The Hillhouse

The Journey of a Mother and Son

Mix June 4, 2017

Our eldest hen Specks is gone. The fox got her in one of the many rounds she’s made on our property this spring on the quest to feed her new litter of kits. How can I begrudge her? Again and again she takes birds from our fast-dwindling flock. We take the hits in stride; we cannot truly shed tears, but our hearts become so very heavy at times with the losses. Specks was the last descendant of our original flock, and her sudden departure two weeks ago still causes me grief. A large bird, she was white with odd little flecks of black and brown, heavy-lidded eyes and a gentle demeanor which allowed for one to easily scoop her up for a quick passing smooch. She was sister to our beloved Thumbs Up (who died on Christmas day of 2016) and her death marks the end of an era for us here at the Hillhouse.

But our losses have not stopped there. The tenacious mother fox has come to visit – and in broad daylight – repeatedly, sometimes several times in one afternoon. Day before yesterday, when we were just at our neighbors and Elihu was happily flying his favorite new helicopter, we lost our young rooster Alden (son of Bald Mountain and hopeful new king and father of future generations) as well as a few other girls. Not all of our hens have names, and that does make it easier when one of them turns up missing, however now we are down to a bare-bones flock of just eight hens, half of whom have endeared themselves to us with charming traits and distinctive personalities. I hold my breath every time we do a count; is chatty Christie still with us? Laid-back Gildie and curious Scottie? These three are the ones I watch now, staying my heart for what seems the inevitable loss to come.

Bald Mountain is still here. Though no longer the robust, take-no-prisoners eleven pound bird he once was, he manages to hold his head erect (although his arthritic tail often flags) and continues to crow in the face of being beat up by the drake and chased by the fox. He is a survivor. Truth be told, he is our family dog and when he finally goes there will be a huge shift here. All of my students and all of our friends know Baldie. He is still the reigning king. But even a king must meet his maker, and we hold out hope that when his time comes, he goes peacefully in his sleep. It would be a hugely bitter pill for us to swallow if he should lose his life to the fox. But we know it’s a possibility, and so every day we proceed with guarded hearts, hoping for the best but on the ready for anything.

So much has happened since my last post that the prospect of catching friends and readers up has felt like an impossible task. Our lives have been jam-packed with deep conversations, medical emergencies, end of year concerts and exams, gigs, gear malfunctions, car drama, epiphanies, mounting electric bills and overflowing septic tanks. But along the way we’ve experienced the incredible and sometimes completely surprising generosity of friends and neighbors that have offered critical relief and support just when we needed it most. And we’ve enjoyed tiny little revelations and gifts that have kept our spirits up while other events threatened to drag us into despair. (Perhaps I should really be saying “I” here instead of “we” to be more truthful; Elihu is far more even-keeled in the face of sudden challenges than I am.)

There are moments when I know that our life is magical and that we are lucky, and there are moments when I just wish that it were fucking over already, cuz I’m tired. And sometimes I just don’t know how much more of this crap I can take. But then I remind myself that I still have work to do here on this earth. I remind myself that Elihu’s tiny years are over, and that the years he’ll remain here at home will be short and I will want to savor them as best I can. And certainly, it will be easier from here on in. As a friend and father of six children had noted to me when I told him that my son was now 14: “the heavy lifting is over”. Yes, it is. And I have a capable child – and more important, he is a child who is willing and eager to assist me in any way he can. Finally he understands how much work it is to keep a house, a menagerie of animals and a plot of land. How much work it is to make sure that food is made, that laundry is done, that the house is kept clean. That the tuba lessons cost a dear chunk of my income. That his mother doesn’t have quite the energy that she did when we started this whole adventure in the country nine years ago. Yeah, my kid gets all of this, and he’s helping out more and more, which is something that I doubly treasure when I hear tales of the disengaged, screen-addicted children with whom parents can hardly make a connection. There’s no doubt that I’m fortunate.

Today I took Elihu to a gig with me. A few times a month I host a karaoke singalong at a nursing home, and I’d promised to bring him along to sing and perform a couple of songs on his recorders. When he’d finished his short set, he sat down at the resident train table and began to tinker with the unworking engines and track while I entertained the crowd. Before I had finished, he had the N scale train running again around the table, through the tiny mountain and switching successfully in the tiny model downtown. Trains were Elihu’s very first love, and his time with this train set put him in a very happy mood. We said our goodbyes and then, as we’d planned, we made our way to a small airfield just a few miles up the road so he could look at the planes there.

It was a tidy, well-kept place, the main road in lined with blooming dwarf lilac bushes and neatly cut grass all around. We could see a handful of small high wing planes (most of which Elihu readily named for me) and after we’d walked the perimeter, we found a man fueling his own small craft. We began to chat, and he lead us around the sheds where we took a closer look at the handful of planes. This fellow and Elihu became engaged in the usual shop talk, and it was soon apparent to this man that the kid really knew aviation. So while I chatted with Joe, another very personable fellow there who had been doing some work on his vintage Cessna (the only other person at the airport) he and I watched as pilot Doug and Elihu taxied away on the grassy runway for an impromptu flight. Within minutes of arriving at an unfamiliar airfield here I was sending my one and only child into the air with a man whom I’d only just met moments before. And whose last name I didn’t know. But this is how Elizabeth and Elihu live. Magically guided are we.

Doug was a sweetie and let Elihu fly the plane. Doug told him to pay attention to the horizon and not the gauges. To look at his relationship to the land… Then Doug turned his attention to his phone, letting Elihu savor that rare moment, that longed-for experience. They were up for fifteen minutes or so, and as they made a pass to the west, silhouetted against the expanse of cumulous clouds behind, all I could think was  “There he is. My boy. My boy, up there in the sky!”

On the way home we stopped to visit a friend from Chicago who’s in town to assess the health and living situation of her older parents. Not a happy, easy occasion. My son was hopped up on his recent flying ‘high’ and wished for us to get home, but the detour was necessary. After a little pow-pow with my friend and her parents’ neighbor, Elihu and I had my out-of-town friend follow us to the retirement home that was on our route home. Linda leaned into the car window and kissed me goodbye. When we pulled away Elihu said “Yeah, I can feel how she’s thinking about other things.” He had been anxious to get home, but he understood the seriousness of the situation and was patient with the extra time the errand had added to our day.

The waning sun cast a yellowish glow on the treetops and created a olive green tone to the shadows. The countryside on our short drive home looked like a painting, like a dramatic exaggeration of its own beauty. Lovely as it was though, this short drive was feeling much too long for both of us. But finally the golden trees alongside the road were ours.  After such a long day away, we were deeply relieved to finally be returning home.

Like the old days, when Bald Mountain’s own son Alden would beat him up and leave him bloody, stumbling, hurting and missing a good portion of his feathers, the old rooster had suffered a violent night in the coop, and we’d taken him back into the kitchen for some TLC and recuperation time (it was the drake who had attacked him this time). He greeted us with a loud crow, made even louder in the natural amplifier of our tiny kitchen. Yup, this was home. A rooster in the corner, poison dart frogs and tree frogs in the kid’s room, a half dozen week old chicks in the basement, and some overgrown goldfish who desperately need to be moved to the outside pond before they grow too big to turn around inside their tank.

I like to think I have a tidy, organized house. And if you visit our living room or bedrooms, it does look pretty peaceful and orderly. But add some critters, and things change. The animals, they’re just messy. And stinky. There’s no denying the stink. Most of them don’t always live here, though. Only when they can’t live outside. And for the moment, that’s the situation. The tiny chicks that our mama duck hatched out (to our complete surprise) still live in the damp, ever-flooding basement. It won’t always be thus, but for now, it’s the reality. I tell ya, one day you’re living like a proper lady from town, enjoying the finer things in life and making plans to go to the ballet, and the next your in your nightgown, offing a raccoon in the pouring rain with a sledgehammer. Yeah, things tend to swing from one extreme to the next around here.

We just never know. Gut wrenching emergencies and stunning, irreversible changes threaten our hopes for a happy future, and then certain other little events which we have long dreamed of and hoped for suddenly drop into our lives, and we find some problems solved and new opportunities opening up…. Lean years, rich years, sick years, healthy years, dismal years, hopeful years… so much of it all mixes together in even shorter, smaller nuggets that it’s hard to organize it all. Does life suck and is it unfair? Yes! Does life thrill you and even let you win every now and then in the most exciting way? Yes!

I am convinced most folks in this privileged, Western world can experience an incredibly full, expansive life. I might even go so far as to say that it might just be possible for a person to have it all. However, I don’t believe it is ever possible to have it all at the same time. !

So – savor what you have, deal with what needs dealing with. Avoid the stuff that the God voice warns against, and do the stuff that the God voice recommends. Enjoy the free and unstructured moments in between all the rest. Cuz life sucks. Cuz life rocks. Cuz life does all the other stuff too. And aren’t we glad of it? Imagine how boring life would be without these little surprises and challenges.

Life is what it is. It’s a little of everything. Highs, lows. It’s a little bit airplane, it’s a little bit sky… A perfect mix.

My boy Elihu, piloting his way through the clouds…

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Elihu and I want to thank Paul, Elinor, Priscilla, Heather and Doug.

Thanks for your kindness, it’s made all the difference.

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Post Script: Photographs from the past several weeks may appear soon in an all-image offering…

 

53 and Me May 3, 2017

Shortly after Elihu and I moved to upstate New York from the suburbs of Chicago almost nine years ago, I became profoundly afraid of the unknowns that awaited me. My previous life had been laid out pretty well, and my future had never been a terribly big concern. I would be a wife, a mother, a teacher, a part-time musician… the rest would take care of itself. But upon arriving here – with no job, no students, no husband, no friends, no music, no connections, no money, no health insurance, no savings – and the rest of my life stretching out vast and empty before me, I was overcome with fear. Core-shaking, nausea-inducing fear. Marlboro reds and red wine were not enough. And so one day I did the only thing left to do. I called a psychic.

Yeah, I know. But still… I remember not feeling like I’d exactly gotten my money’s worth at the conclusion of our meeting. I am not a fan of readings in which they tell you what you already know; instead I want proactive advice; situations to be on the lookout for, and actions to avoid. Practical stuff I can use. I’d like some guidance on my way back to the path. But the reading left me with just the usual sorts of things; a couple of insights, some advice – and what that advice was I certainly can’t recall now – but I do remember that this fellow had become repeatedly aware of the number ’53’ during our session. At the time it meant nothing to me, but he told me to keep an eye out for it, and that he sensed quite strongly that it had – or would have one day – some real significance in my life. I filed it away in my head, and before long it was forgotten as the survivalist years began in earnest.

Since that first summer here, so many incredibly valuable, challenging and life-changing events have transpired that I would never in a million years have expected to know firsthand. However for great stretches at a time I had my plate so full that I didn’t have the time – or the perspective – to consider what it was I might have been learning from my new situation; instead my main concerns were simply getting through a day with enough food, heat and a happy child. Occasionally I would catch glimpses of a promising future that might one day emerge if I just kept moving… But those moments of insight and clarity were few and far between as days, weeks and months passed in a depressing, stressful and exhausting blur. Sometimes though, my mind would often go back to that particular number. Fifty-three did not speak to me of anything significant; a humdrum number with no promise or hidden meaning. What on earth could 53 possibly mean? I wondered over and over.  How might this number change my life? If this 53 pertained to my age, then it would likely prove to be a letdown – middle age would be firmly upon me by then, I’d think to myself, looking elsewhere for its significance. At the end of my periodic ruminations I would always come up with nothing. Fifty-three was a wash. Just another number or just another year. Whatever.

Not too long ago, as Elihu and I sat at the breakfast table, the number 53 floated into my thoughts, and so I posed an innocent question to my son: Had this year in particular been much different for me from all those that had come before? Without hesitating Elihu said “Oh yes. Definitely.” My eyebrows went up. “How so?” Sometimes the answers I seek from my son try his patience, as either they are so obvious or they are simply set up to reassure my failing ego, something for which Elihu has little sympathy. My gut was tightening at the prospect of him scolding me and letting the “obvious” answer go unspoken. Thankfully he answered with a straightforward list of reasons. And as I heard the reasons spoken aloud, I began to wonder if we weren’t perhaps in the very midst of the mysterious 53 right here and now… My son and I are forty years apart in age, and while this, his thirteenth year, was an easily identifiable landmark in his life, my own age of 53 hadn’t really appeared to be a milestone. At least not at face value. But digging deeper, I realized that this had been a hugely significant year for me…

After he’d finished, I asked him please to indulge me, and to repeat what he’d just said. I was grateful that he did. “This is the first complete year The Studio has been working as a business” he started. “It’s a real thing now. You played your first solo job since I was born. You’ve had singing gigs with a jazz guitarist. You have friends. You’re even working out again.” (And, little did he know, I’d lost seven pounds and was facing the thrilling prospect of wearing my favorite clothes again.) I stopped for a moment to consider what he’d said. Damn. The kid was right.

I did a quick review in my head of all the months of the past year, all the tiny landmarks, all the firsts, all of the milestones reached. I created bylaws, held board meetings, drafted contracts, learned dozens of new songs, met lots of people, gotten new gigs and developed new skills – and a bit more confidence, too. It was easy to forget the progress when my nose was always to the ground, my mind only on the present day’s to-do list… But when I lifted my gaze it was possible to see that I really had covered new ground. Wow. I was actually in a better place than I used to be. Crazy. Whoda thunk? Certainly not me!

I’m still fairly surprised to notice that things feel pretty good at this moment in time. I feel that finally, finally, I’m getting some traction here as I move into this next era of my life. Finally I can see the future taking shape and my once far-off goals coming into sharper focus. So as I wrap up another year of residency on this planet (my birthday is May 7th) I can truly say that 53 has been good to me. Mystery solved. And just sayin – I’ll be ready for more at 54…

 

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Would ya just look at what’s been going on at The Studio? Night and day from a year ago, right?

 

 

 

 

 

Witching Window February 21, 2017

middle-age-now

It is late, and my son is in his room watching aviation videos. And I am in my room, reading about death. Yeah. That just about sums it up I guess.

It’s not as if my interest in death has come all that recently, but it is only of late that I’ve begun to actively search out books on the subject, and to think of it so much more personally than ever before in my life. My son, however, at thirteen, is about as far from thoughts of death and mortality as any one human could be. His thoughts are consumed by flight, by what makes it possible, by how me might build a craft to fly so successfully himself. He is also about numbers, about math, about language (German mostly, but some Japanese and Vietnamese, too – and French, if you press him), and he is about the tuba parts in the polkas he loves. He is about his birds. He wishes our rooster Bald Mountain goodnight in a sweet little voice that still sounds more boy than young man most of the time. He is only just about to embark on his young adult life. I however, am trying every single day to call up the nerve to say goodbye to my younger years with some small amount of dignity. It’s not as easy as I’d thought it would be, and I’m not going about it with a lot of class. Of this I am sure. For one, I still color my hair. For another, I still think my son actually enjoys my company… Sometimes he still does, but I can feel the curtain of adolescence descending between us, and it reminds me daily that I really do need to start to figure out how the next part of my life will look. How to embrace this growing older thing. Cuz as of this moment, I am still not down with it. Somehow, I still cannot believe it is happening.

After returning from a short but lovely evening of music at Caffe Lena (we heard Golfstrom, a talented group that plays Jewish popular music, mostly European, from around the early part of the last century, to put it succinctly) we retired to our rooms. In chasing a tangential thread from a Facebook post, I came upon the Obamas dancing their very first dance as President and First Lady. The first thought I had was: how young Barack looked. OMG. Truly, he looked like a young man. I have always been keenly aware that he was elected to office shortly after I moved here – and that he and I are very close in age. In fact, until just a few weeks ago, Obama had been president for the entire time we’d lived here in New York. (I remember well the night the counts came in; the sound of the cheering crowds in Saratoga – most likely from Skidmore College – was audible from three miles away. Even individual shouts carried across the forest to reach my ears as I stood, so deeply thrilled and full of hope, on my porch here on top of the hill.) Back then we really did look much younger, Barack and I. Often it throws me for a loop and leaves me in a mild state of panic when I see his head so much grayer, his face etched with such deep lines. As a woman I can play the game a little longer, and dying my hair is one of the main tactics I use. But my face has begun to change, and of course, my neck as well. And try as I might, I can’t ignore it. At every turn a reflection is available to me. At every glimpse my mortality faces me, and leaves me no possible way to pretend that things haven’t changed.

Tonight, in surveying the room I was struck by one thing: these were essentially my peers. And man, they look old. Yes, perhaps, most of them may have been older than me by a couple of years, maybe even a generation ahead, but by and large, they were ‘my age’ – that is to say ‘middle aged’, and the majority of them were gray-haired. A very few of the women had boycotted their changed appearance by dyeing their hair; one woman even had a head of brilliantly bright red hair in a blunt, modern cut. Still, I could tell, she was older than me. So what was the answer? What determines ‘real’ age? Should one not go ahead and present to the world how they felt on the inside? Just how was one to age gracefully and with class? Go with it? Fight it? Deny it with a head of bright red hair – or celebrate it with a head of bright red hair? (My mother-in-law went with fire-engine red hair into her 80s!) My dark hair almost made me feel like a poser in that room of silver. Like a complete fraud. My face told the real story though. The ‘smile’ lines that ran from the corners of my mouth to my nose now created an honest-to-goodness triangle. They weren’t likely to invoke friendly, truth-softening comments like ‘oh  it’s not so bad. No one else notices them the way you do’. No. They were as deep and age-revealing as the facial contours of any other women in that room. I was not a forty-something anymore, for sure. I was whatever the hell it is that comes next, goddammit.

Watching images of the elegant First Couple dancing, my mind wandered, and I began to wonder what it might be like if I’d never left Chicago. Part of me began to happily envision a scene at The Hideout, or the Green Mill perhaps, where certainly I’d see dozens of people I knew – and who were happily my peers. But then I thought again, and realized that most of my clan had grown up too. They no longer spent their weekend nights at alt country clubs or jazz joints – they, like me, were busy shepherding young children into middle school or high school – some might even be seeing theirs off to college. (Few children of my peers are married yet. Some are, but more still are not. And that somehow comforts me. But it won’t last long.) Today’s lively nights of jazz at the Green Mill might themselves prove to have me feeling old and past my prime for similar reasons. My peeps aint there no more. My scene is gone, my day has concluded. That chapter is past. Young folks can party, middle-aged folks are too busy to party, and old folks have the time to party, but the energy? I’m not so sure.

Just today, as we drove home from school after a special delivery of duck eggs (Mrs. Duck is really producing now – perhaps in anticipation of Spring…) Elihu and I both mused on how fast time seemed to be passing these days. I remarked that time didn’t feel so fast when I was a kid. I was surprised that he – a kid himself – also perceived time to be moving faster than ever before. “It’s a provable theory of physics” he told me. He promised that this wasn’t just some new age theory about the speeding up of time – it was a viable, measurable fact. “I’ve been thinking about time a lot these days” he mused from the back seat. “I mean, time is just change. So if time didn’t exist, would nothing change? Or if nothing changed, would time cease to exist?” We batted this idea about for a while, but by the time we were turning into our snow-drifted driveway I’d already decided I really didn’t care either way. Because whether fast or slow, some shit in my life was definitely changing, and quite honestly, I wasn’t a fan.

When I was in my early forties, I remember being caught and successfully reeled in by a made-for-tv commercial in which actor Victoria Principal extolled the brilliant, natural and effortless products in her new skin care line. As prudent a consumer as I had thought myself to be, even after some lengthy internal debates on the subject, I’d finally chosen to buy in. But first, I engaged in a little due diligence, calling the customer service rep to get a little more specific information on their products. How old was I? the woman had asked me. When I told her, I remember hearing her hesitate for a moment. As a woman at the dawn of her fourth decade, she’d advised me not to purchase a particular set of products, because women didn’t usually start to need “that sort of help” until they were in their late forties or even early fifties. Hmm, I’d thought. There was a timetable here that people had agreed on? There were actual landmarks I might look for? There was a timetable that might help me to anticipate – and emotionally prepare for – certain changes? Nobody had ever told me this before! No one had ever gone so far as to break down the aging process into stages. But clearly, some people, somewhere, had agreed on this stuff. (Granted, this was a pre-internet world with less information available to the armchair consumer). It did also occur to me that this particular Guthy-Renker employee might have been a bit too honest for her own job security.!

After my chat with the rep, I ended up buying a few products. I can’t say that a one of them made any noticeable difference in my appearance (however I grew to love the very subtle scent of the lotions which I have not been able to find again, as they were discontinued several years ago) but shortly after that experience I did come upon a ‘miracle’ cream which promised to firm skin as nothing before. This product, I can report, did exactly what it purported to. But at the age of 42 I had no idea what ‘real’ aging skin looked like, and the mild tightening this cream provided was just enough, and under makeup, sometimes it really was like a sprinkling of fairy dust.

About five or so years later, I remembered the product and thought how it might really benefit me in my new state of sinking skin, so I tried it again. But this time, rather than gently pulling my face together in a smooth, tighter version of itself, it pulled my skin together like a bouquet of tiny wrinkled lines, all gathered at the point of the cream’s application. My neck skin bunched in horrible lines where none had even been before; it was a situation made much, much worse. But also, it gave me an idea as to how my neck might look a couple of decades hence. Crap. I’d always thought this shit was for everyone else. Somehow I knew that I was just too cool for that sort of old lady thing to happen to me. That shit was for clueless losers who somehow didn’t care. Or not. Man. Really?

These are the days when things start to change in earnest. No more ‘almost’, no more ‘you look fabulous’ as in you really do look fabulous. Ok, I suppose if you shift your frame of reference from a forty-something mindset to a sixty-something mindset you can say those things and mean it, but if you’re like me, and you’re stuck in your head at 44, unable to fully comprehend that 44 was now a decade ago, then maybe you’re not ready to accept ‘you look good’ means just that, only within the context of a whole new framework.

Oh how I wish we didn’t pretend this stuff doesn’t bother us the way it really does. Mech, I suppose there are some enlightened souls out there for whom this process is interesting, new, fun, exciting and a welcome challenge. It’s a challenge all right, and I am eager to learn how I end up meeting it, but I’d be lying if I said this was a process I was enjoying. Nope. Not so much.

Yesterday I woke up with an unusual sensation: Nothing in my body hurt! I was in a joyful mood all morning because it was the first time in months and months that my pulsing, arthritic fingers and stiff hips weren’t the first things I was aware of upon awakening. I took it as nothing short of a small miracle. Plus it offered enlightenment; not feeling my body all these years until now had actually been a blessed and wonderful thing!! A miracle of sorts unto itself. Ah well, better I suppose to be thankful at this point than never at all. I mean I know what’s happening, and I’m bitching and moaning about it most of the way, but at the end of the day I have it pretty good, aches and pains aside. Yeah. I do. But still…

My young piano students are always talking about how much they can’t wait to be older. They can’t wait to be 8, to be 10, to finally be a teenager. I remind them that older people at some point start to wish they were younger. A crazy kind of predicament. “So what is, from your perspective” I’ll ask them, “the most perfect age to be?” Most have answered from 18 to 23. Which I think is interesting. Yeah, that was a good chapter. But the truly golden chapter? Want my answer? From 25 to 45. Yup. That would be it. And maybe, if I were to commit to one perfect, golden year, it might be 32. Good times. !

I remember in my mid to late forties thinking “Hey, this isn’t so bad! I still look pretty good!” (I hadn’t yet put on the extra 20 pounds I live with now, so factor that in too…) And in truth, I still looked pretty much as I had over the past couple of decades. At least I was recognizable to friends I hadn’t seen in years. And that’s often the main ‘test of time’. We all know the importance of name tags on the gentlemen at our 20th high school reunion. Those poor guys either lose their hair or succumb to the gray. The women, on the other hand, have the culture’s permission to color and highlight their hair, augment its volume or length too; they are encouraged to whiten their teeth, they wear beautiful dresses and use makeup to augment their fading beauty. Men have so few tools with which to make up for what they’ve lost. Men must bear the progress of time in all its daunting honesty. Then may get off easy in so many other ways – but when it comes to aging, most of ’em can’t hide.

Allow me to advise those who are behind me in their progress… The magic years are, in my experience, from the mid 20s to the mid 40s. By 48 or 49 one begins to change, but it’s subtle. As with all organic changes of life, it seems to happen slowly, and the one day you notice something that wasn’t there the day before. This sort of thing seems to happen more and more frequently after 50. Hell, even 50 wasn’t all that bad. But over the following three years shit has just seemed to change in all the wrong ways. All the stories I’d heard uttered from the lips of my ‘older’ friends is now becoming my own personal experience. And this, I think to myself, is likely only the beginning. My chin is strange and saggy, my face looks older for reasons I cannot quite pinpoint, and my so-important fingers are now routinely dropping things and can no longer grip into fists. They throb, they ache, and they do not bend as they did even one month ago. Last night, when I sat at the piano to enjoy the final brisk measures of the Italian Concerto just for fun, I realized that my fingers did not posses the dexterity or strength that they had only before Christmas. My physical abilities had waned in just weeks. Strange, and hard to really understand.

And so another chapter closes, and a new one begins. Mr. Obama does not look older because of the many stresses and challenges over the past eight years of his presidency, no. He looks older because he is older. And I look older now because I am too. It is a hard thing to come to terms with. When I was a singer and presented all those great torch songs from the early part of the last century, I’d often remind my audiences that the topics of love, jealousy and revenge were nothing new or exclusive to this generation. In fact, the only reason we were all here today was because – wait for it – our grandmothers got laid! Maybe it was a little forward, and maybe it made people squirm a bit in their seats, but whatever. It’s true. Every generation is as hip as it gets. And if we live long enough, we then ourselves become no longer hip. Doesn’t mean we don’t remember what it felt like to have all that power –  oh, we do. That’s precisely why it’s so challenging to release the past and so bittersweet to remember it.

Please take this to heart, all my young and beautiful friends: there is an end to it all. Savor the moments as they unfold, for one day your sexy and exciting present will be just a memory from long, long ago. You too will pass through the witching window, and find yourself on the other side, a mere mortal with crepey skin, graying hair and a treasure trove of memories. Know it, but don’t linger too long in the thought. Instead, let it inspire you to take some risks, put yourself out there and grab all the life experiences you can, while you still have the strength to hold on tight.

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Link to our YouTube channel: The Hillhouse

 

And… Scene August 14, 2016

It’s taken me thirteen years to get back on the horse. Until day before yesterday, I hadn’t played piano and sung since before my son was born. Even so, regular readers and friends will know that the past decade has not been idly spent; I have learned so much and come so far. And it’s not as if I haven’t played piano over the past years, I’ve done plenty of that. Accompanying kids’ plays, choruses, dance classes, talent shows (and tonight you can add something new to my resume: Vacation Bible Camp. Oy!). It’s just the solo thing has been elusive. And I’m not kidding myself to think that playing one little date at a farmer’s market changes everything, and yet somehow, symbolically, it does. Plus I recently learned that the songs I enjoy playing (which heretofore I’d been labelling my “Guilty Pleasures Book”, sounding way too much like a condom ad for my comfort) are actually part of an identified genre. It’s called Yacht Rock. Those who know me from my ‘past’ life may know that I have crewed on boats, spent lots of time sailing, and yearn for the water like nothing else. Finally, something that marries my love of Pablo Cruise with the sea….

This past month I’ve also performed as a jazz singer for the first time in a long while. I’d been searching for a chord-melody style guitarist for years now, without much luck, and finally found my new pal Dan. Ok, not a glamorous start to our career perhaps, but a nursing home job is better than nothing. Plus he’s hipped me to a couple new tunes, some even with verses that were new to me – and that’s always like finding treasure. We rehearse once a week (in the Studio! Nice to have a joint of my own in which to work!) which gives us a nice momentum as we work on our book and our arrangements. I had forgotten how much I love to sing, and how natural it feels. As they say in showbiz: it’s good to be back. !

So that metaphoric hump has been traversed. I’ve got my gear, my book, my gameplan. All good. And today marks four years since I quit smoking. Nice. The Studio has a full calendar of rentals, including recording sessions, meditation workshops and weddings. Yes. My bedroom has been painted for the first time since the house was built in 1970. Whew! Elihu has been gone for one month, and I have been busy, busy, busy since he left. It’s a great relief not to have to make food three times a day, not to have to keep track of another person – and not moving that silly tuba every week is pretty nice, too. I’ll welcome the routines when they start up again in a few weeks, but for now I’m using every moment to its fullest and ticking the boxes off as best I can. The list, however, never, ever ends, and I’m realizing (have I not realized this before?) that I must somehow make peace with that reality of life. One project wraps successfully, and then something new pops up. One issue resolves, and another beckons for attention.

Like my weight, for example. It’s a damn good thing I didn’t toss my ‘fat’ clothes a year ago – cuz I’m back in em again. When I’m busy, I tend to eat crappy, carby, salty, fatty foods. Who wants to nibble on kale when filing? A bag of potato chips is so much more motivating! And my reduced-fare membership to the Y ran out, requiring a new application process that will take a month til I get in the system again. So that’s kinda fallen off the map. I have never been this large before in a non-pregnant state, and it’s really, really disheartening. I don’t know how I’ll find it in myself to find the discipline it’ll take to drop twenty-five pounds. I’ve done it half a dozen times before, I know I can do it, but each time it gets just a little harder to summon the oomph.

A week ago we Conants lost our eldest cat, Mina. That too was a major change in life for me. Mina was originally found in a junk yard in the Hyde Park neighborhood of Chicago, and she’d come with me from Evanston to Dekalb to Greenfield. She was a tortie with tiny tufts of black whiskers on the top of each ear, and she always had sort of an annoyed look on her face, which was part of her charm, really. She was a sweetie to be sure. Not a big cuddler, but she always purred when you were near. She lived next door with my mother, as Elihu’s allergies are just too dire for us to share space with a cat. But in spite of the different address, she was a part of our life. I really think she resisted leaving us; it took her a long time to die. Finally, after a vigil of several days, and with no energy left to sit, she lay on the island in mom’s kitchen as we talked to her, soothing her as best we could, telling her how much we loved her. She would occasionally meow, something very uncharacteristic of her, and we knew she was in a disquieted state. (Mina also meowed twice just seconds after my father died. You can think what you will, but for me, I knew that she sensed his departure.) Finally, at 6:45, I bent over and looked into her glassy, tired eyes… I told her that she needed to leave us by 7 o’clock. I told her that it was ok, we’d see each other again, and that it would feel like no time had passed, I promised her that everything was honestly going to be fine. I thanked her for being such an important part of our lives, and I told her we loved her. Five minutes later her heart finally stopped. Mina was a living link to my past life. And now that link is finally gone. We buried her under the flowering quince bush, next to Thumbs Up.

The other night I finally spoke to Elihu. I’ve talked to him only three times since he left to be with his father. That’s ok though. He himself says that he’s fine until he talks with me, and then he starts to miss me and get a little homesick, so it’s just easier not to call. Which I totally get. It is hard to switch gears. While he was speaking to me the other night, I went to the piano and tried to match the pitch of his voice…. “You’re trying to figure out how much lower my voice, is, aren’t you?” he asked. I confessed. He laughed. When he left his eyes were level with the bridge of my nose. I almost dread how tall he’ll be when he comes home. Sometimes I wish that just for one moment he could be a five year old boy again, and that I could scoop him up in my arms and hold him tight…

There are just a few things left on my list. Then Elihu returns, and the new school year will start with many new elements; the eighth grade will now reside in the high school building, the Studio is now up and running as a real business, I have a duo partner for my jazz gigs and I’ve finally found a way to brand my solo act. That’s all got me feeling pretty hopeful for the future. Ok, so the arthritis is still an issue, so is my weight, and man I don’t know if I’ll ever get on top of the clerical crap that goes with life. But hey. Things are, from a wider perspective, much better than they’ve been in a long time.

And…. Scene!

 

 

 

Future Field July 22, 2016

The days are long, but the years are short.

These aren’t my words, but I’ll be citing them for a long time to come. The mother of a piano student and I were marveling over the way in which time seems to speed up once your children hit a certain age, and without pause she offered this lovely, succinct sentiment. To hear it put so correctly, so simply, it gave my heart a bit of relief. It felt good to identify the phenomenon so easily. Because it is absolutely so true. You hear phrases like these in your younger years and think, ‘yeah, I suppose that makes sense’, but until you’re there, you just can’t fully get it. Now that I’m arriving here myself, man do I get it.

Those days and nights of sippy cups and car seats, naptimes and baths – the stuff that seems to go on and on without respite – all of that stuff comes to an end before you’re fully aware that it has… And then, in what seems like only a few more minutes, you wake up to the reality one day that your child simply doesn’t need you as they once did. But that’s just the beginning. Then the landscape continues to change in new and unfamiliar ways… Your child is almost directly at eye level with you now, and it won’t be long… That mysterious change takes place at some point in adolescence when the child takes on a different look; the very essence of the young child has somehow disappeared, magically morphing into a young adult.

What exactly tells us this change has happened? What tiny contours have appeared that weren’t there before? How can such subtle shifts represent such a big change? I see my students as they grow during that mysterious passage from ten to fourteen and I am continually amazed by the process. Elihu and I attended the local high school graduation ceremony in late June and my mind was blown as I watched nearly a dozen kids who I’d known for the past eight years cross the stage in cap and gown, now indisputably young adults. I know this is happening now with Elihu, and I find myself daily readying my heart for the next couple of years. In perusing this blog I see a nearly endless childhood, a mother and young son moving through the world as a unit, discovering things together. But I know that our future story will soon become very different in its nature. That’s good, that’s fine, it’s all as it should be. I know. But still…

For the past month, the world has been doing what it does so well…. Offering up daily distractions, projects, serendipitous events, the shifting of gears and moving on to the new. At this point my son’s been with his father in Chicago for over a week, and I am settling into my annual basement organizing effort. I pour through piles of paper memorabilia, and as always – perhaps even more so because of my distilling sentimentality for Elihu’s quickly passing youth – I am beset with more crap than I have room for. I find letters to me in a child’s hand, sketches of birds and airplanes, tiny shells and rocks once stuffed into pockets in order that we might remember…. I am bound by these worldly anchors, and I am bogged down. Making decisions is more than difficult. I wonder: This can’t be how everyone else lives, can it?

I see photos on my hard drive of the field next to our property, the one in which we’ve chased woodcocks and flown kites for the eight years in which we’ve lived here. There is a physical ache when I open them now, as I know that within months a house will stand in that space, and a family of seven will spill over onto the open acres that we once thought of as belonging to the birds and the two of us alone… We always told ourselves that this was coming one day, it’s just that we never really seemed to believe it. It’s not the worst thing that could happen – we know this – but still, it hurts our hearts with a slow, deep burn.

It’s not my intention to sound whiny, it’s not that I mean to complain, because I have it good. I know I do. It’s just that nostalgia tugs at me and keeps me from moving forward. It prevents me from throwing out hand-written letters and ancient concert programs. This summer, as with so many summers before, I find myself struggling to let go of my past in order to move into my future. It feels as if I am holding onto the line that tethers me to the shore because the vast expanse of water ahead is just too frightening to comprehend.

I’ve hired an organizer to come and help me make the hard decisions. She’s come before and has been a great help to me. For me, she is a lifeline. This has to stop, and I need outside help. I cannot keep saving, accruing, collecting – and looking back. My brother is a hoarder of the highest order, my mother likes to make passive-aggressive stabs at me for “throwing everything out” and my father’s office is still piled high with paper two years after his death. I cannot go down this path like the rest of my family. Jesus wasn’t kidding when he warned us not to put so much emotional such stock into the physical crap here on earth, which he reminded us will ultimately become moth food or rust…

Today I will try to be bold, I will remind myself that these artifacts are not the memories themselves. In casting off the keepsakes I remind myself that I am not losing the experiences, nor am I losing the love of those with whom I shared those memories. All of those experiences are still inside of me. And no matter what the future brings, no one can ever take away the memory of a small boy running joyfully across a bright, sunny field…

 

 

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…

 

Direction February 29, 2016

IMG_3612O degrees. True North. Everything starts from here.

This has been quite a week. Although on the exterior our life doesn’t appear to have changed much, beneath the visible surface of our everyday comings and goings the tiny eddies of life are swirling about us, tugging us along to join up with new currents on unknown trajectories. Serendipitous events fall into our path, questions and open-ended quandaries seem to solve themselves, and in spite of the tiny disappointments that tempt us to mope and wonder ‘why me?’, there seems to be a general lightening of our load; a new pathway through the woods is gradually emerging; our direction is becoming clearer.

(At this point let me warn readers that this may be an unusually lengthy post. Those who haven’t the time can check off a paragraph at a time or return later…)

Only this morning did it really dawn on me that I am, in a way I have not been since the birth of my child, free. Elihu and I have had several candid and long conversations about this changing time in his life, and it’s fast becoming clear to me that he is fairly capable of taking care of himself.

Yesterday, however, we experienced a small bump in the road when he came home near tears after having done poorly on two tests. He prides himself on always doing well, on always understanding the material. But, like me, he is a bit of a spazz and sometimes easily distracted. He misses assignments, he loses papers, he bites of more than he can chew and then freaks out over his heavy load and then must rush to catch up. And yesterday, he was not only heartbroken over his poor performance at school, but he was simply exhausted. He didn’t need to tell me either; he had dark purple crescents under his eyes, and his pupils shook visibly (with Achromatopsia comes the partner disorder Nystagmus – or the slight quivering of pupils – something which becomes more pronounced when a person is tired. Poor kid, he’ll never be able to lie about that. I can always tell when his body’s had enough.) His performance was so uncharacteristic that his teacher had even called me shortly before Elihu arrived home from school. I had been ready. It was time to check in.

When Elihu is this tired, his eyes cannot tolerate light. I know this well, of course, and every window in our tiny home is covered with a film of tinted plastic, including the huge picture window in our living room. But even that is not enough to filter out the light to a tolerable level when the kid’s as wiped as this. I pulled the curtains shut, then invited him to join me on the big couch. He sat next to me, and I scooped in the pillows and draped our bodies with a comforter. He snuggled into me, tears still pouring as he relived the math test and how he’d balked at material he’d thought he understood. He was deeply disappointed to have ‘ruined his record’, of having done poorly on both math and language arts (for a kids who’s doing Ghost from Hamlet and who simply milks the language for all it’s worth, this was a surprise). He’d completely missed an assignment to study vocabulary words – how did he miss it? he wanted to know. I put my arms around him as he calmed down, and I waited for the moment to turn things around.

I assured him I knew exactly how he felt. And I did. I also reminded him that when things are mysterious and seem too much to comprehend – break things down. This was something I’d had to remind myself of over and over this past week as I drafted the final bylaws for the Studio. Break it down. We reviewed his days, his class schedules and the means by which he learned his assignments. We found a few holes in his systems (or lack thereof) and discussed a few ways we could both be proactive in improving them. Good. Progress. As we chatted – for more than a half hour – we also talked about the near future, and the way in which he would soon be changing. He’d had deep aches and pains this week, and my guess was that it was due to his growing. We both had seen the massive volume of food he’d eaten – when just a few weeks ago he had been eating like a bird. And certainly the girls in his class were changing. This seemed to be the window in which life as we’d known it thus far would turn into something quite different.

“Please don’t take this the wrong way,” he said from his cozy nook inside the nest of pillows, “but I do want to move out as soon as it’s possible.” I knew what he meant. “I want to be on my own. I like being on my own.” I told him I understood. His grandma would understand, too. So would his uncle. All of us enjoyed our solitude. He went on with his thoughts, “I don’t always like all the extra help you give me. And you know the way you label everything so I can find it, and you’re always saying (he raised his voice in a silly mock-adult tone) ‘Oh, I’ve put everything where you can see it, and I’ve installed safety handrails in the refrigerator’?” We both laughed. “Is it that bad?” I asked. “I’m just trying to empower you to get stuff for yourself. You know that, right?” He agreed that he did, but assured me, colorblind or not, legally blind or not, he would one day have to figure out all this stuff for himself. I assured him that I just wanted to give him an easier entree into the real world. And I promised him not to worry – that before long, his life would be all his.

_______________________________________________

A few days ago I went to Albany, the state capital of New York, to pick up copies of my father’s incorporation papers from 1959. When I examined them to see that they were all in order, I was taken aback. There before me were the original articles of incorporation, mission statement and all. Every page, of course, hand-typed. There was my father’s creation, there was his dream, first made legally manifest. There was the address from grand Passaic Avenue, the house where he had grown up. My goodness, he was young back then. This even pre-dated his first apartment on West 57th. It was hard for me to imagine this time in his life, and what his vision for the future might have looked like back then. There, beneath his name were the names of his dear friend and attorney, and also my Godfather.

All three of these men were now dead. It was a strange moment to see their names listed on the paper – poignant to be sure; for all of these men still seemed real to me, still so present – as if one might simply pick up the phone and hear their voice on the other end – and yet to realize at the same time that they were all gone from this earth. These men were gone. I sat for a moment in that that strange, foreign feeling, a bit numb, a bit overwhelmed by the gravity of this new reality. For the moment, I was the person who needed to bear the work of these three gentlemen into the next era. If I hadn’t come to this place in my own journey, their vision might have ended when their own lives did. Hopefully, I would now convey this creation of theirs forward into the future, and just maybe, beyond my own lifetime, too…

I was lost in nostalgia and sentimental thoughts when I snapped to, realizing that this was a busy place, and while all these thoughts and feelings were filling my head, there were folks in line behind me who had their own stories that needed an audience with the Department of State. I tucked the documents into a folder, and as I turned to leave, I smiled at the Indian gentleman who’d announced me earlier, when I’d arrived, as ‘a young lady needing some assistance.’ !

Having this document finally in my hands somehow seemed a piece that had, until now, been missing. It felt like a confirmation, telling me unquestionably what my job was now. What my father had started, I would continue. Seeing the text before me, the mission, the declaration that ‘no person shall enure benefit from said corporation’ … I knew there was no turning back now – and my spirits were greatly lifted to see this all in black and white, to hold these papers in my very hands… I left the office building (how exciting to be in an actual city once again, and to ride a, gasp, elevator!!) and hit the rainy streets to head back to my car, deeply invigorated to see this thing through to a successful conclusion.

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Heading back to the highway (it’s surprisingly simple to go from my modest, rural home to the bustling state capitol!) I stopped at a strip of third-world looking storefronts which boasted things like international calling cards, halal meat and wigs. Perfect. I needed a few Indian staples which certainly could not be found in my ultra-white part of the world. I entered a shop where I saw a short woman completely covered in a black hijab, and I was taken aback at the sight of her eyes peering out from the tiny, rectangular slit in the fabric. I scolded myself for wanting to stare longer at the foreign-looking figure and made my way between the narrow shelves piled high with sacks of dal and rice, searching out my favorite mango pickle and some candied fennel seeds for Elihu.

When I returned to the counter, I was again surprised by what I saw. A plump, middle aged white woman with graying hair stood at the register. She wore a leopard print head covering which was pinched together under her chin. I couldn’t help myself. “Excuse me”, I said, “You’re a white woman. What are you doing here?” Honestly, this was a story I just had to hear. “Well I’m Muslim!” she declared, without offense, but with a touch of surprise. I mean, didn’t her clothing alone tell me that? “Yes, I can see that. But come on, I mean – you’re here…” I waved my hand towards the shop, the halal butchering station in the back, the enormous sacks of wheat, piles of nested plastic lotas…. “I mean, you know….” And there we began what was to be an hour and a half conversation which covered every subject imaginable, from our ex husbands (whose names are remarkably similar, and so are the stories!) to a comic moment during her colonoscopy to where one finds the truly authentic cous cous around here…

We zipped, free-associatively from one topic to another, with me unintentionally playing the anthropological interviewer… I cannot help myself; when I get the opportunity to hear a person’s story, I want all that that person is willing to give, and all that my time will allow me to receive. I thoroughly enjoyed our visit, and I’m sure Hope did too. When I finally gathered my things to leave, I mentioned something about food – I had wondered where I might get some naan before left the neighborhood – and instantly she plunked a package down on the counter. “Here, take this.” It was a lump of tin foil inside a plastic bag. I knew exactly what it was. The package screamed Devon Street from ‘back home’ in Chicago. It said ‘Pakistani food’ down to the generic smiley face on the bag. “It’s chicken kabob with naan. It’s from my ex’s restaurant.” I protested, and I asked if I took it, what would she eat? “Oh, honey, I can get more. Believe me, I can get more.” After the backstory she had just shared, I knew for sure that she could.

Giving food is a deeply personal gesture, and so too, I suppose, is receiving it. It struck me later, as I opened the fragrant package and served it for supper, that it is a supreme act of trust that one eats food from, well, a stranger. But it is also a living metaphor for the way in which we must simply trust each other in this life. How we must support each other, show kindness and give of ourselves when the opportunity arises. How we must learn to receive as well as give. Thus we are all interdependent upon each other, no matter how solitary our private lives may be. And in the giving and receiving of such gifts, one is made to understand that ultimately, the directions that our lives take are each so influenced and guided by those few and special friendships and associations which pop up along the way.

Elihu and I had the most flavorful dinner we’d had in a long while, made tastier still because it was altogether a surprise for both of us. We thanked Hope for our meal before we ate, and then we chatted into the night, pausing here and there to tear off small pieces of the naan, chewing thoughtfully, slowly, until there was finally nothing left on the plate but crumbs.

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For several years now, I have wished to own an altimeter. I find the topography in this part of the world mysterious and fascinating, and have always wanted to know precisely how much the ground is dropping or rising as I make my way over the countryside. The elevation of our house is a mere 300 feet higher than the city of Saratoga Springs, just five miles away, and yet the perspective is radically different; we can see far over the top of town to the Hudson Valley beyond, and the Green Mountains of Vermont are visible in the distance. I’m even amazed how the view improves simply by standing atop the porch roof – just eight feet of elevation makes a huge difference. And I can’t help but see the metaphor here too; a small change can make a big difference in how things look.

Not that I can ever truly justify buying things I don’t need (when heating oil, food and electricity are still so hard-won each month) but there was a short time a few weeks ago when I actually had a little room to buy something. The altimeter was still very much on my mind, so I bought it. Finally, after years of comparing and thinking and mulling and asking and reading reviews, I found myself this little gem of a tool – clock, barometer, thermometer, compass and altimeter, all in one. !! I didn’t hesitate to order it, and since the thing arrived I have not let it out of my sight. I check it second by second as I descend down the winding road into town, I check it as I walk the driveway or down the hill… The compass has become a new find, too. Having paid more close attention recently to the position of the rising sun on the horizon, it’s been very satisfying to learn at exactly what points on the compass things are happening. I always kinda knew North was a bit out the front door and to the left – ah, but now I know precisely how far to the left. And it gives me a great deal of satisfaction to know exactly where I stand.

Having the compass in hand reminded me of a time a good decade past, when I was at the helm of a boat, all by myself, in the middle of the Atlantic. It was nighttime, and I was taking my turn on watch, at the wheel. The weather was getting rough quickly, and the auto nav feature, which had been working only intermittently until then, finally gave out. The large wheel began spinning quickly (as it was no longer physically linked to the navigation system) and I had to grab it, stop it from spinning, and then restore our original course. Here was my dilemma: there was now no screen to tell me where we were, and it was raining – there were no stars to use, either. I righted the course as best I could, but intuition is of little use in the dark and in the middle of an ocean. One needs firm bearings. How could I do this? How could I make sure we didn’t end up 300 miles off course by the time the rest of the crew woke up? There was nothing at hand with which to tie the wheel in place so I could go and get help, and no one down below (all of them sleeping through the storm) would have heard me, even if I had screamed. What to do?? Man, how did they do this in the old days?

For a moment I sat with this, in the dark, puzzled, but strangely, not afraid. And I remember the moment when the answer came to me – because I laughed like a crazy person (while buckets of water landed on my head as if thrown in from off-camera in a movie scene). I needed to use the compass! I mean, duh!! The enormous glass dome that sat inside the wheel was an old-fashioned, magnetically-driven compass! I remembered our fix and turned the boat back to its correct course. I sat there for three more hours, holding onto the wheel and muscling it to keep firm as the ocean tried endlessly to tug it away from me. When my watch was over and my relief came, I released the wheel and my arms instantly became like rubber. Only after the whole affair did the gravity of it really sink in; I’d seen the toe rail dip several feet under the water as we listed at a frighteningly steep angle, the sails were under way too much power, and I was the least equipped of the crew to have been in charge under such circumstances. I suppose on the whole, looking back at it now, I was lucky. I had lost all my modern support system, and the stars, too. But that compass kept me on course. That trusty gadget told me exactly where it was that I needed to go. Seriously. Thank God for that blessed invention.

Unless I take off into the deep woods around here, I’m not sure my compass and altimeter will ever become much more than a novelty.  But no matter, I’m thrilled to have it, because I enjoy the feeling of knowing where I stand, and just where everything else stands in relationship to me. Somehow, having that little gadget at the end of my keychain, always with me, it gives me a sense of comfort. It’s all there, telling me exactly how I relate to the world. And I love it.

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I certainly know where I stand with Martha’s niece these days; not long ago she sent me several very angry emails regarding her Aunt’s bracelet and barometer which she feels I stole from her. As I understand it, she was upset enough to have considered taking legal action. While I love Martha dearly, and hold the few trinkets I have of hers as my most prized possessions, this is territory I do not care to enter into. I boxed up the items, wrote a letter of apology and expressed my hope this would help make true the saying Martha was so fond of, that “Everything always works out.” I just don’t understand what inspired her anger; I have never been the target of such bitterness and accusations. It surprises and shocks me still, but I can no longer take it personally, for honestly, she doesn’t know me. And sadly, she doesn’t care to, either. Thus concludes the relationship between me and the Ward family. Ah well. (Martha and I are still good. This I know.)

It feels like I’m getting a clearer sense of where I stand in my life, too. Recently, the Town of Greenfield made an inquiry as to the status of the Studio, and when I called to follow up and check in, I got the feeling that my relationship with the town might be on shaky ground. I did my best to assure the town assessor that things were moving along, our future looked good – but that wasn’t what concerned her. She wanted to know just what exactly was going on there. She noted we’d had some recent renovations but had not communicated this to the town. Me, I don’t know the procedures, so if I should have let them know – or filed a permit, I surely didn’t. I realize being unaware of a rule doesn’t always get you off the hook for not abiding by them, but here I hoped she’d go easy on me once I’d presented all my paperwork. After all, the only thing I ever set out to do was repair the damage from the flood that happened just after dad died. I just wanted to fix it so we could use the place once again. I did, and here we are.

My attorney gave me a checklist last year to help keep me on track, (something which I’ve been dutifully avoiding until now), and the woman who’s helping me with my books has been another Godsend, as she too provides me with not only to-do lists, but a good deal of positive, maternal energy, reminding me to breathe, telling me it’s all ok, that I can in fact do this (my choice of words might be more like ‘pull this off’, as if it were a heist or something). Like my dear son, and like so many other human beings are wont to do, I have put off dealing with this whole affair until it was absolutely unavoidable. But the looming deadline given to me by the town has forced my hand, and over the past week I’ve rustled up some of the most dynamic people I know to help pilot this ship. I’d held secret hopes that these certain women might share the dream with me, but til my back was against the wall I hadn’t had the conviction to ask them. But I did, every last one – and I couldn’t be more thrilled that they all accepted.

So things look promising right now. At least on paper. Or so I think. I’m not much of a numbers or papers kinda gal, but I think I did a fair job of dotting my Is and crossing my Ts… At the very least, I aim to be as transparent as humanly possible. My only intention is to be given the platform and support with which to create and grow a small center of arts and human interaction. And while I may not know exactly how it is that I’ll get there, at the very least I have a better understanding of where it is that I stand in the world, and my direction is becoming clearer every day.