy in the ‘pit orchestra’. She and I made sound effects for the slaying of the dragon skit. Fun.

late Sept 2013 107A

Lucy’s been playing piano for this school for a long, long time. She’s finally leaving, and I’m taking her place. Phew – lots of new music to learn. And I hate to see her go! Such a sweetie.

late Sept 2013 115A peek at St. Michael on the horse.

late Sept 2013 110Gathering after lunch for songs and then games

late Sept 2013 101Fifth grader Fiona (and her cucumber named Bob) with her first grade buddy. This school uses a really wonderful system of pairing up an older kid with a younger one. Last year Elihu was the younger one, but now, in fifth grade, it’s his turn to be a mentor. This should be in place in every single school. Magical things happen when a little kid gets the attention of a big one, and I can tell you a big kid really makes a bolder step into him/herself when she’s all of a sudden the role model for someone small.

late Sept 2013 177I shoulda known I wouldn’t get a ‘nice’ picture out of these goofburgers. !

late Sept 2013 169Ah, but thanks to one of the fifth graders for taking this nice mom and son shot.

A wonderful Michaelmus was had by one and all.