The Hillhouse

The Journey of a Mother and Son

Storm of the Eye June 12, 2021

Today my son is a high school graduate, and I am free.

One year ago today I injured my eye, and I have found myself a prisoner of that event ever since. Today, standing in the bright morning sunshine of a fine spring day (floaters still clouding my vision and an ever-present feeling of a foreign object still being in my eye), I find myself wavering between elation and terror at the future ahead. What will describe this new chapter? My opportunity or my injury?

I cannot convey the depth and breadth of our experiences over the past year, for they have been many and mighty. And today, as I sit in a house filled to the brim with the mess of one final week of tumult and year’s end chaos, I panic slightly at the idea that nothing will right itself on its own. All of it rests on me. I realize that my son and I have just concluded, and very successfully so, this era in our lives, so I should take heart. I just need to do this one final time. In the future there will be no such messes, no such disorder. All I have to do is muster the fortitude to do this once more. Somehow, however, this doesn’t seem to make it any easier. This time I don’t know where or how to begin. And so I nibble on the leftovers from last night’s graduation dinner, I pick at the frosting from the cake, I take a sip of the last dregs of a can of Mike’s hard lemonade I found in the door of the fridge. I feed the chickens, refill the suet, make the coffee. I begin a new post. I look over my Facebook feed. I stall.

Inside, the house is a riot of unwashed dishes, half-cut onions, piles of unopened mail, schoolwork and artwork and piles of musical charts to be filed, dirty clothes in heaps in nearly every room, and pair upon pair of muddy shoes, too (how do two people amass such a mess?). Clean laundry that languished too long before I could dry it (and now smells slightly funky) confuses the system in my mudroom and will force me to start the whole shebang all over again. The lawn is knee-high and rife with land mines of fallen branches and rocks that must first be found and marked before the grass can be cut. (And this is five open acres, no small task) The coop looks like a right proper hillbilly homestead with traps set, both humane and lethal, retired kiddie pools, garden tools, a few pumps and pond paraphernalia, a wheel barrow full of plastic junk and two metal grain bins, knocked on their side by the white whale of raccoons (who evades me still), their contents now fermenting and turning rank in the wake of recent rains. All a girl can say is oy.

This day is further loaded, as I think on it. Funny how June 12th used to mean different things in different chapters in my life. In my married years, it was my parents-in-laws’ wedding anniversary. Many years later it became known as the birthday of my former husband’s out of wedlock child, the day that changed everything for Elihu and me. The day that launched us on our voyage here at the Hillhouse. For years I was conflicted about the day: should I curse it or thank it? I certainly cannot curse any child, for his birth is not his own choice. But you can understand that it was a shocking time for me, all those years ago, and were it not for the miraculous way in which our lives turned out, I might still be nursing my wounds over it. I can’t say that June 12th doesn’t bring a bit of reflection. I have never before felt such acute emotional pain as I did on this day, thirteen years ago.

And now, the date has yet another meaning. Another change of plans that I must somehow accept. An injury that I must see as a catalyst to a yet unseen future that awaits, one that otherwise would not have been possible. Thinking back over the past year, I realize that I sought out new experiences as a means of distraction from my discomfort, and I can clearly see what the injury has offered thus far: my first forays into relationships with men since my divorce, a new awareness of physical health and fitness, a bad outcome with a relationship which offered an opportunity for me to step into a better sense of self-worth (the caveat here is that this is, sadly, still a work in progress), and lastly, a host of music performance videos and the small victories that I achieved as I learned how to organize and present myself in a new format. Overall, it’s been a good year. Every time I started to sink into self-pity, I used a new goal to pull myself up and out. Yeah, for the most part it’s worked. Mostly.

As friends and regular readers will know, I tend to indulge in excessive amounts food and alcohol to take the edge off when the shit just feels relentless. But somehow I managed to pull up and out of the habit last summer. I began to see an opening, a time when life would be mine again, and so I wanted to prepare myself, to lean in… I wanted to forget this troublesome eye injury and set my sights on the future… While I did get leaner and became increasingly dedicated to my physical improvement (and really came to look forward to my workouts), I suffered a bad muscle injury, and within weeks of a diminished routine, I fell off the fitness wagon entirely. This in turn had me newly depressed and brought along with it a resurgence of daily episodes with panic attacks. I kept up with the challenges as they arrived, but it was a struggle.

Added to the frenetic pace of Elihu’s final year and all that went on with me personally, stress began to mount… I lost a good portion of my hair inside of a few weeks in late winter (whether due to stress or changing hormones, it’s an alarming experience to say the least), the arthritis in my hands became significantly more advanced in a short amount of time (my doc said it was one of the worst cases of OA he’d ever seen in the hands of someone my age), and I saw a dear friend through a year of health problems which ended in her death two weeks ago. It’s definitely been a trying chapter. So naturally I fell back on the self-soothing mechanisms that I always have. The pendulum began to swing back, and I just let it. Knowing that I was creating a situation that would have consequences down the road, I continued on anyway, savoring the hell out of those carbs which I’d fastidiously ignored since last summer. Watching as one glass of wine with dinner easily turned into a whole bottle. I jumped into the pool, right into the deep end. And so here I am today, treading water, wondering how I’m gonna make it out again. I know I will, but the side of the pool still looks to be a long way off.

Things ebb and flow, and today I’ll just have to take it easy on myself. This day has become a strange landmark in my life, and I should pause to take stock: what does June 12th mean this time around? Might I look at it perhaps as a day of hope? Today is the first day I’m not the full-time mother of a high school student. The first day in which I have nowhere to be, no one to answer to (let’s forget for the moment about the some two thousand emails and two full voicemail accounts which must be gone through on Monday). Today I’m not waiting for the other shoe to drop, it already has. It’s what happens after that which intrigues me, and keeps me from giving up and crying into my hands. How can I give up? My son is about to launch himself into the world – a prospect which is nearly as thrilling for me as it is for him. I have my book to look forward to (yes, friends, I am going to set about the task of editing and formatting content from this blog for a publish-on-demand book) and there is the business of getting healthy and fit again. Lots to do, lots to do.

Once I can get this house in order again, I’ll begin to figure out what this new game’s gonna look like. If I can just hold on to that feeling of hope again, if I can just remember that out of chaos comes order, that a catalyst is necessary for growth, that growth, change and evolution are what this whole silly planet is about…

If I can just get myself there again, it’ll be a perfect storm of possibility, and I’ll be right in the eye of it.

 

Badass Not September 17, 2014

Back in the day, I kinda thought I was a badass. I wasn’t, of course, but I tried hard to convince myself – and many of the people around me – that I was. Inside I was full of self-doubt, but I was still together enough to pretend to the world that I was fine. More than fine. And truthfully, there were moments when did indeed feel strong and confident. Maybe there were some moments when I really was a badass. Good at something in my own way. I think I knew it on some level, yet still, a voice nagged at me… They’ll figure you out one day if you’re not careful…

But for a while, there was something I truly did have going for me. I was in shape. And for a few years there, fitness was my thing. Really my thing. Worked out six days a week, and worked out well, thoughtfully. I’d have women come up to me and ask me for tips, for help with their routines. Back then I hadn’t the life experience to know that a good measure of that fitness was, plain and simple, thanks to youth. And thanks also to a chronic sense that somehow I could just never measure up. And so I made up for it the best ways I could. Being a mini rock star in my small sub-culture, dressing fine, and being on stage – whether I actually was on stage or not. Always fundamentally insecure, always trying to appear that I wasn’t trying. And frankly, the only true barometer I had that showed me I was truly good at something was seeing my hard work paying off in the form of a fit body. So I kept at it.

Until, of course, life took over. My story is not unique, really. Nope. Woman has kid, becomes busy, hell, becomes divorced, poor, run-down by the duties of the post, and, well… Next thing you know a decade’s passed and thirty extra pounds have come to live on your frame. It does sneak up on you. I had no true understanding of how large I’d become until it became necessary, once again, to buy ‘fat clothes’. That, and the observations of my young son that “I really was getting big now”. One can only stall so long. Clearly action was needed. But when I stared down the solution in the face, I wondered how I would approach it. What motivated me then didn’t drive me now. I couldn’t just put on the 80s hair metal cassette and kick some ass… It wasn’t about any of that anymore. How was I going to do this? Sure vanity drives me still, I think all humans share that to some degree, but this time it was more about my quality of life. And the very length of it, too. I’d taken enough of those online tests that determine your ‘actual’ age vs. your ‘age in years’ to know that my prospects weren’t quite as good as I pretended they were. Bad enough I’d smoked all those years. Then there was this inactivity thing on top of it. Ich. Time to move.

At first, I did not want to go to the Y. For one, all I’d ever gone to were women’s gyms. There I was off the hook. Didn’t have to look good for anyone. (Keep in mind, the last time I spent a lot of time working out I was much younger, and my wiring was different than it is now.) And this time, some shadow of that adolescent concern still bothered me. It bothered me for or a day or two. Until I realized that, unlike the me at 25, it honestly wasn’t about my ego anymore. My fitness or lack thereof. And ironically, in some ways, being an overweight, middle-aged woman gave me a new feeling of freedom. Some of it due to the anonymity of my demographic, some of it due to the fact that I don’t care so much anymore how I appear because there are more important things in my life. Course I do care, but also, I don’t. You know, not in the way I once did.

The variety of ages and abilities of the people attending the Y blows my mind. I’ve never before been a part of such a diverse population. Not in my jobs, not in my small, personal world. Not really even on the street. But at the Y – there are ninety year olds and two year olds all doing something. Hell, there are mommies pushing infants in jogging strollers… It’s amazing. Kinda reminds me of the picture books for young children that show all the goings-on of the outside world. Like a Richard Scarry book, or like a Sesame Street short. People of all shapes and colors and ages are there, just doing their thing. Gives me a lot of latitude just to chill and concentrate on doing my own best – and not worrying about looking my best while I’m doing it. I’m still kinda acclimating to the idea of being really sweaty and gross looking in front of, well, everybody, but it is freeing. And while I may not be able to go as low into my squats as the women in my Zumba class (seriously, when did I become this friggin weak??) I know that it’s ok. I don’t have to be a badass anymore. I just have to be. Thank God.

As I’ve passed my first week of routine workouts, I’ve come to notice a couple of things. One, is that my long morning workouts have not served yet to raise my overall energy, instead, I feel like passing out on the drive home. ! This, I hope, will change before long. I remind myself that it’s hardest in the beginning. That I haven’t worked out like this in a decade. (At least one hopes these are sound arguments for hanging in there.) I’ve also come to observe something about the way I move through the world – about the way in which many, likely most folks move in this world: I used to move through this world in spite of my body, now I’m moving through the world because of my body. Simply walking has become a more thoughtful process. And crazy as it might sound, I feel less daunted by it. It feels more familiar. I don’t look for the closest parking space anymore cuz I don’t dread the walk. Ok, so maybe I might not love the walk, but still, it doesn’t feel like quite the burden it did just a week ago. Which is hopeful, because this time, I have a feeling this workout thing might have to become part of my life for the long haul.

And maybe, if I live long enough, and well enough, maybe that’ll give me enough street cred to finally make me a legitimate, card-carrying badass.

 

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Low Gear September 13, 2013

After awaking from a scant five hours of sleep this morning, I wondered how it was that I’d make it through the day. Elihu had a classmate coming home from school with him today, his bass needed to be picked up at the music store, and I desperately needed various necessities, from chicken feed to toilet paper. Plus I still had to put in my shift at school. Man, I didn’t see how I was going to get all of it done. We’d been plowing through our first full week of school and my new schedule in high-energy mode. And now, after last night’s outing at the school, it just seemed that there wasn’t anything left. Yet on came life, to-do lists and playdates, without pause. After putting the kettle on I laid down on the couch and closed my eyes, trying to glean some refreshment from twenty seconds of rest. I took a couple of breaths, then got up to resume the morning.

Elihu had awakened on his own – a surprise to me after all that late-night rabble rousing. (He’d even jumped on the trampoline for another ten minutes after we got home last night in order to ‘get out the last of his energy’. Seems all my energy stays on in whirling eddies of endless thought… Wish I had a mental trampoline to expend all of that before bedtime. Might help with my chronic difficulty sleeping.) This morning he was cheerful and our breakfast was a lovely start to the day. We let the chickens out, got in the car and headed off to school. On the way we passed several neighbors out jogging. We waved to each other as we usually do. A few minutes passed, then Elihu said from the back seat “Mama, I’d like you to be in as good shape as Mr. Stewart.” The sixth grade teacher was known to all the younger kids as being the only grownup who joined the kids in their play – making Thursdays extra special by playing tag with them. I thought about the quick movements, the sprinting involved and did a quick assessment of my current condition. I remembered as a kid, hell, as a young adult even, thinking that only wimps – people who’d lazily given in to age – lost their speed and agility. While I’d never been a particularly fast or agile kid, I was able to move in certain ways that I just don’t think I’m able to right now. “No one’s in as good shape as Mr. Stewart” I retorted, trying to dodge the real issue. I thought about it for a minute. “But I know what you mean. I do. I know, sweetie, I need to move.” A bit more quiet passed, then Elihu suggested “Just walk up to the Brown’s. That’s not far. It won’t seem like a big deal at all. Just do that today.” I did a little scan of my body, of my mental fortitude, and felt I could easily do that to get things going. I agreed. He had his homework each day – not a bad idea that I might have a little challenge on my plate too.

These past few years I’ve been feeling just too overwhelmed and busy to find time to move. I tell myself that my situation is exceptional, that I have every reason not to exercise. And maybe I do. But so too do the other folks that I see jogging down Braim Road. Yeah, in fact they’ve likely got more responsibilities than I do; work loads involving people and paper and rules – stuff that I’ve spent a lifetime deftly avoiding – and they’ve likely got more stress in their lives than I do. Ok, so maybe they’re not single-parenting a young child, but they’ve got other work, other issues. And somehow they make time. Every time I see one of them passing on the road, I have to ignore a tiny voice deep inside that scolds me for not at least trying. So today, as soon as I got home from driving Elihu to school, I went for a walk.

I was grateful for my new hiking boots – they’d give me some needed stability. (I had bought them in anticipation of a long-awaited trek we’d planned for this fall that would involve steep grades and would wind its way to an off-the-trail site deep in the woods known locally as Devil’s Den. Maybe not a big deal to the me of twenty years ago, these days I felt I needed correct footwear before endeavoring to make the hike.) Thankfully, the annoying bugs of summer were mostly gone – in spite of recent tropical heat. It was finally cool out, and sunny too. I simply could not have hoped for a better day. The conditions had stripped me of every excuse. It was time.

I set out, crunching my way down the new driveway. The scent of the woods hit me. I could smell the ferns, the damp of the forest floor, the turning leaves, the cool, ancient stones. The road is always different when you’re moving slow, and I marveled at the things I could see now that I was moving at a walking pace. I found several dead frogs, a few different species of em (and I told them each I was sorry for their tragic end and said a little blessing for them as I passed). I saw a mourning dove on the wire above me. Frightened at my approach, she would fly to a spot only a few feet further down the line to escape. Silly bird, she continued thusly for a good part of my walk. While I sometimes see the crimson males swooping over the road as I drive (strangely, we don’t get cardinals at our feeders) I was happily surprised to see a female cardinal above my head on the wire, flicking her tail. Came upon the now decomposed remains of a porcupine and a raccoon that had both been hit sometime mid summer. They were now mostly skeletons – only quills, whiskers and rubbery noses remained. I gathered up the jawbone and some teeth of the raccoon and put it in my shirt pocket to bring home for Elihu.

While I slowed to notice the creatures in my path, I was always mindful of keeping my pace. And on the way back I began to feel it; the grade in our area is deceptive – hills are gradual and hardly noticeable – especially when you’re going down. But the way back was all a slow increase in grade, and I began to feel it in my body. I felt my muscles warm up, my feet grip the road, my whole body engage to support my progress. I hadn’t felt my body in a long time, and I was surprised to find I was glad of it. The brief walk down the hill to the garden and back up again was the extent to my workout routine these days. This slight increase in grade wasn’t terribly hard, so therefore I was able to give myself to it. To push into it and become aware of my body. It felt good. But would I manage to do this again? Every day even? I decided not to worry about it, but rather be glad that I’d finally done it at all. The driveway was still going uphill. I felt my butt muscles working, my thighs, my arms swung to assist and I swear that even my back got in on the act. Clearly, I was starting all over with this moving thing. Years ago I regularly participated in races – 5Ks and 10Ks – up and down hills far steeper than this… I felt a bit wimpy about celebrating such a thing as walking up my driveway.

But hey, everything has to start small. And to get into high gear, you gotta put in low gear first. So wish me luck.