The Hillhouse

The Journey of a Mother and Son

Time Game April 24, 2014

For a few months now I’ve been toying with the idea of drawing up a timeline for my life. To make a visual representation of it, sort of like a roadmap from the known into the unknown. I’ve been, as regular readers may know, in sort of a sentimental funk recently, and having made a near-complete inventory of my life and its landmarks, as well as having become more familiar with those of my parents and their parents too, it seemed both a sensible and tangible way by which I might begin to better comprehend and really understand what my own finite life might look like. It might seem a strange project; trying to posit the year in which I might possibly die, maybe it might even sound a bit morbid to some. But I think not. I need to get a handle on this mortality thing by whatever means necessary.

I’m not a person who can simply tally things up in my mind with ease. I’m just not great with numbers. In math class, word problems had me wanting to chuck the book over my shoulder like the characters in a Peanuts cartoon, and if anyone ever asks me to count change back, it takes me a minute to wipe the glassy look from my eyes before I can get down to business. I’m hard-pressed to tell you how old I’ll be in thus-and-such year, because I was born in a ‘3’ year, which prevents sums from rounding to a tidy 5 or 10. (Yes, I could simply take away three or add seven – but this is precisely the kind of stuff that rattles me.) I do know that my son is 40 years younger than me (minus 9 days, but who’s counting?) so thankfully I always know where he and I stand with respect to each others ages. But exactly how old will I be in 2045? That just sounds so Jetsons-ahead that I cannot begin to comprehend it. It makes me think of my dear old father. How in hell must he have felt to hear that it was the year 2013? Dementia aside, anything past the year 2000 – even for middle-agers like me – always felt like some far-off futuristic land into which we would never enter in our lifetimes. Even though we knew that in all likelihood, we would. I don’t know about you, but ten mintues to midnight on New Year’s Eve, 1999, I still didn’t really believe where we were. (I had the honor of counting down the new year to a very high-brow and refined crowd at a tony downtown Chicago restaurant; the smattering of muffled applause at the event was a bit underwhelming after all the hoopla working up to it. Woo hoo.) So imagine a cat who was born in the 1920s finding his daughter informing him ‘Dad, it’s the year twothousand thirteen‘…. How crazy must that have sounded? How does a fellow who’s losing his memory deal with that unlikely-sounding date? Myself, I don’t want to be caught off guard. And so this morning I made myself a map.

At this point in our futuristic present, I suppose there’s probably an app for making such a timeline. (If there isn’t, you’re welcome.) And given the enormity of this world, I must remind myself that the chances are pretty great that something like it has been done before. (I remember thinking at dad’s ‘living wake’ how novel that was – but I didn’t kid myself to think we had been the only ones to do so. Anecdotal stories poured in shortly thereafter confirming my suspicion.) I made my timeline by parceling off a hundred and fifty years in five year increments, noting the births of my parents, my birth and my son’s, and then the death of my father. I made a bracket that spanned the eighty-five year lifetime of my dad, and then I took that eighty-five year measurement and used it as a measure for a possible projected lifetime for mom, Elihu and me. It was interesting to see actual dates to represent our potential years of death. Even though my mom is now seventy-nine and likeliest the first of we three to go (I still don’t actually believe my mother will ever die), I’ve still never found myself literally considering how much time she has left. And me, of course, why I’ve always just envisioned my own life trailing vaguely off into the murky and unseen future without ever really coming to any definite conclusion… (Because I too, in my heart of hearts, will never actually die, you see.) Ah, but even though I do in fact understand that I shall be dying one day, I’ve never stopped for even so much as a minute to envision how, where… or when. You can see the insight this exercise provides, right? Now I have number. A target to be mindful of. A bit arbitrary, sure, but much clearer than no idea at all. And my son? Well who in hell ever stops to ponder the time in which one’s own child might leave this earthly plane? Me, apparently. So, you may wonder, what is the data? What do those numbers show?

Well, if we were all to live as long as grandpa, then mom will die in 2021, I’ll die in 2048, and Elihu in 2088. Man, that last year just sounds off-the-hook wrong. Two-thousand eightyeight? That sure seems far-off. But aside from the shock of seeing that distant-seeming year in black and white, I am just a bit stunned at what I now see before me. Damn. Ok, so this may not seem groundbreaking or revelatory; I realize that I can easily just add 85 to anyone’s birthyear and arrive at the posited year of death, but to see it all in a linear form in front of you on paper is something completely different. At least for me. One thing that caught me a bit by surprise was how small the area was in which my father’s and my son’s lives intersected. Dad had this long, full life, but only a tiny portion was shared with his grandson (and to make it ever a bit more heartbreaking, Elihu hardly knew his grandfather as the elegant and eloquent man he once was). And if I pushed the timeline out a bit to encompass the births and deaths of my grandparents, what struck me then was how far apart our generations were. My grandmother had my dad when she was 45, I had Elihu at 40, so already you can see how wide the space becomes. Also, my son was born exactly one hundred years after my maternal grandmother; on both sides we’ve given wide berth between generations. To give it an even more surreal touch, my great-grandfather (dad’s maternal grandpa) served in the Civil War! He was young, 16 or so, when he as a drummer boy lead the troops into battle. (Obviously he came back safe and sound, because here I am.)

But for how much longer am I here? And once again the largest question of all comes to the surface: just what the hell is it that I am supposed to be doing while I’m here?

I’ve suffered with panic attacks since the age of fourteen, and can say that a contributing factor to panic is the sense of this world being too goddam and overwhelmingly big, and me, the experiencer of panic attacks, so goddam small and powerless within that big world. In large part panic attacks are about control – or more accurately, lack of control. It comes from being acutely aware of just how immense the world is, how limitless the options, how daunting the task of finding that one reason you’re here, that one thing that only you can do… My most difficult challenge in life has always been to truly feel that I’m ok at what I’m doing. That I’m not just existing for naught. Spinning my existential wheels, so to speak. I don’t have the tenacity or desire to be truly outstanding at anything, but at least I’d like to be comfortable just being here. I might not set any records, but I still want very much to feel like my tiny life added to the value of the planet. Having never paid much attention to the constant escape of time, I’m all of a sudden feeling a mild level of panic rising inside… is it too late? And if it is too late – for what exactly is it too late?

In my job at the Waldorf School I am blessed to have personal relationships with a great number of children, from first graders to twelfth graders. Having been there for two years now, I can begin to see how it is that children grow from teeny to teenager. I can now look at an eight year old and begin to guess what she’ll look and act like as an eighteen year old. Sitting at the piano looking out at the second grade class, I realize they’ll be freshmen in high school when my own son is a senior. These tiny babies will be lumbering, smelly, adult-sized humans by then. Truly unfathomable for me only a few years ago, before I came to know what it was to have a child of my own grow older, but now, today, I can begin to get it.To truly see it in my mind’s eye. Seeing the process up close like this fuels the fire and once again the nagging question burns; am I too late? What have I not done yet that I need to do before it’s no longer possible? Until only a few years ago, I had all the time in the world and nothing seemed impossible…but not so now. Now I know about things like arthritis and bad knees. The concerns of old people are becoming concerns of my very own, and it’s got me feeling the heat. Now I can finally hear the ticking of the clock…

At the time of this writing I have 2,050 subscribers. I look at the number and no longer think of two thousand and fifty people, instead I think: how old will I be in the year 2050? Now I know. I will be 87. If I make it. And if I do make it, what will I be doing with my life? Will I be doing good work on the planet, or merely existing? To have an end date in mind really does wake one up. It renews a sense of urgency where there was once nothing but exhaustion, frustration and run-of-the-mill complacency. I may still be a bit crabby about being here, I might still feel I have more on my emotional plate than I’m capable of successfully dealing with, but at least now I have a better idea for how much longer I might even have the opportunity to be such things at all. Maybe, with an ending in sight, I’ll find the resolve to get down to business. To write more thank-you cards, smile more at strangers, tell more people how much I appreciate them… And maybe I can find the courage to give myself a list of the things that I’d always thought I might do ‘one day’…. The days ahead may well be fewer than the ones behind. If that isn’t enough motivation to square away the proverbial bucket list, I don’t know what is.

To make life seem a bit easier and a little less daunting, I sometimes like to think of it as a game. You gotta play by a handful of rules, you get to use your natural talents when making your moves, and if you apply a little clever strategy you can accomplish things beyond the ordinary, expected outcomes. I’ve got a modest bag of skills to play with, but more importantly, I have an eye on the clock and I’m ready to play the second half. Ready, I suppose, as I’ll ever be. Yeah, guess it feels like game time now…

Post Script: It’s amazing how quickly my math skills have improved since I linked them to this little age experiment! With each handful of new subscribers I find myself easily computing my corresponding new ‘end age’. It’s motivating, for sure. I’m fairly sure I won’t make it this far (Elihu and I have agreed that 90 feels about right for me – but tell that to me when I’m 90) and at current readership, I’m now 96. Yikes. Goodbye dear world! I enjoyed the ride and learned a lot… hope to see you all again some new day….

 

 

Woman of Oz July 27, 2013

When I write my posts, I sometimes remind myself of the Wizard of Oz. Or rather, the man behind the curtain pulling the levers and speaking into a mic. It’s an interesting feeling to sit in my comfy chair, alone in my room, ‘talking’ into the box on my lap. Feeling quite alone as I do (except for the constant crowing of roosters outside my window), it’s nearly impossible to realize I’m speaking to a group. And yet, luckily for me, I’m still able to do my thing, relatively unaffected by my growing and invisible audience. I had wondered recently if this might become challenging as time went on, but I’m happy to find that I can still tap into that universal mind and enjoy a line free of outside interference. As those who create will know, when things are going good and stuff is just coming to you, that’s a spiritual sweet spot. It’s kinda like getting in a canoe and joining the already moving water. Off you go… The trick here is not only knowing that I’m not exactly alone in my thoughts (nor would I want to be; the point of a blog is to share ideas), but that everyone in my life’s wake is privy to these thoughts and observations. Because of this, there are sometimes repercussions. But this is my life’s art for now, so on I go, broadcasting from my little chair behind the curtain.

Keeping one’s voice the same, without modifying its tone or exaggerating the day’s events when they seem a little too common, these are some of the challenges that face me. Thankfully, they aren’t affecting me at present, nor are they really concerning me. I’m surprised at this. Thought by now things might be getting trickier. You know, running out of ideas, becoming bored with what I already got goin. But I’m alright. My mind rolls up and down all day long as I tend to my outdoor work and I make mental notes to examine things more closely when my work is done. The biggest hitch in all of this is just remembering ideas later on. Guess that’s why writers take notes. I have a dry erase board in the kitchen, and a small pad in the car. If I’m lucky I’ll be near enough to one or the other that I’ll get something down in time. And while it aint Alzheimer’s yet, I forget far more than actually occurs to me – and this has me wondering sometimes if it’s not a foreshadowing of the fate awaiting me. But I’ll no doubt write about that chapter too when it descends on me. Cuz no matter how my aged years present themselves, whether it be memory loss or the inability to get around (hopefully neither!), that will be an entirely new adventure that will bring with it its own observations. And as long as I’m able to write, I’ll probably be letting you know exactly how I feel about things.

It seems that from the observations and ruminations I’ve published through these last few and difficult years, I have actually concluded the makings of what might be my first book. In this particular moment, my life has come to something of a stopping – and starting – point. Divorced, the ex married off, small farm chugging away, son just about in his pre-teen years… All of that, plus a recent little explosion of reaction to the blog on Facebook, and I think things are fairly tidily wrapped up. A period has been placed at the end of a long sentence. Life is by no means a static thing, and I am still grappling with some of the same challenges, but I feel a bit more confident these days, thanks to the most supportive readers and loving friends a gal could have. It strikes me as a bit ironic that at the ‘dreaded’ age of 50 my life is beginning again! I feel possibility now. As I watch the new garden outside my door begin to take shape and become real – all from the birth of my simple imaginings – so too I feel the birth of whole new future taking shape. I feel a little relief with the onset of this new chapter, too. A friend had suggested to me recently that this was the start of Elizabeth 2.0. I really like that. Nice way to welcome the new into my life, in all the forms it may yet assume. And with that, I’m think I’m done for now. Off to work in the garden. Pay no attention to the woman behind the curtain! The great Oz has spoken…

 

Dream Tears May 10, 2013

Guess I’m still workin it out. Every now and again I’ll wake up in the night, racked with sobbing. It’s the physicality of it that wakes me, and I always stop and spend a few minutes trying to piece together the events of the dream that led up to it. In the ‘beginning’, that is to say within the first few months of my ex’s news, I’d find myself waking in tears several times a week. In the years that followed, it only happened every other month or so. This past year it’s happened only a handful of times, so even in my groggy state I was rather surprised at it. Even more surprised to remember the situation surrounding it. Last night was a brand new theme; usually it was me begging him not to go, or being surprised once again at his news, but this time it was quite the opposite; I had just told Fareed I couldn’t marry him. Everything was in place for our ‘second’ marriage; somehow he’d left the anonymous other woman he’d been with, somehow things were all set to begin again. His uncle had even come to my house to discuss some plans… But I couldn’t. I remember it being the hardest decision I had ever made. In some ways I could think of no greater relief than to be reunited with this person with whom I’d shared so many years of my life. His company was agreeable, he was an intelligent person, we shared a common knowledge of things musical; there were a lot of reasons to make him the simple, easy answer for a life partner. But something in me knew, and finally I had the balls to face it. And in the eleventh hour, I informed him, his parents (and his uncle), that I was not going forward with the plans. This dream was long and involved, and as I lay there trying to calm my breathing, reconstructing the events of the dream, I surprised myself at the number of details I was able to recall. Fascinating. I had been the one to end things this time, not him. Guess deep down I needed to reclaim the power I must have felt I lost in being the partner ‘left’. The right decision, but a tough one, and it still involved enough conflict to break my heart once again.

A friend suggested on my recent birthday that I look back over my old posts so that I might fully appreciate where I am today. Sometimes – most times, I think – distance from life events is required to formulate perspective on what’s happened. Understanding and insight cannot be rushed, they are organic and need to grow and evolve before their ultimate lesson can be recognized. My friend’s idea was a good and fitting one for such a landmark birthday, and it reminded me of an experience I had back in the beginning of this blog regarding perspective… I recall writing the very first post here, entitled “Snowflakes”, and in it saying something about knowing that things had happened as they were supposed to; that my situation had actually served me well in some ways. Immediately upon writing it, it occurred to me that although I was certain it was true, it didn’t feel true yet. I wondered if I might edit it out – because honestly, my heart hadn’t caught up to the platitude. But some two and a half years later, I finally feel it. Makes me wonder how my current experiences will resonate with the me two years down the line. Funny how some things can’t be rushed. They just need to happen on their own timeline, no matter how much you wish things would hurry up and resolve themselves.

Some five years later, it comforts me to learn that my sleeping self is still tending to its healing. Woulda thought that was all history, a done deal by now. But apparently not. Guess that’s what dreams and tears are for.

 

Mid Century Mama May 5, 2013

Folks that know me – or knew me in the life that preceded this current one – will know me to be a most enthusiastic fan of all things mid century. I cherish the Eames chair in my living room (although I admit it’s a vinyl knockoff – but it’s still gorgeous), and I lament the loss of that stunning, five level ranch home in South Evanston that some may remember from those once-famous Christmas parties. I still have a few mid century things in my life, in fact I’ve created a rather pleasant look in my home here by mixing early American with modern pieces. What I have satisfies my desire for beauty – it still ‘scratches the itch’, as my ex and I used to say. But day after tomorrow, mid century will come to mean something entirely different in my world. Finally, after much ambivalent anticipation I myself will be ‘mid century’. !

Honestly, that’s not a big deal. The bulk of my friends are already past that landmark. I’ve done enough rumination on it to be able to move on. Or have I? Ok. So maybe it is a big deal. There are still a couple of things on my mind at the doorstep of this birthday: I’m alive, many of my dear friends are not. My parents are alive, many of my friend’s parents are not. I’m healthy, many of my friends are not. I have my beloved son with me every day. Many parents do not have their children with them. So – there’s the half-full glass take on it. And that’s my overall, bottom-line assessment of this landmark. However, in the spirit of complete honesty, I feel the need to vent just a teeny bit (I am secure in the knowledge that I am putting a voice to the feelings of many in this forthcoming mini-rant…)

Here goes: Not happy with the funky neck skin (which literally seemed to appear over goddam night just a few months ago), nor the crazy new chin hairs (some white!), nor the now full-time creases around my eyes, nor the deeper lines from my nose to my mouth (when acting in high school  plays I’d pencil in these lines to appear older – the way I look now!), nor the way the arthritis in my hands is causing the joints to become grotesquely oversized, nor the strange way in which the skin on my thighs and butt is more crinkly than seems fitting for my age, nor the way I just can’t lose those last ten pounds, nor the way I now need readers or glasses – no longer can I blow off the glasses when heading out… While not a one of these things came on all at once, and certainly no one thing just up and happened in my fiftieth year specifically, I can say that I didn’t really notice any of this age-related activity in my forty-eighth year. I can honestly say that a whole bunch of stuff really came to the fore just this past year. All of a sudden I had a head of silver when just a year ago it was hardly noticeable. My neck? Just fine and dandy – til recently. I’m sure all these changes happened incrementally, but they seemed to hit a critical mass of sorts this past year. When in my mid forties I still felt I looked pretty good – I didn’t really see what all this crap about aging was about. Didn’t need readers, hell, didn’t really need my glasses so much either. Yeah, physically speaking, my forties were fine (except for a little divorce-related weight gain). But all of a sudden I really feel that I look my age. The jig is up, the charade is over, the cards are on the table. So I’d better quit my bitchin and proceed with a little class and composure. I don’t need to go on and on about the disappointments of growing old when Nora Ephron, bless her soul, so eloquently expressed all of her aging-related predicaments in “I Feel Bad About My Neck”. If you’re a peer of mine or older, read it. She brings such humor and humanity to the experience.

I remember a moment once, when a new awareness washed over me – clarity and perspective came to me in a flash. I can remember being in my bedroom in my beloved Evanston home, looking through the branches of our backyard tree towards the afternoon sun… I was contemplating what it meant to be turning 42… I considered that if I had a life expectancy of 84, that I was now halfway there. That I was, more accurately, on the downslope of my life: I had passed all those years of youth, and before me was nothing but the process of aging… In that moment I realized that I’d had a general sense of hope and expectancy that had been present with me all my life and had been driving me forward… to that next moment of satisfaction, then the next one, and then the next… yet where was the destination? What was that ultimate, one experience that I still ‘hoped’ for? Cold fear grabbed my chest – had I been on a fruitless, vain search for something I’d never find? Or had I already found it – and didn’t know that I’d found it? I’d enjoyed my life – all of it, as best I could, I’d always been aware of my good fortune, and yet, there was always a tiny nudging from inside to move toward something not yet achieved… As endless as the process had always seemed, a certain end was, in fact, coming. To me.

In that moment, I understood – in a way that even evades me now – that I was going to die. Not sure how else to explain it. But I got it for a second. I also got that nothing was to be taken for granted, I got that I was somehow not exempt; that I too, if all went well, would one day be an old woman. That’s mighty hard to truly get when your skin is smooth, your joints flexible, your eyesight perfect… but I got it. For a few moments I think I not only came to know that I was going to be old one day, but in some way I made peace with it. But then life overtook me, vanity returned, the sense of being somehow immune to fate – all of that settled back in and had me forgetting again; living as if things would always be thus. But these days, now that the physical evidence is mounting, I am beginning to learn a little humility. And man, I’m not very good at it. Yet. My aim is to age with humor and dignity. I need to do this well, if for no other reason than as an example for my son. I’ve got to find a way to sink into this new body without that nagging sense of sorrow and loss. I know I enjoyed my youth – I surely did. So I have no regrets – and that should free me up to really embrace this new chapter. It’s liberating not to care so much about the trappings of vanity. I like that my priorities have changed. I’m looking forward to learning things now in a way I never had the time or interest to before. So while I might continue to bitch and moan about stuff, truly I’m coming from the half-full place. Just might not always behave like it. As I’ve said before, it’s a balancing act.

My paternal grandma and my maternal great aunt both lived to be a hundred. So, if I’m to live as long as Bessie or Helen, then I’m right smack in the middle. And I’m ok with that. After all, I’m a mid century mama.

 

Gray Area March 2, 2013

A few months back, I posted a question on Facebook: to color or not to color? I was wondering what the current cultural concensus was about covering up the gray hair. My young son had been hoping that I’d give up coloring my hair for two reasons; first, because of the potentially dangerous chemicals, and second, it was not natural. If my hair was now turning gray, that was how it should be. To Elihu, interfering almost seemed like questioning a divine natural plan. He really wished I’d just leave it be and accept the change… And so for several months I have let it be. I’ve entered into the experiment with an open mind. And after all, winter is a good time to go into chrysalis mode and try things out; grow out hairstyles, lose a few extra pounds, rethink the wardrobe… But each day, when I take a peek into the rear view mirror and see that ever-lightening pate of mine, I wonder. Am I big enough to do this? Am I laid back enough, accepting enough, natural enough? Can my ego handle this, I mean, really? At first I was invigorated – just think how free this will feel! No more roots to stay on top of… my look would be proud, natural, all me… I was beginning to see it… and wouldn’t ya know, there were even folks out there cheering me on! Just not the women.

That Facebook tally? Just about half and half – out of dozens upon dozens of responses, it really was split down the middle. Surprisingly, all the men voted for going gray. And all but just a couple of women voted to keep on coloring. We women just can’t seem to give it up. The thinking is, as best as I can understand, that if we have the means to look younger, and if culture is accepting of our doing so… then why not? Hmm. Well, I guess my kid came up with two good reasons not to. But the more I look at the top of my silvering head in the rear view, the more I falter…  I can understand why the men vote for going gray and the woman don’t; our culture doesn’t really support men dying their hair, so they’re more at peace with the idea of turning gray. (Hell, many of em have to deal with losing all of their hair! Makes going gray seem easy.) When you see a guy whose face says 70 but whose hair is a rich, dark brown – don’t you wonder about him? Don’t you kinda wonder if he thinks it actually looks good? I mean, does he think he’s fooling us? But then again – look at his wife. She’s the same age, and her hair is also an unnaturally dark and even color. But we allow that – and think little of it. Interesting. We’ve definitely got a double standard going. So why would I want to play into this whole charade? Am I really so shallow?? After living with my witchy gray hairs for a few months, I can now answer that question with a definitive ‘yes’.

Another thing about growing out your gray is that it can take a long time. My hair grows terribly slowly, so it might take four years to get to the length it is now. And I really don’t want to wait that long for the ‘complete’ look, nor do I want to cut my hair off. I’ve given this lots of consideration. There have been days when I’ve worn my new gray proudly, but in the end, it aint working for me. There are those for whom the graying process turns into quite a boon, resulting in a gorgeous new look for later in life – but that’s not my story for sure. I am not aging like Emmy Lou Harris here. I had a dear friend who once said that ‘men go gray, but women go silver’, yet despite that gentlemanly thought – and despite my own son today laughing with delight at the way my ‘silver’ hairs sparkled against the dark ones… I’m not feeling it. So I’ve decided that when I’ve lost 15 pounds, I will allow myself the royal treatment; a professional cut and color. And if my wallet can support it – maybe even a blow out. Whoo – gawd that’s gonna feel good. And I’m not a spa kind of gal. Never once in my life had a manicure – never mind a pedicure. Had a massage once, when I was eight months pregnant. No, I don’t spend money on extras like that. But it’s time. I’ll be fifty in May, and my fragile ego needs a good send-off into the second half of the century. A good cut and color should help – and since God apparently means to have me age in the usual way (although I still think there’s been a huge mistake here somewhere), I’m going to need to do what I can to soften the transition. 

So how jive is beauty that is so ill-gotten? Can one have a somewhat manufactured sort of beauty and still maintain one’s integrity? I struggle with this still, but have come upon a few more clues to help me sort it all out… The Waldorf School presents the perfect, supportive environment in which to ‘grow out ones grays’, and yet there are more than a few women there who continue to color – and who make no bones about it, either. We all know that Dolly Parton has been nipping and tucking for years – and has never been anything less that honest about it. And does this woman not have integrity? Good Lord I should say so. Integrity – and wigs, too. That’s a whole ‘nother level altogether.

So I guess I’m feeling better about my decision now. I feel empowered just imagining how I’ll feel with fifteen pounds shed and new, beautiful hair. And quite honestly, I’ve been feeling just about anything but empowered these past few years. I could use a little boost. A little pretty time. So after a good deal of thought on this subject, it’s with great relief that I can now say it’s no longer a gray area for me.

Or is that grey area? Hmm…