The Hillhouse

The Journey of a Mother and Son

Slowing April 15, 2020

A few years ago Elihu and I listened to an audio book entitled “The Slowing”. It was a science fiction story which took place in the US, in our own contemporary time. The main characters were a teenage boy and girl, their families, and the other families of their suburban neighborhood. The basic premise of the story was that the earth’s rotation had begun to slow down. It conveyed a dreamlike sense of ungrounding at the start – but that was only the start. As the story developed we began to understand just how deeply horrific a situation this really was, and how fundamentally powerless were the planet’s entire living populations. When charts began showing exponential growth of the Coronavirus just a few days ago, I felt a profound fear in my gut, and a queer lightness in my head. I was not safe, my son wasn’t safe – none of us were safe. We were embedded in our very own science fiction story come to life.

Our ability to communicate with each other instantly makes our experience of this pandemic different from previous such plagues on the earth – some may say it stirs the pot, that it exacerbates people’s fears, that it feeds rumor and speculation… Perhaps it does. But it also puts us in instant communication with friends and family no matter the geographic distance between us. Our connectivity provides us with a toolkit for survival. We are privy to the most current information; graphs and maps keep us informed, we learn ways in which we may safely move when out in the world, sanitary ways to unpack our groceries, activities to keep our children busy and happy, opportunities to hear music, even visit with our friends, and classrooms have moved fairly easily to home computers (but certainly not all have; I fear this disparity will become something of a real problem if the situation persists until the fall).

Without making light of anything, I gotta say our own experience thus far has been enjoyable. I am hearing musicians I haven’t in years, folks I was resolved never to hear or see again – and yet here I am in their living rooms right there with them! How lovely! Virtual one-room venues and old fashioned salons are popping up everywhere, creating an earth-wide a la carte smorgasbord of entertainment. And this is but the first week – if this ‘thing’ lasts a few months, as it may, this new online culture will begin to organize itself. Patterns will arise – regular showtimes, regular features – and as with anything new, the novelty will fade and the new routines will begin to show themselves.

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I resume this post after our first two weeks into this new life. I’ve penned a couple of novelty songs, started seedlings for the garden, and will be embarking on my first online lessons soon. My son has been finding a whole new presence in his musical community, easily learning how to teach, compose, edit and perform his own pieces with other students from throughout the country. It’s with no small amount of pride that I share that the conductor of Elihu’s youth orchestra held him up as an example of how players should be regularly documenting their practice. My kid is way ahead of the curve on this front; he’s been keeping a daily video log of his tuba practicing for nearly a year. (The kid puts me to shame – inspired by the healthy routine he was developing, I tried to meditate for 30 days in a row, but tanked by day 11. Regrettably I created a Facebook page in order to create some public accountability, but that meaningless banner yet hangs limp in the virtual irons, my shameful lack of personal stamina forever documented….)

Personally, I enjoy being solitary. I definitely prefer it to a house full of people. And the wonderful thing about living with my son is that while I have my privacy, I’m not completely alone. I can go for long stretches of time in my own personal space, content to know that my dearest one is never far away. Elihu is also content in keeping to himself, ever-engaged in any number of things from building airplanes to teaching himself trumpet, learning to write Japanese kanji or practicing his tuba. We check in with each other every so often, comparing our progress, discussing the things that we’re learning, maybe sharing a cup of tea before heading back to our private worlds. I too am mostly always in motion – but with nothing so weighty as the interests of my kid, rather my time is taken up mostly by things domestic; preparing for the chicks, mending things outside, doing yard work, cleaning gutters or filling feed bins, doing laundry and cooking meals, and keeping a country house from being overrun with dust, dirt and cobwebs. (I continue, however, to turn a blind eye to the greasy kitchen walls and oil splattered ceiling).

My main current interest in this early pandemic chapter has been to maintain some structure in our days by providing three balanced and nutritious meals each day. While not the meticulous planner that my mother is, I do spend a good amount of time trying to find new and interesting things to make. But truthfully this is mostly a diversion for me; eating has always been my single favorite experience on the planet – yet for my son, it is simply something that needs to be done. My kid – at 5’11” and 110 pounds – he dutifully eats what’s given to him, but really and truly, he doesn’t care. (Aside from the roasted quail at Reza’s in Chicago, the kid could give a hoot how his calories are delivered.) Still, I’ve been trying for years to find a food that he looks forward to, and this stuck-at-home life has provided me with the perfect excuse to dig down deep into some new culinary experiences. But dig as I might, I haven’t found any particular dish which I can create that excites him (can you believe pizza and mac and cheese are actually his least favorite foods?) and soon I think I’m going to revert back I to more modest meals, because I’m gaining weight rapidly and I’m sure there are more productive ways in which I could be using this gift of time.

How many days into this are we? I’m never quite sure; I’m experiencing time in a more gestural way at present. Personally my son and I are past the first free-form phase. I languished for a few days in bed (I am prone to depression so it was understandable) and so now I feel I’m able to make a list of goals for the next phase. My son and I are very lucky to have space, food, internet and basic equipment. This can be anything I’d like to to be. It will remain deeply tempting for me to make sumptuous dinners washed down with entire bottles of wine (I’m not entirely convinced that phase is over yet) but the opportunity to take hikes and bike rides and finally attend to my ‘to file’ pile exists now as never before. I pray things don’t end up going the way of my failed meditation project, but I’ve carved out some new to-do lists, and I feel a tiny seed of promise waiting to germinate.

And as we all know by now, given the right circumstances, tiny things can grow to become a force of nature.