The Hillhouse

The Journey of a Mother and Son

Like Us December 26, 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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