The Hillhouse

The Journey of a Mother and Son

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.

 

 

Crazy January 1, 2016

Last night I spoke with Elihu. He’s in Florida with his dad and his dad’s other family, and for the most part, he’s loving it. He’s got a racoon tan around his eyes and sand lodged in his sneakers. Aside from the occasional all-American family gatherings which he must endure – replete with football-watching menfolk and salads that contain marshmallows – it’s been a happy time for him. Which makes me happy, too. Yet it’s never easy on this end when lil man is absent; our family if rife with dysfunction, depression and a deep apprehension for the future ahead. My son can be a lovely, shining distraction in such times. But these days, even Elihu’s presence might not have changed things, cuz they’re dark. I know, that doesn’t sound like a nice way to kick off the New Year, but hey. It’s true. I’m always ready and eager to find the hidden silver lining in any crappy experience, and I’ll broadcast my good findings when I discover them, but I will never shy away from telling my experience the way it is, no matter how it looks.

Last night, New Year’s Eve, was my brother’s 50th birthday. I know how deeply he blames me for his rotted-out, stinking life. I know he thinks mom gives me all her resources, that she favors me over him, that one day she will leave her entire estate to me when she goes. That none of this is true is beside the point; Andrew is ill, and simply does not posses the ability to see things outside of his own highly personal and paranoid perspective. For years and years I’ve fought this impediment to his potentially thriving life, but now, in this brand-new calendar year, I am choosing an entirely new tack: I am finally going to let it go. Nothing can be done for Andrew unless he chooses to do it for himself.

A lesson I myself would do well to live by – I keep waiting for some mysterious exterior force to enter into my life and help sweep things into a shining new order… Hoping for a savior to come and assist me, to uplift me, enlighten me, tell me how it is that I should proceed with my new business, someone who will see and share my vision and throw herself into the ring along with me, full of fresh ideas, vigor and business savvy. I keep thinking that somehow, this magical missing element will find me and make it all better. It’s a nice fantasy, and you never know, shit happens in mysterious ways, but still… I need to get moving. I need to make connections. I need to get my ass out of the goddam house and do things for myself already. No one but me can get the ball rolling.

Last night I’d planned on attending a bonfire and maybe meeting some new people, but between my running out of fuel oil (no matter how many times you see it, it’s always a bit disheartening to see the needle begin to visibly drop each minute) and it being Andrew’s birthday, and his being drunk and storming out, and my not wanting to see my mother sit alone, I bagged. Plus the idea of coming home from a bonfire in the cold, snowy dark woods to a cold and dark house was too much for me to take on. So instead I sat with mom, drank a couple of beers and watched TV like a good American. But that’s ok – because I’m lucky enough to have been invited to join some local musicians tomorrow night for an informal jam. Just the sort of thing I’ve been missing these past years. It won’t be too long before I’ll be back out into the world and making my new way.

During the day I’d been messaging back and forth with my brother’s only remaining friend on the planet, a fellow, who as far as I can tell, is living in the Bay area and is doing well for himself and his family. He spends hours on the phone with my brother, as much chatting about nothing in particular as he does conducting a covert attempt to draw out my brother’s feelings as a means of getting to the bottom of it all – and maybe even finding a fix to Andrew’s grim situation. However sane and successful this guy might be, sadly this fellow seems to have bought my brother’s skewed story, which is this: I, Andrew’s sister, am the cause of everything that is wrong with his life. He has been profoundly abandoned and unrighteously neglected by our mother. Mom pays my way, and leaves him out. I get all the accolades, he gets no respect. I live for free in a house she owns… You get the idea. What my brother doesn’t understand is that while yes, I do live in a home our mother provides for us, he too lives in a home provided for him. The difference is that I pay my own bills (while also raising a child), and mom takes care all of his expenses. But he’ll never see this. Because he can’t.

The truth of the matter is that my little brother has always been sick. In first grade, he came home from school reporting in a screaming rage how much the kids at school hated him, and that the whole class had “pulled machine guns on him” (I remember this specifically because as a 3rd grader I had never before heard this curious use of the word ‘pulled’). Last night, Mom recounted to me that when she’d gone back to work when we were young children, Andrew had asked her if he got a tummy ache in the middle of the day, would she be at home for him? She was honest and told her small son no. But she promised always to be there when he got home from school. And she was. So here we have a kid in whom something’s already a bit off (ie raging how kids ‘pulled machine guns’) and then you have growing feelings of abandonment on top of it: a cocktail for emotional trouble. But back then the signs were likely cast off as crazy kid’s talk, the behaviors chalked up to routine issues of childhood. My brother was quiet, funny and hyper-intelligent (when I described him once as ‘Rainman smart’ to my mom, she had a fit. “See?” she’d said, agitated and getting louder, “You think he’s crazy! Why can’t he just be smart?”) and if he brooded, it was considered merely part of his personality. It was a different time. We weren’t on the lookout for children with mental illnesses.

And while our culture is thankfully changing its feelings towards mental illness, I can tell you that it’s still not without stigma. I do think my mother’s thoughts about mental illness have changed over the past few years, but in her world it’s still not a comfortable subject. Yeah, I do think that personally she feels shame, maybe embarrassment, and even responsibility. Likely, she sees it this way: Mentally Ill Child = Crazy Child = Failure of Parent. Even I myself – dealing daily with panic and anxiety issues – have only just discovered a metaphor that allows for a deeper understanding of what it is to have a mental illness: If someone felt nauseas in their stomach – would you try to tell them they didn’t? Furthermore – you wouldn’t expect them to simply turn off the bad feelings, would you? Mental illness is the same as a tummy ache. It’s physical and it’s real, and it cannot be changed through will and desire alone.

Every now and then my brother’s friend will reveal a tidbit about Andrew heretofore unknown to us, and last night came this bombshell: Andrew remembers mom once saying that she ‘regretted ever having him’. Where the hell had this come from? Never once in mom’s life has she said or done anything that would have implied such a thing. Not even in the heat of an argument. Never. It shocked me to hear that Andrew thought this. And these days, in this crazy world, nothing much shocks me anymore.

I joined mom and Andrew last night, birthday gifts in tow, and tried to assimilate myself into the kitchen quietly. But I suppose I spoke too candidly, too animatedly, too something-or-other, and before ten minutes had passed, my drunk, brooding brother stood up and walked out. I followed him out into the snow, calling after him, begging him not to leave. He stumbled in the frozen ruts of the driveway and mumbled something unintelligible. This, by now, was sadly nothing new. I stood and watched, to make sure he made it safely to his house, some 200 feet down the driveway. The year that dad died, Andrew had fallen in the snow, and we were worried he’d pass out and die there. It’s always a concern in the cold months. On Christmas Eve, my 80-year-old mother had been worried enough to walk the rough terrain around his house, tapping her cane on the windows and calling out to him. Finally, he came to the window and barked at her he wasn’t leaving his house. Usually his rages are brought on by an event or a comment, but this was new – it was unprovoked, and as such, more unsettling than usual.

Among his concerns for his future, Andrew is worried that I will get everything when mom’s gone, and he will go the way of the poor house. Frankly, the way the market is, I expressed to mom that I personally held out no hope of a dollar being left when she died. She took immense offense to this, even though I protested – the markets were continuing to dive, and after all, she had her own expenses to pay. It was simple math! She’d been smart about her estate planning, yes, but no one can outrun a horrible market – this in no way reflected badly on her! Try as I might to de-escalate her emotionally charged reaction, I couldn’t. Maybe it was because my lack of trust showed a lack of respect and acknowledgement for all of her hard work and forethought. Her generation does things ‘the right way’ after all; they take care of their own, they don’t take handouts, and there’s great shame if things don’t work out that way. But things can change in unexpected ways, I tried to explain to my mom. And in light of my own experience, I thought it was prudent to be prepared for the worst.

At one time in my life I thought my husband had my back – emotionally and financially – as he had always promised me. Many times over the years my ex husband assured me I had nothing to worry about. He said his own mother had worried all of her married life that her husband would leave her unsupported. My fears were just as unfounded as hers, he had told me. But as it turned out, that wasn’t the case. I went from fancy restaurants to food stamps almost overnight. I reminded my mom of this. Shit can change in unpredictable ways!

I tried to assure mom that I was forever indebted to her for taking care of everything I couldn’t – tuition for my son, heating oil and injections of cash when there was no income in sight – but that didn’t assuage her agitation. I wanted her to know that I was being practical here, not personal; at the end of the day, no one really had my back. And it didn’t bother me. It was better to be emotionally prepared for lean times than to count on help. I tried to assure her that I wasn’t worried – and besides, the key thing here was not my future, but my brother’s. The issue at hand was that Andrew needed to know he would always be taken care of. I assured her that when she was gone Andrew would be cared for. I promised I would intercede, that I would not let him go without a home, without food or heat. And if there was no money left, then social services and governmental support would always be there for him, and I would always be able to advocate for him. I had hoped to ease her mind, but I don’t think it worked.

As long as my mother is living, and my brother too, there is nothing I can do to change their dynamic. The best thing I can do is remove myself as far as possible from the mix. I’ve spent countless hours on the phone, writing letters, emails, standing in lines, filling out forms – all to help Andrew get better. But with this new year has come a new realization – I cannot do anything for him. I cannot repair anything, and I can’t change the way he lives or thinks, nor can I change the way my mother behaves or thinks. While I may think the short and easy answer is a little tough love from mom – if she cannot bring herself to do it, then it’s not an answer. I explained that she was ‘an enabler’, but judging from the look on her face, I wasn’t sure she’d gotten my meaning. When I suggested that she withhold payment of his electric bill until he agreed to see a counselor, she moaned in classic passive-aggressive tones “I know, I know. It’s all my fault. You’ve made that perfectly clear.” So around and around we went with no real meeting of the minds.

I had simply wanted to remove a burden from her load, but it had backfired. She was not thrilled when I posited a long life of continual, low-grade poverty for myself (sorry, but I don’t see any gleaming opportunities from where I stand today). Honestly, I’d love to have money, and if I did, I’d use it well and wisely, and I’d share it too – but if that never happens, I need to be happy with what I have. Lowering one’s expectations softens the blow of reality. Hell, even years ago – when I had all the money I needed – I’d often say ‘lower your standards and you’ll be happier with the results’. Cuz seriously, it’s so true! Because then, any good that comes your way is lovely and unexpected icing on the cake! Yeah, I prefer to avoid disappointment by moderating my expectations. Crazy? Meh.

As I’ve been writing this, coincidentally, I’ve been talking on the phone to a friend of mine back in Chicago who is enduring her own battle with addiction. She’s an alcoholic, and last night, on New Year’s Eve, she had decided she would admit herself to the rehab program at a local hospital. (Like me, she is, although intelligent and accomplished at many things, living in poverty. Sadly, Medicaid offers very few options for inpatient recovery addiction programs. To my great relief there was a good local hospital available to her.) My thoughts were partly on her last night – was she there yet? Was she trembling yet? How crappy did she feel? I had told my mother about her. “Why does she need to go back to rehab if she’s already been through it before?” my mother asked, honestly confused. I promised my mother that rehab was very, very hard. That it might take several tries before someone had the strength to follow through all the way. And that even then it was not a fail-proof solution.

And as I explained this to my mother, inside I came to a new, deeper understanding about Andrew. He needed to want it, to crave it, to be willing to fight for it – all on his own. If a professionally successful mother of three had a hard time mustering the focus and will it took to get clean, how on earth could my brother even begin? In that epiphany I was no longer convinced that recovery was an option for him. Certainly it would never happen as things were now. Later on my friend called me from intake. We chatted a bit, laughed a bit, and I felt hopeful for her. She too knows that this time it still might not take; that this is a harsh and unkind world, and it will be difficult to go it without a drink. Her road will be hard. But I’m so grateful that she’s at least back on the path. Not everyone gets as far as that.

New Year, new game. I can’t play that old one anymore. I’m letting go of Andrew and his burden, I’m going to move into my future with focus and fortitude. The YMCA approved my reduced membership fees, so I’ll get back on that path. Haven’t moved in a long time, so my body will appreciate it. I’ll devote to my new business the time it requires, and I’ll figure out how to improve those things that I’m currently doing my best to avoid. Sometimes it might seem pure folly to use some arbitrary mark on a calendar as a reason to undertake great changes, but hey, if not now, then when? This will be a good year for me and my son, I just kinda feel it. At least I’m reasonably hopeful that it will be. One never knows. Serendipity and unexpected blessings are just as crazy and unpredictable as the scary stuff. Truly, it’s a mixed bag, and you’ll never know until you go.

So like I said, I’m going forward into this New Year with guarded, modest and humble expectations. That way, the little successes along the way will appear huge and thrilling! Imagine how wonderful it will feel when happy, unplanned-for events fall into my path when all I meant to do was just get through the day! Now that’s my kind of crazy.

Elihu with tanI’ll tell ya what’s crazy… Dad talked Elihu into cutting his precious hair – which he’d been intentionally growing, with my support for a year now – all because the family was having professional photo portraits taken on the beach. My kid felt duped, and he’d held back tears. He was deeply sad when we spoke this afternoon, but he’s a good kid, and he accepted it without complaint. We’ll be back on the quest for long locks upon his return. Love my boy so deeply it hurts sometimes.

 

 

Up Is Down December 27, 2015

coop pic

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

IMG_0835Always superb.

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

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

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

IMG_0957So beautiful were her colors.

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

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

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

 

 

Tribe November 14, 2015

Sousaphone

Elihu loves everything low – especially if it’s made of metal. There is no doubt about it, this kid’s found his tribe.


Elihu’s flight got in very late last night, but the kid, he’s a trooper. He’s traveled a lot more than many adults I know, and in spite of having to deal with some really draining hurry-up-and-wait situations, his spirits seldom flag. Last night was no exception; he passed through the exit hallway as nonchalantly as if he were merely getting off the school bus. He coolly walked up to me this time – for the first time ever – without being followed by an employee of the airline holding out a clipboard for my signature. No one checked for my ID to see that I really was his mother. Nope. None of that stuff anymore. Just a lone ‘young traveler’ (as Southwest now officially refers to him) returning home.

Our reunions are different these days, and I struggle to remember what it felt like to see that tiny boy coming around the corner and running into my open arms. Now we just sort of pair up and begin walking to the escalators as if no time had passed, and as if we were nothing more than casual acquaintances. Which is ok, cuz however brilliant I may think my child to be, he is still 12. And self-respecting 12-year-old boys, no matter how much they love their mothers, do not want to be seen running into open arms, being gushed-over and animatedly doted upon. It’s my deepest desire to hold him tight and have him return the embrace, but I check myself. And secretly, I congratulate myself for holding back; because I actually do think that I’m settling into my new role as mother of a pre-teen with some style and dignity. It’s not easy, but it’s important to adjust, to respect the change that’s taking place here. And it’s got me thinking.

The little boy chapter is coming to a close, this new teenage chapter is yet to begin, and what follows is almost too much for me to even contemplate. One day, in a mere minute or two at the rate things are moving, my son will move out. And away. The way things are looking now (with his growing love of all things German), it may well be very far away. Our airport reunions will be far fewer. They may one day become more joyful, animated events, but nonetheless, there will be less of them for sure. As I sit beside him at baggage claim, I can see in the super-bright overhead lighting that there is a darker and more obvious patch of hair above his lip, and my heart sighs heavily. It’s coming. This young man is changing right before me. And one day, he’ll be out in the world doing his thing, and by then… it’ll be just me. I don’t mention this observation of mine, but as I study his elongated fingers and note how he sits almost as tall as me now, my heart whimpers. This will not be easy. I’m definitely gonna need a plan.

As we chat on the walk back to the car Elihu asks what I did this evening. I tell him that a friend had come over, and we’d had dinner and hung for a bit. Elihu asked about the nature of my relationship, and I told him. Me, I don’t want another element in my life. Not romantic, an any rate. I’m just not interested. “Does he know that?” Elihu asked me, sounding more like a bestie than my young son. I told him that yeah, I’d made it clear. There was a pause. “So, then, what do you want?” Elihu asked. I thought about the wide-open expanse of life in front of me and considered it a bit more critically than usual.

Recently, I’d made digital copies of some ancient videos. They represented so many of my old worlds, and it blew my mind to see things that I never thought I’d see again… My son, a tiny baby, being given a bath in the kitchen sink in our old house in Evanston. A clip or two of me at the radio station getting ready to go on air. Seeing Elihu’s father and me, performing together, happy and doing what I’d loved so well, it had cheered my spirits and saddened me all at the same time. Seeing me as an even younger, huge-haired rocker was amusing, and remembering that world was like peering into a dream… Then there were the alt-country bands, the indie projects and a million little worlds in between. Bits and pieces. A haphazard mosaic of my young adult life.

And then even longer ago here were fuzzy clips transferred from my dad’s super 8 reels of us as a young family – back in the early 70s when the Studio was just being built. Clips of concerts and rehearsals, of harpsichords being loaded into old Volkswagons. family dogs running underfoot, too-long scenes of cherished family cats doing nothing much at all. Almost every adult was smoking, and all were laughing and happy in this world of their own creation. I was peering through a magical window to see my mom, dad, Frank and Martha, and the many musicians who’d spent time with us in summers past as young adults – most of them far younger than I am now. These people were my whole world when I was young, and now many were simply dead and gone.

I thought of all the friends and peers whom I’d loved who were now so far-flung across the globe and fully embedded in their contemporary lives… All these groups I’d also been a part of once. All of it – the distant past and even the not-so-distant past – seemed in stark contrast to our current life. We had friends, yes, we had wonderful neighbors and truly good people in our lives, but still, there was something still missing. “What do you really want?” Elihu asked me again as we finally reached the car in the airport parking lot. After another moment of thought, I answered him, happy to have finally identified it for myself: “A tribe.”

Everyone needs to belong. Groups – in whatever form they manifest – are for most of us, essential. And all of us belong to several groups at any one time. Even here and now, in my somewhat smaller life, we belong to certain populations. The Waldorf school is one. Elihu’s peers, another. And there are those who help to make up our family by virtue of their physical proximity to us. But in revisiting these videos and recordings from another era, I’m reminded of the bonds that are absent in our current life. I miss being part of a community – of musicians.

Musically speaking, things appear somewhat fragmented in this area. I meet musicians who seem to know only folks whose genre they share. I inquire about folks outside their worlds, and they don’t really know much. Back in ‘the day’, in Chicago, while there were surely separate and distinct genres of musicians and scenes, there was often an overlap. Pop musicians would hire jazz guys to play on their tracks, jazz guys would stop in the dive country bars and marvel over the hidden talent there, hard rockers and R&B artists would mingle at the same parties. And me, I benefited from all of it. Me, I floated all over the place. As a result, I felt at home in many worlds. But the thing of it was, all these disparate musicians were aware of each other on some level. There was a commonality among all musicians, and one almost always felt an inherent sense of belonging. At least that’s how it felt to me. But here, in this small town, it doesn’t feel like that at all. Granted, I’m not working here as a musician, and I don’t get out a whole lot, but I’ve made some small inroads, and from what I can see, there are a lot of ‘micro scenes’, and no substantial cross-pollinisation between em. I’m not sure which population I might belong to. Honestly, I’m not convinced I belong in any of them.

Secretly, I’ve held the hope that one day I might bring the music to me; that I might create my own scene here, rather than searching for one out there. While the Studio is currently a bit too ambient and live a room in which to host anything but the most acoustic of musical ensembles, I hope to figure out a way to deaden it up a bit so I can begin to think of casting a wider net. As I imagine a future in which all things might be possible, I envision the room, once again full of people. Alive with music. A place in which people can meet each other. A place where a new tribe might assemble.

It is beginning to happen. Maybe not in a terribly obvious way, but things are starting to take shape. There is now a weekly yoga class. I see the looks on the faces of folks who are seeing the space for the first time. And just as in my father’s day, I hear people remark with surprise as they scan the room that they had ‘no idea’ a place like this existed here. But it does, and it calls for people to gather within its walls.

As the room fills with a dozen middle-aged moms in search of time for themselves, I begin to see more possibility growing… When Kristin dims the lights and begins to coach our bodies to move and our minds to relax, I begin to feel a future growing in this place. The way isn’t clear yet, but it isn’t as vague as it was a year ago. This is a time of transition, I remind myself again. I need to be patient. I also need to stick to my to-do lists and be vigilant about following through and keeping on the path. Things will get better, the way will get easier, and someday, oh I pray, I’ll find my new tribe along the way.