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….

 

 

Beautiful January January 18, 2014

At first, it’s just another dark morning. Your mind, for the briefest second, is blank. You are in neutral, the commitments of the day haven’t come to you yet and the lack of light in the room offers you no clues. For a moment you hang there, out of time and place. But after a short window of nothingness, you remember again. And that dull, sick sort of feeling comes back into your body. In sleep there’d been relief and forgetting, but upon waking, you return to your new reality. Crap. Yeah, that’s right. I remember now. I recognize that strange thud in my gut. I wish it weren’t so, but it is. Dad is gone. 

I tempt myself with possible regrets, but I try to ignore them. No point to it. I lie there in bed for a few minutes, digesting it all again for the umpteenth time. It’s not so bad, really, I suppose, I think to myself. A lovely end to a good, long life. I shouldn’t be so goddam nostalgic. It’s old news by now. But yet I still count the days. Three weeks and a day since he died. It’s not acute, but it’s still heartbreaking in a quiet, inward sort of way. As I lie in bed, I go over the last few weeks with dad, those final days. I remind myself of the peaceful and gentle nature of his passing. I remind myself how lucky we were to be with him. Then I relax just a bit. I collect myself, make a short inventory of the day to come, and take a breath. Then after another moment I get out of bed and make my way to the kitchen.

The last couple of days it has been snowy here. Not just snowy, but that most gorgeous of all kinds of snow – the puffy, sparkly kind that mounds itself high on each and every branch and twig, the kind that distills the entire landscape and all its earthly objects into a crisp, poetic vision of dark and light. In this world one can easily imagine what it is to see as my son does. There is virtually no color visible, yet the world is all the more breathtakingly beautiful because of it. I drove to town yesterday at half my usual speed, mouth agape, eyes scanning the whiteness above my head as I passed through the woods on a winding country road. Stunning, stunning, stunning. And behind it all, I hear in my head one of the last sentences I ever heard my father utter: “When beautiful January comes….” He’d said it with a smile on his face, in a happy, almost trance-like way. What on earth had he meant by this? His and mom’s birthday was on January 6th, but he certainly wasn’t going to make it til then. Did he mean his relief would finally come then? Did he mean that things would start anew? And if so, for whom? Although I’m pretty sure dad didn’t choose his words with all that context in mind, I do think that he, as was natural to his expressive and artistic nature, was trying to convey a certain feeling, an impression… What I’d felt in that moment was that he looked to the future – ours and his – as a happy, natural progression of things. That life, here or there, was a thing of beauty and wonder.

Driving through the almost surreal snowscape, I repeat dad’s words over and over to myself. When beautiful January comes… I think of all the things that a new year brings. I think about the beauty of winter, even in its starkness and cold. The possibility that awaits… I begin to give my father’s words all sorts of meanings, none perhaps intended, but all of them little insights nonetheless. We will begin our lives anew in this beautiful month, we will learn a new way to be on this earth. We will see new challenges, we will find new ways to meet them… We will see the world in a new way, we will consider things never before considered… Somehow, we will come to know that everything will all be ok. Somehow, someday soon, all this will come to be.

As I mull over all the possible interpretations of my father’s words, a memory comes to me. It was New Year’s day, many years ago. It was a gray and snowy day like it is now when I’d walked in the woods and heard the music. If I hadn’t experienced it for myself I never, ever would have believed it. But I heard it; the purest tone I’d ever known (Bells? no, voices? no, horns? no… A sine wave of some sort, yes, but what it was that created the sound was ever-undefinable). It was contrapuntal, perfect, gorgeous. And if I were to try and define it, given what I know of music, I’d say it was closest to Bach. I’d heard the music – from no fixed point that I could identify but rather from all points surrounding me – in the woods very close to, and perhaps on the very spot where my parent’s house is located today. Back then, the house was hardly a dream. I consider that it might possibly have been a real-world foreshadowing of sorts, pointing to the events that would one day take place there. I think of my father, and wonder if maybe, just maybe, I’d been standing on the very spot where he would die some thirty years later. Nothing to do but wonder…

Wonder is all I can take from my experiences. Hearing my father speak shortly before he passed, I truly do know and understand that when one departs from this existence, there is another experience awaiting us. I don’t begin to suggest that I understand what our roles become then, nor where it is that this place exists, or how it intersects with our known physical reality. I feel a bit like I’m going out on a limb here, because I know full well that not all my friends will agree with my thinking. Some might even write me off as being lost to reality. And I get that. I myself might have thought the same thing once upon a time. But just like hearing the otherwise unbelievable music as I did so many years ago, I have come to learn that there is a world that exists beyond our ability to measure and quantify. And while I still cannot know exactly what my father meant when he spoke those close-to-final enigmatic words, they inspire a tiny germ of hope that begins to grow inside…

Not much but time can offer me the solace I’d like to fully feel once again. But my dad himself has helped me just a little to move ahead into the life that awaits me with an open, expectant heart. Now that beautiful January has finally come.

 

Small September 8, 2013

Man, do I feel small right now. As in tiny. Really tiny.

Like you, I do realize that everyone is equally significant in the world. Yeah, I know that each one of us is unique, and no matter how small our own roles may seem here on Earth, our job – to simply be, as we are – is just as important as anyone else’s who lives here too – regardless of their station, status and wealth. So if I get that – if I truly believe that each one of us has our thing, that each one of us is doing exactly what we should be doing simply by being – then why do I feel so tiny and irrelevant right now? Why do I feel I’m somehow not doing what I should be doing? Well, there is something helping me to feel this way… I can’t say my mood is a total surprise.

The likely culprit would be last Spring’s issue of Time magazine in which they present the 100 most influential people on the planet in 2013. Picked it up innocently enough at a friend’s house, and before long was fully immersed and eager to read the whole thing. Bursting with short articles, supportive blurbs, visually loaded charts and cute, cartoony diagrams that helped one get a clearer visualization of just how influential these folks were – it was hard to ignore the growing sense of my own non-accomplishment as I compared my virtually non-existent numbers to theirs. Of course I was comparing apples to oranges. And of course I had, at the point of having read the entire edition cover-to-cover, forgotten completely the aforementioned philosophy at the top of this page…. My process went from experiencing awe to feeling bewilderment to a sudden and very unpleasant vision of myself as professional ‘doer-of-not-too-terribly-much-all-that-important’. While I can’t say that the issue wasn’t inspiring on some level, I can easily say that it was deflating on another.

Good spiritual folk advise to be happy for the achievements of our fellow humans. That bearing joyful witness to their accomplishments in turn lifts us up and personally benefits us energetically as well. That to be jealous of their success (which puts out the negative, non-supportive sort of energy that goes with those feelings) will only make our own plight worse. Like shooting ourselves in the foot, emotionally speaking. Furthermore, the positive or negative energy we feel or express also helps to alter the emotional atmosphere of our entire species. Kind of like the way a single drop, while seemingly meaningless on its own, is crucial in creating water. (When explaining to my son why we should vote, I offer that if every drop in the ocean felt as if it had no purpose and it would go elsewhere, then we’d have no oceans. I find that I even have to remind myself of this when election day rolls around.) Yeah, I know all this, and of course it makes sense to at the very least give folks props for their achievements, but I’m behaving like a spoiled child at all this success. I’m utterly lost as to what it is a CEO even does, let alone begin to imagine what it’s like to live with so much money that you simply don’t have to worry about basic needs. We seem to inhabit far different worlds, these influential folks and me.

I recognize the self pity aspect of my reaction. And I don’t let myself completely off the hook. But still, I do allow myself a night of feeling small. Last night the feeling was keen and fresh, but as I’d thought might be the case, in the morning’s light I feel restored, more hopeful about my own intimate prospects, and a bit less insignificant. I am, after all, very important to the people in my family, and I have one young person dependent upon me to advocate for him, to love him. And cook him supper too. ! I see the tiny tooth marks of our resident chipmunk, Gwendolyn, on a freshly picked pear I’d left out overnight, and my heart softens. How tiny we are indeed, in this vast world… but our very homestead itself is a virtual universe, and each one of us has our role to play. I look out at the horizon, the mountains beyond. And it occurs to me that in spite of all the chaos and activity – and success – of my fellow humans, toiling about so madly on this globe – that no matter where on Earth you visit, it is always possible to find the sky. To look out over a yard, or treetops, or even a city, and see the infinite, right there… And you, as its witness, seem to be the only person in it. It seems to exist all for you alone. And truly, it might be correct to assume it does. And that you are the only one. In our world of duality, we are alone, and we are one, all at the same time. We can share in the joy of each others accomplishments (oh, how linked and dependent upon each other we are! Going it on our own would be more dire than the harshest episode of Survivor, I can assure you!) yet we can approach the world as if it were our own, private classroom of potential, and choose to feel that all its resources can be ours if we do things just so….

Well. At least I know this stuff. Living by it, that’s another thing entirely. I don’t always walk my talk for sure. But I get it, and at least that helps me in the wake of my witness to all that off-the-charts (or on-the-charts, I should say) achievement. Yeeps. I’m still a little overwhelmed with the scope of this world. It still makes me nervous, it still challenges my sense of self-worth and meaning. But I acknowledge it, try to improve my outlook just the teensiest bit, and then I try to proceed into my day in as much joy as I can. Because I know, regardless of the numbers in my bank account, that I am an important person in the world. I’ve got my thing, and I’m doing it. I know that I am very influential in my tiny family of two. And to my tiny friend Gwendolyn, I’m very big indeed.