The Hillhouse

The Journey of a Mother and Son

The Varieties of 57 May 5, 2021

This past year has been full of extremes, both good and bad. Covid played its part, but there was so much more. And I understand more profoundly today, even as I didn’t just a few months ago, that there will be no letup anytime soon; this life of mine will continue to be a challenging go-round on the globe.

I lost a couple of friends to the virus, and that still feels incredibly surreal. The death of my town’s music store owner still feels like a bad dream from which I’ll awake before long. He had been a treasured friend ever since I moved here from Chicago almost thirteen years ago – and he championed all I endeavored to do at the Studio. He sponsored all of my shows, he lent me gear, offered ideas for programs and strategies to grow the business. We passed hours chatting in the store, talking about everything from music to relationships to parenting. I drive by his place every morning and still blow him a kiss, imagining him downstairs, behind the counter, ready to greet everyone who enters like an old friend… It’s strange how we humans eventually acquiesce to the most unthinkable outcomes. Slowly, it seems I’m growing to realize that he is gone. His death reminds me that life as we knew it is also gone.

This week – this moment, in fact – I am beset with an anxiety that is deeper and more complex than any I’ve yet known. Firstly contributing there are the mundane matters of aging (about which I shall dish shortly), and secondly there is the physiological aspect of my condition which is separate and apart from that. The panic and anxiety is its own thing, I can assure you. (Tonight it is acute, and writing is helping to distract and alleviate the symptoms. At the moment I am struggling to feel ‘in my body’; part of my personal experience with panic is a frightening lightness and separation from my corporeal form which is truly terrifying, and while I have developed some tricks to mitigate it, at the end of the day old-fashioned distraction works best). I am experiencing both concerns at the same time these days, so teasing out which portion of my discomfort is age-dependent and which is involved with panic and depression is not truly possible.

I wish I could tell myself that things will get better, but honestly friends, has not the hill been surmounted? At the age of fifty-seven – and add one more year to the tally on May 7th – is my life not all on the downslope from here on in? From where I sit right now, that appears to be the clear and honest truth. I look at my mother – whose badly deformed hands I have inherited, and whose U-curved spine I’m yet hoping to avoid – and I can’t help but wish it ends long before that becomes my reality. She tosses off passive-aggressive asides under her breath about wishing to ‘shuffle off this mortal coil’ as she struggles to make her way around the kitchen, holding on to the counters like a rock climber. She never comes out and says it directly though; her generation doesn’t do that sort of thing. That I’ve actually heard her expressing feelings aloud is rather unusual, and it further supports my claim that such an aged state of infirmity is no desirable place to be. Yet even as I continue to age, I wonder if there might still be some tiny thrills ahead, despite the changes already underway – perhaps even major insights that might yet enrich my life… I hang on to some hope for all of that, and I’ll certainly put in the effort to that end – but I’m not holding my breath. And please friends, don’t protest. Honestly. The way I feel these days, I’m pretty sure the majority of my life’s sweet spots are behind me now.

It hardly seems I have any right to be in such a condition… Do I not live a fairly rarified life here on this planet? Am I not at the very top of the existential pyramid? Have I not a list of projects I’m eager to do? Do I not have a beautiful home full of beautiful things? Have I not a son who is happy, successful and who loves me? Yes, I have all of these things. But it’s the things that can’t be properly explained, seen or quantified which really do throw a spanner in the works. It’s nothing new, of course; the mental health stuff has been with me, albeit just under the surface, since I was a teenager. I’m great at presenting to the world like everything’s working fine – and in fact, I’m a super-high functioning human being, no false modesty about that here. But no matter how I may appear, my depression and panic are real, and they can make certain patches exceptionally rough for no apparent reason. And the past month or so has been just such a patch.

My state of mind is subject to a few different influences, and I’m fairly sure I know what most of them are. The constant financial stress I live with definitely contributes (my income arrives in $40 doses through a handful of ‘side hustles’. That term taunts me, as there’s nothing ‘side’ about it; it’s my only income. But I agree, I sure do hustle for it). Some of my concerns come of vanity. Some are born of self-pity. Some are related to the despondency I feel over the neglect I show to many old friends with whom I just can’t seem to find the time to communicate. I shouldn’t wish to be forgotten by my friends, but I myself am doing just that with so many people. There are half a dozen folks whom I owe a nice long conversation, and many more who deserve a good catching-up via email, but I’m always just too beat at the end of the day to make any of it happen. And that makes me feel crappy.

There’s also the eye injury. It’s a 24/7 affair. It physically bothers me almost every moment of day of every day. In order to distract myself I learn music. I make videos. I do chores. I walk in nature, I take care of my chickens and my home, I cook for my son, I do errands for homebound friends and caretake for a few elderly neighbors. I do, do, do… The panic and depression which has returned is likely also due in part to the chaotic, frenetic nature of my average day.

The episodes come in waves though, and they’re not always perceptible to me. One morning, a few months ago, I came to the breakfast table feeling deliriously free of that low-grade shitty feeling that cloaks me most of my waking hours – and it felt simply wonderful. The sheer absence of feeling bad was itself so good! When I told Elihu that, he simply responded “Manic much?”. Hm. “Really, is it that bad?” I asked. He told me it was, and reminded me that I’d felt good last week, and that I’d be feeling really bad again soon. I was truly surprised. In that moment I couldn’t remember having felt this kind of relief in ages. “Wait, really? I felt like this just last week?” He told me that he was pretty sure I had. I don’t have much interaction with people save what I carefully select for social media, so who else but Elihu would know? I guess I’ll have to believe him. From where I sit tonight, I pray he’s right. If I’m feeling this bad right now, relief’s gotta come soon, right? Sleep doesn’t even help; I sleep so very little – three, maybe four hours a night – and often wake up mid-way in terror. It’s pretty brutal these days.

And there are all of the physical landmarks which I am fast-reaching (I suppose you could file these under both self-pity and vanity too). A musician whose arthritic fingers have doubled in size in less than a year? A hand that can no longer grasp the wheel of my car before I’m sixty? Dang. Then there is the lost jawline, the strange crinkly texture of my skin in areas of my body that I was sure had a longer life expectancy than this… An alarming loss of word recall, a new stiffness in my hips and hair that has thinned dramatically. What the actual fuck? I thought this shit would hit home in my mid sixties, certainly not before… I put in my time raising my son, turning down dates and saving myself for that sweet spot post-child when I could pick up where I left off, maybe even really enjoy myself a little before things went downhill. And things were looking pretty OK not too long ago; I’d lost seventeen pounds and was working out six days a week – I was feeling and looking good just a couple months ago until I injured myself and then absolutely tanked. I suppose the depression has built up since I fell off the fitness wagon – and I can say most assuredly that working out really helps keep panic attacks at bay. But somehow I’ve lost control of my life again – caretaking for everyone else, and finding no time left for me. It’s quite likely that the lack of control over my life has exacerbated my overall discomfort.

Fifty-seven started ok. The pandemic really didn’t change a thing for me. Errands continued to consume my life. While friends were staying home, ordering meal services and letting their hair grow long I was out doing the shopping and everyday errands for my own camp. By the time May rolled around I was back to business as usual (sans students I should add, and therefore sans any sort of meaningful income), albeit donned in a mask and using sanitizer after every stop. Life only came to a halt for me when I got hit in the eye with a log while attempting to clean up my property in mid-June. That forced my hand. For a couple of weeks the world went on without me as I laid in bed, healing. (At the end of the day I’m lucky. Less than a half an inch toward the center of my eye and I would’ve been blinded. But still, the never-ending discomfort and diminished vision suck. No way around it.)

Then came the adventure with Mr. High School Crush. Ow. That sure went from good to bad really fast. But hindsight and some online study showed him to be a classic misogynist. Knowing that his strange behavior was a real, definable thing was so helpful. The cycle he thrived on was “Idealize, Devalue, Discard”. His MO was to throw a ‘love bomb’ (intense and sudden displays of affection and desire, etc.), get me in close – and then berate me, finally showing himself to be the victor – and me the devalued loser. I still don’t know what caused him to turn on a dime the last time he visited. I asked him, but he never answered. And by not responding he retained the upper hand, so to speak. I had no information to work with, so I couldn’t even counter him, nor could I gain any insight. But frankly, there is no insight to be had; his process requires that he find an offense in order to make himself right, and me wrong. I’m sure he took something I said or did and built it up in his mind to be a major transgression.

In his final text to me he angrily called me ‘self-centered’ and told me that he had revoked my title of ‘Lady’. Sheesh. That’s crazy talk I know, but the even crazier thing is that in my weak emotional states I re-play his words and it brings up the hurt all over again for no good reason. (There does seem to be a little ‘Stockholm Syndrome’ thing going on here.) Once, after it appeared to have ended (on our last parting he had smiled, hugged and kissed me, then driven off, thereafter ceasing any form of communication for many weeks, leaving me to wonder what the hell had happened), I sat at the kitchen island, weeping into my hands. Elihu asked me what was up – and I lamented that I’d thought I’d been falling in love. He very soberly responded “You weren’t falling in love, mom. You were falling in sex.” Thank you, kid. You’re my sage, always. (Um, first sex since the ex. Can you blame a girl?)

And as for the minor rock god? Well, while we had fun (and recorded some music too, although not our best work to be sure), and I’m glad to count him as a new friend, it wasn’t what I might’ve hoped for. We’d already cultivated a playful, flirty vibe, so I’d thought we might’ve enjoyed some good physical chemistry as a result. But he too was mired in his own experience with depression – and his is far, far worse than mine – so the garden wasn’t fertile. We did get physical, but that’s all it was. Whether it was the dulling effect of the meds he was on or his own natural response, he simply did not offer any noticeable emotional connection. I suspect that even if he had been feeling whole and healthy, he and I probably still wouldn’t have had a thing anyhow. But I’ll never know for sure, and that too nags at me when I’m in this low sort of state. Kinda feels like I wasn’t good enough for either of these fellows – not even the one with whom I had music and good humor in common – and that hurts a little bit. And I didn’t even want relationships with them! Just wished for a moment of connection, pleasure and friendship. Seemed so simple, but it turned out be be so elusive. Then again, I was dealing with men who brought their own challenges along with them. I guess the playing fields weren’t exactly level. Shouldn’t bother me all these months later, I know, but it does.

This has past year Elihu has been a senior in high school (whaaaat? Just seeing that in print makes me a bit woozy), so naturally, it’s been a huge year for him. And by association, for me too. Despite his having a 4.3 GPA, being in the 99th percentile with his SATs, having both fluency and literacy in three languages and a list of credentials that is truly hard to fathom, all of the Ivy Leagues passed on him, except for Harvard and Cornell, both which have waitlisted him (we won’t know their decisions for another few weeks). But he was accepted at RPI with generous scholarships, and the appeal of a debt-free degree is strong, so it may even win out over Harvard. The case has been made to us that he can use his undergrad years to kick some academic ass, and then he can do his post-grad studies at a fancy shmancy school. Might be the plan. Still not sure.

Injury, romance, heartbreak, success, failure, stress and hope plus fifty more items somewhere in between. I’d say that’s quite a variety of life experiences. One wonders what can possibly lie ahead. I learned a lot at fifty-seven, let’s hope that I can leverage that new insight and cultivate a really great fifty-eight.

 

Blind Eye December 31, 2020

Dear readers, did you know that my son Elihu is considered to be legally blind?

Hard to believe when one watches him skillfully guide his hand-built aircraft around in the sky, sometimes a hundred or more feet away, and certainly no longer visible to him as to those of us normally-sighted folks. How does he do this? Simple. His desire has superseded his limitations. He can see his planes as they move about in the air, if only gesturally, yet somehow, this is all he needs. My son once said to me as a young boy “I will not let my excuse be my excuse”. And he has not. He has turned a blind eye to his ‘disability’, and he has gone on to become one of the most remarkably accomplished people I have ever met. His minimal vision has not prevented him from achieving the maximum benefit of his talents. (Have I said how much I’m going to miss his daily companionship when he goes off to college next year?)

It’s funny how we humans interpret the world around us in such highly selective ways. I’m as guilty as anyone, and find it fascinating to muse at the ways in which I might be skewing my own perception of the world… Egos are such fragile things, and each of us filters data so as to preserve our dignity, to keep our own self-image as tarnish-free as possible, and to keep injured feelings to a minimum. I try to keep an eye on myself when it comes to interpersonal relations; I often make tiny, real-time inventories of my exchanges with people, friends, students, even passersby. Am I acting with respect and candor? Am I truly listening, or am I just waiting for my turn to talk? (I admit to struggling with interrupting. I’m too eager, and it’s a very bad habit, I’m well aware. Also, when it comes to my mother, all bets are off. I can’t seem to turn off the triggers. This continues to be a challenge.) I ask myself, am I being the best person I can possibly be? Or am I living a self-selected experience, ignoring the truths around me which I’d rather not see?

I fully admit that in order to cover my emotional ass, so to speak, my default way of behaving in the world is to kill ’em with kindness. I understand so well our mutual frailty as humans that I try to act in love most of the time. If you’ve ever walked down the street with me (in non-covid times) or accompanied me to the store, you’ll know that I speak to most everyone I can, and it’s my goal to offer as many small kindnesses as I’m able. They’re sincere acts of love, for sure, but it’s also an emotional insurance of sorts; how can you condemn the woman who has just told you how beautiful your hair is today? When slights aimed at me do arrive, although they are truly seldom, I try my best to listen, and to wonder at the motivation behind them. Maybe the woman who gave me that nasty aside is herself unhappy, conflicted, emotionally undernourished. Who knows? I choose to ignore the sting, and instead look to the core issue. It helps deflect the discomfort at the very least. In some way I’m choosing to give less traction to that which causes pain. My own kind of filter I suppose, showing me the things I’d prefer to see…

And then when life presents you with affairs of the heart, it can sometimes be even easier to turn a blind eye to certain things which you’d rather not see…

This past year I became involved with a man whom I’d known for over four decades. During that long span of time apart we’d each been married, raised kids, and had become divorced. In high school we’d each had an eye for the other, but circumstances weren’t in our favor at the time, so we were happy to reconnect, if only virtually, several years ago. In all that time we remained in each other’s minds as the person we’d thought the other to be all those years ago. It’s funny how you really cling to the ideals and visions that support your own fantasies about other people…

He had likely thought me to be far more demure and measured than I am. Choosing to refer to me as Lady Elizabeth, I’m sure this further romanticized me, putting me, in his self-imposed fantasy, into the realm of an emotionally inaccessible woman. For my part, remembering the pot-smoking, Led Zeppelin-listening intellectual I’d known back then, I admit that I’d harbored a vision of him having grown into an easy-going, chill older version of that attractive young man. I’d thought he’d have a relaxed nature, the kind that lends itself to snuggling up with his lady on the couch on a Sunday morning, legs resting on the coffee table, offering up casual kisses and passing touches of affection to his woman while lazily perusing the New York Times. Ha! Was I wrong. He is fairly the polar opposite of that. His seemingly mild-mannered outward appearance belies his true character; there’s not a laid-back bone in this man’s body (anyone remember that commercial from the ’70s where a lady scolds an uptight customer saying “Relax, Mr. Dillon, you’re on a cruise!“? Many were the times I so wanted to say that aloud to him). I’m fairly sure he had the wrong assumptions about me too. I suppose for the first few months we each were guilty of turning that proverbial blind eye to so many surprising, and, on some level, mutually disappointing aspects of each other.

But here’s the kicker – his high school girlfriend had strongly cautioned my against seeing him. But me, I thought that for sure I must’ve seen things in him that she never had. And so, I chose to ignore the warning.

She said that he had berated her, he’d made her feel like shit in public, but then used that charm and that smile (he’s got stunning hazel eyes and a smile that can melt butter – and don’t even get me started on that dimple/crease thing he’s got goin’ in his right cheek…) and they’d be back to that good place again – and then the cycle just kept going. Hot then cold, kind then mean. She said it was the single worst year of her life. Surely she had been exaggerating… I’d thought that this was likely due to his immaturity back then – plus, even if she was correct and this had been the nature of their relationship – I was certainly smarter than to allow him to behave like this with me! After all, he and I had a thing. Turns out if only I had listened instead of turning a deaf ear to her advice, I might’ve saved myself the heartache – which sadly continues to linger even at this writing (in spite of my better judgement), in addition to some disconcerting physical symptoms which will likely be my new normal. Yes, the old high school girlfriend had been right. Some forty-two years later and this man had behaved in exactly the same way with me. Took me a while to see it for myself, cuz I really didn’t want to.

After having said all of this about the man, let me offer that he is no way a bad person. In fact, there are so many good traits and admirable qualities about him that it’s all the harder to understand how one aspect of his personality can be so deeply disconnected and dysfunctional. Truly, the lovely qualities that this man possesses make it all the harder to come to terms with the reality of the matter.

[As something of a public service, I’d like to offer some insight into misogyny. In spite of his intelligence, his laudable career and devotion to his faith, my former boyfriend is a textbook misogynist (yes, there is a spectrum, but there are flagship markers in every man so afflicted). I had no idea what misogyny was when I was first warned – was it not just a casual form of chauvinism? No. Misogyny is a definable and real neurosis, something which develops very early in life, and without any recognition of it or desire for self-reflection on the part of the man, it is not something which will ever change. Misognynists objectify women to some extent, they remain emotionally distant, and they will berate and/or correct the women in their lives in an effort to establish their superiority and control. I experienced it for myself, yet I’d chosen to ignore it – thinking that I was somehow misinterpreting his behavior, or perhaps it was an aberration – and as a result I suffered injury, both emotional and physical. (I appreciate that the staff at urgent care was obliged to ask if I felt safe at home. Difficult as it was to even admit, albeit passively, that a man had inflicted excessive force on me, I am reassured to know these safeguards and protocols exist.) Women, if you see any of these behaviors in your partner, please know you cannot change them. Sadly, you must walk away, even if your partner offers a hundred other compelling reasons to stay. Turning a blind eye to the truth may result in harm to you.]

But on the other hand, sometimes throwing caution to the wind can have unexpectedly good results. In some cases, it’s best just to do something without looking at the pros and cons too carefully. (Again, think of Elihu refusing to see his blindness as an impediment and look how well that’s turned out).

As my new relationship began to emerge as potentially toxic – or at the very least suspiciously unsettling – I made a choice to invite another man into my life. I’d also known him for years, albeit only casually through the music scene back in Chicago, before the chapter of motherhood had begun. Even though he was something of an unknown to me, I extended an invitation. I asked him to join me in the context of a musical project, so naturally this added greatly to the appeal of his visit for both of us. As it turns out, it seems we’re probably best suited to a platonic relationship, but I have a hunch that this new friend will be in my life for years to come, and for that I’m grateful. He is intelligent and talented. Completely endearing and utterly human. Honest. He’s got a huge, loving heart. And my son really likes him (in my eyes that speaks volumes). Plus he has a dog. Honestly, what’s not to like about a man who has a dog? I’ve lost a romance but I’ve gained a friendship. Good thing I invited my new pal to visit even when I knew so little about him. I chose to ignore a few internal cautionary signals (granted I think it was more about a visiting dog and the safety of my chickens rather than my human guest!) and in this case it worked in my favor.

Ok, so while I’m dishing, dig this… I offer this story as a foundation to the one that follows right after…

My ex would latch onto passing comments on my Facebook threads and simply stew over them. I could never have anticipated such a thing. Truly, it was a new experience. It completely blindsided me.

Once, a man whom I hadn’t seen in person for over twenty-five years had said “nighty-night, dovie” to me on Facebook, and this resulted in my ex losing a night’s sleep as he struggled with his jealous feelings over this FB pal and fretted over the nature of our relationship. (This FB friend lives three thousand miles away and I haven’t seen him in over two decades – a quick perusal of his page would clue anyone in as to how unrelated our lives are.) Not too long after this incident, the same friend made a complimentary remark about a pic I’d posted of a mid-century baking dish. This too set my ex off into a tailspin…

Who was this man, this admirer? my ex had wanted to know. What exactly had that comment meant? he’d demanded of me. When he asked me, I had no idea what he was even talking about. Admirer? Who? What man? What comment?! (I have hundreds and hundreds of friends, ya know?) I paged back until I found the ‘offending’ comment and, when realizing just how trivial a remark it had been, I got upset. This was simply ridiculous. I proceeded to tell my ex that he really needed to keep his jealousy in check if he wanted this thing between us to work. He needed to rope it back. The ex then responded angrily to me – and the next day, when I was feeling emotionally walloped and said to him as much – he acted as if nothing at all had happened. It was crazy. Almost surreal. That man sure could compartmentalize! Honestly, it was one of the most bizarre interpersonal occurrences I have ever experienced.

And talk about turning a blind eye to things – my ex let my plans for a recording session in my home go unscrutinized. He said nothing when I told him I was going to spend a week making music. With whom exactly was I working? Just how much time would I be spending with these unknown people? Just might there be another man working alongside me? The jealous beau never even asked. Strangely, no potential red flags emerged for him. But he sure gave me hell for the guy in Seattle who liked my baking dish. (I know, right?)

Sure, the visit wasn’t ideally timed; when the musician fellow and I had originally made the plans (and booked the flights) I had no idea that I’d be in a relationship a few months down the road. Anyhow, by the time the musician fellow arrived, my blind eye was starting to see the writing on the wall regarding the high school crush. I had tried hard to believe that things were gonna be ok, but the stark contrast between these two men helped illuminate the situation; the old flame seemed doomed to burn out.

What else might I be ignoring that I oughtn’t? There are a few things. I know. I know my demons and I’m mounting a campaign to deal with them in due time. I’ve put the focus on my health now, and am working to get myself into a leaner and stronger body. This is requiring my full-on forward vision.

Ironic, isn’t it, that in the year 2020 – the number by which we define optimal visual acuity – the whole planet was so blind-sided? Not a one of us could’ve seen the catastrophic year that was coming. And personally speaking, how could I ever have suspected the injuries, romance and heartbreak that would play out in my own life alongside this global tragedy? Of course I couldn’t have… Not a one of us can see into the future. But we can stay on the lookout for healthy opportunities and better outcomes. So me, I’m going to move into this post-2020 world with hope in my heart, and both of my eyes wide open.

Here’s to better vision for us all in 2021.

Visit Elihu’s YouTube channel ‘AeroCraft’, see pics of our life here at the Hillhouse, find us both on social media, hear our music and more thru our clearinghouse website:

https://elizabethconant.com