The Hillhouse

The Journey of a Mother and Son

Witching Window February 21, 2017

middle-age-now

It is late, and my son is in his room watching aviation videos. And I am in my room, reading about death. Yeah. That just about sums it up I guess.

It’s not as if my interest in death has come all that recently, but it is only of late that I’ve begun to actively search out books on the subject, and to think of it so much more personally than ever before in my life. My son, however, at thirteen, is about as far from thoughts of death and mortality as any one human could be. His thoughts are consumed by flight, by what makes it possible, by how me might build a craft to fly so successfully himself. He is also about numbers, about math, about language (German mostly, but some Japanese and Vietnamese, too – and French, if you press him), and he is about the tuba parts in the polkas he loves. He is about his birds. He wishes our rooster Bald Mountain goodnight in a sweet little voice that still sounds more boy than young man most of the time. He is only just about to embark on his young adult life. I however, am trying every single day to call up the nerve to say goodbye to my younger years with some small amount of dignity. It’s not as easy as I’d thought it would be, and I’m not going about it with a lot of class. Of this I am sure. For one, I still color my hair. For another, I still think my son actually enjoys my company… Sometimes he still does, but I can feel the curtain of adolescence descending between us, and it reminds me daily that I really do need to start to figure out how the next part of my life will look. How to embrace this growing older thing. Cuz as of this moment, I am still not down with it. Somehow, I still cannot believe it is happening.

After returning from a short but lovely evening of music at Caffe Lena (we heard Golfstrom, a talented group that plays Jewish popular music, mostly European, from around the early part of the last century, to put it succinctly) we retired to our rooms. In chasing a tangential thread from a Facebook post, I came upon the Obamas dancing their very first dance as President and First Lady. The first thought I had was: how young Barack looked. OMG. Truly, he looked like a young man. I have always been keenly aware that he was elected to office shortly after I moved here – and that he and I are very close in age. In fact, until just a few weeks ago, Obama had been president for the entire time we’d lived here in New York. (I remember well the night the counts came in; the sound of the cheering crowds in Saratoga – most likely from Skidmore College – was audible from three miles away. Even individual shouts carried across the forest to reach my ears as I stood, so deeply thrilled and full of hope, on my porch here on top of the hill.) Back then we really did look much younger, Barack and I. Often it throws me for a loop and leaves me in a mild state of panic when I see his head so much grayer, his face etched with such deep lines. As a woman I can play the game a little longer, and dying my hair is one of the main tactics I use. But my face has begun to change, and of course, my neck as well. And try as I might, I can’t ignore it. At every turn a reflection is available to me. At every glimpse my mortality faces me, and leaves me no possible way to pretend that things haven’t changed.

Tonight, in surveying the room I was struck by one thing: these were essentially my peers. And man, they look old. Yes, perhaps, most of them may have been older than me by a couple of years, maybe even a generation ahead, but by and large, they were ‘my age’ – that is to say ‘middle aged’, and the majority of them were gray-haired. A very few of the women had boycotted their changed appearance by dyeing their hair; one woman even had a head of brilliantly bright red hair in a blunt, modern cut. Still, I could tell, she was older than me. So what was the answer? What determines ‘real’ age? Should one not go ahead and present to the world how they felt on the inside? Just how was one to age gracefully and with class? Go with it? Fight it? Deny it with a head of bright red hair – or celebrate it with a head of bright red hair? (My mother-in-law went with fire-engine red hair into her 80s!) My dark hair almost made me feel like a poser in that room of silver. Like a complete fraud. My face told the real story though. The ‘smile’ lines that ran from the corners of my mouth to my nose now created an honest-to-goodness triangle. They weren’t likely to invoke friendly, truth-softening comments like ‘oh  it’s not so bad. No one else notices them the way you do’. No. They were as deep and age-revealing as the facial contours of any other women in that room. I was not a forty-something anymore, for sure. I was whatever the hell it is that comes next, goddammit.

Watching images of the elegant First Couple dancing, my mind wandered, and I began to wonder what it might be like if I’d never left Chicago. Part of me began to happily envision a scene at The Hideout, or the Green Mill perhaps, where certainly I’d see dozens of people I knew – and who were happily my peers. But then I thought again, and realized that most of my clan had grown up too. They no longer spent their weekend nights at alt country clubs or jazz joints – they, like me, were busy shepherding young children into middle school or high school – some might even be seeing theirs off to college. (Few children of my peers are married yet. Some are, but more still are not. And that somehow comforts me. But it won’t last long.) Today’s lively nights of jazz at the Green Mill might themselves prove to have me feeling old and past my prime for similar reasons. My peeps aint there no more. My scene is gone, my day has concluded. That chapter is past. Young folks can party, middle-aged folks are too busy to party, and old folks have the time to party, but the energy? I’m not so sure.

Just today, as we drove home from school after a special delivery of duck eggs (Mrs. Duck is really producing now – perhaps in anticipation of Spring…) Elihu and I both mused on how fast time seemed to be passing these days. I remarked that time didn’t feel so fast when I was a kid. I was surprised that he – a kid himself – also perceived time to be moving faster than ever before. “It’s a provable theory of physics” he told me. He promised that this wasn’t just some new age theory about the speeding up of time – it was a viable, measurable fact. “I’ve been thinking about time a lot these days” he mused from the back seat. “I mean, time is just change. So if time didn’t exist, would nothing change? Or if nothing changed, would time cease to exist?” We batted this idea about for a while, but by the time we were turning into our snow-drifted driveway I’d already decided I really didn’t care either way. Because whether fast or slow, some shit in my life was definitely changing, and quite honestly, I wasn’t a fan.

When I was in my early forties, I remember being caught and successfully reeled in by a made-for-tv commercial in which actor Victoria Principal extolled the brilliant, natural and effortless products in her new skin care line. As prudent a consumer as I had thought myself to be, even after some lengthy internal debates on the subject, I’d finally chosen to buy in. But first, I engaged in a little due diligence, calling the customer service rep to get a little more specific information on their products. How old was I? the woman had asked me. When I told her, I remember hearing her hesitate for a moment. As a woman at the dawn of her fourth decade, she’d advised me not to purchase a particular set of products, because women didn’t usually start to need “that sort of help” until they were in their late forties or even early fifties. Hmm, I’d thought. There was a timetable here that people had agreed on? There were actual landmarks I might look for? There was a timetable that might help me to anticipate – and emotionally prepare for – certain changes? Nobody had ever told me this before! No one had ever gone so far as to break down the aging process into stages. But clearly, some people, somewhere, had agreed on this stuff. (Granted, this was a pre-internet world with less information available to the armchair consumer). It did also occur to me that this particular Guthy-Renker employee might have been a bit too honest for her own job security.!

After my chat with the rep, I ended up buying a few products. I can’t say that a one of them made any noticeable difference in my appearance (however I grew to love the very subtle scent of the lotions which I have not been able to find again, as they were discontinued several years ago) but shortly after that experience I did come upon a ‘miracle’ cream which promised to firm skin as nothing before. This product, I can report, did exactly what it purported to. But at the age of 42 I had no idea what ‘real’ aging skin looked like, and the mild tightening this cream provided was just enough, and under makeup, sometimes it really was like a sprinkling of fairy dust.

About five or so years later, I remembered the product and thought how it might really benefit me in my new state of sinking skin, so I tried it again. But this time, rather than gently pulling my face together in a smooth, tighter version of itself, it pulled my skin together like a bouquet of tiny wrinkled lines, all gathered at the point of the cream’s application. My neck skin bunched in horrible lines where none had even been before; it was a situation made much, much worse. But also, it gave me an idea as to how my neck might look a couple of decades hence. Crap. I’d always thought this shit was for everyone else. Somehow I knew that I was just too cool for that sort of old lady thing to happen to me. That shit was for clueless losers who somehow didn’t care. Or not. Man. Really?

These are the days when things start to change in earnest. No more ‘almost’, no more ‘you look fabulous’ as in you really do look fabulous. Ok, I suppose if you shift your frame of reference from a forty-something mindset to a sixty-something mindset you can say those things and mean it, but if you’re like me, and you’re stuck in your head at 44, unable to fully comprehend that 44 was now a decade ago, then maybe you’re not ready to accept ‘you look good’ means just that, only within the context of a whole new framework.

Oh how I wish we didn’t pretend this stuff doesn’t bother us the way it really does. Mech, I suppose there are some enlightened souls out there for whom this process is interesting, new, fun, exciting and a welcome challenge. It’s a challenge all right, and I am eager to learn how I end up meeting it, but I’d be lying if I said this was a process I was enjoying. Nope. Not so much.

Yesterday I woke up with an unusual sensation: Nothing in my body hurt! I was in a joyful mood all morning because it was the first time in months and months that my pulsing, arthritic fingers and stiff hips weren’t the first things I was aware of upon awakening. I took it as nothing short of a small miracle. Plus it offered enlightenment; not feeling my body all these years until now had actually been a blessed and wonderful thing!! A miracle of sorts unto itself. Ah well, better I suppose to be thankful at this point than never at all. I mean I know what’s happening, and I’m bitching and moaning about it most of the way, but at the end of the day I have it pretty good, aches and pains aside. Yeah. I do. But still…

My young piano students are always talking about how much they can’t wait to be older. They can’t wait to be 8, to be 10, to finally be a teenager. I remind them that older people at some point start to wish they were younger. A crazy kind of predicament. “So what is, from your perspective” I’ll ask them, “the most perfect age to be?” Most have answered from 18 to 23. Which I think is interesting. Yeah, that was a good chapter. But the truly golden chapter? Want my answer? From 25 to 45. Yup. That would be it. And maybe, if I were to commit to one perfect, golden year, it might be 32. Good times. !

I remember in my mid to late forties thinking “Hey, this isn’t so bad! I still look pretty good!” (I hadn’t yet put on the extra 20 pounds I live with now, so factor that in too…) And in truth, I still looked pretty much as I had over the past couple of decades. At least I was recognizable to friends I hadn’t seen in years. And that’s often the main ‘test of time’. We all know the importance of name tags on the gentlemen at our 20th high school reunion. Those poor guys either lose their hair or succumb to the gray. The women, on the other hand, have the culture’s permission to color and highlight their hair, augment its volume or length too; they are encouraged to whiten their teeth, they wear beautiful dresses and use makeup to augment their fading beauty. Men have so few tools with which to make up for what they’ve lost. Men must bear the progress of time in all its daunting honesty. Then may get off easy in so many other ways – but when it comes to aging, most of ’em can’t hide.

Allow me to advise those who are behind me in their progress… The magic years are, in my experience, from the mid 20s to the mid 40s. By 48 or 49 one begins to change, but it’s subtle. As with all organic changes of life, it seems to happen slowly, and the one day you notice something that wasn’t there the day before. This sort of thing seems to happen more and more frequently after 50. Hell, even 50 wasn’t all that bad. But over the following three years shit has just seemed to change in all the wrong ways. All the stories I’d heard uttered from the lips of my ‘older’ friends is now becoming my own personal experience. And this, I think to myself, is likely only the beginning. My chin is strange and saggy, my face looks older for reasons I cannot quite pinpoint, and my so-important fingers are now routinely dropping things and can no longer grip into fists. They throb, they ache, and they do not bend as they did even one month ago. Last night, when I sat at the piano to enjoy the final brisk measures of the Italian Concerto just for fun, I realized that my fingers did not posses the dexterity or strength that they had only before Christmas. My physical abilities had waned in just weeks. Strange, and hard to really understand.

And so another chapter closes, and a new one begins. Mr. Obama does not look older because of the many stresses and challenges over the past eight years of his presidency, no. He looks older because he is older. And I look older now because I am too. It is a hard thing to come to terms with. When I was a singer and presented all those great torch songs from the early part of the last century, I’d often remind my audiences that the topics of love, jealousy and revenge were nothing new or exclusive to this generation. In fact, the only reason we were all here today was because – wait for it – our grandmothers got laid! Maybe it was a little forward, and maybe it made people squirm a bit in their seats, but whatever. It’s true. Every generation is as hip as it gets. And if we live long enough, we then ourselves become no longer hip. Doesn’t mean we don’t remember what it felt like to have all that power –  oh, we do. That’s precisely why it’s so challenging to release the past and so bittersweet to remember it.

Please take this to heart, all my young and beautiful friends: there is an end to it all. Savor the moments as they unfold, for one day your sexy and exciting present will be just a memory from long, long ago. You too will pass through the witching window, and find yourself on the other side, a mere mortal with crepey skin, graying hair and a treasure trove of memories. Know it, but don’t linger too long in the thought. Instead, let it inspire you to take some risks, put yourself out there and grab all the life experiences you can, while you still have the strength to hold on tight.

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Time Neverlasting May 6, 2014

Tomorrow, on the 7th of May, 2014, I will be fifty-one years old. The novelty of turning fifty now past, I find myself wondering how to emotionally approach this very average-sounding, non-landmark of a birthday. It’s interesting to me that although aging is a concept I admittedly have a hard time with, I haven’t invested a lot of energy or thought into it – certainly not the way I did last year’s birthday. And when I do pause for a moment to consider what’s happening here, I feel a bit stuck. I’m getting older, but somehow I’m still not adjusting. Somehow, I still don’t believe it.

This time last year I was twenty-something pounds lighter after a long and successful campaign on the Atkins diet. I passed my fiftieth summer looking and feeling great. I even got to visit Chicago, got to sing in front of some audiences, eat some fabulous food, visit much-missed friends and favorite places… And all while not being two dress sizes too big for me. (Say what you will, I don’t care. You’re right, I am not liberated, modern or emotionally responsible about this; life just feels a whole lot better as a size 10. Sorry, but for me it’s true.) There were some moments in which I felt absolutely glowing and good; positivity and energy radiated from me without effort… It had been some years since I’d felt this way, and I was a bit surprised to notice how familiar a feeling it was – and how not only enjoyable it felt to look and feel good, but how powerful it was too. To have virtually no reservations about how I visually presented to people. I zipped up old favorite dresses and they felt as good as super-hero costumes. But this year, I live in a different body, and the thought most forefront in my mind each day is this: man, I fucking blew it. And once again, I look and feel frumpy. Tossed many of most of my fat clothes last year, and bought a couple new skinny outfits too, which now I simply cannot wear. Crap. Choosing clothes was hard enough, now it’s an extra tricky challenge. Oh dear Lord, whatever have I done to myself? No matter, it is what it is. The question that I’m left with now is this: what do I do next?

Ok, so I’ve quit smoking, I’ve done the fad diet thing, I’ve gone months without a glass of wine, I have myself a brand-spanking new giant tv and a dvd player and all the Richard Simmons workout videos I can ever use. The trick here seems to be to get it all going at the same time. Since being a mother I haven’t ever had my game on like I had in the old days. Almost… but not quite. Like a bump under the rug, one weakness or another shows up in a corner while the rest of the room looks tidy and put together. So the game plan for going forward seems obvious, but daunting: just get plain healthy. It makes sense, really. It would be so much more enjoyable to feel lighter, more flexible, less driven by a jones and more by an organic desire just to be well. I can guess such a world exists, but it may as well be on another planet the way I feel right now. Gotta be honest here, food is the great reward at the end of a long and tiring day. The pure pleasure of sitting down to a tub of hummus and a stack of pita break with my kid when we return home is a highlight of the day. What would replace that? What will I look forward to if I don’t have my snacks, my wine? I have to figure it out, because I can’t eat as I used to, and while I may love my after school snacks, I sure don’t love the new body that came with em. So one goal for the ‘new year’ might be an overall re-tuning of my routines. A more watchful eye on portions and a workout time scheduled into my day just like I’d make time for practicing or teaching. I guess. A healthy, flexible and trim body sure would be a nice birthday present to give myself. And if I plan on going low and slow, it’ll probably take me a year to get my gift ready…

The eighth grade is doing “Tuck Everlasting” for their class play, and I’m playing the music for it. Even though Elihu read the book rather recently himself, and even though it’s something of a kid’s classic, I hadn’t read it myself and wasn’t even sure of the premise. As I sat there today composing little pieces for the interludes between scenes, I learned about its theme of accidental immortality and the frightening repercussions. And then in the midst of pondering my own process of aging and the reservations I still had about it – it hit me: Yes, I actually do want to grow old. Yes, my God, I do. Can you imagine not growing old? Staying just as you are now – forever? I know there’s nothing new to this message, but still. As I sat there, watching the characters talk about living until the end of time… I could feel the terror in it. And I thought of my father and his life, well-lived, perfectly wrapped up, ending with closure and rightness. Why should I fear concluding what is happily finished? I’m not done yet, and have much still to learn, but I can’t bring my experience to a happy ending unless I grow old first. So I guess I kinda need this birthday tomorrow. I remind myself that at least we’re all going at the same speed. And we’re all headed the same place, so I may as well relax and try to enjoy myself along the way.

My mother had a little accident a couple of days ago. Don’t want to say that she had a fall – it sounds like such an old-lady thing to have happen – but that’s exactly what it was. She said it was because she ‘broke her own rule’ about running for the phone. She turned and stepped on her gym bag and fell. The irony was a killer – she’d just gone to the Y to begin working out again after years away (hmm, do I sense a trend?) and had only just placed the bag there. She’d injured herself out of her effort to improve her health. ! (And who was the caller? You guessed it. I do feel kinda guilty about it.) Thankfully, she didn’t go the ultra old-lady route and break a hip, instead she just really whacked her back and kidneys. She’s so sore she thinks that she may even have fractured a rib. I was on the phone with her today as I sat at the piano between classes when the eurythmy teacher came up to me showing surprise on her face –  as I wasn’t supposed to be using my phone inside the school. But when she heard the conversation I was having with mom, she lightened. When I hung up she advised me that it wouldn’t always be like this. Being there for my kid, then for my folks. One day they’ll all be gone, and it’ll be just me again. And then, how did she put it? I’ll be free to work on ‘my own biography’. I added that it was a pity that I’d have to be doing it without benefit of youth. But she just waved her hand in the air and made a face that said ‘nonsense’… She insisted that most women found their most fruitful and enjoyable years to be in their fifties and sixties. Could be. She herself was good evidence of that. She definitely had an idea that I needed to add to the pot.

As my father would struggle across the floor with his cane he’d tell me that he remembered as a boy looking at old men like him and thinking that he’d never be like that… and then he’d laugh and say, ‘but look, here I am!’ I’d chuckle along with him, deep down thinking the very same thing that he once thought as a boy. How self-righteous of me! Ah, but how human. How mortal… Thank goodness there’s an end to it. I like the process of learning things, of doing things, but I also love being able to cross things off the list too. And one day, there’ll be an end to the to-do list that is my life. So for now I’ll just have to throw myself into it, while I’m able, because I think I’m beginning to understand that it won’t last forever.

IMG_2637An abstract image (the most forgiving type) of me, a guinea feather and dad’s wedding ring on the eve of my 51st birthday