The Hillhouse

The Journey of a Mother and Son

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.

 

Bad Apple June 28, 2011

Apparently my near ex finds this blog an unhealthy mess. A forum for self-pity in which I exploit my child, as well as his other three.  Threatens to take legal action of some sort if I don’t retract certain things. Gotta say, that doesn’t feel great. But today I am rather done with being bullied. The self-righteous way in which he wields his power seems the unhealthy mess here.

I have had some revelations in my solitude. For nearly the past quarter century I’ve been too enmeshed in this person’s life to gain any meaningful perspective. Lately, it’s occurred to me (only lately?, some might wonder) that given the way in which my near ex was raised, his behavior is not entirely shocking. When our news became known to folks, quite a few felt the freedom to finally express their true feelings on the man. There is a consensus among these opinions; he is a talented motherfucker, a hard worker, and he can appear as sweet as you please – yet there’s a frighteningly chilly side to this worldly, successful musician that shows up real quick when you no longer serve his agenda.  Was he fired from his last band as he pleads in his divorce statements in order to show hardship, or did he quit in order to boldly strike out on his own, as he purports to the Chicago Tribune? Two stories, one narrator. He amends his story as needed. Yes, he’s a whole bunch of stuff, but he’s not stupid.

My near ex is an only child and has never wanted for much. He’s enjoyed the world on his own terms for all of his life. His parents have enjoyed the same. Immigrants of the 50s who came here to attend college, their story is at first romantic and inspiring. They created wealth and success in their new adoptive country. They had one child, and brought him up in a household of culture, learning, travel – and top-shelf dysfunction. I oughta know.

To this day his father sleeps on top of a desk in a windowless basement office in a cement-block building on the outskirts of the campus from which he is a retired professor. His amenities include a hotplate and a dorm-sized fridge. Don’t know how or where he performs his toilet. We always used to wonder. He virtually lives in his overcoat – something which has appeared endearing at times – yet it does smack of a certain cluelessness. However he lives or dresses, this man has certainly accomplished a lot in his life, and honestly, there’s no other person I know who has the magic touch as he does when it comes to acquiring permits or having bank fees waived. He’s got a certain thing – I will handily give him that. But that he owns property which might afford him a fine standard of living, yet he lives like a homeless stowaway – that I’ve never really understood. In the end it never really mattered. He was always there for his son – and til now, his daughter in law. He coached, offered advice – and he was never, ever without a solution. I can hear him now, in his soft Pakistani accent, “Elizabeth, one could simply just….” Every problem was met with a “one could simply just ____” Easy to say when you have several Mexican laborers living in your basement and ready to jump at any task for $7 an hour. Yeah, if I had that resource there are a lot of things I could “simply just”. !

Last year he and my mother in law came here to visit us in New York. He told me he had a “mystery” he needed to solve and that he needed to put on his “Sherlock Holmes hat”. He leaned in, as if to whisper to me, and said in an almost rhetorical tone “I cannot figure out why you would want to move here, to New York“. We had just ended an awkward, yet somewhat sweet visit with both of them and my parents (after all we’d all been family for twenty years in spite of the crazy events), and I thought it was rather evident why I was here, and especially so because my parents lived right next door to me. Regardless of how obvious it all seemed, I spelled it out for him. In retrospect, I wish I’d played the teacher card and turned it around: “I don’t know, why do you think I moved to New York?”. That I had to answer – that the question was even in his mind – proved that he was only able to see the world from his private epicenter. His son is much the same. In their eyes, I left Dekalb for selfish reasons. (If self-preservation equals selfish, well then, I agree.)

My mother in law is another character whose personal description might fill an entire post. She is well past 80 and continues to dye her hair a fire engine red using ‘congo red’, a laboratory stain she gets through her husband’s business. It saves her the cost of box color. Years ago she was diagnosed with a latent form of what doctors term “high-functioning schizophrenia”. When the stress in her life reaches a critical level, her symptoms begin to manifest. And I tell you, life has a dreamlike quality to it when you’re searching under the floorboards in her basement apartment bathroom (no, they don’t live together and haven’t in twenty years) for gobs of bills and gold stored in ziplock bags and must retrieve them for her silently, stealthily, so as not to be picked up on the cameras which were placed inside her home by the government.

I know a number of folks with schizophrenia, some whose lives have been horribly changed, some not so much. It’s nothing to joke about, yet it’s also not something to deny and avoid. And yet we all did, for two decades. We’d dance around her, her temper, her stress threshold, with her husband confiding in me every few years that this time he was serving her with divorce papers, but I was not to tell anyone. Time and time again he would end our talks: “Elizabeth, this conversation never happened.” I was jockeyed about between all three of them, keeping lies, disclosing what was advantageous for a currently needed solution – oh I was knee-deep in crap. I played the game right along with em. But it was how we all lived. There my husband was, adored and revered in public, but privately he was twisted up in a tangle of half-truths and intimate deception.

And I guess I didn’t do much to stop it. Sometimes I tried. When I did, I was told not to rock the boat. If we wanted their help. And with that big Evanston home, we needed help. So I admit, I found it easier to shut up and deal with it than to expose the dysfunction and point to the huge elephant sitting in our living room. What good would it have done? We had our home, and they were living as they chose. We each had our thing in place. They always had drama, and we always had to dance around it. It was a drag of a way to live, but it worked. They greased the wheel, so we kept on rolling…

I don’t want to deny my parents in law all the wonderful things they’ve given me. I’ve traveled the world with them, learned about other cultures from the inside, learned how to cook new kinds of food, learned things from the metaphysical to the mundane. I have truly learned a lot from them, and for this I give them my love and my gratitude. But no more will I give them my deference.

I had thought perhaps, in this new era of babies, families and moving on that it might be time to lay our cards down and reassess our old methods. Perhaps it was time for truth. This is in part why I began to write this blog – I was exhausted from keeping so much in and for so many years.  I recently wrote a letter to all three – mother, father, son, in which I did indeed point out the enormous and unrecognized guest in the room. I laid it all out. My near ex claims it has had the opposite affect of the one I intended. Well, maybe not. I’m kinda screwed here no matter what. I just meant to get shit out in the open so I could finally breathe free and clear. I guess I’d thought they would rally to my aid in some way given the blatant inequity of the situation, that my father in law would take up his “one could simply just” mantra, but no. He hasn’t even responded to my emails. That’s never happened before. Clearly, the sides are chosen, the era of my compliance has ended, and with it, my membership in the club.

It seems the apple has not fallen far from the tree.