The Hillhouse

The Journey of a Mother and Son

The Varieties of 57 May 5, 2021

This past year has been full of extremes, both good and bad. Covid played its part, but there was so much more. And I understand more profoundly today, even as I didn’t just a few months ago, that there will be no letup anytime soon; this life of mine will continue to be a challenging go-round on the globe.

I lost a couple of friends to the virus, and that still feels incredibly surreal. The death of my town’s music store owner still feels like a bad dream from which I’ll awake before long. He had been a treasured friend ever since I moved here from Chicago almost thirteen years ago – and he championed all I endeavored to do at the Studio. He sponsored all of my shows, he lent me gear, offered ideas for programs and strategies to grow the business. We passed hours chatting in the store, talking about everything from music to relationships to parenting. I drive by his place every morning and still blow him a kiss, imagining him downstairs, behind the counter, ready to greet everyone who enters like an old friend… It’s strange how we humans eventually acquiesce to the most unthinkable outcomes. Slowly, it seems I’m growing to realize that he is gone. His death reminds me that life as we knew it is also gone.

This week – this moment, in fact – I am beset with an anxiety that is deeper and more complex than any I’ve yet known. Firstly contributing there are the mundane matters of aging (about which I shall dish shortly), and secondly there is the physiological aspect of my condition which is separate and apart from that. The panic and anxiety is its own thing, I can assure you. (Tonight it is acute, and writing is helping to distract and alleviate the symptoms. At the moment I am struggling to feel ‘in my body’; part of my personal experience with panic is a frightening lightness and separation from my corporeal form which is truly terrifying, and while I have developed some tricks to mitigate it, at the end of the day old-fashioned distraction works best). I am experiencing both concerns at the same time these days, so teasing out which portion of my discomfort is age-dependent and which is involved with panic and depression is not truly possible.

I wish I could tell myself that things will get better, but honestly friends, has not the hill been surmounted? At the age of fifty-seven – and add one more year to the tally on May 7th – is my life not all on the downslope from here on in? From where I sit right now, that appears to be the clear and honest truth. I look at my mother – whose badly deformed hands I have inherited, and whose U-curved spine I’m yet hoping to avoid – and I can’t help but wish it ends long before that becomes my reality. She tosses off passive-aggressive asides under her breath about wishing to ‘shuffle off this mortal coil’ as she struggles to make her way around the kitchen, holding on to the counters like a rock climber. She never comes out and says it directly though; her generation doesn’t do that sort of thing. That I’ve actually heard her expressing feelings aloud is rather unusual, and it further supports my claim that such an aged state of infirmity is no desirable place to be. Yet even as I continue to age, I wonder if there might still be some tiny thrills ahead, despite the changes already underway – perhaps even major insights that might yet enrich my life… I hang on to some hope for all of that, and I’ll certainly put in the effort to that end – but I’m not holding my breath. And please friends, don’t protest. Honestly. The way I feel these days, I’m pretty sure the majority of my life’s sweet spots are behind me now.

It hardly seems I have any right to be in such a condition… Do I not live a fairly rarified life here on this planet? Am I not at the very top of the existential pyramid? Have I not a list of projects I’m eager to do? Do I not have a beautiful home full of beautiful things? Have I not a son who is happy, successful and who loves me? Yes, I have all of these things. But it’s the things that can’t be properly explained, seen or quantified which really do throw a spanner in the works. It’s nothing new, of course; the mental health stuff has been with me, albeit just under the surface, since I was a teenager. I’m great at presenting to the world like everything’s working fine – and in fact, I’m a super-high functioning human being, no false modesty about that here. But no matter how I may appear, my depression and panic are real, and they can make certain patches exceptionally rough for no apparent reason. And the past month or so has been just such a patch.

My state of mind is subject to a few different influences, and I’m fairly sure I know what most of them are. The constant financial stress I live with definitely contributes (my income arrives in $40 doses through a handful of ‘side hustles’. That term taunts me, as there’s nothing ‘side’ about it; it’s my only income. But I agree, I sure do hustle for it). Some of my concerns come of vanity. Some are born of self-pity. Some are related to the despondency I feel over the neglect I show to many old friends with whom I just can’t seem to find the time to communicate. I shouldn’t wish to be forgotten by my friends, but I myself am doing just that with so many people. There are half a dozen folks whom I owe a nice long conversation, and many more who deserve a good catching-up via email, but I’m always just too beat at the end of the day to make any of it happen. And that makes me feel crappy.

There’s also the eye injury. It’s a 24/7 affair. It physically bothers me almost every moment of day of every day. In order to distract myself I learn music. I make videos. I do chores. I walk in nature, I take care of my chickens and my home, I cook for my son, I do errands for homebound friends and caretake for a few elderly neighbors. I do, do, do… The panic and depression which has returned is likely also due in part to the chaotic, frenetic nature of my average day.

The episodes come in waves though, and they’re not always perceptible to me. One morning, a few months ago, I came to the breakfast table feeling deliriously free of that low-grade shitty feeling that cloaks me most of my waking hours – and it felt simply wonderful. The sheer absence of feeling bad was itself so good! When I told Elihu that, he simply responded “Manic much?”. Hm. “Really, is it that bad?” I asked. He told me it was, and reminded me that I’d felt good last week, and that I’d be feeling really bad again soon. I was truly surprised. In that moment I couldn’t remember having felt this kind of relief in ages. “Wait, really? I felt like this just last week?” He told me that he was pretty sure I had. I don’t have much interaction with people save what I carefully select for social media, so who else but Elihu would know? I guess I’ll have to believe him. From where I sit tonight, I pray he’s right. If I’m feeling this bad right now, relief’s gotta come soon, right? Sleep doesn’t even help; I sleep so very little – three, maybe four hours a night – and often wake up mid-way in terror. It’s pretty brutal these days.

And there are all of the physical landmarks which I am fast-reaching (I suppose you could file these under both self-pity and vanity too). A musician whose arthritic fingers have doubled in size in less than a year? A hand that can no longer grasp the wheel of my car before I’m sixty? Dang. Then there is the lost jawline, the strange crinkly texture of my skin in areas of my body that I was sure had a longer life expectancy than this… An alarming loss of word recall, a new stiffness in my hips and hair that has thinned dramatically. What the actual fuck? I thought this shit would hit home in my mid sixties, certainly not before… I put in my time raising my son, turning down dates and saving myself for that sweet spot post-child when I could pick up where I left off, maybe even really enjoy myself a little before things went downhill. And things were looking pretty OK not too long ago; I’d lost seventeen pounds and was working out six days a week – I was feeling and looking good just a couple months ago until I injured myself and then absolutely tanked. I suppose the depression has built up since I fell off the fitness wagon – and I can say most assuredly that working out really helps keep panic attacks at bay. But somehow I’ve lost control of my life again – caretaking for everyone else, and finding no time left for me. It’s quite likely that the lack of control over my life has exacerbated my overall discomfort.

Fifty-seven started ok. The pandemic really didn’t change a thing for me. Errands continued to consume my life. While friends were staying home, ordering meal services and letting their hair grow long I was out doing the shopping and everyday errands for my own camp. By the time May rolled around I was back to business as usual (sans students I should add, and therefore sans any sort of meaningful income), albeit donned in a mask and using sanitizer after every stop. Life only came to a halt for me when I got hit in the eye with a log while attempting to clean up my property in mid-June. That forced my hand. For a couple of weeks the world went on without me as I laid in bed, healing. (At the end of the day I’m lucky. Less than a half an inch toward the center of my eye and I would’ve been blinded. But still, the never-ending discomfort and diminished vision suck. No way around it.)

Then came the adventure with Mr. High School Crush. Ow. That sure went from good to bad really fast. But hindsight and some online study showed him to be a classic misogynist. Knowing that his strange behavior was a real, definable thing was so helpful. The cycle he thrived on was “Idealize, Devalue, Discard”. His MO was to throw a ‘love bomb’ (intense and sudden displays of affection and desire, etc.), get me in close – and then berate me, finally showing himself to be the victor – and me the devalued loser. I still don’t know what caused him to turn on a dime the last time he visited. I asked him, but he never answered. And by not responding he retained the upper hand, so to speak. I had no information to work with, so I couldn’t even counter him, nor could I gain any insight. But frankly, there is no insight to be had; his process requires that he find an offense in order to make himself right, and me wrong. I’m sure he took something I said or did and built it up in his mind to be a major transgression.

In his final text to me he angrily called me ‘self-centered’ and told me that he had revoked my title of ‘Lady’. Sheesh. That’s crazy talk I know, but the even crazier thing is that in my weak emotional states I re-play his words and it brings up the hurt all over again for no good reason. (There does seem to be a little ‘Stockholm Syndrome’ thing going on here.) Once, after it appeared to have ended (on our last parting he had smiled, hugged and kissed me, then driven off, thereafter ceasing any form of communication for many weeks, leaving me to wonder what the hell had happened), I sat at the kitchen island, weeping into my hands. Elihu asked me what was up – and I lamented that I’d thought I’d been falling in love. He very soberly responded “You weren’t falling in love, mom. You were falling in sex.” Thank you, kid. You’re my sage, always. (Um, first sex since the ex. Can you blame a girl?)

And as for the minor rock god? Well, while we had fun (and recorded some music too, although not our best work to be sure), and I’m glad to count him as a new friend, it wasn’t what I might’ve hoped for. We’d already cultivated a playful, flirty vibe, so I’d thought we might’ve enjoyed some good physical chemistry as a result. But he too was mired in his own experience with depression – and his is far, far worse than mine – so the garden wasn’t fertile. We did get physical, but that’s all it was. Whether it was the dulling effect of the meds he was on or his own natural response, he simply did not offer any noticeable emotional connection. I suspect that even if he had been feeling whole and healthy, he and I probably still wouldn’t have had a thing anyhow. But I’ll never know for sure, and that too nags at me when I’m in this low sort of state. Kinda feels like I wasn’t good enough for either of these fellows – not even the one with whom I had music and good humor in common – and that hurts a little bit. And I didn’t even want relationships with them! Just wished for a moment of connection, pleasure and friendship. Seemed so simple, but it turned out be be so elusive. Then again, I was dealing with men who brought their own challenges along with them. I guess the playing fields weren’t exactly level. Shouldn’t bother me all these months later, I know, but it does.

This has past year Elihu has been a senior in high school (whaaaat? Just seeing that in print makes me a bit woozy), so naturally, it’s been a huge year for him. And by association, for me too. Despite his having a 4.3 GPA, being in the 99th percentile with his SATs, having both fluency and literacy in three languages and a list of credentials that is truly hard to fathom, all of the Ivy Leagues passed on him, except for Harvard and Cornell, both which have waitlisted him (we won’t know their decisions for another few weeks). But he was accepted at RPI with generous scholarships, and the appeal of a debt-free degree is strong, so it may even win out over Harvard. The case has been made to us that he can use his undergrad years to kick some academic ass, and then he can do his post-grad studies at a fancy shmancy school. Might be the plan. Still not sure.

Injury, romance, heartbreak, success, failure, stress and hope plus fifty more items somewhere in between. I’d say that’s quite a variety of life experiences. One wonders what can possibly lie ahead. I learned a lot at fifty-seven, let’s hope that I can leverage that new insight and cultivate a really great fifty-eight.

 

Minor/Major April 25, 2021

This morning I took my son to have his first covid vaccine. As he is still 17 and a minor, I was allowed to accompany him. But for his second vaccine in three weeks, I will be made to wait outside.

There really is no way to prepare a mother’s heart for this transition. Of course I’ve known it was coming and have tried as best I can to make peace with the new reality. Come this Wednesday, Elihu will no longer be a minor. No longer will I be the keeper of his medical records, no longer will I be responsible for his money, no longer will I be the recipient of his grades. How very strange indeed. I have been this person’s sole keeper in every way for the entirety of his life – and in just one moment the whole thing comes to a close. Thankfully he is an incredibly responsible person, and he is well-equipped to take the reigns. But me, I’m just not ready to hand them over.

When Elihu was two and a half years old he had a bad case of the flu, and I took him to the emergency room. There was a one-year-old in the waiting room, and Elihu doted on the tiny boy. The child had had an earache and was frantically crying in distress, to which Elihu responded with such tenderness. He cooed to the toddler, helped distract and soothe him. They spent a good fifteen minutes together, and by the time we were called in, Elihu had coaxed the child into a quiet and peaceful state. It was shortly after we got into the car and began to drive home that Elihu spoke his very first sentence. “When I grow up, I want to have a baby, Mama”. I looked in the rear view mirror, stunned at what I’d just heard. I saw him just sitting there, his pacifier returned to his mouth and looking out the window. My tiny boy, such a huge concept. My son had always been different, even at that age I’d known it. This sentence was just the first of many confirmations. He has always been wise beyond his years.

I first knew there was something distinctly different about my son when he was four months old. Aside from being colicky and hard-pressed to sleep without me next to him, I just knew something was not right. I couldn’t put my finger on it, but clues were starting to add up. When I walked him outside in a stroller, he’d close his eyes and slump to the side, but when we’d enter a dark indoor space he’d sit up and open his eyes. He couldn’t open his eyes in the great room of our home, the south wall of which was entirely made of windows, but he came to life in the dark basement playroom. I knew he had an inability to see in bright light, but until he could speak to us, we’d be left to guess about how he experienced his world. One evening I remember nursing and then rocking him, trying unsuccessfully to get him to sleep. And so I held him tightly to me and twisted my torso from side to side, desperate to find the rhythm that would finally take. I remember pulling him away from my chest and looking into his eyes, to find that his pupils were rapidly bouncing up and down. I flushed with adrenaline; had I just done this to him? Had I shaken my baby? A careful inventory of my actions told me that I had not, and yet something had changed. I remember wishing so dearly that I could just know if he was afraid, if he was in discomfort. How, oh how could I make it better?

It was my friendship with the keyboard player in Steppenwolf that became the key to understanding what was ‘wrong’ with Elihu. Years earlier I’d met John Kay, the lead singer and fellow who penned the iconic song “Born to Be Wild”, and I’d known him to have some condition with his eyes that made him colorblind, light-sensitive and also unable to drive (ironic, isn’t it? His song is the anthem for bikers everywhere, and yet John’s never driven a day in his life). As I sat at my desk pondering my son’s situation, I flashed back on this memory and immediately fired off an email to Mike. He responded, confirming my suspicion. And there it was. Without an internet search, without a doctor’s diagnosis. I’d learned that my son had Achromatopsia. Now, finally, I knew.

I’d had some neighbor girls take Elihu to the park, and instantly I felt a deep panic, an intense need to find and hold my baby. Now that I knew, I had to make it better. I ran through the streets until I spied the small clump of kids – Elihu was riding on the shoulders of one of the taller girls, his eyes squinted shut. I grabbed him from her and held him to my chest, shielding his eyes from the daylight. I shall always remember how I felt in that moment; I become a fiercely protective mother, and in that instant I became wholly dedicated to my son’s comfort and ease. In the months that followed I found a low vision doctor in Chicago – who actually specialized in Achromats – and Elihu would soon get his first dark glasses. He would take his first steps outdoors, and our world would become a little less stressful. And even though his father loved him dearly, he did not share my concerns for our son. He wasn’t moved by Elihu’s first steps in daylight, he thought I made too much of Elihu’s light sensitivity, and he would often chastise me for coddling our boy. But I didn’t care. Like I said, my mother’s heart was fierce. Nothing would prevent me from being Elihu’s champion.

There was so much I needed to impart to my son. Ever since he could walk it was my deepest desire to equip him to live as well as possible in this difficult world. My heart longed to give him ease, to give him insight and understanding. There was so much to teach him – where to begin? Folks who know me understand that I’m pretty frank and unedited in my speech. I say what I mean, and I believe for the most part that it’s better to express than to withhold. And that’s the tack I took with my son. If my four-year-old wanted to know how an engine worked, I was going to explain it to him. Seriously. He was going to get the real story, not some dumbed-down explanation meant just for kids. I always spoke to my tiny son as if he was an adult. That’s not to say I didn’t coo to him as a baby, or speak in tender, maternal tones to him – in fact I always spoke to him as gently and lovingly – and respectfully – as possible. I never scolded him as if he were an idiot. I always offered an explanation of actions and consequences, as if he understood. Because if he didn’t yet understand, he would at some point.

How could I teach him about the seasons, the holidays, the traditions of our world? How could I convey the context, the meanings of so many seemingly random cues? And if he saw no color at all, and if indeed the world was hazy and hard to see, how could I teach him to discern things? All of this nagged at me during my son’s childhood. And so I chose to read to him. A lot. (I wish now that I’d kept a list of the dozens upon dozens of books we read. I implore all new parents who might be reading this to keep a log of the tomes you read to your child. In revisiting them you will also revisit shared childhood memories.) Since my son’s vision was not great, and since reading for a good length of time fatigued him, I felt it was best that I take on the job. Every night of his life until he was around ten or eleven I lay next to him and read. Oh the places we went together. The adventures we had. What a huge and full life we had just from our nighttime books alone. This, I think, is in large part why my son turned out to be such a thinker. Having limited vision has also contributed; he has been left to live much of his life inside of his thoughts. While the other kids were watching movies or playing video games, Elihu was identifying birdsongs, inventing melodies of his own or creating lines of poetry.

My mother’s heart had always been heavy with the knowledge that my son would not always be able to join his classmates in so many experiences that most kids consider mundane. Swimming doesn’t work well on account of the bright light that usually accompanies the experience. Moving fast – as in running – is dicey in that Elihu can’t really see things until they’re upon him. When he was smaller the two of us had a system we used while out walking whereby he would minimize the many missteps, falls and scrapes that came of his limited vision. Elihu couldn’t always discern differences in grade, so as we walked together I’d quietly offer “step up” or “flat surface” as we went along. So imagine my surprise when one day at lunchtime my legally blind child whizzed by me on a bike in front of his school! His fifth grade teacher had taught him in just a few periods. I’d always wondered how – or even if – we would tackle this skill. I cried! Oh such gratitude I had for that dear woman! This step was huge. And it opened new doors for my son that I had previously thought would never be options. And can you imagine that my twelfth-grade son has been getting straight As in his phys ed classes? In fact he is even rather aggressive in some sports – but if you’d told me this a few years ago I would not have believed it possible.

Elihu’s father had decided to leave the marriage our son was five. I’d thought that Elihu was too young to grasp the situation, and so when we moved across the country to live in a house next door to his grandparents, I’d thought it wouldn’t be a big deal. He would have everything he needed, lots of nature around, and family too. I always welcomed his father into our home, and have always encouraged their relationship, so he saw his father quite a bit in the early years here at the Hillhouse. (My friends never understood this arrangement; they thought it was wrong to have my ex stay here with us. I thought it was the humane and right thing by way of both dad and son. My comfort could take a back seat for a few days here and there.) I did absolutely everything I could to ensure my son had the best possible childhood. I think I did the best I could with my situation.

However, it became apparent in the first few years post-move, that Elihu had been deeply saddened by the change. I’d thought that if I’d kept up appearances and continued to be of relatively good cheer that it would mitigate any possible negative outcomes. I hadn’t wanted my son to suffer the emotional challenges that other children of divorced parents do. Yet for a while my dear son really was troubled. If I’d expected him to be sensitive to the nuances of life, how was it that I thought he wouldn’t notice this huge life change? A year or so after we moved here I chose to speak to him candidly about the divorce, how it had troubled me too, but how both people needed to be in agreement for marriage to work, and how his father and I were not in agreement. I believe that the truth helped him to understand and make some peace with the situation. It was a really tough experience for both of us, but we got through it by addressing it honestly. Hard a time as it was, it helped us each to grow and become more emotionally resilient.

I needn’t worry about my son now. In fact, I’m tremendously eager for the life that awaits him. He is completely ready to take on absolutely anything. (Recently I apologized – again – for having brought him into this crappy world. I asked him if he might be a bit discouraged about the challenges ahead. “On the contrary,” he answered. “I’m excited. I’m gonna make life my bitch”. !!) Me, I’ve never been particularly good at anything – I don’t enjoy working hard (unless it involves music or writing, then I’m all in), I never did well in school, never had a real day job, never felt like I did things the right or ‘normal’ way. Whatever that may be. However there is one thing I know that I have done very well: I have raised a happy and successful human being. I have given my son love, respect, education, humor and a shit-ton of really good, home-cooked meals. I have spoken to him as a peer. I have held nothing back. There are plenty of books on child-rearing which will tell you I did a lot of things wrong. Most parents would probably frown on my parenting choices. So glad I didn’t listen to all that static.

Such a strange thing that along with my greatest success also comes my greatest challenge: letting it all go. How do I do that? Elihu has been my partner for seventeen long years. Seeing him off into the world is going to be the single hardest thing I’ve ever done in my entire life. But it’s essential for my growth, for his too. It’s a mandatory part of the process. And once I’m past the fear, I know there’s going to be a lot of joy.

Because this next chapter of our lives is going to be huge. Major, in fact.

______________________________________________________________________

An update on the college journey:

With a GPA of 4.3, an extensive lists of personal achievements, fluency in four languages plus some pretty exceptional writing skills, Elihu and I had felt he had a fairly good chance of being accepted at the nation’s top schools, but it proved to be a surprise when he was rejected by all of the places where he applied (save Harvard, more on that shortly).

We both understand that this year is a unique one; with gap year students plus those forced to wait a year due to the pandemic, there are a whole lot more students vying for spots. At the end of the day Elihu has been accepted by RPI (Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York) with a generous scholarship, but in that he attended two summer programs there – and it’s a mere 35 minute drive from home – he’d rather go somewhere new, different and a bit further from home. Plus his interest in liberal arts has really ramped up over the past few years, so he’s been hesitant to commit to a technical school.

He has been put on the Harvard waitlist, and he’s done everything in his power to distinguish himself from the crowd. He’s personally written to every administrator who might have a part in the final decision. Truly, he’s been tenacious. But in an unexpected twist, Elihu has been strongly advised by several mentors not to choose Harvard, even if accepted. They make the point that he will more easily rise to the top in a less demanding school, and that he can attend an Ivy for graduate work if it still appeals. Interesting input, and it will remain under consideration.

How surprising to us that at this late date Elihu still does not know where his future lies. To his credit he’s completely calm about the whole thing. Not much he can do. He’s done his very best, and now it’s just time to let the universe do its thing… Feel free to visit my Facebook page for updates. (We have been told that Harvard will respond with their decision by mid May.)

 

Like Us December 26, 2020

“It’s not easy for people like us” Elihu said, his dark eyes looking directly into mine from across the table.

We were sitting at the tiny island in the kitchen, a place at which we’d shared hundreds – nay, thousands – of conversations over the twelve years in which we’d lived here. The topic this time was how we two have always felt different from just about everyone we’d ever met. Sometimes I jokingly refer to us as being “fully loaded”. What do I mean? What did Elihu mean? At the risk of sounding like a snob, I’ll try my best to explain. Because it is a problem. When it comes to relationships. Friendships, romance – any of it. It’s not always easy being people like us.

Having an awareness of so many things: different cultures, different climates and physical environments, different ways of living in the world, different values, different ways of thinking, of interpreting the world, of celebrating, dressing, eating, making music, dancing, working, playing, relating to others – being deeply and legitimately interested in and somewhat educated about such a huge variety of human experiences can put one in a tricky spot. A place in which you can imagine yourself to feel somewhat at home in all of the experiences yet never truly at home in any of them. Does that make sense? My highly literate and exquisitely expressive son had said it much better than that, but sadly he is not a contributor here, so I’ll have to muddle through this idea as best I can. Basically, we feel that our awareness of the world greatly reduces the number of peers who feel as we do. Sometimes knowing too much puts one in a lonely place.

This came up in the context of discussing colleges. For as long as we can remember, the goal has been MIT. And when we went to visit last year (the only campus we visited!) we felt immediately at home. The place and the people – I believe the word favored here is ‘culture’ – it all felt so good, so natural. We even loved the smell of the old buildings, the crazy-long corridors in the landmark domed building, the music department and its cozy, aged atmosphere. But recently something has begun to nag at Elihu’s thoughts regarding MIT.

At its core, it is a tech school. It is the repository of the mathsiest students in the nation. It is a flagship of science and research. Sure, there’s a music department, sure my kid could minor in linguistics, but at the end of the day it is not a liberal arts school. Everyone is there for tech and science. If you were to take a random sample of ten students, you might not find a one of them participating in the arts. And at this stage in Elihu’s development as a person, while tech is at the heart of his interests, his music has become a huge part of who he is. And so perhaps, just perhaps, it might be a good idea to consider a college culture in which he may find more of his artsy peers.

“Harvard, Yale, Princeton” Elihu listed the options that he was now seriously considering. “Those places are full of people whom I could relate to easily” he said. I was surprised, but I wasn’t. (Secretly my heart leapt at the idea of Yale; my son is named for its founder, Elihu Yale, my father went to school there, and then went on to teach and become the curator of its ancient instrument collection, an institution which resides on Hillhouse Avenue. And I myself was born in New Haven. Are those not all lovely symbols of serendipity?) I’d known that Princeton had a good aeronautical engineering program, as one of Elihu’s mentors had gone to school there, but I wasn’t aware that Harvard or Yale had aeronautical engineering options. I was leery about them being candidates. But Elihu began to get a little excited when talking about these two ivy leaguers. It was new to me, this whole turning of the trajectory; it had always been about aeronautics – languages and music were the sidebars. But my son is a very gifted writer too, and a visual artist of some skill. He is multilingual, he is a poet, a composer, a reader and a thinker, an autodidact. Truly, he is a renaissance man, and it’s of utmost importance that he find his tribe. I feel his plight deeply.

Finding one’s tribe is at the heart of this whole conversation. When you can identify with so many other tribes, how can you find the one in which you should live? Me, I’ve resigned myself to living out my life simply observing – I don’t have many friends in my area, hell I don’t have many friends in any one area of the world these days. Now they are now scattered across the nation, the globe. So I will likely remain here, alone. I’m content to watch the world from my seat here at the Hillhouse. But my son – he needs to find his people. This is no small decision.

I am completely thrilled for the adventure that awaits my son. Thrilled. Yet as the same time, on a purely selfish note, I’m growing anxious about his departure. Our conversations are always rich. We love living side-by-side here surrounded by nature. We enjoy playing music together. We love all things hilarious, and we notice nuance where others often do not. We read aloud to each other. We practice accents and languages together. We think. And we share what we think. In short, we are a deeply connected tribe of two. But this will change so very soon as Elihu finally discovers the correct direction in which to head out and to be on his own.

Soon he will find the path that leads him to his new tribe, that path which will bring him to his new home. And it will be a place with people – like us.

 

One More May 6, 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Vortex March 1, 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tomorrow we march into our future.

 

 

 

 

 

Ushering In December 31, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Crossroads October 2, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

Tenure November 10, 2018


Most posts come to me almost finished. They’ve rolled around in my thoughts over and over again; pre-sleep, in the midst of sleeplessness, and often just after waking. A line here or there comes to the fore, something to hang my thoughts onto, a general framework which gradually etches itself into my memory while I go about the day. A few days of somewhat passive ruminations and I have it. Mostly that’s how a piece of writing comes to me. Mostly. But not always. And definitely not today.

I’d put it off longer if I could. Stalled a few months already – something which is not at all characteristic of me. Cuz I love to write. Folks who know me personally understand how I love to talk – anecdotes, stories, sidebars – the whole thing (no matter who’s doing the talking) is always of keen interest to me. Stories, I got em. And if you get me started, you’ll hear the story til the very end. God bless my little man, my son Elihu – I remember when he was just a wee one, and we’d lie side by side in bed at the end of a day in the dark of his tiny bedroom, and he’d ask me to “tell him a story that really happened”. Oh, I did indeed have stories “that really happened”. Stories the likes of which most mommies probably didn’t. Jumping off the caprail of the H.M.S. Bounty into crazy-deep water, jumping out of a plane (and surprising my jump master with a kiss the on last round before bailing), hosting a radio show (sometimes while nursing that same kid as an infant), playing to packed houses on the road, never knowing a soul there… Leaping from a moving train in Italy after throwing my belongings onto the disappearing platform, hitchhiking in Indonesia. I could go on, but you get the gist. I’ve been a lucky, lucky gal. Lots of stories. Lots of them – until it all wound down to a rather mundane existence in the suburbs north of Chicago. After giving birth to my first, and only child. (Yes, your life changes.)

Shortly after Elihu was born, I was still performing in a couple of bands. I’d worn the rocker chick/jazz chick/hard working musician badges as long as I possibly could; I was on stage performing in an ironic, tongue-in-cheek homage to the 70s when my milk first came in. My poor newborn babe was at home, hungry, waiting for his first real meal, and there I was at a club. Dressed in a red, white and blue patchwork pattern, floor-length dress reminiscent of something from Linda Ronstadt’s wardrobe, I felt it start. My milk-filled breasts had finally let down. I felt two wet spots begin to grow on my chest and I was grateful for the visual distraction of the patterned material. Immediately I recalled how my gut had begun a robust round of Braxton Hicks contractions only a few weeks earlier – when the band I was in soundchecked for a performance of “Jesus Christ Superstar” at the Park West in Chicago. I’d truly thought it was the beginning of my labor and that some 800 paying guests – not to mention the band and cast – were about to be sorely disappointed… Thankfully the painful spasms subsided long enough for me to get through the show. It was close. Up until that moment I’d kinda treated the whole pregnant thing as some sort of amusement – but on that night I was finally made aware of the seriousness of my condition. (I even took on the job knowing the performance was only a handful of days shy of my due date. !! I know, right? I really didn’t get it until then. And that’s the honest truth.)

Yeah, it’s usually the way it goes for me. And I’ll guess, for you too. Who the hell truly understands the real significance and meaning of an experience while smack dab in the middle of it? Few of us. Ok, so there are some moments of clarity, paradigm-shifting events and such, yes. But for the most part, we need hindsight to provide clarity and perspective, and truth. And that’s what I have a whole lot of right now, ten years in. Oh so much has changed in the last ten years of our life here at the Hillhouse. I have learned so much. So much that was once fuzzy is now clear, so much which was unknown is familiar to me now. And to use a writing technique I rather loathe but feel might make my point very well in this case: Oh. So. Much. Has. Changed.

There is no tidy way in which to summarize. I cannot possibly recount a decade of life with all of its drama and joy. Suffice to say, in the ten years since Elihu and I moved here, he and I have visibly aged. When we moved here (to the small white ranch house with a great view we lovingly dubbed “The Hillhouse”) in upstate New York from the suburbs of Chicago, Elihu was 5, and I was 45. He was tiny, and I still looked ‘young-ish’. Now he is taller than me, with a voice an octave lower than mine, and I can no longer hope to pass for forty-something.

There was a blessed island of time – say from his being 6 (and me being 46) and his being 12 (me 52) when all seemed easy, gentle, innocent. Sure, I grumbled under my breath about how hard it was to afford food (then came the food stamp era) and how much time it took to cook the damned stuff (it was only two people, why did it take so much time?) and then there were all those dishes (again, how do two people use so many dishes?) and yet still, in spite of the poverty, the domestic drudgery and even the loneliness of it all, there was a certain unmistakable charm to that time. And even when in the midst of my fresh heartbreak, all the chores and my near-constant grumbling, I had understood that. I knew that one day this time would be in our past. I surely knew it intellectually, but not so much emotionally (that would be the understanding I’m achieving now, in these reflective days).

There were the bathtimes, followed in the earliest years by playing dinosaur on my big kingsized bed – me roaring loudly while tossing the small child up and crashing him down onto the bed to his shrieks of pure delight… Then a few years later (an era which lasted a long, long while, perhaps due in part to my son’s reduced visual acuity) we came to read together each night – or rather I would read aloud to him. He would be lost in his inner visions as I shared along in the adventures. Oh so many books we read. I lament now that we didn’t keep a record on file at the library – I learned only after reading dozens of books that our titles had not been recorded as I hadn’t signed up for that service (all young parents please take note of that!).

Each Spring I read the Burgess Bird Book for Children (a first edition given to us by a dear friend – this tome is over one hundred years old!) and Elihu had a nearly word-for-word recollection of the text – something I’ve come to learn is a byproduct of his low vision. (He told me this past year that he’s informed only about 20% by his vision, with his ears telling him a good 80% about his environment. Even with my knowing his visual situation better than anyone else on the planet, this was still revelatory.) Elihu would correct me when I read something slightly different from the printed text – and many times when a signature, oft-repeated line would arrive, we’d say it slowly together, smiling at the secret joke. I deeply treasured those moments, knowing they wouldn’t last forever, even if it surely felt as if they just might… I loved our evenings reading together, and especially those precious spring seasons when we read from Mr. Burgess’ tender book. In the spring when Elihu was 14 he allowed me to lay down next to him and read a few lines. But it wasn’t the same. I felt it and so did he. The magic window had closed. But I couldn’t bear to leave his side, I couldn’t bear to confirm it aloud or with my actions. Eventually, he asked me to leave, softening it as best he could with a “please”.

Single mother. Used to be, years ago, when I heard the descriptor “single” used before the word “mother” I would think some unkind things. How does a mother end up single? How pathetic is that? And for single mothers with more than one child I just tossed my head and rolled my eyes in disbelief. Idiots. For God’s sake, didn’t you make a plan? What do you mean your husband just left? Why in hell did you allow him to? Yeah, I wasn’t very open minded, tolerant – or experienced. Yet. And although something deep inside me still bristles at the term “single mother” (culturally I may never cleanse myself of thinking it brings low-brow values along with it) I myself have (sometimes even proudly) brandished the title many, many times in order to impress upon folks that it’s just one woman doing the work of two people here. I’ve used the term to help create a clearer picture without going into details. My hope is that folks might understand that I did not ever expect to be in this situation. I use the word “single” to imply I am in the situation, but I didn’t choose it – it chose me. But if they don’t get that bit, or if they end up passing judgement on me, that’s fair. I guess I have it coming to me. Once, when Elihu was a wee one and I was juggling the usual domestic crap (my then husband was on the road most of the time) I lamented over the phone to my mom that I felt like a single mother. She responded “Every mother is a single mother”. Nuff said.

Having just one child, and having no spouse around to accommodate has been a great gift. Raising a child alone offered me great freedom, almost unlimited opportunities. Any adventure that appealed to us we were able to dive into without the baggage of extra people and their stuff. Mom and son is a very portable unit. Everything could be done at a moment’s notice; busking, birdwatching, poultry auctions, a trip to Vermont, a trip to New York City, a walk in the woods, gliding at the airfield, flying a handmade plane in the cemetery. A thousand tiny moments, hundreds of excursions, hundreds of snowbound days indoors side by side, talking, not talking…  Discovering how to draw a wing, how to build a cantilevered shelf into a tower of building blocks, how to articulate passages on the tuba, how to figure out the chords to a melody on the piano, how to nurse a hen with sour crop. Together, Elihu and I have become good at figuring it out. Solving the problem. It’s been a great adventure for both of us. I often say I gave birth to a 50 year old man, cuz this kid’s always had a much deeper understanding of things than anyone I know. Yet he’s been a tiny, adorable child, too. And as a mother I can recall all of these aspects in an instant. Years ago, I was unable to conjure an image of my son taller than me. No matter how hard I tried, I simply could not. Even now, when he appears in my mind’s eye, he’s usually shorter than me. But when I see him, I begin to see the next era. Now I can begin to understand all those things I knew were coming one day, because one day has arrived.

This past May I turned 55. At a glance, not so crazy. But then you realize – 55 is closer to 60 than 50. Wait, what? Come again?? How long have I been in my 50s? Wasn’t I just 45 last year? Give me a minute here…

This becoming 55 really altered my awareness. This was the first year that I could have imagined myself dying. Sure, we never know. I could yet die this week, next month, next spring. Who knows? Although none of us is very good at living as though we were dying – I began to get a bit more motivated this past year. My piano chops were still pretty modest, and I while had long stalled on looking for a local piano single job, indefinitely citing the need for improvement before I could get a gig anywhere, I decided that that shit had to end. There was no longer any time to waste. I decided my timidity was doing me a great disservice; if I had limited time remaining, what in hell did I have to lose? I had enough in my fingers to work. All I had needed was something to dissipate the unnecessary fear. Now I had it. Mortality.

I got in my car and drove to a local golf club and asked to play for the manager. She and her assistant leaned against the tables as they listened. “When can you start?” was the response. Empowered by my first success I knocked on the door of the only restaurant on Broadway that had a piano. The owner let me in and within minutes I was playing and singing for her and her husband. They booked me for that Saturday in March, and I began a steady which had me working all the way through September. Finally. The kid was old enough to be left alone, and I was back out in the world. Finally, I was playing again. Doing what it was that I used to do before this whole kid/divorce/move across the country/raise chickens/start a business adventure began. Phew.

The Studio too has brought me a long way in my personal development. Not a one of us Conants ever thought the scenario through to the far-off future, and it appears that future is now upon us. I myself didn’t really believe (although on some subconscious level I must have known) that running the place would be entirely on me. But it is. And now the main matter at hand is to get the venue inhabited by compelling programs and – the kicker – to see the venue paying for itself. My mother’s been able to patch up the holes, covering the shortfalls and helping with some maintenance, but it cannot remain this way. And it won’t be. A year ago my head was still fully in the motherhood mode; I was making progress with the Studio in fits and starts, and I simply didn’t have time or energy to devote myself to the job as it required. And now that Elihu is 15, things on the domestic front are a lot easier. Hell, I even have my own labor force – and a willing one, too. The kid is so helpful when it comes time to set or strike the room. I’ve given a lot of myself to him and he knows it. My heart is warm and grateful when he returns the service with enthusiasm.

I’m still not enjoying a lot of administrative success – I haven’t assembled a true working board yet (friends, mom and a couple of local artists hold the space for now), and the website is rudimentary and not at all the way I’d like it. I cannot add images in the proper places or align text correctly – the whole thing is a huge frustration. But I know about frustration. This too shall pass. Somehow, I’ll figure it out. In the past year the Studio has lost its power line from the road (thank you dear friends who donated to our power restoration!), been struck by lightning, and we were also sued by a woman who slipped on the ice at – get this – a community drum circle. So nothing really fazes me anymore. Nasty letter from a lawyer? Mech. Sliding door doesn’t slide? Red food dye on the white walls? Table gone missing? Hey. At least the place is still standing. All possibility is yet before us…

My son is in Germany. The last time he was in Germany he was inside of me. Last time I took a trip of any note was when my ex and I went to Germany to perform, and then to Italy to make a baby. Truth to tell, I’ve always felt pretty smug about how it happened. Sure it happens all the time – but I got pregnant on my very first ovulation cycle off of the pill in over a decade. Ha! Fareed and I stayed in a tiny town on Lake Como, in a small family-owned hotel, in room 12, which was the lucky room in which our Evanston friends had stayed, the room in which our friend worked on his book. The room with a view like no other. And 12 happened to be our shared lucky number. The stars were lining up… One afternoon Fareed and I took a walk in the woods on the steep bank of the lake, and we came upon an ancient, moss-covered well. I looked down into the black, and I became aware of a feeling. I knew that there was a tiny new life inside of me. I knew it. I continued on the path under the canopy of pines as if I was floating in a dream. I just knew that things were different now.

Back in Frankfurt I saw a drop of blood, and I was disappointed. How could I possibly have thought it would be this easy to get pregnant? I remember the sounds of the men in the Turkish coffee shop on the street below, the high ceiling of the tiny room where we had spent the night, the sorrow in my chest… In hindsight, I know now that the drop of blood was due to a small cluster of cells embedding themselves into the lining of my uterus. I’ve often said that Elihu’s life began in Italy, but he took up residence in Germany. Funny how life goes… He is loving his time on exchange in the south of the country. He has informed me that he may attend university for free – even as a US citizen! – if he tests in. And that, for my little straight A student, will not be a problem. He loves the slower, gentler pace of life there. It seems his childhood in Greenfield has prepared him well for it. Now fluent in German and without question truly bilingual, his world expands. My eyes fill with tears if I think too hard on it; I am proud, I am in awe, I am in love, and I am sad at the impending separation that college and his life beyond will bring. But it’s all good. It wasn’t all good at the start of this Hillhouse adventure, but it sure is now.

In a couple of days I will fly to Zurich and rejoin my son. We will stay a few days with his host family, I’ll visit his school, meet his teachers and new friends, and I’ll have the opportunity to thank them for their enormous gift of support for my son. We’ll say farewell to our hosts, then take a train to Paris, where we’ll be visiting with both my Godmother and an old friend from Saratoga who now lives there. Finally, we’ll take the train – the famous Chunnel – to London where we will enjoy two very good seats for the musical Hamilton on Thanksgiving eve. We’ll meet up with Elihu’s sister who lives just outside of the city, and then we’ll embark on adventures yet unknown to us at present.

This year marks ten years well-lived here at the Hillhouse. To be sure, we’ve earned our tenure.

 

 

Dear Readers, Elihu has worked so very hard at building aircraft and subsequently documenting their flights – all of his work available for viewing on his YouTube channel entitled “Copterdude”. Indulge me if you will, please, and watch a video or two. And if it’s not a great imposition on your inbox, might you consider subscribing to it? This mother would be deeply grateful.

 

 

 

 

 

Book’s End December 31, 2017

Bald Mountain, the old rooster whom we shall always love and remember.

 

Dear readers, are you still there?

I have never let so much time pass between posts in the past seven and a half years of this blog until now. It seems that finally, life has taken me over. I have experienced so many intense and challenging events this past year that I can hardly believe that it all actually happened. From the predictable (my young son finally growing taller than me in only a few weeks’ time) to the unimaginable (the Studio being struck by lightning) and so very many more things that I cannot hope to recall at this writing.

In January of this year, I, like many of my friends, watched with heartbreak and profound disbelief as our nation’s finest first couple surrendered the office to a narcissistic madman. Facebook blew up, friendships blew apart, and I learned early on that I had too much on my personal plate to lose myself in the fray. What was once a valuable tether to my previous life in Chicago became a drain on my heart every time I visited. When early on – even during the election season – I’d asked my Republican friends to please explain to me how Trump would benefit – and not hurt – the common man, I found myself falling down a rabbit hole. There was no insight to be found, no ground to be shared. I still maintain that the vast majority of people on this goddam globe all seek the same things: safety, health, and the love of family and friends. I can never understand how these simple things have become so micromanaged, and in the process, become so utterly unmanageable.

The single digit temps of last March highlighted for me just how unprepared The Studio was to maintain indoor temps of 65 degrees – let alone a cozy 70 or higher. A huge group had booked the place for a long chunk of time, and they moved in. It was challenging to continue to run our own regular yoga classes alongside this program, but everyone cooperated, and in spite of my utterly freaking out in flat-out fear when I saw that our baseboard heaters and new mini splits were all “going to 11” but the room was hardly improving, the host was kind and forgiving. Again, everyone did what they could, we added space heaters til we blew circuits, tried new configurations until finally the room was livable. But stress, man, talk about stress. Add a good snowfall (as also happened concurrent with the heating issue) and then there’s the plowing situation. That’s its own ball of wax, believe me. It takes finesse to carve out room for 50 cars on the yard – without going over the septic tank! – and in spite of all that space lost to the piles at the property’s perimeter. We got our new guy now. Building the posse, one crisis at a time. !

Then more shit started happening. Quite literally. During a long-term rental of the venue the toilets suddenly stopped flushing. Although the building had only been used seasonally since its construction in 1974, the septic tank had finally reached its limit. Nothing was going down. The timing wasn’t great, and it was a stressful situation, but I knew that the job itself was fairly straightforward and simple. Either locate and clear a blockage (hoped for) or learn that the tank needed pumping (oh no, please, no). With no time to lose and a full house expected the following day I had no options but to call the local plumbing company for whatever help they could rustle up at 5:30 in the afternoon. Before long, two ambitious twenty-something plumber’s apprentices arrived and began poking and digging their way across the yard for several hours (at outrageous after-hours rates!) with not a single find. As a last resort tactic, they pulled out these flushable doo-dads which would emit a signal by which they could then be located with a receiver, thus showing us the exact point of the blockage (at that point we were still hoping it was a simple routing job and not a pump out.) Great idea! How clever! How practical! So the guys flushed all their doohickies down the toilets and began to wave their gieger counter thingees over the likely pathways. Not a signal was found. Not a blip, not a squeal, not a nothin. By this time it was getting dark, the mosquitoes were taking over, and there was nothing to do but shelve the mystery for the day.

The mystery continued for a while. To help fill in some missing clues, I pulled out a square, white-framed snapshot of me as a young, bucktoothed girl, standing by my mother’s rock garden which I knew to be above the site of the septic tank. I knew this well because mom would never let anyone forget that this area was NEVER TO BE DRIVEN OVER. The plumbers and I walked off what looked the right amount of paces… and no luck. Finally I got my local pal Al to come out with his bucket excavator, and his plan was to start digging on the spot where I had stood in that photo. Al is a good old local boy. Been in Greenfield his whole life. And he is a lot of other things too: clever, inventive, a pilot, a dog lover, an active, healthy guy – and he’s just plain got a good heart. He remembers coming to our house in the 70s when his grandfather did the stonework for the fireplaces here. I like that Al has those memories. I like that he flies, that Elihu loves flight. I like that he always charges me less than anyone else, and I trust his results without question. So I needn’t have panicked the morning I pulled up early and found Al and his assistant just about finished revealing the mystery tank: it had been buried six feet below grade when it should have rested a mere few inches from the surface. Wow, no one saw that coming. No matter. Live and learn. Forward we go. Tank located, then tank pumped. Job done? Kinda, but not.

Second phase: Open hole in front yard remains so all summer long as local excavators (Al included) are all tied up on jobs that actually pay real money. And it’s not as simple as back filling the hole. Nope. I need to construct a custom sleeve through which the top of the tank can be accessed for future pump outs. I spent hours on the phone with dozens of folks in all sorts of stone yards and metal shops, I learned deep shop talk and came to learn a lot about infrastructure and materials. But all I really wanted at the end of it all was a cheap, durable 4 foot sleeve. Al proposed a solution that sounded too simple. And our dear neighbor Zac took the time to actually make a mold and then pour the perfect concrete sleeve – but Al insisted it would be too heavy. I hated to refuse the custom, artfully made piece, but in the end, after a handful of cancelled showers, weddings and graduation parties (why, oh why did this happen at the height of our rental season??) it was Al’s plastic, 55 gallon drum with the ends cut off that saved the whole operation and allowed us to finally back fill our gaping hole and regain the venue’s dignity. (Toilets all still flushed, but for many it was the hole in the ground that was the deal-breaker. Not for everyone, but some folks were quite unhappy.) Hey. I’m just one person, and I’m always doing my best, but there’s only so much one woman can do. I can’t say my ego isn’t a bit wounded when people get angry that I can’t fix things in time, or that things aren’t as they should ideally be, but after this year I’ve grown thicker skin for sure. I can shake it off. From this chapter I learned that it doesn’t matter if you can’t please em all, so long as you’re doing the best you can with what you have.

Now the lightning strike – that happened somewhere in the middle of the gaping hole chapter. The two projects overlapped, and for a minute there sometime at the height of the summer, I was feeling mightily tried by these incredibly tedious and expensive setbacks. I might have lost all hope but for the fact that I had, during the cold months, lost three dress sizes and was now spending some child-free afternoons at the gorgeous Victoria Pool – sporting the very bathing suit I wore the summer before I got pregnant. Hoo-haw! Who cares if there’s a cesspool in your venue’s yard and the AC units are fried? I was lookin good! Gotta say, the summer – aside from the Studio crap – was magical. An old friend and guitarist invited me to the jazz fest at SPAC – and man it felt so good to hear good music again. Then by some miracle (the miracle is called “one seat only”) I got a front row seat for Earth, Wind and Fire. Mm-hmm. And that particular evening, I had it goin on. Even got backstage and had the privilege of meeting bassist Verdine White. I floated home that night.

While all this was going on, Elihu was becoming, to my heart’s lament, a young man. He is now in high school. The character and quality of his face transformed in a few months’ time, his height and voice, too. He didn’t always like it when during breakfast I’d go to the piano and try to find his new lowest pitch, but now we both run to the piano when we think he’s sounding lower, different. We marvel at this change together, and I am deeply grateful that he still values my input on these changes, physical and social. And it goes without question that he still enjoys my company. But ah, these are the teen years, and I have readied my heart for a while now; when the door clicks shut without a greeting, when silences stretch on and on, when he is off and gone to his workshop as soon as he is home – I let it be. After all, in less than a year Elihu will be studying in Germany for a semester. My work now is to learn how to let go. Elihu will do just fine. The low vision thing worries me, but he’s got technology. And smarts. His profile info on his Instagram account (Copterdude) says simply “aspiring overachiever”.

The Studio has hosted an ongoing high school open mic which has really helped the place to grow in the community. We’ve also hosted dinner concerts, middle school music jams, rock concerts, dances, yoga retreats, yoga classes, art exhibits, and finally we held a holiday brass concert in which Elihu played tuba with a quartet. I was beyond impressed with how they sounded. I’d told Elihu that after this he’d be off the hook – he’d satisfied the deal. He’d learned to play bass and tuba with proficiency, and now he was free to pursue aviation with all of his energy. But man, he just sounded so good. I told him how blown away I was (please, no pun) and it reached him. “Really?” he asked, as if it was hard to believe. I told him that a deal was a deal, but it made we want to weep. “If it makes you feel like that, I won’t quit. I won’t.” My kid is not one to go back on his word, so I’m fairly sure he’ll stay on the low brass path a while longer. I had told him that when you’re talented, you can’t take that shit lightly. Not everyone gets that gift. Another lesson for both of us. Do what you do, and do it with integrity. Yeah, and definitely have some fun while you’re at it.

I suppose I could’ve just summed up this past year by saying 1) infrastructure challenges at the Studio 2) first calendar year of continuous operation 3) kid’s taller than me and 4) kid speaks German and builds aircraft that blow my mind. Yes, it was an amazing year for us both. It’s always tempting at the end of a year to say that a chapter has been definitively closed, when in fact, an arbitrary date certainly, in reality, means no such thing. But it is possible to find demarcations along the way unrelated to any calendar – usually they’re easier to spot with a few years of hindsight – which do seem to signal the end of an era. Many folks have suggested I compile some of the Hillhouse writings into a book (oh so much easier said than done) and I’d always struggled with a time at which this book might close. When would this ‘journey of a mother and son’ actually end? Well, of course, it never truly will. However, the journey of a mother and her young son has ended.

Now I can identify with clarity what the ‘early’ years felt like. When there were no houses in the field, when Elihu and I would go to the coop at night and just sit there, sometimes for an hour, listening to the gentle cooing and gurgling sounds of our flock. The days on our tummies in the violet patch, the Easter Sunday walk to the stone wall in the woods, the out-of-time quality of it all. The this-is-how-it-always-will-be of it all. But even then, even in the midst of that idyllic childhood we were sharing, I began to get my heart ready. Just a year ago my imagination struggled to conjure an image of my son, taller than me. And now here we are. A piano student once asked me why I still had bath toys in the bathroom. I gasped a little, and paused… Some part of me, I suppose, really didn’t quite believe that the bath days weren’t coming back. I was shocked at myself. Shocked at how difficult this change might actually be.

Regular readers may remember our dear, goofy guinea fowl, Austin. He invited the neighborhood children to chase him in circles around the house, flying up to the roof for breaks, shrieking that singularly piercing call that both annoyed and charmed us so. He engaged us, he truly interacted with us, and if you will just believe me here, we have always believed that Austin honestly enjoyed our company. Just three weeks ago, before the snow fell, he and Baldie evaded a Cooper’s hawk attack and were found huddled together in the underbrush. I only found them because Austin responded to my calls and followed me at my heels all the way to the house after I freed them from the thicket. Only a week later he was stricken with some virus or infection (this is what we can now know in hindsight) and his behavior became strange. He spent his nights in the nesting boxes, and Elihu noted that he was no longer the first bird to fly from his perch in the mornings. Then one day, he disappeared. Thinking he’d gone off to die, I made several trips around the property calling for him, crying, calling… It broke my heart to think of him dying in the bitter cold, alone. And then at our Christmas party our neighbor boy Brandon (knowing Austin was missing) ran in and announced that he was back! Yes, he was, but hardly. He was a huddled clump at the bottom stair of the coop, frozen and unable to move. I wrapped him in my arms, so grateful that I finally got to hold him to my heart as I’d longed to, and we got him a cozy setup in the mudroom. He was acting strange; nearly paralyzed. We nursed him through two days. He would accept sips of water and in a flash he appeared to be himself again, but in our hearts we knew. Last Sunday morning we found him dead. Bald Mountain, also in the house due to his inability to hold his own against the drake, he spent a few hours beside his dead pal. He seemed to be waiting. Usually animals sense death, regard it for a moment, then move on. Not Baldie. This was even hard for him.

Now it’s Bald Mountain’s turn. His arthritic legs can no longer support him. In so many ways, his aging process reminds me of my father’s. He has taken to merely moving his food around more than eating it. He needs help to stand or sit, walking is almost impossible. Even grooming himself is a chore. Now he must be propped up otherwise he tumbles on the ground, his feet helplessly sticking out into the air. But when he is nicely settled into his bed, he looks serene enough, doesn’t appear to be in pain (how would we really know? And so I give him a baby aspirin each day just cuz) but as with my own aged father, he can startle or become suddenly agitated for no apparent reason, and then can be calmed relatively quickly to a point where he begins to nod off. I’m trying to keep him alive until Elihu returns from his father’s on Wednesday morning. I try to convey this thought to Baldie. I hope his heart understands me. Yeah, I kinda think he knows. He really is a tough old bird, and he’ll do his best to wait for Elihu. I thought I’d offer him a little inspiration this morning, so I brought a hen inside. The two of them chortled and shimmied side by side and she ended up creating a nest of rags next to him – where she proceeded to hunker down and lay an egg! Ha – a fresh egg right there in the kitchen. This really seemed to please dear Baldie, and if a chicken can experience a good mood, I’m pretty sure he did.

All afternoon I’ve been weepy and deeply, deeply sad. I couldn’t bring myself to clean and tidy as must be done, for each task brought me closer… I stalled, looking at the setting sun through the trees… this time of day seems to make all things so much sadder still… Elihu and I agreed that if he didn’t die on his own, we’d make arrangements. And so on Friday, the 5th, a kind vet from a neighboring town is coming to help us set our dearest Bald Mountain free. I sure hope he finds his buddy Austin to show him around when he gets where he’s goin. I will always have the image in my mind of the two of them, only weeks ago, walking a few paces apart, each one waiting to make sure the other was keeping up. Pals forever. We’ve had both of those dear birds since I began this blog! Elihu has grown up with them both; to him they were as his dogs. Every kid in the area knows (and has feared!) Baldie, as well as all of my piano students – in fact there’s nothing quite like a robust crow to mark the end of your lesson! There’s no need to embellish the story – this rooster ruled the Hillhouse for almost eight years along with his sidekick guinea fowl, and with the loss of these two beloved characters, things here are forever changed.

Our adventure began without warning, we had no idea what we were doing, what we were in for, or how any of it would turn out. There has been so much to worry over, there have been so many obstacles to surmount, so much crap to wade through, and yet it’s all been so much more than worth it. What a wonderful childhood my son has had, what a blessed time it has been for me, alongside him the whole way, and how lucky we were to have known and loved some amazing birds. Dear readers, I think that our book “The Hillhouse; the journey of a mother and young son” (and two very special avian friends) has come to its end.

But remember, with every ending comes a new beginning…

                                                                             Our dear, goofy guinea fowl, Austin.

 

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…