The Hillhouse

The Journey of a Mother and Son

Morph August 1, 2018

Waiting. Waiting three weeks for my son to return from China. Waiting to muster the resolve to stop drinking empty calories in wine and light beer to help make it through. Waiting for the renewed oomph to workout regularly again. Waiting for the hope, the inspiration, the vision. Waiting for the skills to run this silly arts venue. Waiting not to be afraid. Waiting for the arthritis in my body to cease its progress. Waiting to play more interesting solos. Waiting to learn how to earn a livable wage. Waiting. Waiting for something, something to change inside of me…

I suppose that’s not completely accurate. I’m changing alright. Without my understanding – and before I could gather my wits and fully understand that it was truly underway – my body joined that population of the fading. Of those past their physical prime. Past their mental prime too. It feels like very little prime overall is left in my own personal pump. But I need to make what’s left last just a while longer. I’m bitching, whining, doing this passage-of-time thing without a lotta class, and I know it. Searching rather desperately for ways to age without losing me. How do I do this? Waiting for the answer. Reading essays of those who’ve gone through this themselves, remembering how my ancient father lamented that as a little boy he’d watch men like him and think that he would never become a tottering old man himself, and yet there he was… Watching half a dozen monarch caterpillars turning into butterflies in my kitchen. Posting a pic of the glorious new creature perched on my nose. Noticing the vague new contours of my face. Realizing that the changes that await me are not like the those of the caterpillar. Thinking back… just when exactly was I a butterfly? And when I was a butterfly, did I fully understand how glorious it was to fly? Not completely. But now, of course, I begin to get it.

When I awoke early this morning, at around 4 am, I checked my phone and saw that my son, who had not texted or called me anytime in the past few days, had arrived with his father and the ‘other’ family in China. I have a friend in Beijing who told me not to expect communications of any kind, so this was a surprise, and a relief. But with this news a queer and foreign feeling entered my consciousness and made me feel almost weightless and sick: my only child was without me on the other side of the planet, and I had no control over a single thing that would happen to him. I felt as if I were in a dream, I felt untethered and all of a sudden, without a distinct purpose.

You may say that my child being half a world away is the reason behind all of this self-sorry nonsense. And goodness, Elizabeth, we all age. Mine are first world problems, are they not? I suppose if I knew how it was that I would make a living for the remaining several decades (something tells me I’m not off the mortal hook for a while) I might rest easier into this shift. But facing growing old and having no substantive source of income is a huge stress to me. I suppose I could get a job as a clerk at some shop in town – but the last time I did, upon moving here ten years ago, it did not end well. I have never done well at traditional desk/cashier/clerk-type jobs. But I have enjoyed moderate success at hundreds of unusual jobs; I’ve been everything from Tony the Tiger (yes, costume, paycheck from Kellogg’s and all) to deckhand on a boat. I’ve also typed, answered phones and fumbled at cash registers, I’ve taught classes, I’ve hosted radio shows, I’ve raised chickens, sung a cappella in front of thousands of people… Oh so many jobs, hats, achievements, and yet… These days if you ask me what it is that I do for a living, I do not know how to answer that.

Folks are fond of telling me that “I should write a book”. Yeah, I dunno. Isn’t that what this blog already is? And who needs another memoir on their bedside table? I would like to pen a Wikipedia page for my father, but even that seems just insurmountable from where I sit right now. There are too many things to do, too many administrative tasks that need my attention. (How on earth would I manage to organize my content into a book when I can’t even keep my website updated in a timely fashion?) So many ruminations thread through my brain in the long hours of the night when I cannot sleep, but retrieving them while sitting at the keyboard just isn’t happening even as it used to a year ago. In real time I forget words and names which I know I wish to use, yet cannot retrieve from my mind. Things are indeed different now than a couple of years ago. It seems I am truly entering into a new personal age. I just don’t know what the fuck it will be about.

I also worry that there will be no one with whom to share it with. But is this not a choice? I see my mother and several other older friends who deeply cherish their independence and solo lifestyle – just as I do – and I see their individual worlds contracting. My mother tells me she has so much work to do, and then I see her at her desk attending to a stack of solicitations from Native American groups and alley cat rescues. A pile of dream catcher key chains and return address labels with cat photos attest to her main business these days. I can’t begrudge her this; it is her role at this late stage of life. These are the tiny reasons that drive her, that help to give her a purpose. I get that. And she funds much of The Studio’s ongoing needs too, so she derives her sense of purpose through this as well. If only I could.

The Studio, the few students I have and the even fewer gigs, none of it serves to define my reason for leaving a carbon footprint. I have three more years to shepherd the kid into college – and that alone will be a part-time job, with all the scholarships and such that we must hunt down – but when he is launched and out, what then? I have told Elihu that I intend to follow him. That I will not be a burden, but that I will also not allow myself to live far away. I want to know his wife, my grandchildren. I wish to be solitary, but not. Kind of like my mom and her son. Just enough, but not too much. So this plan lingers, somewhere in the not-too-distant future, and that helps. But the space in between now and then is still fuzzy. Waiting. Waiting…

A couple of the chrysalises in the kitchen have stopped in the middle of their process. While one hatches, the neighboring package turns darker still; no patterns begin to show beneath the papery outsides. For some unknown reason, the change has ceased. There will be no butterfly, there is nothing more to wait for. It’s tempting to see this as some cryptic sign from the universe, but I scold myself that it is not.

For these creatures, stopped in the middle of their great changing, the waiting is over, the most exciting parts of their lives are history. I wait, and I wonder. Will another change arrive for me? I am fairly sure the most exciting parts of my life are over too, and I am certainly not going to grow wings again, but I hold out hope for one more chapter, just one more adventure… I await one more chance to morph.

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Dear Readers: Although I thank you in advance for your sincere love and concern, please do not send me private messages suggesting I seek professional help, do not suggest that I take a 9 – 5 job, that I hire someone to do the admin work for me (with what money?) or offer solutions. If you have a good house sitting gig in Saratoga, or wish to simply underwrite my low-key life in the country, that’s fine. Otherwise, don’t fret. (Also, haters, please, don’t share your hate or contempt for my feelings. There is nothing productive that comes of all that nonsense.) This too shall pass, and please remember that this blog has always represented my deepest, most uncensored expression, and if we all took an honest look inward I’m pretty sure our revelations wouldn’t always appear as the bright and shiny aspects of our best selves that we might wish them to be.

 

Lean to Green May 28, 2018

Apparently, I didn’t think this through. Many of the things that I’d wished for over the past several years are becoming a reality now, but it seems there’s a catch to it all. Really? Must there always be a catch? I suppose that’s the way this earth is designed. Two steps forward, one step back. But I remind myself yet again, it’s still progress..

A couple of years ago, when my son still needed me at every turn, when dinner had to be made and chickens had to be tended, I was desperate to leave the years of unending servitude and mundane chores. Although he was old enough then to take some things on, I didn’t ask much of him, but rather encouraged Elihu to live as idyllic a childhood as was possible. Sure he’s always helped when I’ve asked, and he’s always been upbeat and compliant, but still, I have never wished to ask too much of him because I knew his time would come soon enough. Before long the world would ask of him the same repetitive and thankless tasks, and I wished to protect him from the inevitable drudgery for as long as possible. Until now. Elihu has told me that he feels good when he can help out, and now with him being taller than me and having core strength that is fast superseding mine, he is more than capable of carrying 50 pound bags of chicken feed from the car to the coop, relieving me of one task that is becoming just a tiny bit more challenging as the years pass. So I now delegate this and other chores, something for which I am deeply grateful. No longer must I feed and water the chicks in the barn, stooping under the poultry netting, threatening a back injury. No longer must I interrupt my work to get my feet wet in the evening’s dewy grass closing in the flock and collecting eggs in the dark. Now I am freed up to spend more time at the piano, more time getting the kitchen tidy after supper, more time to go through the endless inbox, culling the cream from the crap.

Two years ago at this time, I had yet to play a piano single job here. It had been 13 years since I’d sat at a piano in a hotel lobby. And even back then, when I had piano singles, I hadn’t sung. I hadn’t combined the two. Plus I’d always used real pianos – the technology of a good-sounding, portable piano with ‘real’ action no less – that didn’t exist yet, nor did lightweight, good-sounding PAs. So in May of 2016 I had only just acquired a new keyboard and PA with which to get jobs. I gotta be honest – for as many years as I’d played, for all the experience I had under my belt, and for as eager as I was to get going – I was nervous. Back in the day I’m fairly sure that getting work was influenced by my youth and looks. And maybe even my famous then-husband. The latter idea always bugged me. I tried to silence the concern, but it always followed me; I hated the idea that I hadn’t gotten work on my own merits, but rather my association with someone whose ass many people strove to kiss. But now, all these years later, I was finding that my lack of anyone to vouch for me – starting over, absolutely on my own merits, and with completely new gear – all of it was much more daunting than I’d expected. But I was tenacious, and in the face of full on panic attacks, old fashioned nerves and the challenged sense of vanity of a fifty-something woman, I muscled on. I put in time at the piano, I got a couple hundred tunes in my book, I had new promo shots taken and business cards printed. Starting slow and easy, I got a couple gigs at the Greenfield Farmers Market. And then I was off…

The Studio too was something I’d pushed to the back of my mind over the past several years. There has always been forward movement, but the destination was fuzzy. I’d scolded myself in years past, thinking I needed to simply set aside ten minutes a day to envision the future, to help clarify the picture. But I seldom did. The whole prospect just scared me. I knew what I wanted the big picture to look like – that was easy – but the shit between here and there was beyond me. And in some ways, it still is. But it’s getting clearer now. Kinda crazy the way in which The Studio adventure has panned out. It’s been forward progress in fits and starts. Things look really good, then a pipe breaks. An event feels like a great new era, then a patron sues us (me) for falling on the ice. Deep down, I don’t sweat any of it too much, even when it looks bleak (as it still does from this moment!) because I have a hunch – I call hunches the “God voice” – that things will work out in a surprising fashion. That’s pure faith, I tell you, because at present there’s little evidence to support that reality. But if I were to listen to some of my friends (one more strongly than the others, and yes, G, that’s you!) who give the Universe/God/Creator all the power, and see us as merely passive vehicles to such a power, then I have no reason to fret. But I’m human, so fret I do. But thankfully events are coming to me that shine some light and offer some hope. Some tiny turns of fate are beginning to illuminate new possibility down the line. In a way this too scares me, cuz I’ve never thought this far ahead. It feels strange to see the future that I’ve talked about so much over the years slowly becoming the present.

All this is good, right? I’m working steady piano singles, the kid is able to make himself dinner and take care of the birds, and The Studio is still with us, in spite of lightning strikes and law suits. So what’s the problem? Well, here’s the catch… I’ve got jobs, but they’re all on the weekends. I’ve got events booked at The Studio, but they’re mostly on the weekends. I’m not making money from the place yet (mom’s still spending down her life savings on its monthly operating costs) so it’s not like I can hire someone to run or manage the place, so I find myself in a new, completely unforeseen quandary. So far folks have let themselves in and ‘self-hosted’, but that can’t last much longer with the events coming down the pike. Man. Who knew? I’m kinda surprised with myself that I didn’t see this coming. And I’m hoping that a solution emerges. I’m fairly confident that one will, but from here, in this moment, I don’t see it.

Funny that sometimes we get what we asked for, but when we do, it’s not exactly what we’d thought it would be. It’s a good problem to have in my case, but it’s still a problem. And although I’m making more money, I stand to lose my food stamps and heating oil assistance, and likely my health insurance too. So then I’ll need to make a good chunk more just to come out even again. I call it the ‘dreaded wedge’. That piece of the pie one needs to traverse from poverty to just above poverty. It’s kinda crazy that when one finally makes money, it becomes even harder to make a living. This too is a new situation I never anticipated. I’m earning more, but as a result it’ll be tougher to get by. Talk about irony! I just never thought things through I guess. I still have to fight the desire to cry into my hands sometimes. I’m tired, I’m getting older, my body is changing faster than I’d thought it would, my arthritis makes playing the piano painful, and there’s no reversing any of this. But I can’t stop. There is no option. No other choice but to continue along the path I prepared for myself.

On Saturday night, after a tip-less and quiet night at the restaurant, a complete stranger talked me into coming out and dancing to a local band. In spite of my inner grumblings and initial reservations, I had a fabulous night. A couple in their late 80s danced along side us, as did 20-something couples. All of us laughed and sang out loud together as we danced. We enjoyed an oasis of joy in this relentless, physical world. And when this new friend and I parted at the end of the night, he thanked me for taking a chance on a stranger and coming out. He left me with these words: “Behold the turtle; he makes no forward progress until he sticks his neck out”. Indeed.

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Post Script: My deepest and most heartfelt thanks to all who donated to the recent GoFundMe campaign to replace the broken power line at The Studio. It’s a trial not included in the above post, but a milestone I did not want to let go unmentioned. The success of the drive was due entirely to your love, support and belief in me and in this vision of a community gathering place. The Studio would be dark today and completely stopped if it weren’t for all the donations. So again, thank you, dear friends, thank you so very much. xoxo

 

All That Jazz March 8, 2016

There are a few things my son will likely remember me for long after I’m gone; a handful of annoying habits, some exaggerated facial expressions and hopefully, a couple of unique and insightful locutions.

Starting when he was teeny, I have always strived to condense matters, facts and various life lessons into concise, easy-to-remember phrases that when spoken will instantly conjure the matter at hand and remind one of the lesson to be learned. One of these such sayings is “Everything is a thing.” While its meaning may not be instantly gleaned by the reader, I think you’ll understand it easily enough if I expand a bit: I offer that within every seemingly commonplace thing or event, there exists a huge back story belonging to that thing; an industry, the thought and careful consideration of many human beings, and certainly the investment of time and money. To some certain folk, the mundane things we so easily take for granted may be the very cornerstones of their lives and careers.

You can take just about anything that is fashioned by the hand of man and find this to be so. The upshot of this idea? That one should take nothing for granted; the toil and thoughtful consideration of many of our fellow human beings are represented in every imaginable thing we enjoy or use. It’s easy to overlook how much was involved in the making of the chewed-up pencil which lies long-forgotten in the detritus of your junk drawer. But someone owns the factory which makes the little metal band which holds the eraser in place. Someone had to buy the materials to make the eraser, someone had to insure the trucks which drove the materials to the factory, and so on. One can take this tack with virtually everything on this earth which is not naturally existing, without the influence of man.

Years ago, when I was in the barfly chapter of my life, there was a charming neighborhood tavern I frequented in which a handsome young man with long, gently-curling, red-blonde hair tended bar. (He himself was not a drinker, and I often wondered how ridiculous we hard-drinking, hard-smoking patrons must have appeared to him as the night progressed.) It was a small thrill to watch him at his work, and as he was a kind and intelligent fellow, I wished I’d had a better opportunity to speak with him outside of the bar environment. One night I got my wish, and the young man agreed to join a small gang of friends whom I’d rallied to meet up after hours at the Green Mill Lounge. With live and top-drawer music every night of the week, there was almost never a bad night to stop in.

The bartender looked quizzically at me. He wanted a bit more information about the proposed destination, so I tried to explain. “It’s a jazz club. There’s live music.” He looked at me, appearing unsure of my meaning. “You know, jazz.” A light of some sort went on in his head and he responded, almost incredulously; “Is that the place where they do all that improvising?”  Yes, yes, that was it! I agreed with great excitement by shaking my head; yes, that was it precisely! He looked almost pained at my confirmation. He shook his head to decline the invitation. “No, I’m not going. Nooo. I don’t like all that improvising“. I didn’t press the matter, the crowd was moving, and he couldn’t be talked into it. There was so much I wanted to add – I wanted to explain the context, the framework of the music so it might have made more sense to him, so he might’ve taken interest. In that moment I realized something: even though people may have some things in common – perhaps even a lot in common, culturally speaking – they can live in radically different private worlds. Jazz was a foreign country to him, but it felt like my home town. Something that acted as a cornerstone and primary identifier for my life was nothing but an annoyance to this guy. There wasn’t any point to trying to sway him, so I took my new lesson as a consolation.

From that point on, I have never taken any of my experiences or values for granted. And even though I may overlook things, or never truly demystify them for myself (case in point: I still have no idea how the game of football works; to me it just looks like a laborious, injury-prone and war-like game of chess which takes way too long), I still give these other worlds their due. When someone tells me they’re into something, or they collect something or play some game I know nothing about, I have a certain amount of respect for all that that might represent. It’s easy to take for granted all the time and energy that things take. Hobbies and careers alike require a lot of behind-the-scenes investment. And I try to make sure that Elihu recognizes that too. Thankfully I think I’ve been successful imparting that to him. (I myself have a lot of my life invested in that kid for sure, and lest anyone toss off the role of mother as a sidebar to a ‘real job’ – my child would certainly prove otherwise on that account!)

But not everyone does fully appreciate the value of another’s skills or accomplishments. The other day I had an adult piano student with whom I had the most unusual experience… He arrived at his lesson with an amp, a guitar, a huge boom box and a bag full of CDs. That much wasn’t so crazy; he was primarily a guitar player and wanted a chance to learn how to play on piano what he did on guitar. I got that. Seemed like a lot of work just for an hour’s lesson, but I’ve moved more gear for shorter jobs. But then the ‘lesson’ began to drag on, and almost three hours later I’d hardly given him any instruction, but rather we’d spent the time playing small parts of songs along with the CDs on the boom box (I had my own boom box, but it wasn’t substantial enough in his estimation). We’d essentially just been jamming on half-bits of songs, piddling around, getting nowhere with neither one of us learning much in the process. (I did learn that one of these country artists he liked chose to play a lot in Db, which I found curious.) He’d wanted me to have the boom box – on which great rings of red light flashed like an annoying karaoke machine in a bar – and he’d been most enthusiastic about giving it to me. I said politely that it was “too generous”, at which he agreed and said that we could just call it a trade. My heart sank to my feet. Food stamps were two weeks out, my ex’s payment was late, and I had a $50 tuba lesson in a few days’ time. What the fuck was I going to do? And how could I politely refuse this horrible machine that made it look as if a small spaceship had landed in my living room? I smiled my way to the end of my wasted afternoon and saw him out.

When you play an instrument – and you play well enough to join in pretty much any situation – but you don’t play like a virtuoso – I find it’s easy for people to take your skill for granted. They might think “you’re talented”, or “you’re lucky cuz it comes easy to you”, so therefore it’s no big deal. Something like that. As if you hadn’t spent hundreds of hours supporting that talent or skill. As if somehow, since what you did was “fun”, it wasn’t worth as much. It wasn’t in the same category of the necessary services like litigating, filing taxes or cleaning teeth. Here was a guy who’d somehow thought that because he was having such a good time, and because I was playing along so effortlessly – that somehow my time no longer had as much value. I don’t quite know how a person can come to such a conclusion, but how else to account for his oversight? He even left me with the request that I learn some of the songs on the pile of CDs he gave me. I lightheartedly suggested that he get a gig for us, and then I’d gladly learn them. He reasoned that you need to ‘work up the material’ before you book the gig. He was a nice guy, but he was missing something here. Everything is a thing. And this was my thing.

After stewing over it for a while, I ended up sending him an email. Cuz I honestly feed my son with my teaching income. I couldn’t overlook it. Happily, the fellow had had some similar thoughts in hindsight of our lesson, and he was more than gracious enough to not only pay me for the lesson, but to also tip me $10. That was very kind of him, and I told him how much I appreciated it. I got a little lesson about my self-worth through this experience, and I think he did too. Yup, sometimes there really is more to the story than one thinks at first.

I’d like to get myself a piano single gig this upcoming tourist season, but there’s a pretty good chance it won’t be happening. I’ll give it a try, but I have a good idea of what I’m up against now, and I’m still unconvinced I’ll land a job. Last year I’d made a pretty good effort, but in hitting the streets after so many years, I learned all over again how involved the whole process was. Again, there’s so much more to getting a job as a pianist and singer than you’d think; you must have dozens, if not hundreds of tunes ready to go. That means charts in your key (or charts on a tablet – that’s light years beyond my capabilities and budget at this point), it means gear, sometimes it means childcare (thankfully I’m out of those woods now!) and it means chutzpah, tenacity and salesmanship, not to mention the hours of playing and learning technique and theory. And these days, it usually means you need a nicely produced video of your performance too. Videos from over a decade ago won’t cut it, nor will your story about ‘taking time out to have a baby’. Nope, none of this will buy you an easier entree into this elusive world of the single, working musician. I suppose eventually one breaks down the barrier through sheer tenacity and a relentless drive – that seems to be the missing element in my method – but as of yet, I have not.

Nothing is every as easy as it seems upon closer inspection. Me, I’ve only ever been just good enough to play; I’ve admittedly used my ears and natural talent to cover me when hard work may have been lacking. And while I can sing and play, albeit in a rudimentary fashion, what we often call ‘jazz standards’ (which are really just pop tunes from the 20s thru the 60s which jazz instrumentalists have improvised over) I am not a jazz pianist. I can fake my way through some 2-5-1s (the chord progression upon which much of popular music is written), enough to get myself through a hotel lobby gig, but to hold that post all night at a singalong piano bar – I’m not so sure I could do that with unyielding vigor for a full three or four sets. Yeah, I could get there, and I suppose in a pinch I could possibly sub – but again, there’s a lot of infrastructure and time involved. Right now, my time’s needed in other places; I don’t have the time to make the proper investment.

There’s a joke about musicians that goes like this: How many musicians does it take to change a lightbulb? Answer: 100. One to do it, and 99 to say ‘I could have done that.’ ! Next time you hear a musician, stop and try to imagine yourself doing the same thing. Hell, next time you see anyone doing anything that you don’t currently do yourself, and ask yourself how you’d fare at the task. How comfortable would you be? How long would it take you to do the same thing with moderate proficiency? It’s easy to say you’d do it better than the other guy – but honestly, would you? Everything is definitely a thing. You can play guitar in your living room, but try doing it in front of a room full of people. Completely different. It takes skill to do anything well, no matter whether it’s cutting a lawn or writing a computer program. Everything is a thing – including all that other, unfamiliar jazz.

Here’s a link to Elihu’s performance of Ghost from Hamlet, which he performed last week at school, and again over the weekend at the Greenfield Talent Show, where he won third place for the same monologue. This too represents a good deal of unseen work. I myself don’t have a clue how or when he learned his lines. But I know they didn’t learn themselves! Proud Mama am I…

 

Done July 27, 2014

Most of the projects on my domestic list have been completed. Some, the ones for which I need an extra pair of hands – and some extra cash – remain on the list, but they don’t bother me too much. Overall, my house looks tidy, my garden is blooming and a neighbor has taken it upon himself to exterminate most of the remaining raccoon population. So really, all is at a nice holding point. I even took a walk – for no good reason – down the road to another neighbor’s place. Had a short visit, then returned through the big field, picking some wild blueberries along my return. It’s humid out again, the kind of heavily scented air that comes after a rain in the dead of summer. Most days here in upstate New York are fairly humid to begin with, but when I smell the woods before I smell the grasses of the field, then I know it’s wetter than usual. But it’s not oppressively hot, which is nice. Walkable.

As I stood chatting with the fellows across the road, Phil asked how it was that I didn’t have anything to do – why wasn’t I working? I had to admit that it was a rare moment, and that I’d come to a lull in the list. But as I answered him I couldn’t help but feel that my response was a little lame. It seemed I needed a better excuse for myself. Or did I? In this culture of go, go, go I was lucky to have window in time like this, unspoken for, unfilled with commitments. But still, I couldn’t shake a vague, nagging sense that I needed a better reason to be doing nothing more than walking down the road to fill my afternoon. I’d heard something on the radio the day before about the benefits of living a minimalistic life, so in remembering that, I cut myself a little bit of slack. I guess I could let myself off the hook for an afternoon. I guessed. After cooing to the baby and smooching the dogs, I headed home, still not entirely convinced that I shouldn’t be doing something more important with my day.

Although my personal to-do list has seen some real progress, there is a whole lot to be done regarding the Studio. It’s a world away from done. In fact, it has barely even begun. After dropping a cool fifteen hundred bucks (thanks to mom, of course) we were able to get the bathrooms back up and running.  We’ve hosted three weeks of art classes in the space by the skin of our teeth really, nailing curtains over the exposed studs in the bathrooms, and covering the bottom two feet of the room in used drop cloths. My partner liked the utilitarian look of the canvas, and I agree it looks funky and fun. But this will not do for the long haul. And the only thing between our present situation and the finished product is me and the time I invest into repairing and restoring. That, and a hefty advance on our timber sales (from a cut to be made this coming winter) which will enable me to make the improvements. I’ve never been good about planning things that involve budgets, so I admit that I’m kinda milking this pause in my schedule, as I put off this new adventure into the unknown.

I rode my bike over to the Studio yesterday and just stood in the space. Something inside was resisting this, and I needed to face it. I had to make myself understand that this was my job now.  And what a privilege! How lucky could a person possibly be to have an opportunity like this? Even after the tremendous shock of our initial loss (the burst pipe back in January that has necessitated all this rebuilding) I still find myself settling back into a state of mild complacency. Perhaps it’s just too much, and I’m shutting down. But this is no time to shut down. And as I stood there, contemplating all that lay before me, I experienced a mild jolt of panic about my previous job; there may be no one to fill my chair at the piano this fall at school – and I can’t manage a rehab project and learn Debussy and be mom, too. Not wanting the school’s entire movement program to come to a stop because of me, I promised I’d play until they found a replacement. But have they? I need to look into that first thing Monday morning. I remember a time when I thought I could do it all; It took me a while to come to the realization that I had to drop something. Why haven’t I been pushing harder on this front? Maybe I haven’t quite committed my spirit to this place yet. Yeah, I can see it, but somehow, I don’t quite seem to get how real this is. I gotta get it through to myself that nothing will get done if I don’t do it myself. I need to make this place my top priority now.

I suppose it’s not so bad that I take a short break from things. That I pass a day without fixing, painting, mending, cleaning, sorting… In fact, in this unexpected bit of project-free time I’ve begun to resurrect an old dream (which derailed when I had a baby!) about putting together a ‘guilty pleasures’ cover thing – solo piano, duo, whatever – for the ‘over 50’ set. The kind of tunes that in my past life would garner taunts and severe mocking from my musical peers – but which nonetheless have people singing along as soon as I start to play…. Screw it, my days working in a cosmopolitan jazz scene are over, my days of being in a young, hip alternative band are history, and I live in a moneyed tourist town with a median age of sixty. If I were to do anything musical again (besides teaching), this seems a realistic option.

But I can’t allow myself to become distracted. The cover thing can wait, but the insulation can’t. Gotta get those minisplit heating units in before winter, gotta get the walls back before I can heat. Got to get some prices, map out a budget. I know what I have to do, and after a moment’s pause, I’ll get back to it. For now I’m finished with things here at home, but I’m still nowhere near done.

IMG_9388My painting of the garage doors started with a good prep job…

IMG_9387I always get messier than I should.

IMG_9473A job well done.

IMG_9396Work on the new house begins in the adjacent field.

IMG_9488A walk through the woods to the little house ‘next door’…

IMG_9425…and I return with Ryan and Brandon.

IMG_9435They remembered to check the trap – what mixed feelings I have. Success, and yet it’s a baby. Ich. I hate this business.


IMG_9440But the mood lightens as they smooch good old Thumbs Up.

IMG_9705What a laid-back chicken. Never had a friendlier hen than she.

IMG_9714At the end of a long day together, the boys and their mom head home. Big sister Ava’s going to take the long way, the others cut across the field.

IMG_9523Saratoga folks will recognize SPAC. Mom took me to see the dance company Momix. What a nice treat! Plus we were driven to our seats in an electric car – woo hoo! Using a cane has its privileges.

IMG_9522A little selfie of mom and me.

IMG_9519The ramps to the balconies. In my teens and twenties I saw a handful of shows here on the lawn. Doesn’t hold quite the appeal it once did.

IMG_9544Haven’t had a seat in the actual theater itself in nearly twenty-five years. !!

IMG_9562The whole night was a visual fantasy – impossible to understand how they could do such feats. The outline seen here is created through glow in the dark costumes… the rest was too fast for my low-tech camera to capture.

IMG_9616Back to the work site next morning. Now the well is going in. Impressive to watch, hard to conceive of 325 feet of pipe going straight down into the ground. I just hope this doesn’t adversely affect the level in our own well. Water tables are all connected, and new construction can sometimes have unforeseen consequences. (They ended up with 5 gallons a minute at 325 feet, the Studio’s new well got 8 gpm at just 85 feet. Plus we dowsed to locate the water. Ha! Feeling kinda smug.)

IMG_9643This job definitely requires finesse and skill.

IMG_9617And pipes must be welded on site as the hole goes down. All in all an impressive job to witness.

IMG_9483Wow, these guys are making fast progress. (The Studio’s dark red sign is visible down the road in the distance, just to the right of the machine.)

IMG_9609Shoot. Poor Azealia died last night. She liked to sit in this corner, and likely ended up sleeping here last night instead of roosting. She’d been moving slow all week. I even wondered if she needed a little extra care. But she had a good, long life. She was of Madeline’s generation. Only Thumbs Up and Specks are left from that era.

IMG_9647At least she died peacefully. She had the tallest comb of all. I buried her under the flowering quince bush along with her cousin, Molly.

IMG_9689

And then there were three…. Only three hens – one white, one red and one black – a rooster and a guinea are left after a flock of fifteen this past Spring. Lost almost all to the raccoons. Phooey.

I left to help neighbors with a move, and came back at 4:30 in the afternoon to find a huge raccoon on top of Bald Mountain – flushed with fear I laid on the car horn and the animal reared up and fled, leaving a dead-looking rooster on the ground. I ran to him, found him just laying there – and I saw tons of feathers everywhere… they marked the path of the struggle. It seems he was being a good and strong defender of his tiny remaining flock, giving the raccoon a good fight for almost two hundred feet. I picked him up, fearing he was dead (he’s Elihu’s very favorite), but saw he was still breathing. I checked him for blood. None. So I held him close, talked to him low, and just waited for a few minutes to help calm him. I returned him to the brooder pen for isolation, water and rest. The next morning his crow was that of a sick bird with laryngitis, so I figured his throat had been quite damaged by the attack. Happily I can report that he is now crowing almost as he had before, and he is bravely undaunted by the recent scare. I’m also happy that my other next door neighbor reported shooting five raccoons yesterday. He didn’t get the big one, so Baldy’s attacker is still out there, but nonetheless it’s a great relief. We just want to clear this particular corner of Greenfield so that our birds may live.

IMG_9672The hero of the day and Miss Thumbs Up beside him.

IMG_9794A portrait of our favorite two. The back end of Baldy’s comb was bitten off by the big male raccoon just a couple of weeks ago, but thankfully has healed well. (Note the silhouette of a hand in the thumbs up shape on our gal’s head. Facebook approved!)

IMG_9739Specks stands on my feet as she eats from my hand. She’s three and a half years old now. She’s a cousin of matriarch Molly, and the last to carry Molly’s gene for white. Hope to get some of her babies next Spring. But that is a long way off.

IMG_9751Love my Specks.

IMG_9663Giving Jemima an ‘enforced smooching’.  You’ve heard of the crazy cat lady. I think I’m on the edge of crazy chicken lady… Or maybe I’ve crossed the line. Not quite sure…

IMG_9604A happy garden with a happy hen.

IMG_9807A happy harvest of blueberries, some from our property, some wild from the field.

IMG_9799A happy home where all is done. At least for now….

 

Too Much More June 26, 2014

If someone else were to say the things I’m about to say, I’d tell them it’s not that bad. I’d be concerned for them, I’d want them to find relief. I know all of this, but I can’t help it. I’m even beginning to think there’s something rather manic about the way I operate in the world. One day I see the potential and promise of everything, and a moment later I’m wishing I could just kill myself and just be done with this stupid life – without all the fallout. It’s always my son and my mother who stop me from taking that thought any further. But I swear there are days where I’d give that option some serious consideration, were it not for those two people – that, and my basic cowardice. The same unfortunate trait which is causing me to think about such things in the first place. I’m so much more afraid than I’d thought.

The day started out with a sobering visit from a geothermal heating and cooling guy. The man himself, the owner of the company came out because his son, scheduled to visit, had thrown out his back. I’m glad that Senior came instead of Junior – he brought with him the advice of not only an HVAC guy, but that of a businessman, a property owner and landlord, and father to five kids. He had plenty of wisdom and advice for me, down to the smallest, most helpful details. I’m glad he showed up first, because he applied the brakes of reality on my fuzzy future. For one, he made clear that I faced a money pit. And that I’d not only need a business plan for potential investors or donors, but until that time came I’d need the Studio to generate some income. A lot of income. And I’d also need a loan. Because it was going to take a lot of money to get the place back to square, let alone ahead. He suggested I bring everything to a halt until I got that stuff figured out. Made sense of course. I’d seen my former parents-in-law throw money – hundreds of thousands of dollars, millions even – at dozens of projects through the years, little of which ended up paying for themselves, let alone generating cash flow. I’d seen what a hazy vision and a dash of romance could do. And it seemed I might be doing this myself – putting the cart before the horse, building a garage for a dream car that wasn’t even mine yet. When pressed for examples of revenue sources, I had lots of maybes but no definites. Lots of what ifs but no contracts, no leases, no programs to even consider. I wished I hadn’t sounded so lost, so unsure, but the truth is I am. I have a spark, a hope – and it glows so very bright sometimes – but it’s founded on very little. It’s not founded on studies or research, it’s founded on intuition and desire. And I just don’t know if that’s enough.

“This was your father’s dream” the man went on to say as we mulled over the pros and cons, “not yours, right?” I had to answer that it was. “And he realized it, he made it happen, right?” he pushed. I had to admit that he had, and that he’d even seen it to a satisfying conclusion. He cautioned me not to move ahead on sentiment alone. Not to follow my father’s dream, but to follow my own. But as I sat there taking it all in, I realized something rather surprising: I myself had no dream. At least no specific, concrete vision. What I did have was a feeling, a way in which I envisioned feeling in my dream life. While not a vision per se, it had some specifics. Just maybe not the nitty gritty bones of the whole thing, but nonetheless a general scenario…  For over a decade one thing has been foremost in my mind: I want a simple life. A life free of panic, a life full of friends and good food and hopefully travel. A beautiful garden, and a tidy, organized home to come back to at the end of my adventures. I’ve always been able to see it in my mind’s eye. The Studio simply rounded it out. Instead of playing with the musicians I missed so, I’d have them here when they were touring. Instead of seeing the world, I’d have the world come and see me. I’d be host to all sorts of people, and life would be full of impomptu late night jams and dinners around a big, inviting table. And I’d be hostess to it all. But in reality I knew that I couldn’t reconcile running a concert venue with a simple life. I’d spent years despising all the extra time and visiting required of my ex husband’s career as a non-stop working musician. And I’d hated the relentless nature of owning a nightclub. And while I loved having rehearsals, dinners and parties at our home, I would cherish the privacy in between those events. And I needed a lot of alone down time to refresh myself for the next episode. Plus as I’ve gotten older, I’ve found that I desire even more space and time – and quiet. So what the hell have I been thinking here? As I heard myself talk about what I envisioned, I felt a torturous mixture of excitement and dread. I can’t explain it, all I know is that this man’s real-world red flags had me putting all of my previously delirious thinking through a filter of reality, and now I was feeling sick to my stomach. And panicky. Great. Almost out of Xanax, and just entering the fire. Just fucking great.

It was still good to hear. It was all stuff I needed to seriously consider. Absolutely valuable input. And then came the chimney sweep.

A well-known local peace and renewable resources activist, he had been recommended by a friend for his advice on my situation – and he had his own list of considerations I might make in my process. And being a firm believer in looking towards a responsible way to provide for the future energy needs of the planet rather than beating a soon-to-be-dead horse of dirty fuel-burning, I really wanted to hear all he had to say. Here was another take on things – a perspective that while not entirely at the other end of the spectrum – certainly one that represented a different way to approach my situation. And his way made sense. Equal sense. As he spoke I began to feel that signature out-of-body sort of sensation that precludes panic attacks, and although ironically he was a man of great heart and compassion, I began to squirm, to feel the inner terror beginning to build. He was clearly giving more good advice;  keep things simple, do only the repairs absolutely necessary, don’t overdo. Yet still, I continued to feel the pre-panic sensations building. I stared at my feet, I feigned things to pick up and examine from the floor, I created the pretense of searching for a bottle of water in my car in order to distract myself from the fear that was welling up inside of me. I was trapped in this goddam situation, and I had no one to save me now. My brother was ill, my mother was old, and I was a single mother with no savings, no resources, and now, no job. What was to become of me? I felt it all becoming my burden alone. And I am in no place to bear such a burden. Most people think I’m strong and resilient. Hell, I’ve never even had a real fucking job. I might be capable of many things, but apparently making a decent living is not one of them. And it’s becoming ever more highlighted by the shit that’s sitting in my path.

What now? I know what I’d do if I had money – but what even then? Is having a state-of-the-art facility enough? I imagine myself enticing already-existing programs to my gorgeous little space in the woods, but in reality, who the hell will want it? I imagine renting the space to yoga instructors, to after school programs, leasing it out for recitals, concerts… but I know the reality of this all, one-time events are not a reliable stream of income. I can’t be assured that they’ll cover my costs of running the place. And certainly, if my mom uses the rest of her savings to make the upgrades, I can’t be assured that she – I or my brother – will ever recoup the costs. And I still have to live. Maybe another forty years. Good Lord help me if that’s the case. I haven’t a fucking dime to my name, and my electric bill is still behind five hundred dollars from this last brutal winter.

I’m ready to go to bed. To forget that the raccoon stole the bait from the humane trap and escaped, as did the chipmunk in the kitchen just now. To forget that I have eleven baby chicks running wild, chased mercilessly by the grown flock and flung far and wide over the yard… to forget that I’m twenty pounds more than I was last year at this time, to forget that I haven’t kissed a man since I last kissed my husband, more than six years ago. Having Elihu gone is making things feel more dire, I’m pretty sure of it. And it’s much easier to contemplate ending things when he’s not around. But he’s coming back, and I need to be his cheerleader in life, not the other way around. How can I be? I admit, this time I’m not sure how to turn things around. Secretly (or not so secretly, as it’s here now) I consider a life off the map, anonymous and forgotten. Might I just drop out? Secede from Facebook, stop returning emails, fail to have my piano tuned, or show up to volunteer at school? What would happen then? History is full of once-famous people disappearing from society, going bankrupt, crazy or just plain missing… Could I pull it off? Seriously, who the fuck would miss me? I have no real life here; my only social life is a virtual one, and I seldom relish waking up in the morning. I scold myself as soon as I begin to think like this. I’m not being tortured, I’m not hungry (look at my waistline), I’m clothed and have a roof over my head. And a piano. And the internet. I’m ahead of probably 90% of the planet. So what the hell is with me??

Years ago, when I broke my neck (C6 and C7, which subsequently fused and created what I like to call a C13), I was confined to a bed for several months, while tongs, stuck into quarter inch holes in my skull held me in place and stretched me out while I healed. I’d been experiencing horrific panic attacks just before my car accident, and yet when held down in place in bed – in what might have looked like a torturous position in which to live – my panic ceased. I was too concerned in the beginning with my very survival to even notice, but a few days after I became stable and began to understand my situation more fully, I did notice it. I hadn’t had a single panic episode. And man, if ever there were a reason to panic, breaking one’s neck and being told by one’s neurosurgeon that you might never walk again might be legitimate cause for alarm. But I came to realize something… that when the real shit hit the real fan, my body knew what its priorities were. It knew the situation was for real – unlike that self-induced, self-created panic attack bullshit. It was revelatory. Here I was, with every reason to panic for real – and yet I wasn’t. I’m not saying I wasn’t concerned – I was – but it was a sober, alert sort of concern. It made all the sense in the world. Yet when my neck was healed, and I was better and finally off to college… the panic attacks returned, worse than before.

I know what’s at the root of the panic. That’s easy. It’s a feeling of being out of control, of having lost the power over your life. It’s a physical manifestation of fear and uncertainty. Maybe what I need is a real illness or injury to get my physiological priorities in order again. Hell, I don’t know. I don’t. What I do know that it will either take a mountain of focus and energy for me to get my life in order, or it will tank on its own. Christ, at a time when most of my contemporaries are looking forward to retiring, I’m only just beginning to figure out what it is that I’m supposed to be doing here on this stupid planet. Hell, even when I did have a job it hardly paid eleven bucks an hour after taxes. Before the panic returned it was worth it – I saw my kid every day and got paid to do the only thing I actually kind of know how to do. But now, with the Studio, the time it’s going to demand of me and now the element of pure fear that it’s added to my life… I remind myself again that the burden outweighs its worth. And besides, the little extra income I made disqualified me for food stamps and even Medicaid. Crazy, but it’s really safer to stay living in controlled poverty than just an inch above water level, gasping for air. Shit. I never expected to be in such a place in my life at my age. Never.

Obviously, this is a situation that’s far from being resolved. Somehow, in my slightly manic state, I will pull myself up for a bit, knock out a few more tasks and make an inch of progress before doubt and panic consume me again. My cellar is full of water and moldy boxes, I guess I can spend a few hours working on that. At least there can be some tangible results from my efforts, which would sure feel good. Because right now, no matter how much more I do, I just don’t see an ending to things. For the moment I cannot begin to picture my future. There’s still too much more in the way.

 

A happier post-script to remind myself of what we did at the Studio only a few years ago.

Drawing Class at The Studio

I gotta remember that we can do this again… this past run of bad luck has just been a detour, we can get there again… Right??

 

Threshold March 7, 2014

March has historically always been a jam-packed month for us. And yesterday we’d both kinda reached our limit. By the end of the night Elihu had shut himself inside his bedroom, where he cried and screamed out his frustration… He had said that he was upset over a perceived transgression of mine… I’d picked the bed covers up off the floor and put them back onto his bed, and in so doing had ‘ruined things’ as he’d had his bed ‘just the way he liked it’. Mm-hmm. Crazy talk, and I knew it, but there was no reason to press the point. Instead I left him to cry, sulk and in general get the residual crap out of his system. No point to counter his mood with volume, anger – or reason. I knew what it was about: this had been one incredibly busy and stressful week and it was finally manifesting.

Late winter is always a bit busier for us as I play piano for (among other things) the traveling Missoula Children’s Theater group, which produces a musical at Elihu’s former Elementary School. I love doing it, it revives for me the skill of light sight-reading, it always has a cute musical theme and is fun to play – and of course seeing all the kids (63 of em this year!) rising to the challenge of singing, dancing and reciting their lines – all in these incredibly inventive costumes – makes it more than worth it. But it’s an investment of time for sure, and our rehearsal days begin just when the school days leave off – and since we’re on an earlier schedule at Waldorf, it adds a bit of a challenge. Elihu just doesn’t get enough sleep during this week, plus the poor kid has to sit through hours of rehearsals (and it’s microwaved pasta for supper all week long too. Ich). He’s a trooper, and once again at the end of it all, I realize how much of a team we are. By the end of the show he knows all the songs, even offers me notes, and ends up having a ball watching the final production. (He was once in the chorus a few years back, and while he had a good time, he didn’t enjoy the overall experience enough to do it a second time. His performance skills shine in other ways…) Yeah, just about anywhere I go – teaching, playing, working – he comes along with me. It bonds us in a way I can hardly describe.

Today, as we left the school post-show, post-picture ops (with kids he’d known since Kindergarten all those years ago), we entered the cold, clear winter night with joy and relief in our hearts. Finally, finally, finally….  Finally we were over the hump, finally we could go home and just do nothing. I took one last look at his old school with a deep feeling of nostalgia. It was the last time he’d be there for Missoula while still a peer of the cast. Next year both he and his old classmates will be middle schoolers. I sighed, and tried to remember the moment, to capture it and lock it away in my memory bank… the sounds of the kids laughing, yelling, running and playing, shouting their goodbyes, and one by one finding their way back to their family cars. We all drove off into the night and within minutes we two were pulling into our long, beautiful country driveway. As we came closer to our little house, we mused that we’d always be part of the family we’d just left, and how lucky we felt to have a home in both Greenfield Elementary and Waldorf too. It made us feel included, safe, happy. And as we walked across the moonlit snow to shut in the birds, we both stopped for a moment to admire the exceptionally crisp and bright stars (one of which Elihu corrected me was Venus) and velvet-black night sky. How lucky we were, we marveled over and over to each other. That this quiet, lovely oasis was ours. We lived here. Every so often we’ll share a pause like this, and we’ll just sit in the stillness as we take it all in. And tonight, with this crazy week – and even crazier day – behind us (including a quick visit to the urgent medical care unit – more on this later), we really were present for those stars, the moon, the sparkling snow, the deep, beautiful dark woods beyond.

There is much more to come, more than I myself can even truly understand at this point (The Studio is but one item on the full menu of projects and commitments before us), so I realize that tonite’s respite might not be quite enough time for us to recharge our batteries for the next phase, but hey, sometimes ya just don’t have any choice but to keep going. I suppose one could simply throw in the towel and retire from all meaningful existence (and don’t think I haven’t considered that option a time or two!) but that really isn’t the responsible person’s option now, is it?

So on we march, over the threshold and into our future adventures…

 

Tip Off January 26, 2014

The sidebar of my home page shows a tip jar, and if one should click on it, it’s possible to leave a donation. The icon was created and installed as a gift by a woman I’d only ever met online; it was truly a case of the kindness of strangers. (Visit this wonderful blogger, writer and kind stranger here.) I’d long wanted a simple means by which folks could leave the smallest amount in exchange for the enjoyment of reading – the cost of a cup of coffee – something I myself would happily offer to a friend. Something simple, something that wouldn’t be of any great hardship to most folks. My goals were always what I believed to be realistic; I never held out hopes for a great stream of income here – but that I can count on one hand the number of gifts I’ve received through the jar (minus a thumb, that is) during the eight months or so that it’s been up. And that has been surprising. Now you four kind folks who have left something there (and given far more than I ever intended when I had the vehicle installed) know who you are. While simple thanks aren’t really enough, I’ve conveyed my gratitude, and please know that I’m still thankful.

While I have never been so naive as to expect to generate a stream of income from this blog – I do admit that I’d secretly hoped to buy a box of printer paper, pay something towards the month’s electric bill or fill the tank in my car just once with some blog-related proceeds. But aside from the gifts of those four generous and kind friends, not a penny has found its way into the jar. I’d hoped to make it as easy as possible for folks to leave a quick dollar or some pocket change (while keeping in mind that Mr. Paypal still finds his way to 2.9% of the donation plus 30 cents per transaction. Sigh). I’m not good at talking about money, it makes me slightly uncomfortable. My folks came from a culture where it was not spoken of. Maybe it’s helped contribute to the situation I’m in now, I don’t know. What I do know is that I am good at living frugally, but still I’m beginning to wish that my writing might net me something by way of a modest economic return. I write cuz it’s what I do… but still.

I think the expected return on a direct mail campaign is something like 2% – and that might even be ambitious. But the thousand or so subscribers to this blog are not merely random recipients of an ad insert. I know folks aren’t checking in with us here at The Hillhouse the way they are with the trendy Downton Abbey or their beloved Facebook feeds, but the readership does continue to grow – while the pot does not.

The health of my tip jar won’t in any way affect the content of my writing. I’m clearly not motivated by generating income here, but given the hours I have spent at my craft, I sure wouldn’t mind some return on the investment. But, as I said in the very beginning, I’m not here with any expectations. That I have a thousand followers is, in of itself, rather unbelievable to me. Some days it’s what helps motivate me to get out of bed. Other days I think it might be in part responsible for my resurfaced panic attacks. !! Either way, the idea of each visitor leaving a dollar in my virtual jar gives me a tiny thrill… Can you imagine? Wow. That would take care of the electric bill for a couple of months! Lest I appear to be using flagrant passive-aggressive techniques here, let me clearly state my hopes for the future of our tip jar in no uncertain terms:

Dear Readers,

If you’ve enjoyed reading of our adventures here at The Hillhouse, I hope you’ll please consider leaving a donation in the tip jar on a future visit.

My deepest appreciation for your continued friendship and emotional support!

~~~~~~~~~

A Post Script: In an effort to keep this issue living and relevant, I may re-post this or another such reminder from time-to-time. Please do tell me if and when it should become too tedious. Let’s hope it becomes effective long before we reach that point. !!