The Hillhouse

The Journey of a Mother and Son

Panic 1-1-1 September 7, 2014

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It’s the infinite possibility that gets me. The unfathomable, unknowable vastness of situations that exist – the organic events going on, right now, in the very spot of grass beneath my feet, the goings on of people and commerce in my town, across the whole state, the whole country, and at the same time all the like going on in other towns, in other countries, even on other continents… It’s the weather systems that surround our globe and the super-heated action taking place miles below our feet… and then of course some similar sort of activity also taking place on some other planet so far away that you could never even begin to comprehend how far away it is, much less come to understand and know all that goes on there, too. Oh, and then there’s the microscopic, unseen world that supports and makes up the world that we do see; events of commonplace chemistry and basic physics taking place that have unto themselves limitless interactions, relationships and morphing outcomes ceaselessly going on – no matter whether you’re paying attention or not. The whole bloody lot is always moving, reacting, growing, decaying…. Life always moves. And life is e-normous. Limitless, in fact, many would agree.

Which of course is fine, and all is as it should be, I suppose. Everything nests somehow into everything else, and therein lies the beauty of it all, the Godliness of it all. It’s just that it’s so much. And perhaps I’m short-circuiting or something, but lately I’m highly inclined to want to get a grip on how all of it works. Now I realize how silly that sounds, honestly, I do. But that’s the thing with problems that arise from your thinking process; they can be downright illogical. And no matter how illogical, the thinking still appears to be real to the thinker. And so that hyper-awareness of the largeness, the unknowability of it all then helps to tip me into that most unpleasant state of panic once again. I hate it, but can’t seem to stop it. I’m walking a fine line here, even in the wake of Robin William’s depression-related suicide – because I do not relish the idea of people thinking I’m crazy. But having panic attacks is in of itself is a kind of crazy – as is depression, or being manic. And so many of us suffer in some way during our lifetimes from some kind of mental health issue. So many of us have lived our own kind of crazy at one time or another. Really, how in hell can you live on this planet and not lose it from time to time?

These days, in addition to the run-of-the-mill panic attacks which come on through obviously stress-induced and rather specific situations, I’ve been finding that unremarkable events are also acting as triggers for my panic. Because, as I’ve just pointed out, nothing is really all that unremarkable when you think about it. I even find that glancing at clouds can frighten me, because I realize how big they themselves are, and how high up they are too, and I begin to experience a mild fear of heights even at that line of contemplation. Sort of a sympathetic vertigo, you might say. Conversely, when I try to pull my awareness back into my immediate sphere of experience (as a means of calming myself), I cannot help but then become acutely aware of the activity all about me – the activity of cells, the movement of insects (they by themselves spin me off into a world of disbelief and wonder – how in hell can something so tiny have all those systems packed inside? And don’t get me started on nano technology – the subject can literally make me light-headed and slightly dizzy. Really.). So my challenge then becomes how to tame this mental mess. And believe me, I’m working on it.

Sometimes, when my life’s a wreck or I can’t pull myself out of an undesirable situation, I try to imagine what advice I would give myself if I were somebody else. An objective outsider. Because as we all know it’s much easier to tell someone else how to change their life than to actually make those changes for yourself. ! Using that tactic, I find it’s easy to coach myself. And so I make a list of categories which might benefit from a little assessment: Financial, Professional, Physical, Spiritual.

Ok, number one: there’s a lot of uncertainty ahead, what with the Studio, the lack of a real job and income – and so it’s easy to understand how I might be panicking just a little. So what can I do? What action can I take to mitigate the financial stress? Cut down (on what?!, the cynical voice inside me bitches) on expenses, be frugal with all food, drive as little as possible, take extra piano students as I can. Ok. Not much, but something. And The Studio? I’m doing what I can; bought my first rolls of insulation, watched some YouTube vids, consulted a few pros and have assembled my tools. I’ll begin installing it this afternoon. The new electric lines are in, and the heating units go in next week. There’s networking to be done, so I need to meet with a couple of folks over the next month. I’m still a bit overwhelmed, but what more can I do right now? (If I began to contemplate the legal issues ahead I’d feel as if I were back to square one. Maybe the lesson here is ‘one step at a time’). At least I’m doing something, and the situation’s in hand.

Next is of course, are the health issues. The arthritis in my fingers has accelerated rapidly over the past month, and where before it was merely unsightly, now my knobby distal knuckles are warm and painful nearly all the time. I’m only responsible for playing three classes at school this year, but even so, with my fingers getting stuck in between the black notes and aching as they do, I wonder how it’ll work out. I’m back on the glucosamine regimen, plus have added some Chinese herbal supplements, topical applications of essential oils, I’ve begun acupuncture again and will shortly try a few rounds of electromagnetic therapy. I’m not sure how I’ll sustain such treatments on such a tight budget, but at least I’m underway. Doing what I can.

Also, I’ve gained a lot of weight over the past few months, and I’m a little frightened by it. So, again, what action should I take? I know, join the Y. Check. Joined at a discount, no less, thanks to the scholarship program (some red tape and hoops to jump through, but I’ve come to understand that being poor is in of itself a part-time job.) Ok. Done. Now, what to wear? I donned my old sports bra the other day, but I’m so much larger than I was the last time I wore it, the damn thing ripped in two when I tried it on. Ich. Ok. Just gotta replace it. An unforeseen expense, but as my local health-nut and excavator friend Al said to me this morning (on his cell phone in the middle of a 20 mile bike ride) “Just get a new one and keep going. Keep going.” Mom’s underwriting my new Weight Watchers membership – and that starts Monday. I simply cannot imagine going back to such an austere diet. I once lost 55 pounds on WW, after the birth of my son, so I know the culture well. (Atkins is more fun, but WW is more realistic and its success longer-lasting.) But honestly, it comes with hunger pangs and an undeniable lack of satisfaction. I suppose the loss of extra fat on my frame and improved numbers (bp and cholesterol) should make up for the near-constant feelings of hunger… that’s the idea I guess. And hopefully, after I’ve made movement a part of my routine, I’ll just plain feel better. I know it’s true, I’ve experienced it before, but it seems ridiculous to me from where I stand right now. Life without a few glasses of wine each day? Life with portions a mere quarter of the size I’m accustomed to? Sheesh. It’s but a day off, yet I still don’t believe it’s coming. I don’t suppose anyone is ever ready for major change. Just gotta jump in. (Or as my buddy Al would say, “pull the trigger”.)

Now to the spiritual part of the equation. Got much of that down I think; I spend a lot of time in nature, I express gratitude all over the place and I’m always reaching out to people and spreading kindness and love where I can. But I can’t lie; I’m still dealing with feelings of betrayal and anger towards my ex husband – I’m still upset that he doesn’t support us better, that our poverty is just fine with him and his parents. It still angers and frustrates me that I don’t have a partner, a spouse, someone to take up the slack every now and then, help with homework, maybe even vacuum or make dinner once in a while… And I know, as a student of basic spiritual concepts, that ultimately that shit comes back to me. But still, it’s on my plate, and six years later it’s a larger issue than I’d like to admit. And in addition to the forgiveness thing, maybe some mental silence might serve me too. I think I could muster ten minutes a day concentrating on nothing but my breathing. Twenty, probably not. But ten, yeah. And perhaps in the realm of intention, a little more controlled thought also might serve me well… That is to say, replacing the doom and gloom imaginings with lovely visions of what the Studio might look and feel like when it’s up and running and inhabited by happy folk. Ok. Begin minimal meditation practice. Replace negative thoughts with positive ones. Good. Sounds doable.

The list seems so short when I see it here, so why does it feel so daunting? And good Lord, it seems I’ve been through all this before. How have I not made more progress, I wonder? I remind myself that if I could just live panic-free and enjoy both mental and physical fitness, life might be a lot more enjoyable. Cuz right now, it’s only minimally so (hence the comfort of food and wine. We all know that drill). As I watch people go through the activities of their day, I often wonder: what is life like on the inside for them? What are their demons, their challenges? To what degree would they consider themselves to be content… happy? One cannot judge a book by its cover; I’m fairly sure no one is quite as put-together and problem-free as they might seem. But then again, maybe there is a sweet spot on the other side of all this self-improvement. Maybe one can be happy, content. Fit. All at the same time. At least one hopes.

Yesterday I saw a man riding his bicycle down our road. He was loaded down with stuff – a bedroll, bags, pieces of cloth, a crazy-looking horn, baskets brimming… Clearly, he was not out for a day ride. Unable to forget the cyclist, I turned around a couple of miles into my commute and doubled back in time to see him tackling the great cemetery hill – a hill which even as a healthy young child I would walk my bike up, rather than ride. I carefully passed him, pulled over to the side of the road and waited. I watched as he rode up the steep incline in a serpentine fashion. Interesting technique, I thought. He was actually making it up the hill – and with a full load, too. This person was impressive, and I had to meet him. He might be just the inspiration I needed.

As soon as he’d come down the other side of the hill, the man pulled into a church parking lot and disappeared around a corner. I walked around to the back, and announced myself first, lest the poor rider be seeking a bit of privacy to relieve himself perhaps… As I entered the church’s back yard, I saw this slender, tanned man sitting in the cool of the shade at a picnic table, a veritable banquet spread out before him. He was digging into some bread and hummus when I joined him. I learned that he was from Oakland, California, and had left the day after Christmas, last year. He’d made it to the Canadian east coast, and was now heading back. Altogether, he was very unaffected and matter-of-fact about his journey; when I asked him questions he answered them directly, and for the most part he didn’t seem aloof or coy, just possessed of a quieter nature, and perhaps exercising just the tiniest bit of caution in the face of my enthusiasm. I had so many questions for him, and had I not needed to get Elihu’s bass delivered to him in time for orchestra, I might have been a bit more focused with my inquiry.

Among the many things I wondered, the most prominent question was: what occupies your thoughts as you ride? He admitted to a certain incessant, repetitive nature to his thoughts, and offered that it was in fact, one of his main challenges. What criteria did he use to choose his route? How could he afford to do this? What had he done before? He was a little cryptic with some of his answers, but I sensed he was the sort of fellow who would have declined to answer if he felt it beyond his comfort. He told me that he’d just turned 65, so there “was no job to go back to now” as he was officially retired, but that he had worked in the flower industry. Still so enigmatic. As a day laborer? As the CEO of a company? In what way had he worked? He said he was “used to being outside” with his work. Ok. That narrowed it down some. But so many more questions burned, and as we got off into tangential topics of getting fit, perhaps having a dog to inspire daily activity, what programs might exist to help pay for the cost of a dog if I did get one, how different regions of the country dealt with recycling and such, I got further away from my informal interview and settled instead for a gentle, enjoyable conversation. How I had come to live here, how Chicago had been so brutally cold when he’d ridden through it last March… There wasn’t enough time to learn from him what I’d hoped. But I suppose there is no possible way to truly understand such an enormous undertaking unless you, well, undertake it. And perhaps that was the most important lesson here.

I gave him my card and encouraged him to stay in touch by email when he checked in with the world at his next library stop. I hoped so dearly that he would, but even if he didn’t, no matter. Phil had added to the quality and fullness of my life just through this simple meeting, and if I never heard from him again, this would have to be enough. It certainly was a dose of inspiration come to me at a time of need. Maybe that itself was more than enough.

Lately I’ve been seeing a lot of ones popping up during my days – and my nighttimes, too. And while I’ve made an effort not to get too terribly esoteric in my writing here, nor to explore in-depth some ideas that have long been a part of my life – for fear of turning some folks off for good – I will admit a completely open mind when it comes to matters that our mainstream culture still doesn’t treat as legitimate. Like ghosts. Or apparitions that appear to people who are dying, and unexplained experiences like music in the air, or the scent of flowers – just as real as the real thing – arising from nowhere. Or like repeating numbers. I won’t go and tell you that I think God is directly communicating with me and offering me a personally targeted message in my time of introspection and need, but I will say that something is happening to me these days. I’ve seen the number 111 pop up in all sorts of places, and finally, it’s caught my attention. In fact, I’ve seen the number 111 appear so frequently over the past week, that I’ve taken to photographing it. I awoke last night at 1:11 and grabbed my camera. I am not nuts. It’s happening. A quick Google search helps fill things in, but still, I almost don’t even believe my own story. Have I been seeing what I want to see? Have I been exaggerating the truth? Am I just looking for help, in any form at all? Am I leading the witness?

In the end, who really knows? No one. It’s just one more event taking place in this endless maelstrom of life. And happily, it doesn’t make me panic. Instead, it gives me a tiny seed of hope. And that’s something I need to cultivate these days. So who cares where it comes from? I’m going to take it as a little knowing wink from the universe telling me that things are going to work out just fine, and I’m going to keep on moving forward into this worldly adventure, taking each moment one by one… by one.

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Curve Ahead July 31, 2014

Where to start? The cast of characters is growing, from Log Cabin Joe to Hillbilly Al and a handful in between, and the sub-plots are multiplying. A house is being built to the great heartbreak of all who live nearby, another beloved house which we all had hoped might stand is going to be torn down, people will be moving in, and people will be moving away. A ghostly visage was spotted, serendipity threw in a few hard turns, neighbors popped by unannounced and set to framing out a new step in front of my house (because I’d asked to borrow some scrap lumber to do so for myself), and a potential blind date turned into a new and interesting friendship. Neighbor Chad, a former professional speed skater and dad to those cutie boys Ryan and Brandon, faces surgery to repair a torn ligament he got from falling out of a tree while deer hunting last year, my new met-on-an-almost-blind-date-but-not-quite friend must wear a heart monitor for another week and remain in the company of people at all times, lest he pass out while alone, with no one to call for help (hence his staying on as my house guest.) A couple more art classes to go at the Studio, some concrete being poured and set, a wall going up in the basement, the lawn to be cut and a coop door yet to be hung, the various comings-and-goings that all of this activity entails, including the requisite gear; earth movers, spinning concrete trucks, tractors, trimmers, boxes of tile, great, heavy balls of clay, five gallon buckets and rags to clean up… All of this is chugging along, plus a small group of family and friends is planning for an intervention with my brother at the beginning of next week. A few days later, Elihu comes home. Whew!

The past three days have seemed almost like a week with all the chaos and activity. My guest, Ken, erupted in laughter at it all (as I casually pulled a dead mouse out of a drawer, dumped it into the trash and continued to start the morning coffee without missing a beat), just imagining the highly entertaining cable series he absolutely insists my life should be. “I’m just wondering where we should put the camera” he’d said, smiling, shaking his head… I’ts not often that friends get a view from the inside here at the Hillhouse. Yeah, I’ve had guests before, but somehow life here has never been quite as animated and unpredictable as it has of late.

Night before last, as Ken and I sat on the couch enjoying a rather deep, existential discussion, I saw behind him, approaching from the kitchen and through the short hallway, a rather healthy-sized bat. Living in the country as I do, you might think this has happened before. And indeed it has happened in every other place I’ve lived – but not here. Until the other night, that is. I was watching with great concern that the poor beast not knock over some precious breakable as she continued to encircle the room, but soon realized that this creature was deftly missing – with room to spare – every obstacle in her path. I was impressed! My friend, himself a pilot, must surely have been sharing my amazement… maybe…. I glanced over at the couch. Ken was clearly not bearing respectful witness to the miracle of flight taking place right before our eyes… Humor me if you will; picture a black Mr. Clean; tall, built; a take-no-prisoners kind of physique that lends itself well to the military and police work (he’s retired from some twenty years of exactly that) – and now picture that same gentleman covering his face with my over-sized pink velvet throw pillow, ducking down and shrieking like a girl every time the bat made another pass around the room. One had to laugh. Thankfully, he had to laugh too. We both did. I admit, that lil creature was movin fast, and to us it felt like a random, unpredictable flight that might easily have ended up in someone’s face. I was finally able to catch her by trapping her in between two frog nets, but then she hooked her way out, and flew off to the mudroom. The door to the mudroom remained closed, while the backdoor to the outside stayed wide open. My second house guest eventually left and did not return. So far as we know.

And there was the apparition. And the change in my route. Why had I chosen to double-back and take Locust Grove instead of 9N as I’d intended? Having just given Ken a brief history of my folks and the Baroque festival, I figured I’d use my mistake as an opportunity to point out soprano Ruth Lakeway’s empty house. When we crested the hill and I indicated the house, Ken told me he saw a woman in the porch. I gave him a look. “White hair, lavender colored, long sleeved top” he said. “Wait, you’re not shitting me?” I asked, in almost a panic. He insisted that as an officer of the law – not to mention an artist who painted and drew landscapes, people and animals, he was trained in observation. He knew what he’d seen. That was enough for me; I turned around and made my way back to the house.

There were in fact people at the house. They emerged from the garage – on the other side of the house – when we pulled in. Still, none fit the description. It didn’t matter at this point, and it was soon forgotten as I re-acquainted myself with the new owners, who were in the middle of a project. They were removing items from the house, preparing it. I kinda knew what was coming next. It was known that the house had done nothing but take on water since Ruthie’s death eight years ago, and that the mildew and moisture had finally won. Although the woman who now owned it had known and loved Ruth as I had, and had herself dreamed of one day living in the sweet house, it would never come to be. The house now had to be torn down. I looked at Karen to see if this was the truth, and her eyes teared up. She insisted they’d had every manner of professional opinion on the matter. It was coming down. I made no attempt to be stoic… I began to cry. It was clear that she was just as heartbroken as I was. Thankfully, I wasn’t alone in my grief.

In her day Ruthie had created a wide sphere of influence through her loving presence in the community and her unique, gentle demeanor. With no husband or children of her own, she had given her time and energy to her church, her voice students and so many more. This house was for me a sacred place, as it was to many others as well. I marveled over our being there, in that moment. Over the circumstances. Had I not made the ‘mistake’ of driving down her road, had Ken not spotted that visage in the porch – I wouldn’t have known this was happening. I wouldn’t have been able to take the lamp from her back porch so that I might use it in mine, I wouldn’t have been able to remove Ruth’s windchimes and then hang them on my own porch in remembrance of her. Did Ken see Ruth? Yes, I believe so. I believe she was helping as best she could to gather me into this event of closure. As we all stood on the front lawn, talking and comparing stories, Ken told them what he’d seen earlier. The consensus seemed to be that this was all meant to be, we had all found our ways there in order for this to happen. There were tears, hugs, prayers and goodbyes. And for me, there was gratitude.

From the insane to the mundane, the silly to the serious, it’s been a crazy mix of life here lately, and yet the next week may hold still more… Mom has finally come around to understanding that Andrew will never, ever get better on his own (yes, we’ve been here before, but I feel this time it’s different) and she can begin to see that he has only good things to gain by taking part in a detox and rehab program, and he has only potential danger and harm if he doesn’t. Plus this heaven-sent former cop of a friend has brought to our attention how devastating it could be should a civil case ever be made against Andrew in the event of an alcohol-related death. This is some serious shit, and although I’ve been making my case for several years now, it’s taken this financial threat to bring it home. That, and a little magical aligning of the stars. We’ve got a great family drama scene on deck, and I’m eager to finally see it through to its conclusion. Which will in of itself be but a beginning to a whole new chapter…

I checked in with Waldorf today, and it seems I’m just about off the hook. They’ve covered nearly every class except for a day or two of the high school. There’s a slight chance they might need me to cover for a bit, but it doesn’t appear that it’ll pose a conflict with my new work at the Studio. This is beyond my wildest dreams, and the feeling of freedom and possibility has me a little giddy. It’s almost like I have too much oxegyn, too much space, too many options, too much opportunity. My unexpected house guest and the little surprise detours of late have stalled my progress for the time being, but it doesn’t worry me. We’re approaching a Great Change. Middle School for Elihu, and with it all the changes of pre-teen life. A new situation for my mom and brother, a new career for me, a new house in the neighborhood, two new families moving in, one moving out. A parking lot going in the woods for the Studio along with a network of roads into the forest, a new heating system and myriad other upgrades. Networking, meeting people and growing programs, seeing plans become real…. I’m at the cusp of a whole new chapter in my life. I’ve been riding it out on a long, slow straightaway for the past few years, and finally now I see a big curve up ahead.

Breathe in, hands at ten and two… I’ll give it just a little more gas, and we’ll be taking that turn before we know it.

 

 

Parting Time June 17, 2014

Well, it’s here. The day on which Elihu leaves to spend the summer with his father, the day on which I am finally free of all obligations to others. No meals to prepare, no running to the grocery store three times a week, no nudging or cajoling, no reminding or asking, no picking up after…and a whole lot less laundry. And since Elihu is now eleven, I worry about him a whole lot less. He can speak up for himself when he needs (for the most part, that is, as he’s still not completely comfortable expressing himself fully to his father), he can make better decisions for himself, and he’s a bit more laid back about minor omissions in his routine than I am. If it turns out he’s forgotten something – he won’t fret or bum out about it, he’ll just keep going. Me, I’d stew for a while, ponder the ‘what ifs’, rebuke myself for being so stupid, that sort of crap. But thankfully, along with those slender, guitar-playing fingers of his, Elihu retained this easy-going quality of his father’s as well. So he can roll with things, and that’s good, cuz it looks like lil man will be spending a lot of time living out of a suitcase in the coming weeks.

There’s a trip to West Virginia on the itinerary, as well as a drive cross county to the famed hippie jam band fest High Sierra in California. Or, as those of the jam band culture prefer to say, ‘Cali’. Sheesh. My disdain for the jam band world may have been one of the many nails in the coffin of my marriage. In hindsight, I expect my husband only pretended to share my feelings for the culture at large; he and I enjoyed poking fun at the kelping (that flailing sort of pulse-less dance the hippie kids do), the accents, the attitudes, the personal filth in which they so easily lived… He, after all, has played in jam bands for decades now, and the guys in Garaj Mahal, for as dysfuntional a bunch as they were, they were our family, present for Elihu’s first few days, present for much of our marriage. I miss having those guys – and some of those goofy, groovy extended jam tunes in my life. However, that world itself is not a place in which I feel too terribly comfortable. I personally do not enjoy the scent of patchouli and simply cannot stand The Grateful Dead. It it not for lack of trying, let me tell you. In fact, as a thoughtful and intelligent musician I have many, many times tried to enjoy the Dead for myself, and when that has failed, I’ve spent time trying to at least understand what it is about them that has so inspired millions of fans. (I find it super-ironic that the one feature Dead fans cite at their most shining attribute is that they ‘groove’; because no, they don’t. As a rhythm section they are loose and sloppy, and melodically there is a meandering, never-settled quality which physically revolts me before long. I’ve tried to get over this; made many concerted, open-hearted attempts, but it just doesn’t work.) My kid will be living in the jam band world for a portion of the summer, and I am excited for him. It aint for me, but for him – it’s perfect. Lots of support, lots of opportunities to play with musicians, total acceptance and lots of love… a complete adventure. Glad he gets this amazing experience with his dad. Happier still that I don’t have to go along for the ride.

The few days before the great parting are always a strange mix of things for Elihu. One minute we’re laughing like dearest friends, the next he’s in tears over some tiny slight – but before long, he himself will identify it as related to the upcoming change. He loves being here, and part of him dearly just wants to stay at home all summer  doing nothing special, playing with his friends and doing summertime things, but then he misses his daddy like crazy. He wants to see his baby brothers too. Sometimes I’ll find him weeping by himself in his room over the whole mix of feelings. Sometimes he clings to me like a four year old and tells me he never wants to leave. Some times he yells at me that he can’t take me any longer and needs his father now. And other times he shouts to the sky that it’s not fair he can’t have both of us at the same time. Yeah, this time is always a bit difficult to navigate, it takes sensitivity on both of our parts. Reactions and feelings that appear to be about one thing are often about something altogether different. But by now the process is familiar to us, so we get through it ok.

For me, my rough patch will be the ride back from the airport and then the first few hours in the house all alone. While I’m invigorated by the work before me this summer, it’s never as easy as I imagine it’ll be in those first few hours after Elihu’s gone. There’s just something about knowing someone’s in the house – no matter if they’re within sight or not – that just gives the place that extra certain bit of energy. Like the kind our dear Madeline brought to our place. We now call it the “Madeline sparkle”. And when I’m alone in the kitchen, no young boy just around the corner, counting out his Pokemon cards on his desk, I’ll be able to feel it. The Madeline sparkle will be gone.

That’s ok, this summer in particular. I’m faced with a lot to take care of; a body to get back into shape, a healthy way of eating to re-learn, a building to repair, a summer camp to guide into the new space, a cellar full of moldy crap to assess, a garage full of the same (swapping mold for mouse poop here), gutters to clean, weeds to pull, small carpentry repairs to make, painting and assorted other domestic projects plus the very daunting task of marrying the new chicks with the older flock – all this is before me. Me, alone. A plumber and an extra hand to do what I alone can’t, but the rest is mine to do. And I can’t forget the piano too – I need to keep playing, lest my job in the fall become like starting over again. I have a few difficult pieces that I need to start on now, so that by fall they’re in my muscle memory. I have archiving of blog posts, filing and the mundane and dreaded business of taxes and food stamps to face. In some ways it helps to see it all in print like this, but in some ways it just makes me want to polish off a bottle of wine and a tub of spicy hummus in front of an entire season of Gilmore Girls.

Elihu’s in the bath now, singing to himself happy little songs about nothing in particular. He is adding his Madeline sparkle to the place, and I can feel it taking up space, filling the air with joy. Tomorrow morning at this time he’ll be nearly a thousand miles away, and the sparkle will be gone. The house will be completely quiet. Still such mixed feelings. It’s just that little bit of transition time that’s the hardest. But my to-do list and my personal goals will keep my eyes fixed on the horizon, and there’s tremendous promise for some greatly positive results on the other side. That makes it easier to dismiss the familiar yen for food, booze and reruns.

I haven’t measured Elihu against the wall of his closet in months. We’ll do that today, before he goes. And then he’ll put on a white oxford shirt and jeans, lean against the kitchen doorway, and I’ll snap a picture of what he looks like at the end of fifth grade. He and I are both keenly aware that this is the beginning of a time of great physical change for him, and we both want to document it. We mean to take the same picture over the next few years so that we can see the change up close. I sense we two are each at the doorstep of a brand-new era in our lives, as he approaches middle school and I begin to see the birth of a new business in the Studio… I still have some trepidation about what’s in store, and I think I probably will until my project is well underway. No matter what happens, we’re both about to do a lot, and to learn a lot in the process.

Yup, there’s an awful lot of life coming up, so guess we’d better finish packing and get underway. It’s going to be a very interesting summer.

IMG_6666Me and lil man on our last morning together for a while.

 

Clean Slate February 22, 2014

For me this has been a day of very mixed feelings. From elation at the prospects of the future to intense pangs of sorrow at having lost something precious, now irretrievably gone from my life…

Today some friends and I cleared the Studio out of its contents. There was so much more stuff than I’d realized there’d be. And I do understand pretty well how stuff adds up – I’m rather a stickler for organization and pairing down to the most important stuff – but the piles and the boxes just continued to appear. It’s amazing how we humans manage to stash away objects. And when you finally do get around to excavating every last corner of the place and have set all the piles out before you, what then?  How do you let go of things when they’re so loaded with nostalgia, longing, subtle shades of regret? Where do you draw the line?

I regarded the boxes and when pressed as to whether or not they should go out onto the big trash pile I found myself sounding a lot like those poor souls on the show Buried Alive… “Mmm, uh, I might use those again, uh, maybe just put them here for now. Hm, um, wait, wait… I’m not sure, I don’t know…” Wait, me? I can’t let go? I myself used to help others let go of their stuff and organize their possessions long before it was trendy, long before places like The Container Store were even dreamt of. Under the informal moniker of “Assess a Mess” I’d go to people’s homes and help them throw away all of their crap or send it back out into the world. A combination of psychologist, personal assistant and trashman, I’d help them make all the hard choices. I employed what I called my “rule of two”: if you hadn’t used it in the past two years and didn’t plan on using it in the next two months, then out it went. I wasn’t cold-hearted about sending stuff away; I always tried to find objects a second life – and this was before the era of Freecycle, Craigslist or Ebay, yet somehow I’d make it through mountains of stuff, leaving a perfectly clean and organized joint behind. But now that it’s come to me – now that we’re talking about my recently deceased father here and all the tangible results of his life’s work – it just isn’t the same deal at all. And my mother’s hand is here too; it was she who kept the place running, made the videos of all the concerts, fed and watered the audiences at intermission, the musicians before and after concerts and rehearsals – her things are here too, and it’s troublesome to vote her things out when I know all the love and attention they represent…

Thankfully I had my partner Ceres and her kids here to help. It was far more work than it appeared to be at first, and I – physically or emotionally – couldn’t have done it alone. After getting a bit further into the job I discovered that the more I excavated, the more that I liberated the walls and corners of long-forgotten stuff, the more hopeful I became. I began to envision little future scenes of what one day happen here in this room. I’d been listening to the boombox I’d bought dad for Christmas last year (so he could listen to his favorite Bob and Ray CDs) to keep me going, and I heard violinist Andrew Bird on the local college station and wondered… might I host him here one day? I realize he’s become kinda big now, but I knew him in Chicago back in the day. Never know. And what of my other friends from my old life? I started imaging concerts, combinations of folks whose music I love… I didn’t want to spoil my fantasy with all the ‘yes, but‘ conditions, so I held back the sober voice of reality and limitation and allowed myself to continue to dream while I cleaned… Later on I heard jazz vocalist Janice Borla – also another fellow Chicagoan – and man, I though her recent recording sounded great. A totally different kind of music and crowd, but maybe, I thought, might I have something like that here too?

All manner of possibilities started to come to me, and I let myself fantasize for a bit as I worked. I loved music of all kinds – I just couldn’t see limiting the room to one thing or another. House concerts? Maybe that’s the route to go… Baroque Ensembles that are starting out and need a smaller venue? Hm. The jazz kids from Skidmore hosting small ensembles and including some of the high schoolers in town?? Stuff just kept coming. But then I’d feel a sudden wave of panic, when I’d look up from my task for a moment and see in my mind’s eye the room as it had been for decades… In an instant it was a late summer afternoon and the house was full of people, there was the scent of freshly cut hay in the air, and of course the music. The harpshichord, the gambas, violins, flutes, voices… The familiar sound of the chairs being scooched back on the wood floor as people got up to stretch and mill about… The dreamlike vision came upon me and with it all those subtle feelings I associate with my entire childhood. In my head I could still see so clearly the golden sunlight streaming through the western doors; I remember the flowers, freshly cut from the local roadsides, that my mother would arrange for a vase on the stage; I remember the murmur of the audiences’ voices as they chatted during intermission….

Baroque music and the scent of newly cut hay, the warm sunlight, low in the sky… The memories all swirl around my head, tugging at me to remain there with them, never to leave them lest they die forever… My heart wants things to continue to hear and see these very same things for years without end.  But of course, this is impossible now. Their leader is gone, that era has closed. I know I sure don’t feel like much of a leader myself, and I haven’t a clue what I’m in for. But I guess there’s no question about it. It’s my party for now, ready or not. Into the future we go, much to learn, much to do, and lots of great music and memories yet ahead. Thanks, mom and dad, for the great start. The Studio won’t be the same, but it will continue to have a lot of heart and soul.

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The Studio as it appears from the South from just outside mom and dad’s house.

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This is the side of the Studio people see first, the main door and box office are here. Note the stuff already piling up out front.

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I really wanted to convey the size of this hump in the middle of the room. Seriously, right now we could rent the place out as a skate park! Look at this stool – all four legs are on the floor!

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A selfie with the ever-present tapestry on the back of the stage wall.  Dad and I once had a picture taken of us on this very same spot. I’m feeling a bit sad about things right now.

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See the tilt of the floor now? Crazy!

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I was hoping this might illustrate the drama of the mid-room bump. Kinda…

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Ceres’ son, Christoper, is being creative in trying to illustrate the big bump. In real life it looks much more impressive.

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This is the green room. None of us (mom and me, that is) ever liked dad’s ridiculous choice of green. Ich. Thank goodness I can finally get rid of it. This room served as a backstage area, holding pen for several harpsichords and apartment for musicians and their families while they played here at the Festival. Now my Rhodes lives here – but after sitting in three inches of water for over a week, it’s in need of some serious cleaning and looking-over. So back to my basement it’ll go. That’s grandma’s rocking chair on the left – in good shape. Anyone want it? It’s yours!

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More stuff.

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The box office jam-packed.

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Hmm. You can always tell a lot about a person by looking at their trash….

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The spiral staircase to the balcony. As kids we had loads of fun on this. Note the high-tech, ten pound cam-corder mounted to the balcony railing – mom recorded every last concert on it. (We’ve since had them converted to DVD.)

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The Studio’s sign came off the frame shortly before dad died, and it’s been sitting in a bank of snow. Lest it become warped and useless as the wood floor of the place, Ceres and son Brian moved it up from the road and into shelter. (The Conant’s summer cottage is in the background – it’s where my brother lives now.)

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Ahh, such a great space.

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Always loved this beam detail.

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Even with the damaged floor, she still looks beautiful.

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Had to take this pic from a distance so it’s fuzzy – but it’s from mom and dad’s very first festival in 1959. !

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Here the Zabel family is going home after an afternoon of hard work. Thanks guys! We’re on our way now!!

 

The House Cafe September 21, 2013

It was a time in which I learned an awful lot, and it seemed everything was happening all at once. It was a time which, while an important chapter in the course of my life, would not be one I’d ever care to repeat. I had three things weighing heavy on my heart: first was my son. Each day I’d drop off my special-needs, vision-impaired son at daycare and would remain in a state of low-grade guilt and discomfort all day as a result. I would rather have been with him, but it just wasn’t possible as now I had a new full-time job, item number two on the list…. I was the owner and manager of The House Cafe. While more my husband’s dream than mine, he already had a full-time job, so this role became mine. Truly, it was no mere coffee shop, rather it was a restaurant and a nightclub. Live music six days a week, a liquor license, food to order, store, inventory and prepare – and college-aged employees to get most of it done. And then there was item number three: my marriage. A union of over twenty years that was fast dissolving into thin air right before my eyes. It was profoundly frightening, Each day I felt as if I were walking through a horrible, waking dream, yet I had absolutely no time to deal with it. I was so busy, in fact, that most times I told myself it was just the stress of the job; things were just temporarily off course. One day things would be back the way they’d been. That’s what I had to tell myself in order to get though. I had left my familiar and beloved life behind in Evanston and had hit the ground in Dekalb running at breakneck speed, but it was still my greatest hope that a peaceful family life lay somewhere ahead.

Having just set this up as a rather dark piece about a difficult time and a challenging job, let me now elaborate a bit upon what it was that made this experience so rich. As I once wrote – in my very first piece ever on this blog – I experienced a range of events in working at The House Cafe that I might have expected from a decade of management, not a mere two years. Some were terrible to live through, and some were very rewarding. Employees were for the most part intelligent kids with humor and good sense (not all of them, but most) and I loved to know that we ran a place that was comfortable and inviting. That it was a place in our small town where folks of all types could meet and hang. We had a toy box and couches, rotating installations of local art on the walls, we had a bright area up front, and cozy dark booths in back. Even four bathrooms. During the daytimes it was moms and tots and students studying, by afternoon it was the bands loading in. The place radically changed character at night – and frankly, as a mom to a little one, I wasn’t able to enjoy the shows too often. Sometimes I wouldn’t really want to; when the kids lined up around the block and down the hill I knew we’d be in for a heavy-hitting night. More than once I’d have to pack tiny Elihu in the minivan and stop by the club to tell the booking guy he had to close the doors. I know it was tempting for him (cuz he got paid by the head count) and it was tempting for me too to want that extra income – but we just couldn’t go over capacity. But as a business, you gotta admit that’s a pretty good problem to have!

I remember young Elihu – at the age of just four – helping me test mics before a show. They were clearly numbered, and he certainly knew his numbers, and he felt quite comfortable picking up a mic and speaking into it… so one by one we’d make our way across the board getting things ready. It was a large room, and in the evenings could be quite dark and cozy, so he was able to run around free from his usual super-dark sunglasses as I finished preparing for the night. Checking the sandwich line, the stock up front, the state of the green room downstairs. By no means did I run the place as well and thoroughly as I would have liked, but I feel I muddled through as best I could in my situation. Thankfully I’d had years of experience waitressing  and playing clubs, so that helped. But nothing prepared me for the experience of being stolen from by employees, by being yelled at by employees, by being told by the health department that I had to make improvements which I had no money to make, or learning I hadn’t enough money on hand to pay the musicians (this is the last thing I should ever want to do to a fellow musician!). Or finding that I needed to keep an inventory of every last thing in my storage closet lest my toilet paper mysteriously disappear. Or that pictures would be stolen off of walls, furniture would be broken, expensive microphones would routinely walk off and vomit would end up in the bathroom hallway at least once a week…

Of several memories, there is one I particularly like to recall. I’d been up front one late afternoon, working with the baristas, making coffees and sandwiches for a busy house, and had begun to make the rounds with a large plastic tub, bussing the tables. A local Dixieland band was playing, as they did one Sunday of each month. We’d just made it through the lunch rush and now things were settling down. I was in the zone of cleaning up – finding my groove and feeling good about a happy, successful day. I was lost in my thoughts, but was awakened from them when I’d heard my name spoken. I looked up, and saw that I was being called from the stage to join the band for a song. It was a Cinderella moment as I set down my load of dirty dishes, took off my apron to reveal a dress beneath, then pulled the pencil out of my udpdo and swung my hair loose. I walked up to the stage (a nice, raised stage complete with lights and a real grand piano – the one that now sits in my living room) and with only a couple of quarter notes to spare, started singing. Life at The House was seldom as picture-perfect as that moment, but it’s a nice one to have that one in the memory archives.

While I didn’t do the booking myself, I could – and did – suggest bands to have play. Sometimes I got em, and those too were happy events. It was enjoyable to now be the host rather than the guest, and to make performers feel at ease, taken care of. I myself made an effort not to engage with them too much, because for me as a performer I’d always wished for more space. And with my ex and other folks through the years I’d seen the relentless, in-your-face sort of presence that fans had. I know it goes with the territory, but I still thought it was important to make privacy available. When I was present, I think I did ok. But even though I was in that office from 9 to 5 each and every workday – weekends too – I didn’t have much of a presence in the place as a nightclub, as I was at home being mom. In hindsight, I think it all worked out. Wasn’t exactly as I would’ve liked, but it was ok. Like I said, I learned a lot.

After about two years though, I was reaching the end of my rope. I had wanted to turn my attention back to family matters, and I began to think about finding someone to replace me. But who? The universe must have felt my plea, for one day the phone rang. It was a woman who was just cold-calling us to see if we had work. She had lots of experience as manager of a coffee shop, and she lived in the area. And she was done with her last job, as in done. Like me, she’d had it and was seeking out something new. Strangely, I had time in my day, and she was only miles away, driving towards the place as we spoke. Within minutes she entered the office, within an hour I had a new manager. Within six months she owned the business. Finally, I was free. Jan was an angel to me at that time; she arrived just when I needed her, and she continued to not only run the Cafe in the same spirit as before, but she improved on it, making it into a Midwestern mecca for the college and patchouli crowds. Perfect. Even my twenty-something year old schefflera plant – now a good ten feet tall – stayed on to live and thrive in the Cafe. I made my exit feeling very good about The House Cafe’s future prospects.

Now, after some five years of Jan’s ownership, she too is wanting to move on. She, like me, is a single mom of a young boy (I think she even has chickens!) and I can’t blame her for wanting out. Running the place is a way of life. And for the most part, running a locally loved, well-established meeting place for the community can be very rewarding. Yeah, it feels really good to welcome regulars and get into a daily rhythm. When things are in place, it’s a good place to be. But no one can stay in one place forever, and so now The House Cafe of Dekalb is on the verge of yet another change. Jan’s leaving at the end of October, and the future of the place is very much in question. As I signed off on all aspects of ownership in the process of my divorce, I don’t know the particulars anymore. But I do know that this is a beloved landmark of that community, and I have my own personal hopes that another angel arrives just in time to save it.

The House Cafe Dekalb

The House Cafe of Dekalb, Illinois

 

Day Away July 28, 2013

Had occasion to visit a new friend in a neighboring community yesterday. It was about an hour’s drive west, and I was excited to visit the town, as I’d known about it all my life but had never been there. Gloversville, NY, was once upon a time the very seat of America’s glove-making industry. Sorry – no historical pics of the town or its industry here. In fact just snapped a very few, but just enough to remind myself that I got out for a day and went someplace new…

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Now this lifts my heart – a good, old-fashioned music store, very much in the style of my beloved Village Music School ‘back home’ in Deerfield, Illinois. Saw four old-timers on the porch and just had to stop by and say hi. The future of joints like this seems a little iffy in our culture of big box music stores. But ya never know. There’s just no substitute for a place like this.

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Such sweetie pies! The men of Dad’s Music Shop invited Elihu and me to come and join em on a Saturday night jam. Our skills are rather primitive (at least mine are on the accordion) yet  I do think we might be able to keep up on a tune or two. It’s on the ‘to try’ list for sure…

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And look, I found myself a mid-century home in town! Hmm, gets me thinking…

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And an old filling station. A 1930s building, a 1950s light fixture. Awesome.

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But here’s the real Mecca. WATER. Plus mountains. Crazy silly awesome stuff of dreams. Man do I miss a lake…. The Great Sacandaga Lake is a river basin that was flooded in the late 1920s. While not truly a ‘natural’ lake, it is nonetheless a very beautiful place, with wide open vistas framed by the Southern Adirondack Mountains. Love driving over the bridge – it almost feels like I’m flying….

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Keeping my eyes on the road, I took a chance that these pics would come out…

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The end of the long bridge ride. The rest of the trip home was made up a steeply graded mountain and over miles and miles of dirt and gravel road. My ears clicked as the altitude changed and a cool mist covered the road in places. I imagine the folks two hundred years ago first carving these roads out of the forest – and I give up trying to even understand what that must have been like. I may still use the archaic flip phone (is it old enough yet to be ironic or cute?) but nonetheless I am a modern woman. While I may engage in some minor farm activity each day, truly, there is no ‘pioneer’ in me. Not sure how well I woulda fared in 1830.

I am eternally grateful for the physical infrastructure all around us, and in awe of its construction and design. All I gotta do is drive and take in the scenery.  Which makes for a very low-key, pleasant day away.

 

Hungry Fox and Broody Hen February 21, 2013

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While I’ve been drinking prep solution and having polyps removed, life in the country has continued on without me, with new tiny dramas and situations arising each day. And no matter what’s on the day’s agenda, it always must start the same way: first thing in the morning, with muck boots and farm jacket on over my pajamas, I head out to water and feed. Everyone’s happy to see me, and it’s a charming way to start the day. The walk outdoors brings me into my body, the fresh air revives me, and seeing these silly, endearing creatures always – always – lifts my spirits.

We’ve had a couple of light snowfalls over the past  couple of weeks, and with the fresh snow come fresh tracks. There’s a new resident fox in our neighborhood – first made apparent to me by a friendly Facebook message a few weeks back from Stephanie, who lives across the field and the road from us (owner of the ancient model T seen in previous posts, the tracks of which you can see at the bottom of the above photo). A day later I myself saw the mangy creature run down the driveway one evening as I made my p.m. rounds. He/she merely trotted past, in no hurry to escape unseen. I hadn’t seen a fox with my own eyes in some four years. And the last one I saw, quite sadly, killed my much beloved lilac point Siamese and tabby mix, Taylor. (I still can’t quite let myself off the hook for not calling him in that one, fateful night.) My heart went out to this lil creature, regardless of the threat it might pose to my flock. In fact, I so wished I could surrender up one of my non-layers to her. But of course, I couldn’t make such a living sacrifice. After the sighting, I didn’t think much about the fox for a few days – until I saw its tracks recently.

A straight line of petite dog footprints made their way up the hill from the woods – and went straight to the coop. Then they went under the coop. Then a second set of tracks came out and proceeded to march down the course of the driveway, eventually turning to cross the field. This was a bit alarming, but nonetheless it awakened my pity on the creature, and I decided to leave out some leftovers that night. It worked. She returned, ate them, and revisited the coop. I don’t worry for the hen’s safety – that little building’s shut up tight. But it’s those couple of minutes just after sunset that concern me. If I’m not there to shut the door and gather stragglers – something might happen. And just a couple days ago, something did.

I heard a very suspicious round of hen noises one afternoon (usually attacks occur at night in my limited experience) and so I threw on my coat and made a beeline to the coop. In the snow I saw something quite different from before: groupings of two prints side by side were each separated by some six feet – making a line from the woods to the coop! This was clearly a fox moving at lightening speed – and at the end of the tracks? A small pile of feathers. No blood. No real evidence aside from that – and a reduced head count. I had to admire her. Swift, stealthy and successful. In fact, I wasn’t at all dismayed, but secretly quite happy about it. I had too many mouths to feed anyway. Since that afternoon I’ve seen tracks again, but I’m hoping she’s not quite as hungry and motivated as before and that she’ll find herself a cozy little den to nap until spring. Not letting my guard down yet though. (I’m not terribly concerned about losing one of our many generic red hens – I just want to make sure Max, Austin and a few of my favorites are safe.)

So now the cycle of life means to revive itself once again – and one hen has parked herself most determinedly on a clutch of eggs. She can’t be dissuaded – when I try to collect eggs from beneath her she pecks quite violently at me. I myself am quite impressed with her behavior. And, like the fox, I admire her innate qualities, her resolve to do what she knows she must. Sitting on eggs, however, seems quite a usual thing, right? Probably doesn’t sound so impressive.  Sounds natural, yes, I know – after all, this is how chickens reproduce, right? Well, in the old days, yes. But sadly, modern chicken breeders have made it a priority to breed out the instinct of hens to ‘set’ (sit patiently on a pile of eggs til they hatch) and instead have chosen to aggressively breed the less broody (maternal) gals. The reason being that it’s much easier to get eggs from gals who don’t sit on em, and from gals who really couldn’t care less. Rather than setting and being all broody, wasting time and hoarding the inventory, they just go on eating, laying, eating laying… And that’s what a consumer-based, commercial world demands of these gals. Kinda sad, I think. When I first heard that finding truly broody hens these days was not such an easy thing, I felt my heart sink. How sad! Can you imagine? Chickens bred to do nothing but ‘make product’, and their procreation depending entirely upon the intervention of man – and on man’s own schedule! Ich. So seeing this gal – and seeing how tireless her post (she’s been there each and every time I’ve been to the coop the past three days) my heart and hopes are lifted. Good girl.

However, it’s much too cold right now to be raising up a new flock – so I must intervene. This morning I held her head in my right hand while I retrieved some eight, toasty warm eggs with my left. She’s such a good mother, and I just hate to do this to her. She had piled up all the hay and wood chips in a cup-like shape, making a nest as snug and warm as possible. Oh dear, I really do feel bad. She’s clearly upset about my removing her future babies, and it bothers me to know she’s feeling so distraught. I try to convey to her with my heart that there will be plenty of time for this in the spring. That warmer weather is coming, and one day, universe willing, she will have her babies. Yet ultimately, a few years down the line, they’ll either end up in the freezer – or in the fox. Sounds kinda sad, yeah, I know. But that’s just the way it goes. At least everyone here has a full, rich and natural life – as fine a life as any animal could want.

And so on it goes… for both fox and hen.

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The view from my kitchen window early morning

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Fox tracks coming in from the woods…

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and up through the model T tracks towards the coop…

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My beloved flock (Austin above at left)

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Happy, hungry hens

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The broody gal takes a water break

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… and returns to her post

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A bird’s eye view of a top row nesting box

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The fox uses the long driveway to make her exit… See you soon, you sly fox!