The Hillhouse

The Journey of a Mother and Son

Small World April 25, 2012

Hello to my friends across the globe! May we all find it within our ability to visit each other some day. WordPress tells me I have readers in the following places… wave if I call your country!

United States, Canada, Egypt, United Kingdom, Indonesia, Brazil, Germany, Ecuador, Ukraine, Slovakia, Australia, Mexico, Malaysia, Peru, Saudi Arabia, Nigeria, Belgium, Czech Republic, Argentina, Israel, Latvia and the Republic of Korea.

Wow. Thanks for joining us in our adventure here in rural, upstate New York. Please say hello on your next visit, whether real or virtual…

 

Joy, Loss and Choices April 23, 2012

Last night we visited Martha to report on Elihu’s first week of Waldorf. She herself was a supporter of his going there, and he was excited to sing “Simple Gifts” to her, as he’d learned it in his class and knew it to be her favorite song. I could now better explain why Martha’s farm had been named “A Place Just Right” from the lyrics of that song. As we turned into her driveway I slowed and pointed out the sign in front of the large farmhouse. He was pleased to now know from where it came. “What are those two clumps underneath the letters?” he asked. I told them they were clusters of grapes, they represented the vines that our friend Mike and Uncle Andrew had been planting in the fields there over the past few years (in anticipation of selling them to New York state winemakers.) We had a sweet visit, which ended with Elihu pooping out and laying on the floor, using hound dog Maisie’s tummy as a pillow. Uncle Andrew showed up to help Martha with her evening routine and after Elihu showed off his rubber band powered helicopter to my brother, we hugged Martha goodbye and set off for home.

It was a later night than we would have liked, as we tacked on a quick visit to my folks before going home and having a late supper. That’s the danger of a leisurely rising on the weekend; it’s a bit harder to get to back to a school night schedule. We were both glad that I’d cooked earlier, because dinner was quick and easy. Then it was off to bed, where we finished our book and then turned out the light.

This morning I awoke earlier than Elihu, and sleepily rose to attend to my chores. I thought since it had been a late night, I’d let him sleep a bit while I went to the cellar to feed and water the chicks. I guess I was too groggy to notice the absence of the now familiar and constant cheeping of the tiny guys, because the first thing I noticed that seemed different from usual was a glob of some unidentifiable substance on the concrete floor. Water? No. Pinkish, but gel-like. What was it? Then my heart stopped. No noise. Nothing. I knew before I even saw the three tiny mangled chicks on the floor what had happened. I’d opened the cellar door the afternoon before to let in some fresh air, but in our late night had forgotten to close it again. I’d remembered to close it every goddam day but yesterday. My heart sank to my toes. No matter how many times this happens, it’s always just heartbreaking.

I kept it to myself and tried to steer the morning away from chores. Usually Elihu would have run downstairs first thing to see his beloved chicks, but even he was moving a little slow this morning, so we had a mellow breakfast in the kitchen with the electric heater purring alongside us. I drove him to school where he ended up needing a quick session with the nebulizer in the school office (something his old school would never have allowed) before he went up to join his class. I returned home to clean up.

We’d had six baby chicks, but I could find only three. After I began to pay closer attention to the mess, I detected two other blood-stained sites where another pair had met their demise. At least that what it looked like – it was hard to tell for sure. I found three distinct pairs of feet, so I’m just guessing about the rest. One must have been carried off, for there was no evidence at all of the last chick. I tossed what was left of their bodies (the heads are almost always ripped off when they’re killed by wild animals) far into the woods to prevent my grown hens from snacking on the bodies. Why did this matter to me? I wondered to myself. Protein is protein. I was returning them to the woods for some other critter to eat anyway. Silly the rules we make for ourselves, crazy the ways we assign meanings to things.

Last few days Elihu has been watching some pretty horrible and graphic films on Youtube about factory chicken farming. Originally I’d wanted to discourage him – I myself certainly couldn’t watch along side him – but in the end he’d said to me quite seriously that he had to know about this. He wanted to know the truth. I’ve been bringing up the conversation about us making a solid effort to be vegetarians for a long time now – in fact I myself hardly eat meat anymore. I love it, but I make it for Elihu alone. He knows this, and lately he’s been wrestling with it. Facebook is full of ‘shares’ showing graphic images of the factory farming industry. It’s a discussion that is unavoidable in my immediate world. And my son is just beginning to think more deeply about this himself, and I’m glad to know it. We’ve also discussed the possibility of eating only the chickens that we ourselves raise. I point out to him that in most parts of the world, meat is not consumed as it is here; people eat far less of it as it’s not so cheap and abundant in other places as it is here. I tell him that part of the reason we’re used to eating so much meat here in America is because it’s affordable for us. Why? Precisely because of the brutal factory-raising of these creatures. It’s possible for us westerners to eat meat in large quantities specifically because of the inhumanity with which we raise these animals. Elihu is deeply conflicted. He loves meat. He really does. Must be something to the blood-type thing, I don’t know. But he seems to crave it. I love meat too, but can go weeks without it. Not Elihu. And so he is beginning to grapple with this. His thinking has essentially come to this: if we do not eat meat in a respectful and grateful way (offering prayers of thanks to the animal for her life before we eat) then we are simply letting the animal be consumed by less thoughtful, less thankful people. Essentially, she will have lived and died this horrible life in vain because there was no one to appreciate her life, no one to redeem this horrible event. I get it. And he means it. He’s not trying to create a weak justification for eating meat. I know what he means. But still.

Just now my work was interrupted by a sound I know well. I can often hear the chirping of my hens just outside the basement windows, but they’re never this loud. Besides, it’s raining out today, and even if they were just outside I wouldn’t hear them like this. I stop and listen. That’s a chirping sound – I know that sound! That’s not a grown chicken, that’s the sound of a chick! But now? After hours of silence? I’ve been in my office over an hour and have heard nothing. Could it possibly be?

In a word, yes. Somehow this little creature managed to escape the attack. It had had the sense to hide, to quiet itself, to wait until the danger had passed. And upon seeing me, it came directly towards me, peeping its hunger, its fear, its relief. How lucky this tiny bird was – is – for it is perched upon my shoulder, quiet now after some food and drink. I marvel at how this creature seems to understand that I will give it safety, that it needn’t fear me. Amazing. I don’t want to anthropomorphize this little chick – it’s obviously nothing personal that it has found comfort with me – but nonetheless there is something very touching, very moving about its show of trust. I feel a sense of connection with this creature.

Wouldn’t you know – I began to hear another cheeping sound. I searched in vain for a good half hour as I simply could not pinpoint the location of the second lost bird. Finally I asked a friend to come over and help me look. After more searching, and even giving consideration to making a hole in a wall to see if it hadn’t somehow become trapped inside, another chick suddenly emerged from behind the shelf on which my LPs were stored. Wow. Once the two chicks were reunited, all peeping ceased. So that’s some relief. Two little ones remain. Although Elihu has weathered this kind of loss before without even shedding a tear, I’d feared today’s loss might hit him harder. Something just told me there’d be tears of heartbreak today. There may yet be, but having these two survivors somehow softens the loss. And it has me even more conflicted about continuing to turn a blind eye to the horrors of treating animals as if they had no feelings. Chickens experience pain and fear. They also experience peace and comfort. This I know.

the first survivor emerges

The first survivor emerges…

The chick takes a rest…

and peeps to its lost sibling…

Finally, the two survivors are reunited.

 

Model T Visit April 22, 2012

We like to spend Sundays at home. I spend the first half of the day cooking large quantities of food thereby lessening the amount of time I need to spend cooking throughout the week. Now that Elihu is bringing his lunch to school it makes even more sense to cook ahead. Some Thai-inspired coconut curry sauce with lots of vegetables, brown rice, baked Greek style chicken, peppery beef and some bow tie pasta. All I need to do is heat it up for future suppers. We always have a bag of arugula on hand for salad. Makes me feel good to have this chore out of the way. I wash the dishes and wipe the counter top and derive a good amount of satisfaction at seeing my kitchen look pristine once again.

Elihu has waited patiently all morning as I chopped, cooked and cleaned. Finally my attention is all his, and we sit in the living room harvesting parts from past airplane projects in order to make something new and improved. We’re puttering about like this when we hear a loud rapping on the kitchen door. It’s our neighbor Zac with his almost two year old daughter, Annabelle. It’s a good thing it’s just them because Elihu and I are still in our pajamas. Last summer Zac and I had pulled an old harrower out of the fallen leaves here in our yard – it had belonged to Ralph, the man who built this place. Ralph had used it on his gardens here, and it lay where he last unhooked it from the tractor so many decades ago. It was still perfectly good, so Zac took it back to his place, fixed it up and returned a few days later to till our garden with it. I was especially pleased that Ralph’s old harrower was enjoying a second life. Today it enjoys a third incarnation.

Zac and his dad are tinkerers, fixers, assemblers of parts, solvers of problems. And they’re so damned laid back about it too. I’m in awe. Today Zac has come over to show us how he’s re-purposed a few of the tines from Ralph’s old harrower. He’s used them as springs for the seat on his 1925 model T. As the tires are the original rubber on wooden wheels, the bounce of the seat’s new-made suspension system really helps cushion the ride. Zac cranks the handle on the front of the engine and fires it up. It sounds just like you’d think, sputtering and coughing as it revs up to speed. Elihu hops on and Zac gives him a ride down the driveway and back through the old farm road alongside the stone wall.

Once again, I feel so lucky to be here, now.

 

Aviation Day April 21, 2012

I need to get Elihu to bed soon – and not sure I’ll last much longer either, so while he sits beside me researching the rearing of triops on my Mac, I sit here on the PC making the quickest update possible. Must say, this day was absolutely fantastic.

With a backdrop of some Earl Hines on the radio we drove to the nursery to admire the flowering trees. Then some modern big band arrangements carried us to the highway, where we then made a foray into some Ornette Coleman. After a bit we turned back the clock to some super-old timey Chick Webb, which finally brought us to our destination: the New York State Police Aviation Hub. Woo hoo!

We were given a private, unrushed tour by a most generous man whose job it was to oversee the repair and maintenance of the state’s fleet. He even let Elihu sit in the pilot’s seat while he powered up the craft (electric dashboard-type systems only) and then guided Elihu through the controls. Wow.

After this visit we drove the long way home and stopped in on a local music store en route where we got Elihu a chain for his cymbal which he’d been wanting for a while. It creates a little sizzling sound – we’d tried to make our own without satisfactory results. Perfect. After a nice chat with the fellow there – who himself was a drummer and maker of drums as well (and who knew of Elihu’s father) we headed north through the driving spring rain.

We landed at the local mall, and enjoyed the closest thing to authentic middle eastern food to be had within a half hour’s drive. Then it was off to the kiosk that sold RC helicopters. Elihu had brought his own – purchased at that same stand – and after some time hanging around demonstrating his skills at handling the toy craft the proprietor was kind to allow Elihu to pilot three different models – including one that was over two feet long! The man was quite impressed with his ability. I was too; just last night he’d given me a turn at the controls and I was unable to keep it level and unmoving. It’s harder than it appears. Looks like I have a young aviator in the house.

And capping it all off…

 

First Week April 20, 2012

We’ve come to the end of Elihu’s first week in the Waldorf School of Saratoga. It has been wonderful. He is more joyful than I’ve ever known him to be – if we overlook the brief over-tired episodes that have come before a bedtime or two. It’ll take us another week or so to fully get into our new rhythm, but it’s already underway, and it’s not the terribly difficult transition we’d thought it might be.

After Elihu’s third day, to my surprise and delight, he came home singing “Simple Gifts” and speaking in French.  “I wonder if there really are outdoor markets with so many things for sale…” he mused aloud dreamily from the backseat after I’d picked him up from school. In his class they’d been learning about a French marketplace. I assured him that even in this modern time, there were still open-air markets all over the world, and yes of course, even in France. Places with tables full of fresh vegetables and bushels of brightly colored flowers. I recounted to him an early memory I had of the marche in Vevey, Switzerland that I’d gone to with my family as a child. I remember vividly the colors, the abundance. (I also remember my mother pointing out Charlie Chaplin to me and commanding me to remember that always. I did.) Elihu was happy to hear my story, and inspired that he might one day visit such a place. I told him I was pretty sure he would.

Since we no longer have the drudgery of homework (the routine assignments he received in his old school were little more than time-wasters in my opinion), we can instead spend our time creating impromptu flying machines of balsa wood and rubber bands. Elihu is a good thinker, a good designer, and I’m happy to see him tenaciously going after his goals. With a little help from mom and a couple pieces of duct tape he assembles some interesting contraptions. Our afternoons (he’s home nearly two hours before he would have been at his old school) and evenings have become an enjoyable time of stress-free winding down. Of chasing chickens and paper airplane-making. Most days I teach – but my students don’t come by for a good hour yet after he comes home, so we have a lovely window of free, unstructured time each day. The quality of our life here has noticeably improved in such a short time. Each day I feel renewed and grateful.

Today after school we’re going to make our pilgrimage to Schenectady for Elihu’s annual low-vision evaluation. We will meet with a most beautiful human being named Dr. Albert Morier, an exceedingly patient and understanding man. A man who respects Elihu’s need to know things exactly as they are; a man who does not in any way see Elihu’s reduced visual acuity as any sort of real handicap. I once wept when Dr. Morier created a lens for me that enabled me to see things as Elihu does. It was as if I were underwater; I could make out nothing that wasn’t within my arm’s reach. He comforted me in such an elegant and understated way, gently redirecting my perspective on things. He diffused the potentially heartbreaking moment ( I don’t ever want to create extra anxiety in my son and don’t like him to see me afraid or heartbroken for him), and never allowed Elihu for a moment to fear his mild disability. I almost feel like a visit to Dr. Morier is as much for my own emotional stability as it is for Elihu’s physical health.

After that, Elihu and I look forward to having a special dinner out. Here in this part of the country there seems to be a trend towards restaurants that combine many Asian cuisines; it may well be going on all over, but in my experience this is unusual and new. Not a bad idea though, for in one place Elihu can enjoy his beloved sushi and I can indulge in some Thai panang curry. After our fancy supper out, it’s off to a concert by the Adirondack Pipes and Drums in Glens Falls. I’m not sure how much energy we’ll have after our fine meal – it’s been quite a week and Elihu may not have it in him to go. But drums and bagpipes are up there with birds, airplanes and tubas – almost always worth the drive. It seems the chances are good we’ll make it. We’ll see.

Here are some pics of our post-Waldorf afternoon hours this past week…

 

Early Start April 16, 2012

Last night went smoothly. To bed, to sleep. Not much earlier than what was historically normal for us. I was a tad concerned our first early morning might be dicey. Today, Elihu’s first day of the Waldorf School, he rose at 5:30 on his own. He’d heard the creaking of the automatic rotating incubator in the living room and mistook it for the sound of me typing away at my laptop. I heard him call to me, and without checking the clock, summoned the mommy energy within to rise and go to his room. He was up. I mean up up. Not like half asleep, groggily calling out to me in the wake of some bad dream. Nope. He sat up in bed, eyes wide. “Oh” I said, “you’re up“. “Yes of course I’m up! I’ve been up since five! I heard you typing and thought I could finally talk to you.” I climbed into bed with him and explained what he’d heard and how when I’d first heard it again this year, while alone in the house, I’d been startled, even almost afraid. I caressed his head lazily and closed my eyes. “You know you don’t really have to be up for another forty-five minutes” I offered, hoping he might choose to doze. “Oh, but I want to be up. I want to have a whole hour with nothing to do but be with my chickens. I don’t ever want to feel rushed again in the morning.”

He was serious, for he jumped out of bed, ran to check the weather on my computer, then rushed back and got dressed in a flash. He came to me and picked up my arm, tugging at me to get up too. It was almost six. I noticed, to my own surprise, that I was not tired, not sleepy, that I didn’t really need nor want to lay in bed any longer. I too rose, and (as most mornings) still in my pajamas went out to open the coop. Elihu went to the cellar to tend to the chicks. Not used to having their coop door opened so early, the chickens were all still up high on the roosting bars. I’ve often thought that we’ve raised chickens on a rockstar schedule; they’re quite comfortable sleeping in, long after their neighbors have been up and set free for the day.

Our morning was unrushed and oh so pleasant on account of extra early rising. After a lovely breakfast (nothing new on the menu save an air of relaxation) and a shower for me we were ready to go. As we turned the car around to head for the road, we admired our flock, laughing at the show they put on for us. Austin, our guinea fowl, likes to hang out with Maximus the goose – although they constantly bicker they are always side by side (we jokingly call this an ‘alternative alternative’ lifestyle; same sex, different species), Bald Mountain, our alpha rooster, is always keeping second-in-command rooster Judson in check; Shirley Nelson our bearded Arauncana tries to stay out of the action, while Madeline is first in line to check it out. Thumbs Up (so named because of the silhouette of her comb) is precocious and smoochable. She’s the first to approach people, and often prefers our company to that of her flock. She watches the car carefully to see if we might open the doors and invite her in.

Finally, we’re off. I re-set the trip odometer and note the time. It takes us about fifteen minutes and 5.7 miles to reach the school. The third graders are all clumped together by the fence and they’re happy to see Elihu. Oh how happy I am to see this. Although Elihu has longed for this day, he is nontheless a bit hesitant. He hangs back to see where it is that he should go, what he should do with his backpack. He is greeted joyfully by name by the woman at the schoolyard gate, and she helps him get settled in. He even allows me a final quick kiss at my private beckoning for ‘un besito’. Then he is off. I try not to watch him too long. He is fine. He is finally where he should be. I check in briefly at the office, and there meet his teacher. I tell her that Elihu’s heart was so full of joy today. My heart is bursting too, but I don’t say this. Instead I make a little hop in place, and touch her arm. “I am so so happy we’re finally here’. I don’t want to be too over the top, but man do I mean it. I also don’t mean to act as if this heralds a conflict-free future for Elihu and me. I am aware their will be challenges in our future. There may be uncomfortable moments. I just think that we’ll be able to negotiate them so much better in this environment. At least that’s what I hope today.

As I drive home I cannot believe that my day is starting before Elihu would even have been on the bus in our old routine. I have so much to do, I don’t know where to start. I am mindful that I must pick Elihu up today, and that school lets out just past two. I still need to be economical with my time. What to do first? I am filled with joy and possibility. Plants begin to leaf out on the edge of the winding country road. Robins are everywhere. I laugh to myself. It feels so good to be up with the birds. Early bird gets the worm. Indeed.

 

Retro Post: How I Spent My Summer (2011) April 13, 2012

In filing a mass of papers from our life over the past year or more, I’m finding things that I’d like to share. For no particular reasons, and also for many tiny ones. So here’s Elihu’s first mandatory assignment of third grade; the classic summary of his summer vacation, an assignment for which he was given just four rather small boxes in which to recount his adventures. Hardly seems enough, but he gets his points across. I don’t keep any formal memory books, but I’ll archive these pages somewhere safe for us to revisit when Elihu’s kids are themselves writing little pieces kinda like this.

How I Spent My Summer Vacation by Elihu Haque (w/drawing of long-necked bird leaning in to inspect the title)

Flying RC planes. This plane has a four foot wingspan and flew above the clouds. My friends came to see.

Went to Chicago. Got to see old friends. It was fun to see my mom’s old friends. Got to play at Mom’s gig. (He sang at Fitzgerald’s with The Prohibition Orchestra of Chicago.)

Playing at the Green Mill. Played hand drums with dad. Played for one whole set. (Yup, he did. And tonite, all these months later, he is very likely on stage at the Green Mill playing his djembe while I am writing this.)

And overall it was a great summer, no I mean AWESOME!!