The Hillhouse

The Journey of a Mother and Son

One More May 6, 2020

Another year? Really? Do I have the energy for it?!

Fifty-six was something of a surprise. I mighta known stuff was coming down the pike, but somehow a lot of it threw me for a loop. I wasn’t the only one who had some challenges to face this past year; my son has also had a few life-changing events – some really good, and some hard and unfair. But we’ve learned from it all, and onward we go. Elihu turned 17 last week, and tomorrow I turn 57. Wait, fifty-seven? What?? Somehow to me that just plain sounds wrong. Liz Conant is 34, isn’t she? Most adults have a favorite age; family friend Martha always liked 42, and my mom touts her 50s as the best decade ever. But for me, my 40s and 50s were given over to single motherhood. It just hasn’t been about me for a while.

The ironic thing about this earthly existence is that those who grow old are regarded as the lucky ones. And yet growing old brings a list of unpleasant deficiencies (please hold your protestations) like diminishing physical abilities, crepey skin, strange new chin hairs, an inability to recall a particular word in real time, and most disappointing for me, a sagging neck and a second chin that no amount of scarves can obscure.

Lest it sound like I’m a vain, self-sorry sort (well, actually, in part I am), I will happily agree that I’ve had a wonderful life thus far – and I’ve been luckier and more privileged than a great majority of the world’s population. I’m aware of this and think on it often. I’m healthy, I’m housed, I’m loved. All is well, truly it is. But lately my neck has been making these very distressing popping and grinding noises from inside (my arthritis doctor may have made things worse by admitting that my neck Xray was “abnormal”. I try to play it off by remembering the “Abby Normal” scene in “Young Frankenstein”, but it doesn’t quite work), and I’ve begun to feel sensations in my limbs that are likely linked to my old injury. Also this confinement has just added to the extra pounds I carry around. And I’m not digging any of it. I’m just self-comforting with food and booze. Simple as that.

It seems I may also have some sort of low-grade depression playing in the background of my life, because for no real identifiable reason some days are just very hard. There are days when I don’t even know how to get out of bed – truly, I mean it. There are days when I don’t know where the hell it’s gonna come from today… How will I feed my kid, deal with the chickens, return the emails, teach the students, run the errands – if I can’t even get dressed? And I’m not just talking quarantine-related angst. It’s shit that’s been with me for years. Most pronounced in these past eleven years here at the Hillhouse. And yet – the flip side of that coin is that I’ve done more for myself this past decade than any other time in my life. I’ve raised my son, rediscovered how to make music (this time without a band – my worst fear, truly), I’ve learned about starting a business, about farming, about fixing things, making things work, making do… And it helps to remember that. Seeing it in print is a good reminder. I suppose we all need reminders. And second chances, third chances, fourth chances…

A birthday always seems to me like a secondary New Year; it’s that perfect opportunity to try again, to pull oneself up and hit that to-do list with new enthusiasm. This is my hope for tomorrow. Maybe it will prove to be a new seed, that new bit of inspiration that I so need now…

Perhaps I’ll end up reading this tomorrow, and in the light of a new day maybe I’ll think better about sharing all of this negative talk and decide to pull it. It does sound a little self-sorry for a woman who has her wits and her health about her. It shames me to voice any complaints at all – because I have some very dear friends who are suffering from some hugely challenging health issues, and their paths are so much harder than mine. And I suppose a birthday is a gift. If nothing else, it’s another chance to do good work and get things right.

This year will be a gift. It will be my last year with Elihu here by my side. In one year, by my next birthday, we will know where Elihu is going to college. By then we’ll be preparing for him to leave, and I will be preparing for my first year out of the only job I’ve known for the last 17 years! It’s a good thing I have a year to get ready. For as many changes as we’ve shared here through the years, this last major shift will be the biggest of all. And with that in mind, I intend to cherish every moment of my 57th year. The best gift of all is to have one more year with my son.

Ok. I’m on board again. One more year? Yes, please.

 

Vanity Pandemic April 22, 2020

As I see it, and as I believe most of us will agree in our most private thoughts, humans become quite physically unattractive on the downward slope of their lives. The enlightened folks in the room will instantly protest this by arguing that true beauty is in a person’s wisdom, and in their soul (yes, but the packaging can be very off-putting, rendering that soulful beauty unknown), and that the best years are yet to come. Ok. You can think all that if you want.

Nature would work to support my feelings on this; a 56 year old woman is not designed to procreate, therefore she is not equipped with physical attributes that might attract a mate – or in base terms, signal to members of the opposite sex that she is a viable candidate for maintaining the species. There is just no point in denying it. The visage of a young person is magnetic, but an image of a person in their late 50s – honestly folks, not so much. I sure wish I would’ve taken the time to contemplate this more deeply in advance of my arrival at this strange place. I wish I’d considered that by the time my son left the house I’d be old – as in beyond my years of a strong jawline and a waist smaller than my hips, a time in my life when my hair would be as thin as my little finger, and my fingers would be twice their previous size and too arthritic to clutch a steering wheel. I’m not sure how that would’ve changed things, except that it might not have come as such a surprise.

Those of you who immediately react in opposition to my thoughts will likely be coming from an inspired and holy place that I myself will probably never know in this earthly lifetime. Those folks will scold that age is just a number. Uh-huh. Right.

All my life I’d never been able to imagine what things might be like beyond a few months into the future. Aside, I suppose, from a drawing I made in 4th grade projecting who I imagined myself to be at – gasp, 25 – where I sported a Mary Tyler Moore-esque flippy hair style and announced that I would be an “actor”. I think the choice was made based on my famously outgoing personality, and nothing else. (Of course what does a 9 year old know about job opportunities??) But how exactly would I get to be an actor? What was involved in that? No idea. Even a decade later, more than halfway through high school I had no idea what the future held, and actor was off the list after my grades tanked in sophomore year and my parents said no more auditions for school productions. So in junior year I had no ideas, no vision. Really. If I’d had my druthers I would’ve just been a musician. I have never been a good student, and since the age of 12 classrooms and panic attacks were closely associated. What I really liked doing however, what inspired me, had been playing music with friends – that was natural. And so it made sense that after I muscled my way through what ended up being a nearly wasted four years at college I made my way back to playing. (A sidebar here is that I made some great friends, met musicians, and got to play in some great groups – that was the value of college for me.)

Growing up I always thought of myself as fat. Might’ve been reinforced by my mother’s own laments about her chubby childhood (photos show no such thing), or it might’ve been the way my thighs always wore the whales in my corduroy pants down to shiny fabric in no time, or that my arms never curved in below my shoulders the way the athletic girls’ did – whatever it was, it had me confiding to my 5th grade diary that I was “78 pounds! Such a fatty!” Sheesh. The timeless lament of women – sad that it starts so young and runs so deep. True, I was not one of the slender ones, but by no means was I “such a fatty”. Regardless, I spent my teenage years feeling very bad about myself and trying in vain over and over again to lose twenty unwanted extra pounds. But I met with an unlikely fate at the end of high school which completely changed the course of my life, and gave me the chance for a complete re-invention of myself. I was literally given a ‘do-over’.

When I was 18 – and on my way to a band rehearsal – I broke my neck in a car accident. I wasn’t driving, but I had made the bad choice of accepting a ride from a friend who had been drinking. It was on a Sunday afternoon at the end of a village celebration. I knew when I got it that he wasn’t in good shape, but I didn’t relish a two mile walk home and being late to practice, so I got in. Before 30 seconds had passed I’d broken C6 and C7 (my shoulder too). I spent the next two months strapped to a Stryker frame bed in the hospital. A horrible event to be sure – but by the time I was healed and back at home, I’d lost nearly 40 pounds. I was given a jump start into a new body and a new life. I didn’t take it lightly either. Just being able to walk after such an injury was certainly huge, but being given a new body was inspiring. I began to workout and to run and surprisingly found that I loved it. I got fit and cut, and for a long time there was no looking back. And man, the shit I wore back in those days was amazing. Among hundreds of outfits, a lime green PVC catsuit and 4 inch platforms come to mind as I think back…

You gotta know that playing onstage is more than just talent and gear – maybe more so for a woman – but it’s there for all of us. It’s about how you read to the crowd, how you look. Really. It is. But getting a look together for a band was always fun, it was never a hardship. A challenge, definitely, but one I loved. Thrift stores and head shops with a rack of tiny tees, my grandmother’s leftovers – I’d cobble together a unique look that told the world it was just that easy to look so music video-ready. With chops from years of classical piano and ears informed by my dad’s jazz LPs, I had enough facility to play in a variety of groups. From reggae bands to alt country (the sparkly accordion added to my rootsy street cred) to Elvis cover bands – and then later (when I realized that by singing I could work with “real” jazz musicians) fronting 20 piece big bands – all of it represented an impressive repertoire of costumes. I’ve let go of most of it by now, but I have a few pieces left. A red and black horizontal stripe top from the early years (which matched my red and black Farfisa!), and a few gowns from the “Doris Day” years. Wow, those waistlines slay me. I actually zipped that shit up? I’m not even sure my current thigh could fit inside the waistline of one of those gorgeous dresses. Linda Ronstadt once said that she had no regrets because she had “a long drink at the trough”. I didn’t drink the way she did, but I’ve certainly had more than one woman’s share of glamour and adventure. Truly.

So now here I am, a country gal, closer to 60 than 50, and holding onto a half dozen silk sheaths. It’s almost as if keeping the clothes demonstrates to me that that life will one day return. That the body I identify with will return. That youth will return. I try to take stock, to let pieces go every so often. There really is no more size 8 in my future, this I know… But it’s a deeply poignant thing to say goodbye; it’s like another confirmation that the best times are behind me and truly gone… The turquoise suede duster with the fur collar that I netted from a lucrative commercial job in Las Vegas – I let it go for just $5 at a garage sale last summer. When the man sent his niece a photo and she texted back immediately that she really wanted it – that gave my heart some relief. It would have a new life, a young life. That made it easier. Step by step, velvet boots by beaded gown I’ve let most of it go, and with each separation I like to think that I’m increasing my OK-ness with this aging thing. But really friends, I’m not.

I’m grateful for the buffer of pandemic life because at least it gives me a window of time for some deep self reflection. I must remember that while I’m flitting about in this turmoil of vanity, people are fighting for their lives. This should not be the time for lamenting in my diary that “I’m such a fatty”, yet somehow that’s how it’s turning out for me. Let’s just keep this between us, shall we? I’m not proud.

The gift of time has enabled me to finally justify spending hours upon hours going through boxes and boxes of paper. Memorabilia mixed in with mundane crap. Lots of stuff mis-filed. Hell, lots of files themselves labeled “to be filed” – now that’s a hoot. I’ve just never had the stretch of time in which to fully face down this monster. And it’s actually producing results! Who knew? Finally I can put my hands on teaching materials and pieces of music that have been MIA for years. So it’s been productive, which offers my spirit some lift. There’s a lot of paper being tossed in the burn bin these past few weeks – and as each bonfire spirits away a few pounds’ worth of the past into the sky, I feel a small breath of hope growing for the future. It will be oh so different, to be sure. I will need some major redefining of my life in a year’s time. But thankfully I have a handle on it now, and I have time to prepare. I will make the most of my pandemic cocoon. File by file, and fire by fire, I’m already making progress.

I think back on breaking my neck, and how frightening it was; the uncertainty for my very life, my mobility, my health… And yet it turned into a gift. As I lose weight in paper – old files, long-useless owner’s manuals, receipts, set lists, to-do lists – it gives me a real sense of lighten-ing. And in these heavy times, that is something I can really use.

 

Slowing April 15, 2020

A few years ago Elihu and I listened to an audio book entitled “The Slowing”. It was a science fiction story which took place in the US, in our own contemporary time. The main characters were a teenage boy and girl, their families, and the other families of their suburban neighborhood. The basic premise of the story was that the earth’s rotation had begun to slow down. It conveyed a dreamlike sense of ungrounding at the start – but that was only the start. As the story developed we began to understand just how deeply horrific a situation this really was, and how fundamentally powerless were the planet’s entire living populations. When charts began showing exponential growth of the Coronavirus just a few days ago, I felt a profound fear in my gut, and a queer lightness in my head. I was not safe, my son wasn’t safe – none of us were safe. We were embedded in our very own science fiction story come to life.

Our ability to communicate with each other instantly makes our experience of this pandemic different from previous such plagues on the earth – some may say it stirs the pot, that it exacerbates people’s fears, that it feeds rumor and speculation… Perhaps it does. But it also puts us in instant communication with friends and family no matter the geographic distance between us. Our connectivity provides us with a toolkit for survival. We are privy to the most current information; graphs and maps keep us informed, we learn ways in which we may safely move when out in the world, sanitary ways to unpack our groceries, activities to keep our children busy and happy, opportunities to hear music, even visit with our friends, and classrooms have moved fairly easily to home computers (but certainly not all have; I fear this disparity will become something of a real problem if the situation persists until the fall).

Without making light of anything, I gotta say our own experience thus far has been enjoyable. I am hearing musicians I haven’t in years, folks I was resolved never to hear or see again – and yet here I am in their living rooms right there with them! How lovely! Virtual one-room venues and old fashioned salons are popping up everywhere, creating an earth-wide a la carte smorgasbord of entertainment. And this is but the first week – if this ‘thing’ lasts a few months, as it may, this new online culture will begin to organize itself. Patterns will arise – regular showtimes, regular features – and as with anything new, the novelty will fade and the new routines will begin to show themselves.

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I resume this post after our first two weeks into this new life. I’ve penned a couple of novelty songs, started seedlings for the garden, and will be embarking on my first online lessons soon. My son has been finding a whole new presence in his musical community, easily learning how to teach, compose, edit and perform his own pieces with other students from throughout the country. It’s with no small amount of pride that I share that the conductor of Elihu’s youth orchestra held him up as an example of how players should be regularly documenting their practice. My kid is way ahead of the curve on this front; he’s been keeping a daily video log of his tuba practicing for nearly a year. (The kid puts me to shame – inspired by the healthy routine he was developing, I tried to meditate for 30 days in a row, but tanked by day 11. Regrettably I created a Facebook page in order to create some public accountability, but that meaningless banner yet hangs limp in the virtual irons, my shameful lack of personal stamina forever documented….)

Personally, I enjoy being solitary. I definitely prefer it to a house full of people. And the wonderful thing about living with my son is that while I have my privacy, I’m not completely alone. I can go for long stretches of time in my own personal space, content to know that my dearest one is never far away. Elihu is also content in keeping to himself, ever-engaged in any number of things from building airplanes to teaching himself trumpet, learning to write Japanese kanji or practicing his tuba. We check in with each other every so often, comparing our progress, discussing the things that we’re learning, maybe sharing a cup of tea before heading back to our private worlds. I too am mostly always in motion – but with nothing so weighty as the interests of my kid, rather my time is taken up mostly by things domestic; preparing for the chicks, mending things outside, doing yard work, cleaning gutters or filling feed bins, doing laundry and cooking meals, and keeping a country house from being overrun with dust, dirt and cobwebs. (I continue, however, to turn a blind eye to the greasy kitchen walls and oil splattered ceiling).

My main current interest in this early pandemic chapter has been to maintain some structure in our days by providing three balanced and nutritious meals each day. While not the meticulous planner that my mother is, I do spend a good amount of time trying to find new and interesting things to make. But truthfully this is mostly a diversion for me; eating has always been my single favorite experience on the planet – yet for my son, it is simply something that needs to be done. My kid – at 5’11” and 110 pounds – he dutifully eats what’s given to him, but really and truly, he doesn’t care. (Aside from the roasted quail at Reza’s in Chicago, the kid could give a hoot how his calories are delivered.) Still, I’ve been trying for years to find a food that he looks forward to, and this stuck-at-home life has provided me with the perfect excuse to dig down deep into some new culinary experiences. But dig as I might, I haven’t found any particular dish which I can create that excites him (can you believe pizza and mac and cheese are actually his least favorite foods?) and soon I think I’m going to revert back I to more modest meals, because I’m gaining weight rapidly and I’m sure there are more productive ways in which I could be using this gift of time.

How many days into this are we? I’m never quite sure; I’m experiencing time in a more gestural way at present. Personally my son and I are past the first free-form phase. I languished for a few days in bed (I am prone to depression so it was understandable) and so now I feel I’m able to make a list of goals for the next phase. My son and I are very lucky to have space, food, internet and basic equipment. This can be anything I’d like to to be. It will remain deeply tempting for me to make sumptuous dinners washed down with entire bottles of wine (I’m not entirely convinced that phase is over yet) but the opportunity to take hikes and bike rides and finally attend to my ‘to file’ pile exists now as never before. I pray things don’t end up going the way of my failed meditation project, but I’ve carved out some new to-do lists, and I feel a tiny seed of promise waiting to germinate.

And as we all know by now, given the right circumstances, tiny things can grow to become a force of nature.

 

 

 

 

Lemonade Lockdown March 21, 2020

As of tomorrow night, Sunday, March 22nd, the state of New York will be on lockdown. Some folks are miffed at the order and see it as much too extreme (perhaps they also see it as an invasion of their personal freedom – and isn’t that what this great country is all about?), and some folks have just been wondering when the order would finally come. For the two of us, the news brings relief.

In my personal life I know folks on both sides, and while I usually keep silent about such rifts, this time I’m in a mildly precarious situation regarding a student. She is one of the most musically precocious and talented kids I’ve ever had – in over 25 years of teaching – and her parents pay me generously. Her MD father revealed his feelings on the matter when I told him I was going to hold off on lessons for two weeks (in my mind thinking – no wait, make that four...). The parents had been to Florida the week before, and the eight year old younger brother has a habit of sucking on his lower lip, and spit on the keys is a predictable byproduct. With three kids home all day and a medical practice to run, I can understand how frustrating this news is, especially when personally, this fellow doesn’t support the lockdown. (How is it that the MD doesn’t see the value of self isolation? Nothing is self-evident anymore. Fundamentally, I think this shit is driven far more by emotion than by science.) I offered the best olive branch I could think of; would he be OK if I took his daughter along for a walk in the woods sometime? His face lightened, and he agreed. So that helped to defuse the situation.

Last night I thought I’d double-down and do things right. I set out to load up our pantry. Having just organized it the week before (a huge project I undertake but twice a year) I felt empowered by knowing its contents, and by knowing the things we might benefit from adding to it. The stores – at six in the evening – were a bizarre sight: four aisles completely empty – not a single item left standing in paper products. (I’d kinda blown off stocking up, thinking the toilet paper hysteria would blow over soon. Apparently it hasn’t as of yet. We’re down to a couple of rolls, but I’m still considering this to be a first-world problem.) The aisle with the canned vegetables, soups and dried beans was a wasteland, with just a few cans of pickled beets remaining. And pasta? Only the uber-pricey organic stuff from Italy remained. (At this writing it just occurred to me – was this out of fear? Was the perception of safety tainted by the country’s sky-high Corona cases? Oh dear…) Though usually I am a bottom-of-the-barrel shopper, buying house brands and no-name products, the situation sort of forced my hand and I ended up grabbing the remaining lone boxes – things I otherwise would have passed up. My $250 grocery bill – much more than my usual biweekly tab – attested to the boutique items in my haul. Pasta made from chick peas, wild rice, prepared rice side dishes (tasty, but so much crap and sodium in ’em), “theater style” microwave popcorn (we almost never have popcorn – but I have this romantic notion that Elihu and I just might watch a movie together!! Almost unheard of here in this always-busy household). Sadly, the two main things I’d come to get were both completely gone. Meat and toilet paper.  I guess I can finally scrap any hopes of going low carb this spring.

Wearing plastic gloves as I shopped, I was in the minority. And when I asked a clerk, frantically re-stocking cans of diced tomatoes if he worried at all, given his exposure to so many people, he answered “no” without any hesitation. “See the way I’m moving and sweating? I wouldn’t get it – I would sweat it out right away!” Hmm. Of course I laughed and agreed with him… But I was taken aback; does someone really think they can simply sweat a virus out of their system? I guess a person might not feel symptoms as acutely as others, but I don’t think it’s as simple as sweating it away.

Many on the street are cavalier. There is a feeling here in our town’s local convenient store that it’s all made up, that it’s all hype. There is a divide becoming visible, and it seems closely aligned with politics. Folks of the blue persuasion are keeping safe, respecting the rules of hygiene and social distancing. Folks in the red population tend to think that this is all hyped-up bullshit and they enjoy sharing a good chuckle about it all.

If you feel, as I and so many others do, that Trump is not only erratic and unintelligent, but most importantly dangerous – then you will likely be keeping that social distance, staying at home and practicing vigilant hand washing. But if you feel it’s our patriotic duty to fully stand behind everything that 45 says, you are likely still not convinced that Covid19 is your problem. Yeah, there might be lip service now, but Trump supporters are still stuck somewhere behind his original, flippant rhetoric. No matter what Donald might say going forward, deep in their hearts, the true Trumpers – at least the good ol’ boys who live all around me here in the hills – will continue to live life as usual, while complaining loudly about the imposition in hopes that the rest of us will overhear.

And me? Elihu? What are we feeling and thinking right now? There is a deep sadness at all of the things that are gone in an instant. Elihu was on the brink of litigating his team’s way to the winning spot in our region’s mock trial competition. Elihu was preparing for his tuba concerto with the orchestra on May 2nd. Elihu was looking forward to a tour of South America with the symphony, to studying at MIT in August, to traveling to Europe with his father. Elihu was at the very doorstep of an incredibly thrilling summer, and now… He has none of it. All of it cancelled or postponed.

When the reality sank in, I cannot tell you how deeply crushed my heart was. But a mix of stoicism and an innate positive attitude turned Elihu’s thinking away from the heartbreak, and instead toward a new future made possible by this sudden window of opportunity. Last night, when I returned from a day of errands, I found a young man who was now able to string together simple sentences in Japanese. It is a safe bet that by the end of May this kid will have four languages under his belt. And he’s started to compose music, he’s building new planes, he’s keeping his Instagram and YouTube accounts full of fresh material. He’s sharing his compositions with other young musicians who are themselves learning them and in turn posting their performances. Elihu’s even started to figure out how to teach tuba lessons online.

How do I feel about all of this newly-instituted isolation? I am thrilled. THRILLED to have nowhere to go. Thrilled to pause my exhaustive mom taxi service (remember, Elihu is legally blind and will never drive. Most moms begin to experience a little break from shuttling duty about now, but my job won’t cease until the kid’s away at college). I am thrilled to have a window of time in which to simply live. Thrilled that my son is close by, thrilled that this will give me an opportunity to see what a structure-less life feels like (before it descends on me in the fall of 2021). I’m thrilled to have this chance to actively shape our own life, and I’m relieved that for a short while we are mostly off the hook.

Facebook, the modern-day well at which the community gathers, is a tumble of chaotic chatter lately. Everyone is all aflutter about everything from the impending isolation to new bread recipes. People are apprehensive about being cooped up, and our feeds are endlessly stocked by fear-inducing images and news clips. Lines of people in their cars, waiting to have their nostrils swabbed to test for the virus, photos of iconic plazas and sites known for shoulder-to-shoulder crowds are now vast and vacant, video clips show people in Italy leaning out of their windows and singing to each other…

I admit that I spent the past few days (our first days with NO tuba, NO tutor, NO rehearsals, NO excursions, NO students) in bed. I just treated the abyss as a couple of full-on sick days. I propped myself up so perfectly with my favorite down pillows, grabbed a pair of reading glasses and pulled the phone to my face, joining my virtual tribe at the well until my poor phone got almost too hot to touch. I’m a bit embarrassed at how eagerly I too threw myself into the Corona-fray. I unintentionally hosted three redundant watch parties in my newbie enthusiasm to participate in the new online culture. I posted way too much, and way too frequently. I even joined Tik Tok in an effort to add variety to my amusements. (Elihu told me soberly, and out of love for his mother and in protection of her integrity, that people my age who engaged in Tik Tok were kinda looked at as losers. Just so I knew. I will be deleting my account shortly.)

When things are new, when they are novel (pun intended, sorry) it’s easy to see the possibility, to imagine what it feels like to live in a new and improved reality. But we humans all know that what follows behind the initial breath of hope and promise is usually nothing but a pale shadow of the inspiring first vision. My hope for this initial two-week quarantine is to 1) organize and clean my mudroom and kitchen, 2) take a hike on a local trail once a week if not more (yeah, right…), 3) get up and going with online lessons, 4) shovel out the coop and mend the fences, and finally 5) assess the winter’s damage on the property and begin to make piles of downed branches.

This may all seem easy enough – but everything takes gobs more time and energy than one might think. And I, late in my 56th year and missing some core strength I had only a few years ago, simply can’t do a lot of the heavy lifting I once used to do by myself. But thankfully Elihu is eager to help. It seems his increasingly strong young body needs and wants the physical work, for he bats not an eye when I share with him the tasks on our list. In fact, he cheers me on and tells me how easy it will all be. Could I be a luckier mom?

At this very specific moment in time I am as content as is possible. Somehow it feels like things will be alright. Hardly seems logical though! The list of things ever-running in the back of my mind is enough to make a sane woman weep…

I am fat (again) and have very few clothes into which I can still fit, my hair is thinning and my arthritic fingers continue to get thicker and more painful… I’ve had a sharp pain in my left breast and armpit for over a month, but I don’t want to look into it for fear of making a fuss over nothing, especially at this delicate time for the health system… There are fallen trees and enormous branches crisscrossing our property, mature and substantial weeds have grown up after last year’s absence of lawn-cutting, a huge pile of winter’s garbage flayed open by ravens and now wind-strewn across the grass awaits cleanup, there are bags upon bags of containers waiting to be shuttled to the recycling stations, there are cobwebs on every inside wall of my house and the basement is now taking on water with the melting of spring. And I have no income.

But what we do have here at the Hillhouse is space – blessed, wide-open space in which to move and breathe. We also have our freedom, our health, opportunity, nature, fresh air, fields, woods, chickens, grandma next door, great neighbors close by, a reliable internet connection, a full pantry and 150 gallons of fuel oil.

And now, to make some lemonade.

 

 

Vortex March 1, 2020

In my mind, March is it. It is the beginning, it is the ending, and it is the never-ending middle all at once. Sap drips from the trees onto my car, signaling that some shift of nature is afoot, yet the temperature stays well below freezing without letup, telling me that no such change is on its way. At the doorstep of March we are as close to a cold, dark January afternoon as we are to a muggy, pollen-dense May morning. March is enigmatically right in the middle of it all.

These days Elihu and I are in the middle of it all, too. We are constantly moving, ever on to the next project, the next appointment, the next milestone. However, on a quiet Sunday like this, with coffee brewing in the kitchen, blue jays scolding outside the window and a teenage boy sleeping soundly into the late morning, it doesn’t exactly feel like it. This very moment is when life feels the way I like it best; rested and unhurried. But this is just a momentary pause in our life. Deadlines, exams and concerts are approaching. Preparations are being made for presentations, tours, camps and travel. Tutors and teachers and after school clubs must be coordinated. As I sit here in the quiet of my bedroom, a shaft of morning light flickering through the curtains, I try to imagine all the things that are yet before us, but the visions are as hard to fully comprehend as last night’s dreams.

The orchestra has become a source of great joy for Elihu. He has finally found peers – other kids his age who also live on the outskirts of mainstream school culture. Smart, mathsy, musical, multilingual and funny, these outsiders are insiders here, and I am so deeply relieved and happy for my son that he has finally found a social group to which he truly belongs. Yesterday, I peeked in on the orchestra as they rehearsed the Brahms, and I witnessed my son in his own heaven. After the last note he pulled away from the horn and smiled in a way I have seldom seen. A mother could wish for nothing more. With my heart full I left him for an afternoon with his people.

This is the season of SATs for all high school juniors, but for those who have set their sights on MIT, this means two additional SAT exams. Regular high school curriculum – even the rigorous work of the Waldorf School – does not prepare a student for these extra tests, and so Elihu has been working with a tutor on the weekends. Between tuba lessons, tutors and other extra costs it has been a financially stressful time. But crazy as life is, an angel has come to us at perfectly placed times… An old friend from my past life in Chicago has sent us gifts of money simply out of the blue, and really, the timing has been truly miraculous. In the middle of it all sometimes I just don’t know how it can possibly work out, and yet somehow, it does. (An extra thanks to you, angel.)

Among the many extracurriculars that Elihu has going on are film club, math club and mock trial. Not only does he cut a fine figure in his jacket and bow tie, but his preparation is meticulous and the delivery of his statements to the court is equally impeccable. He has won best advocate twice now. Truly, if he wished, he could pursue a career in law (my paternal grandfather was a judge, so it’s in the genes I suppose), but of course this won’t be his path.

Flying has taken a backseat these days. With fields under snow, cold weather, academics and music there just isn’t a lot of time or opportunity. Elihu did however do a week-long internship in the aircraft maintenance hangar at the Saratoga County Airport recently, and that was really inspiring for him. Every day when he got home he radiated pure happiness. He learned a lot about the practical, real-life side of aviation. I’d even go so far as to say it was one of the best experiences of his life thus far.

The most thrilling and challenging event is yet to come… Elihu won runner up in the Empire State Youth Orchestra’s concerto competition (“Someone has to win, why not me?” said the young man after what felt like a pretty good audition) and he will be soloist with the ESYO repertory symphony in May. Elihu told me the other day that the moment he is most looking forward to is when he walks onto the platform with his tuba, shining under the lights, when he takes his seat, breathes for a moment, and then nods to the conductor. Indeed. Can you imagine? I still have a hard time understanding this will be happening. But we’re not there yet. There are many unseen things to be done in addition to the practice and mental preparation. Elihu needs to be fitted for a tuxedo – tails, white tie and vest, the whole nine yards – and this will require even more time and money. I don’t know how it will all come together, but I know it will. Somehow it always does.

When the heavy snows arrive in December we suspend our garbage pickup for a few months. The driveway gets increasingly narrow and icy at the end of plowing season, making it a challenge to leave containers at the roadside. By mid March we have our own private dump in the driveway. It’s a tad embarrassing to see the great mound appear as the snow melts away, and with one sunny afternoon it can become a bit pungent too. Winter snowfalls are a beautiful thing, but they do make day-to-day tasks a bit trickier. County plow trucks routinely knock over our mailbox, making it necessary to pickup our mail down the road at the post office. The coop is surrounded by great berms of snow, leaving the flock only a small area in which to move, and even our poor birds are becoming short-tempered and irritable. And this year, in addition to our temporary dump we have enormous tree limbs down throughout the property. A massive ice storm a few weeks ago left us without power for three days as well as a huge mess of downed branches and even entire trees strewn across our five open acres. The melting of March will reveal the extent of the mess. It’s got me wondering how in hell we’ll clean it all up, but one thing at a time. We’re not there yet.

Elihu and I recently went over his schedule for the next few months, and it’s rather stunning. Soloist with the orchestra. A trip to Washington state to find his new tuba, a South American tour with the orchestra, a week of study at MIT, a trip to Europe with his father. I won’t see much of him this summer, and while it saddens me, it’s OK. It gives me deep satisfaction to know that I’ve helped to make all of this happen. And it gives me true happiness knowing that my son is happy.

The sun has moved across the room, now it’s falling onto the bed. I know that it’s getting late, and we need to get moving. Chickens have been tended to, breakfast dishes stacked in the sink, and Elihu has been buzzing notes on his mouthpiece for awhile now. In a few moments we will load the tuba into the car and head off to his lesson. Later on today he will meet with his tutor. Afterwards we will head home in the dark for supper. Bed will follow, and tomorrow, after two weeks of winter break, school will start again. I will resume my work, and the preparations for the coming month’s events will begin anew.

Tomorrow we march into our future.

 

 

 

 

 

Ushering In December 31, 2019

When we arrive at a milestone, I think it’s human nature to offer up proclamations about the event’s significance. It feels restorative and hopeful at the conclusion of one chapter, and at the dawn of another, to identify the things that have happened, to acknowledge the lessons we’ve learned from those experiences, and to posit an improved vision for the future that awaits us.

I too feel the urge to summarize, to identify my overarching life themes of the past decade. A quick look through my personal journal entries from the past several New Years Eves shows that although I’ve lived through many, many adventures over the past ten years, my hopes at this time of year are nearly always the same. And each year my failings are also nearly identical. I have likely been wrestling with the same private demons for my whole life. While I do seem to get some purchase onto new ground each year that passes, sadly it seems to be at a much slower pace than I might have envisioned a decade or two ago.

This is not to say that I am the same person as I was in 2009. Good Lord no. Not a one of is, I should think.

It was in 2009 that I first called New York my home. And it was in 2010 when I first began to refer to our little homestead here as The Hillhouse. Shortly after that, I found I could no longer tolerate the emotional turmoil in my life without an outlet, and so my inner life found its way into an outer expression in The Hillhouse in Greenfield. I had no idea what I was even doing back then – all I knew is that I had to write, I had to get what was in me out of me. My objective was not to “have a blog” – I’m not even sure I quite knew what a blog was back then – all I knew was that I was starting my life all over in a new part of the world and I felt very alone. Heartbroken and hopeless. It was too much for me to bear, so I looked for expression and connection through the only means I had available.

Although it may seem far too obvious, I can see that today is a perfect marker, a perfect delineation between my then and my now (and beyond)….

The very first and most obvious piece of evidence I think of is that of my advancing age. At 56 it might not seem that aging should be foremost in my mind – but it is. And it’s more than just vanity. Yes, a great deal of it – if I’m to be completely honest – is about vanity, but more disturbing are the physical changes that are occurring that will come to adversely affect me at some point. There’s the stuff that’s to be expected: weight gain (one must become vigilant about careless food and drink after 50, I’m convinced of it now!), there’s the loss of height, but most alarming is the rapid change in my hands and my joints. My spine is succumbing to gravity, my hips are so much tighter than they’ve ever been, and my fingers seem to lose their grip on something daily. At age 18 I broke my neck, and in the past few months the injury has come back to cause me some concern; I now feel slight electrical tingling in my arms and even my head itself, and from this new reality I don’t know if there is any retreating.

This is tolerable when I think on the few things of value I may yet add to the planet. One thing, of course, is my son Elihu. He is what motivates me to get out of bed in the morning, and I know for sure he is the main thing that keeps my almost 85 year old mother going too. There are a few things I still need to do (doesn’t everyone feel that way?) and if I can conclude this personal business then I believe my growing impairments will be slightly less frightening. I have a list – lest you think I’m just wishing for a few more good nights on the town and a couple more singing dates – and I will henceforth take care to clearly map out the steps and check them off in a timely fashion. First thing on the list: get the kid into MIT. In the coming year all else will be a sidebar. My job now is to support my son in any way that he needs. Once he’s launched, I can turn my attention to the rest.

I look so different, so much older, than I did when we moved here from Chicago. And I kinda wished someone would’ve given me a heads up. Maybe then it wouldn’t have come as such a surprise. But is anyone ever truly ready for this? For me, things were pretty much ‘business as usual’ until I hit 53. Then stuff just kinda started to change really fast. I look at my friends through the lens of Facebook, and I can see the witching hour making itself apparent in their countenances too. Protestations are silly. I am SO not a fan of people talking about “internal beauty” or “80 years young”. Fuck that. Seriously, fuck all that bullshit. The bloom is off the rose already. There is no going back. No 60 year old is more beautiful to gaze upon than a 30 year old, and reduced flexibility and mobility suck. Sure I’m smarter, more experienced and more insightful than I was even a decade ago – but that aint gonna stop my hands from dropping the last wine glass on the kitchen floor or finding my limbs painfully stiff after a half hour on the couch. Sure, I workout regularly – and plan now to workout even more, and yes I will be increasingly mindful of the things that I need to do in order to stay at the best of my physical abilities, but the march of time – the physical declining of my body – this will not ease up as time passes. And this is a reality that is only just now truly settling in. I feel that the more deeply I can make peace with this aging thing, the easier it’ll be to move through it. To move through the next decade, more specifically.

And then there is my mother. She too is proof of the big changes that have transpired over the past decade, as her own physical situation has deteriorated quite a bit in just the past few years. I can look at her and get a fair idea of what lies ahead for me. I have her hands, her bad and scoliotic back, her bad right knee… It doesn’t worry me as much as it might have if I’d had no warning; at least none of this will come as a surprise to me. What is a tad surprising is the way in which my mom has recently begun to make offhand remarks about her death. We were looking at a reclining chair for her a few days ago and she said something about choosing a color that I liked. And I can assure you there was no hint of humor in her voice… While a year ago she would talk about living to see Elihu graduate from MIT (yes, we do like to put this particular cart before the horse), now she has amended that to say that she would be happy just to live to see him be accepted at MIT. And that is a different thing. Her heart is in continual Afib these days, so as a result she’s very easily winded and finds her energy gone after simple tasks. I can understand how she’s losing the resolve to envision things she once did. Her talent and gift to the world has always been that of superb cook and host; with that role diminished to only a handful of dinners a year, and hardly the energy to see those to fruition as things are presently, I can imagine this hits her hard. We Conants don’t really talk about feelings as a family. Never have. And so as we find ourselves in this new territory – on the verge of a decade that promises to bring change upon us more dramatically than ever before – deep inside I think we are feeling the sorrow of imminent goodbyes and major shifts in our reality…

I’ve spent a good deal of time wondering at the things one must do in order to find resolution and conclusion in life. My feeling is that if one takes all the chances one can, if one makes strangers smile and occasionally rescues spiders from the vacuum cleaner, if one is generally a kind person who does things to the best of their abilities – then there should be no regrets, no nagging feeling that their life has somehow missed its mark. I have very few regrets – I might even be so bold as to say I have none – because I know that if I were presented with the same choices in the same time and with the same emotional tools as I had at the times of those choices – then I would most likely behave in the same way. If one simply acts as a good person in their own sphere of influence, then I honestly believe they’ve done a fine job at being human. And I should think that believing this would help a person to accept the changes and losses that life inevitably brings. Of course my ending is not showing itself to me in an acute or obvious way at the moment, so it’s easy for me to say this now. We shall see.

When we moved here just over a decade ago, a majestic beech tree stood in the yard. It was enormous, and right after the view, it was usually the first thing one noticed on the property. A few years into our residency here the tree began to drop its topmost limbs. Where once we could see only branches, now the sky was showing through. I was told by many folks that the tree was in the process of dying. At first it was alarming; we really loved our beech tree and couldn’t imagine the space without it. Maybe it was dying – I mean, after we’re grown and have physically matured, are we all not in the process of dying? – but yet it was still so beautiful. It never ceased to be stunning. It’s probably lost a third of its volume in the past few years – it is not the tree we first knew. But this does not stop it from being regal. It does not prevent us from loving it as we did. These days I can begin to imagine how the space will look when it’s finally gone. Where there once was shade there will be a great patch of light. It will be a huge change on the property. And then, one day, it will not. When the reigning tree has reached its limbs to the sky and then finally dropped them all onto the ground, it will have been the completion of a tree’s perfect life.

And that resulting patch of sunlight will usher in a fresh new chapter.

 

 

Crossroads October 2, 2019

Elihu’s big brown eyes looked at me from across the tiny kitchen table. His eyes don’t meet mine much; having limited vision and a ticky disposition, his eyes often dart around, glancing low and to the side, seldom directly at me. “I’m at a crossroads”, he said. I waited for more; sometimes he just says something as a setup with a punchline to follow. I saw no smile beginning on his face, and he said nothing. “You’re at a crossroads?” I asked. He waited another moment. “Yes. And it just hit me tonight”.

It was already past eleven on a school night, and we’d just returned from his weekly rehearsal with the Empire State Youth Orchestra, the highlight of his week. It was a place where he’d finally found his brethren, a place where he had finally found his joy – one that other peers could share with him. A solitary child, this was a revelation and a relief –  for both of us. Last night he’d had a sectional rehearsal with the other low brass players. Elihu had never worked with anyone like this coach before. The session was less about playing, and more about discussing the conceptual aspects of being a musician. Elihu revealed his mathematician’s mind in his answers to the coach’s questions. When no other kids spoke up, Elihu would proffer a response. He was a year younger than the others there, and he was the only one who wasn’t planning on pursuing a career in music, and yet he was more engaged in the conversation than the rest. Elihu said that he could see the thought passing through the coach’s mind: Why wasn’t this kid going to study music? Elihu said that all of a sudden he sort of popped out of his body and viewed the scene from a third person’s perspective. “And the question became obvious to me too: Why wasn’t I going to study music?”

When I’d arrived to pick Elihu up after rehearsal, the teacher who’d led the sectional slowed as he passed me in the parking lot. He turned to me, his horn cases hanging there at his side, and he seemed to be forming a thought. He seemed to want to say something to me, but then after a beat he turned and walked on. I’d noticed this, and had wondered if there hadn’t been some observation he’d wanted to share with the kid’s mom. Perhaps.

Elihu and I began to talk about this idea. Sometimes, when one has a talent or an affinity for something, one feels an obligation to honor it formally. And this was why, I reiterated to my son, I was adamant about finding him a school with a strong music program. He didn’t have to major in music, he just had to keep playing. At the end of the day, we knew where his passion lay. Aviation consumes his thoughts (when he’s not thinking about tuba!) and it has since day one. Ok, so he has picked up the french horn in the past month, yes he can play any recorder extremely well, he can get some sound on a trumpet now too, but that is all stuff that he can continue to do on his own. He’s so naturally talented that it creates in each of us the temptation to just go for it. To take it and excel. But at some point one has to choose. And so we sat together at that tiny island in the kitchen, the silence heavy around us, reviewing the case in our thoughts. Music was important, but aviation was more important. “I think I feel a little sad”, he said. “Yeah, I know what you mean”. But what can one do? Only so much.

This morning when we were talking in the car about his last two years in high school, mapping out the landmark events and making mental notes, we came to realize that next year, his senior year, he won’t have the time to play in the symphony. There will be no concerto audition next year; this year was it. “This is my music year” he said quietly, but confidently. “Yup, this is your music year sweetie. So enjoy the hell out of it.” We turned on the classical station and listened with running commentary until we arrived at school.

It has been months since I’ve written about our lives. A half a year, more specifically. And this mystifies me – how is it that I can’t cull a few hours from my schedule to write a silly post? Partly it’s due to a lack of time and a full life, but it’s more than that. It’s that phenomenon of having so much to do, not doing it, and then falling even further behind. So much has happened that it becomes more and more daunting to try and catch up. Where oh where could I even begin?

This past spring we had Leevi living with us, the exchange student with whom Elihu lived last year at this time in the south of Germany. He became a part of our family, and we had a crazy-full life. His room became a recording studio, and I took on double the mom taxi duties. Feeding another body was a challenge too; I ended up putting groceries on my credit cards, something I’m still feeling the weight of. But this was an experience I could not refuse. The past year was about language and travel, and debt be damned, we won’t remember the bill, but we’ll always remember the experiences.

On the heels of Leevi’s departure, I had Elihu begin private French lessons. My thinking is this: Elihu’s schedule will never be as open as it is now, and his brain will never be as plastic and adept at taking in new skills as it is now. I noted to him that I made the most pronounced advances in my musical skills – learning techniques that continue to serve me now – between the ages of 14 and 18. He concured, and so, taking this to heart, he threw himself into the language lessons and he is now comfortably trilingual. For many other folks from around the world this is nothing to write home about, but for an American kid, I think it’s a tidy achievement.

On the last Saturday of summer this year, we finally buried the old rooster Bald Mountain and Austin, our goofy guinea fowl. We’d spent the sunny hot day harvesting grapes on the vineyard that now lives on Martha’s farm. When we returned home, we collected the frozen bodies from the chest freezer where they’d lain for almost two years now. It was a perfect day; warm, sunny, the air full of tiny flighted creatures buzzing off in all directions. Elihu carried Austin, and I carried Baldie. We set them down, side by side, in the hole that was dug beneath the flowering quince bush, where the old flock used to rest in the afternoons. We stepped back, but it wasn’t quite right. I kneeled down and scooched them together, so that they were spooning. “That feels better, doesn’t it?” I asked Elihu. “Yes, it does feel better”. We stood there, saying nothing, looking at our beloveds. This was to us like saying goodbye to a dog or cat. “We had them both for eight years”, Elihu said, looking down at the two birds. I said nothing, as I wanted to leave space. And then, Elihu started to cry. At first the edges of his mouth curved down in an alarming way, and soon he was sobbing. My son so seldom cries. This was hard to see, but necessary for him. I had already had my cry, but he hadn’t. I touched his arm to offer some comfort – knowing how he disdains physical contact – but what else could I do? He continued to cry, and I waited. And then he turned, and he put his arms around me.

“This is the end”, he said through tears. The late afternoon sun was still warm, but it seemed that a chill was waiting to take its place. “It’s over. My childhood is over. It just came to me. These guys were my childhood. And now, they’re really gone. And so is my childhood”. I could not disagree. Truly, this was the end of that chapter. I’d often felt ridiculous for not having buried them sooner – but life just never presented a window. Now I could see that it was perfectly timed. In the time since the fellows had left us – two years this coming December – we took a small comfort in knowing their familiar bodies still resided with us. Seeing them again after all these months was also somehow comforting – it presented us with a sweet opportunity for closure. We stroked their beautiful feathers one last time, we marveled over Baldie’s enormous spur, over Austin’s helmet. After a few moments more, looking down onto our old friends, we each threw a fist of dirt to begin the farewell.

And then the young man took the shovel and filled the hole.