The Hillhouse

The Journey of a Mother and Son

Setback July 15, 2014

Today I’m just exhausted. Yesterday I found out that my emergency water jugs had been leaking on the floor of my mudroom and required some immediate attention –  the sub floor there is the only floor there and it was getting soft and spongey. I dried it out the best I could, then at midnight began to paint. I’d been moving boxes and crap and dealing with stuff all day long and was fired up to get it done. Shortly before this project began, I got a phone call from Sherry, the one person on the planet with whom I’ve been friends with the longest. She called to tell me that our childhood pal Joey had died. We knew it was coming, I’d seen him this past Christmastime and he looked positively ancient. He suffered from a couple of fast-moving cancers and we knew he wasn’t going to be around much longer. So it didn’t shock me, but it did move me deeply. A heavy, sad weight hung in my gut all night long as I digested the news.

How crazy it is that one moment you can be feeling such joy, hope and new glimmers of healthy progress, and yet a moment later you can be consumed by total loss, total fear, total sorrow? I had driven out earlier that day to find a newly painted orange circle marking the post which described my property’s edge. Unfortunately, it was smack in the middle of my driveway. A silent marker that screamed ‘We’re coming for you’ by the new owners of neighboring lot. Well, maybe that wasn’t the specific message per se, but certainly there was an implied warning: Things are about to change. Don’t say we didn’t tell you so.

I called the town zoning guy again today, and in spite of having had several conversations with local residents who all seemed to agree one ‘needed once full acre’ upon which to build – and in spite of his not having denied that assertion at our meeting last week – he told me that wasn’t the case. That if a lot had been described as such before the current zoning laws – then it was fine. All they needed was to make sure the building was setback far enough from the lines – so of course, the smaller the lot, the greater that challenge. But apparently, they’ve got their setbacks met, as the newly planted stakes and red nylon tape will show.

I lost another hen this week too. Dear old Dinah – plucky gal she was, a beautiful glossy black and the first to peck at anything that moved. Like Madeline and Thumbs Up she had a fully loaded and very discernible personality. I swear I don’t know how I’ll take it if Thumbs Up gets it too. Even after watching three absolutely adorable baby raccoons eat up all the bird food (and enjoy the bird bath too) over at mom’s, I still understood that I had a task before me that I had to commit to, regardless of the conflict it created in me. They were cute, but they were predators. The battle wasn’t over.

In Vietnam-like humidity and heat I re-baited the traps, two humane, one designed to kill. Sweat dripped off of my forehead and deer flies paid no attention to the Deep Woods Off that I’d soaked my clothes in. It was a very unpleasant experience. I’m not a woodswoman, not an overtly outdoorsy person, but this was my job to take care of. Emboldened by my small successes, and now hip to how cleverly those raccoons have evaded my traps, I now came up with a more secure method of setting the traps. I tied food in cheesecloth and secured it deep inside the bumane trap with wire to prevent them from making off with it as they had several times in the past. I staked the cages to the ground, I covered the lethal trap more carefully and dripped the remains of the cat food can into the hole. A quick check this morning showed nothing, and I won’t be able to rest well until I see at least three more gone.

Even though it’s my goal, oh how I dread the squeal in the middle of the night telling me the conibear trap has finally snapped… In an effort to release the second raccoon I caught in this trap from his extended death and suffering, adrenaline and compassion helped me to leave my bed, find my boots and sledgehammer, make my way into a dark and rainy night and finally whack him in the head. I cannot convey how wrong this felt, even when its goal was to help, not hurt. But these are strong creatures, and even after four heavy hits (he uttered the most horrific shriek at each one, God forgive me) he wouldn’t die. Instead, he seemed to regain his composure afterwards and relaxed into a slow, rhythmic breathing, which I matched, breath for breath, waiting for the final one. After some five minutes he was still going, and so I said a prayer, asked his forgiveness, and went back inside.

I’ve killed only two raccoons, and it seems there are still another five out there. How long will this go on? I hate living like this – it’s like I make a small advance, and then there’s another setback. I get my house in order, then discover the floor is failing, my son is having a great vacation with his father, then he calls me last night from the doctor’s office, his third day into a high fever. I was beginning to feel hopeful and lighter recently, now all this. And now I have to steady myself for a possible drama with the new developers. I can neither afford to litigate nor to rebuild a driveway. I am in a strange, dreamlike state at the moment. Kind of a low-grade state of dread, which I’m trying to mitigate as best I can by reminding myself that everything happens as it should.

The other night Andrew got raging drunk again, told mom to ‘fuck off’ at some perceived injustice she’d helped mount against him, and then sped off in his car, absolutely poised to kill himself and easily take someone out with him. Tough love won’t come through here; whenever I call mom and my brother’s in the room with her, her voice is clipped and her words brief. It’s as if she’s being watched, censored, threatened. “Is Andrew there?” I’ll ask. She’ll always answer quietly, “Yes”. Yesterday, as I was meeting with an HVAC guy, Andrew barged in and told me my car was in his way. I moved it, and immediately he got in and screeched away again, clearly showing me once again that I had every benefit in life, and that he suffered in this world all because of me. That’s the story he always tells his few friends, Martha and mom. He won’t tell me as much though – because of course he won’t even speak a word to me – so driving off at top speed is the only way he can convey to me what a bitch he thinks I am. And how privileged my life is. If only.

The Buddha plaque I rescued from the used clothing bin the other day is now clean and painted, mono chromatically the same shade as the wall on which it hangs, and he reminds me that I cannot attach myself to outcomes. I must go with what is. I know this, and sometimes it makes me want to put my goddam fist through a wall in protest, but I know it wouldn’t accomplish much. Not only am I faced with acceptance, but now find my ego must withdraw from its zone of comfort as I begin a conversation with the very people to whom I gave a piece of my mind not four days earlier. I must negotiate with the people with whom I have already expressed my disappointment in hopes that they’ll show mercy on me. Ich. I feel as if I’m going through an accelerated life course on ‘growing up and dealing with shit’ these days.

A couple of health issues have appeared too recently, nothing crazy alarming, but it may require surgical assistance. So ok, universe, what in hell am I supposed to learn from all of this? It’s so tempting to feel sorry for myself, but I remember the potential ahead. The Studio is in week two of classes, and if we can just keep moving forward in baby steps like this, then maybe we’ll get somewhere good and happy in the end.

But again, I must remind myself: there is no end. Never a point of happy conclusion. Two steps forward, one to the side, and then a couple more in an altogether unforseen direction. In truth I know it’s about the journey – not the coveted, illusive ‘destination’. So I try to enjoy the circuitous route. And for the most part I enjoy the trip, even with some of its detours, because I know they all serve some purpose, whether immediately apparent or not. And I also know that progress doesn’t necessarily mean forward movement, or even positive, welcome movement. After all, cancer is progress too. Life doesn’t assign good or bad to the continued movement and change. It simply is what it is. As bitchy as I’m tempted to get with all of this self-administered spiritual assistance, I know it’s all true. Even though it would be so much easier to just get really pissed off about everything (I may yet have a private pity party), it’s helpful to remind myself of this stuff over and over again.

I also have to remind myself that most forward movement usually involves a couple of setbacks along the way.

IMG_8794At mom’s, just one property away, these three young raccoons feel totally safe coming out in daylight. Makes me very nervous. The raccoons have taken hens right out from under my nose in the afternoon. There’s no true ‘safe’ time now.

IMG_8790Apparently, the corn isn’t enough to satisfy them.

IMG_8802Adorable, innocent creatures of God that have as much of a right to live as any other creature – or enemy and thief that must be killed and stopped from making progress? Enigmatically, the answer is: both.

IMG_8749Here it is…

IMG_8750…the eye of the storm.

IMG_8881This guy reminds me to keep my cool even when things begin to heat up… I’m just not sure he’d be down with my killing raccoons. He was a pretty peaceful fellow. Oh the dilemmas that life here on earth presents us with. The duality of it all sure can be exhausting sometimes.

 

 

Small September 8, 2013

Man, do I feel small right now. As in tiny. Really tiny.

Like you, I do realize that everyone is equally significant in the world. Yeah, I know that each one of us is unique, and no matter how small our own roles may seem here on Earth, our job – to simply be, as we are – is just as important as anyone else’s who lives here too – regardless of their station, status and wealth. So if I get that – if I truly believe that each one of us has our thing, that each one of us is doing exactly what we should be doing simply by being – then why do I feel so tiny and irrelevant right now? Why do I feel I’m somehow not doing what I should be doing? Well, there is something helping me to feel this way… I can’t say my mood is a total surprise.

The likely culprit would be last Spring’s issue of Time magazine in which they present the 100 most influential people on the planet in 2013. Picked it up innocently enough at a friend’s house, and before long was fully immersed and eager to read the whole thing. Bursting with short articles, supportive blurbs, visually loaded charts and cute, cartoony diagrams that helped one get a clearer visualization of just how influential these folks were – it was hard to ignore the growing sense of my own non-accomplishment as I compared my virtually non-existent numbers to theirs. Of course I was comparing apples to oranges. And of course I had, at the point of having read the entire edition cover-to-cover, forgotten completely the aforementioned philosophy at the top of this page…. My process went from experiencing awe to feeling bewilderment to a sudden and very unpleasant vision of myself as professional ‘doer-of-not-too-terribly-much-all-that-important’. While I can’t say that the issue wasn’t inspiring on some level, I can easily say that it was deflating on another.

Good spiritual folk advise to be happy for the achievements of our fellow humans. That bearing joyful witness to their accomplishments in turn lifts us up and personally benefits us energetically as well. That to be jealous of their success (which puts out the negative, non-supportive sort of energy that goes with those feelings) will only make our own plight worse. Like shooting ourselves in the foot, emotionally speaking. Furthermore, the positive or negative energy we feel or express also helps to alter the emotional atmosphere of our entire species. Kind of like the way a single drop, while seemingly meaningless on its own, is crucial in creating water. (When explaining to my son why we should vote, I offer that if every drop in the ocean felt as if it had no purpose and it would go elsewhere, then we’d have no oceans. I find that I even have to remind myself of this when election day rolls around.) Yeah, I know all this, and of course it makes sense to at the very least give folks props for their achievements, but I’m behaving like a spoiled child at all this success. I’m utterly lost as to what it is a CEO even does, let alone begin to imagine what it’s like to live with so much money that you simply don’t have to worry about basic needs. We seem to inhabit far different worlds, these influential folks and me.

I recognize the self pity aspect of my reaction. And I don’t let myself completely off the hook. But still, I do allow myself a night of feeling small. Last night the feeling was keen and fresh, but as I’d thought might be the case, in the morning’s light I feel restored, more hopeful about my own intimate prospects, and a bit less insignificant. I am, after all, very important to the people in my family, and I have one young person dependent upon me to advocate for him, to love him. And cook him supper too. ! I see the tiny tooth marks of our resident chipmunk, Gwendolyn, on a freshly picked pear I’d left out overnight, and my heart softens. How tiny we are indeed, in this vast world… but our very homestead itself is a virtual universe, and each one of us has our role to play. I look out at the horizon, the mountains beyond. And it occurs to me that in spite of all the chaos and activity – and success – of my fellow humans, toiling about so madly on this globe – that no matter where on Earth you visit, it is always possible to find the sky. To look out over a yard, or treetops, or even a city, and see the infinite, right there… And you, as its witness, seem to be the only person in it. It seems to exist all for you alone. And truly, it might be correct to assume it does. And that you are the only one. In our world of duality, we are alone, and we are one, all at the same time. We can share in the joy of each others accomplishments (oh, how linked and dependent upon each other we are! Going it on our own would be more dire than the harshest episode of Survivor, I can assure you!) yet we can approach the world as if it were our own, private classroom of potential, and choose to feel that all its resources can be ours if we do things just so….

Well. At least I know this stuff. Living by it, that’s another thing entirely. I don’t always walk my talk for sure. But I get it, and at least that helps me in the wake of my witness to all that off-the-charts (or on-the-charts, I should say) achievement. Yeeps. I’m still a little overwhelmed with the scope of this world. It still makes me nervous, it still challenges my sense of self-worth and meaning. But I acknowledge it, try to improve my outlook just the teensiest bit, and then I try to proceed into my day in as much joy as I can. Because I know, regardless of the numbers in my bank account, that I am an important person in the world. I’ve got my thing, and I’m doing it. I know that I am very influential in my tiny family of two. And to my tiny friend Gwendolyn, I’m very big indeed.

 

Present for Good Night August 30, 2013

I’d come in to Elihu’s room to say goodnight. Although I hadn’t planned on reading to him (the night before I’d read Oscar Wilde’s very amusing “The Canterville Ghost”), I had a feeling there’d be no short goodnight. There almost never is. Elihu always has something on his mind. And tonite, I must say, he surprised me. He was lying on his side in the dark room, facing the wall. ‘You know, I just don’t get it. It seems most people miss the very reason for their lives.’ Huh? I thought. Where is this one going? I put my hand on his shoulder and asked if he could tell me what he meant by that. He responded in a slightly agitated tone. ‘One should always acknowledge the present before moving on to the future’. I waited. Did I just hear him correctly? Elihu often came up with things that had me second guessing what I’d thought I’d heard him saying. ‘What do you mean, honey?’ I asked. ‘I’m not going to repeat it’ he said in frustration. ‘You heard me.’ Ok. He wasn’t in a great mood, but clearly he had something weighing heavy on his mind that he wanted expressed and out before he could sleep. So I waited.

‘Why is everyone so modest?’ he asked, but before I could ask what it was that he meant by that, he continued…. ‘If someone is good at something, then why don’t they just admit it? Why does everyone seem to feel they can’t be successful at something? They’re missing the lessons they’re supposed to learn if they don’t just admit when they succeed!’ He sounded almost angry. Now I was able to ask him to help me understand him better. He went on to explain that he thought that before someone gave up on a hobby or a field of study he should pause first to assess all that he’s learned thus far. He said that he though everyone ‘in this culture’ was always in a hurry to move onto something new. He lamented that people seemed to be hard-pressed to celebrate their accomplishments and enjoy them. He wanted to know why it wasn’t accepted in our culture to admit that you were good at something. He cited this phenom kid banjo player he’d jammed with on the street the other night. Clearly this kid was more than just good. But when Elihu’d told Nathan he was good, Nathan just replied ‘I’m alright’. I offered that it’s never been – as far as I’d known – accepted in polite culture to flat out accept such praise without some degree of modesty. I also explained the idea of false modesty, and how that wasn’t really a great alternative either. ‘I think most people have a hard time admitting when they’re good at something.’ I offered. ‘Maybe the best way to accept a compliment and be polite too is just to say ‘thank you’. That way you’re accepting the truth, you’re enjoying your success, but at the same time you’re not being too full of yourself. I think Nathan will be more comfortable simply saying ‘thanks’ when he’s a bit older.’ Elihu was quiet for a moment. ‘Yeah. Guess saying thank you is the best thing to do.’ More quiet. ‘But I still think it’s very important to acknowledge when you’re good at something. To accept when you’ve done something well. Because if you don’t, you’re missing the lesson.’

Goodnight had become an occasion for pause and reflection to be sure. As we lay there in the dark, just staring up at the glow-in-the-dark stars on his bedroom ceiling, I think we both found a tiny bit of closure to the day. I was lost in my own thoughts, trying to make mental notes in order to recall our conversation later, so that his bedtime wisdom might not be lost, but he was clearly still following the trajectory of his initial musing. ‘Ok, please don’t get mad with me, but can you repeat what it was that you first said just now?’ I asked him. He sighed, but he obliged me: ‘If you don’t acknowledge the present before moving on to the future – you miss the whole point of things. And that’s all I’m going to say.’ I repeated it several times over in my head before leaning in to kiss him. ‘I love you so, Mommy’ he said, looking into my eyes by the dim closet light. We hugged again, tightly, and in my heart I thanked him for choosing me. ‘I really love my present. Don’t you?’ I asked. ‘Yeah. I do.’

I got up to leave the room. As I shut the door I saw him turn to the wall again. He put his arms around his giant stuffed macaw, and he sighed.

Post Script – here’s a link to some video shot this past weekend on Travers Day in Saratoga Spring, NY, of Elihu sitting in with tenor guitarist Jesse Rock and banjo player Nathan Hanna… so much fun!

 

Song of the Spheres January 1, 2012

It was on a New Year’s Day, more than half my life ago, that I heard it. I’ve only told the story a handful of times; I’ve seldom felt that anyone would really believe me. I’ve also never felt brave enough to take the chance that my listeners might think me crazy. In the telling of this story they’d know that I wasn’t entirely legitimate or believable anymore. There was the great possibility that my audience might think that I experienced something entirely in my imagination. Maybe even pity would ensue. “And she seemed so together..”. What still surprises me about this event long ago was that I was in no particular way educated or prepared to receive such an experience; I wasn’t focused on things metaphysical or spiritual nor was I in any special state of mind that day when I set out for a walk in the woods. It was a snow-covered New Years’ Day like any other here in upstate New York.

It was cloudy and gray on that first day of January. That’s always been my favorite kind of weather – I love the mood it sets. Timeless, directionless, calm. It just feels centered, peaceful. We four Conants were in our tiny farmhouse, each doing nothing much out of the ordinary. Without much to occupy myself, I decided to take a walk outside. All my growing up I’d spent hours upon hours in the woods in wintertime. My brother Andrew and I had so much fun as kids playing on the frozen expanses of water that lay in low spots in the forest, breaking the ice like glass and marveling over the beautiful shapes and patterns it made. Today, rather than head out to the low parts of the woods, I thought instead I would head up the hill and explore the woods just beyond the edge of our open yard. There was a stand of many uniform-sized Scotch pines that clustered together in that spot, creating a space in the woods that was unlike all others. Only recently did I learn that the trees had been planted there by the property’s previous owner. That explained the perfect, almost surreal quality to the area.

I’d been walking only a very short time when I arrived at what seemed to be the center of the trees. I drank in the vision; hundreds of pine trees, all the same shape and size, going on in each direction as far as I could see – trunks, straight and black against the snow, me in the middle. Me, nowhere. Me, anywhere. I might even have panicked as to how to get home but for the tracks I left in the snow. I was truly free to feel the essence of what it was to be here, now. The forest was quiet. Not a snap of a twig, not a rustle of a rabbit, nothing. All was softened by a foot of snow. Then, after a few moments of silence, something began to change, almost imperceptibly at first. I may have thought my ears were ringing. I do remember wondering – if only for a split second – if I might not be hearing music coming from the old house. But any wondering vanished as the phenomenon began to grow. Something was happening. I was imagining nothing. I was hearing music. Gorgeous, sophisticated music. This was very real.

I don’t remember feeling scared. I do remember feeling a sense of urgency; I knew this was a rare phenomenon and that I had to understand it as best I could, and as quickly as I could. I would be methodical and identify its elements. First, where was it coming from? I turned in circles, looking out to the branches, hearing the music flowing around me, from above, from below. From everywhere. As soon as I thought I’d found the right direction, and stood facing it, even cupping hands to ears, it would slip somehow, and it then seemed to come from another direction. And I cannot say it changed directions, it was more like it truly seemed to come from each  direction equally. “Ok”, I thought, “Forget that. Just try to concentrate on what kind of music it is.” So I listened a moment more. It was contrapuntal, with several different voices. They were moving toward each other, away from each other, moving in parallel – many lines that wove themselves together in the most organic way. The first thing that came to my mind was Bach. That would have to do for now, I had to identify the instruments. I listened. Bells, clear, pure-toned bells. Yes…. No… As soon as I was satisfied with my answer, the sound morphed. Into voices. Yes, voices. Male? Female? Can’t tell. Both? Yes… No… no, wait… then again, it changed. It became horns. Pure, sine-wavelike tones that seemed to be French horns, no, kind of, but not exactly… I realized that the music was all these things at once. After I’d spent maybe three or four minutes trying to identify its components, I realized that I’d done all I could. All that was left was to simply enjoy it. To soak it in. So I just stood there, marveling. Dumbfounded and yet not. I just stood there, alone, in the music.

Within maybe a minute of having given up my efforts to identify the music, it began to fade. Now I did panic. I remember calling “No! No! Please, don’t leave!”, turning in circles, trying to recapture the source, the moment. I was begging it not to leave, and realized that tears were coming down my face. But it continued to fade, as gently as any sound could ever disappear, and then in a few more seconds, it was gone. And the woods were quiet again. Not a thing felt any different than it had just a few minutes earlier. I’m surprised I wasn’t more shaken up. Rather, I wiped away my tears, collected myself and stood there. Wow. What had just happened? Why had it happened? Did it have something to do with it being New Year’s Day?? I knew it might never make sense to me as long as I lived. But even then, I knew I had been very, very lucky that the music had chosen to come to me. It would just have to be my secret.

I didn’t spend any more time in the woods. I walked down the hill, back to our small house. Without disclosing too much, I thought I’d at least inquire whether Dad had been playing records on his mother’s ancient all-in-one stereo cabinet, as he sometimes does over the Christmas holidays (I can hear him in my mind singing in a bold voice along with the music…”dance then, wherever you may be, I am the Lord of the dance, said He…”) but no. He hadn’t. “Why?” my mom asks, facing the sink, finishing some dishes. “Oh, I thought I heard some music when I was out in the woods.” I answer in the most non-committal way possible. Even if he had been playing records, there’s no way that tiny box could have carried all the way out there… “Maybe you heard something from the Michel’s?” she posits. ‘Forget it’ I thought, and let it drop. I didn’t mention it again to anyone for years.

A few years later, my parents sold their home in Chicago and moved year-round to upstate New York, where they then built their dream home, just up the hill from the small cottage where we’d spent our vacations. Once, after one of my father’s Baroque concerts, a group of friends and musicians enjoyed some food and drink ‘up at the house’ afterward, as was always the tradition. A woman who’d known me all my life, and who in the early years had sung at my father’s music festival was in the group that night. Perhaps because she was a dowser, and unapologetically so, as well as being a church-going woman of gentle character (loved by all who knew her), I felt comfortable enough to tell my story. I remember Ruthie looking at me, with that smile of hers, unsurprised, listening. When I finished, no one but she had anything to say. She pointed out that the house itself stood where those trees once did. Perhaps, she suggested, that the universe may have known of things to come. Hmm. Was that all it was? A heads up? A little nod from spirit that this is an auspicious spot to build a new house? Perhaps it was part of the equation. Don’t know. And ultimately, it doesn’t matter. I was very lucky that day. So I’ll just take it at that.

There is a sad and beautiful song called “The Night We Called It A Day” in which the lyrics mention hearing ‘the song of the spheres’. Sometimes, when I’d sing that line, I’d think to myself that I actually had heard that song. I wondered, had Mr. Adair? Or was he just using it as a poetic lyric? Just how many people had actually heard the ‘song of the spheres?’ Besides – was that what I heard? If so – if that music had been given a name – I must be one of many who’d heard it too. I’ve googled and searched. Never found any account similar to mine. Not until this past summer. I finally met two other people who’d also had their own unique and unexplainable auditory experiences. Made me feel a little better to hear their stories. Validated. Not so crazy, not so alone. That feels good. And I’m getting braver. That feels good too.

Now I’ve told my story. A nice way to start the new year, I think. May we all grow braver in the coming year, ears attentive and hearts wide open.