The Hillhouse

The Journey of a Mother and Son

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 His desire has superseded his limitations.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

 

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.

 

Rolling in Hay June 7, 2013

What a subject. Can’t even think of any adjectives to use because they could all be construed as crude references to the subject itself. ! In fact, I struggle with the idea of even writing about it. And then hitting the publish button. But it’s a part of life, and it’s on my mind. So what does place does sex even have in my world these days? To be quite honest, it hardly exists as a thought, desire or concern. Frankly, I’ve been thinking it’s pretty much all over and done with for me in this lifetime. I mean, how exactly do knobby, arthritic hands and crepey thigh skin transport one to that place of tender seduction? Yeeps. It’s hard to imagine, really. Many are the times I’ve been very, very grateful that the burden of sex has been removed from my plate as I face these declining years. I’ve been secretly grateful and relieved that I was off the hook. Or am I?

Recently I had a chat with an old, dear friend. He was my high school sweetheart, and in spite of my breaking up with him in a most public and humiliating way, our friendship has endured over the decades (I was Best Gal at his wedding.) It was he who helped me most in the years that followed my separation from Fareed. He was there, night after night, for that same, tired conversation. He helped prop me up, slap me in the face and keep me moving when I just wanted to crumple to the ground and disappear. With great shame I realized the other day that it had been months since I’d spoken to him, so I finally picked up the phone and called (he called on my birthday, I rudely never called back.) Being one of those rare and true friends, we were just where we left off the last time. While we fell back into a conversation that was old and familiar, he threw something at me I hadn’t expected. “You need to have sex now. You need to get laid. You need a good man in your life.” I’d spent so much energy just healing emotionally that sex hadn’t even appeared on the radar. We joked that my parts were probably atrophying. ! Funny yeah, but no, I don’t need it, thank you. But might I want it? Might I? It just had not been on the list. Life, mothering, running a household, teaching, having chickens and a garden – it all takes energy, and I have so little left over. But even so, was I perhaps ready to consider it again? He didn’t convince me, but a tiny voice has continued to nag me on the subject…

Don’t get me wrong – I’m not jonesin. I’m so swinging busy I can’t even begin to understand how a sex life (doesn’t that usually come with an emotional love life too? Ich, so much time and energy!) would even work. I’m on 24/7. I can’t just drop off my kid and go pick up a guy. And as I’m feeling right now, I certainly don’t have the oomph for all that courtship that should precede said sex, so I’m still not convinced. And desire? Not a whole lot of it. But still, there’s that tiny voice now… Tonight, when we got home from another jam-packed day, I looked around my messy house and thought that tidying it up would make me feel better. But I changed my mind. No, that wasn’t going to do it. I felt as if I wanted something, but what exactly? A smoke. Yes, that’s it. (No, I haven’t gone back!) But I considered it for a minute, and realized that it wasn’t it either. What was that thing? That thing that I was missing? A wave of sensory memory came over me, and I remembered that whole, long-gone world. Really? But I don’t even know with whom that would take place! Maybe I was just a bit delirious with spring and all the celebrations of youth lately… and it was manifesting in misplaced yearnings.

Years ago, when I was in my twenties, I remember a friend saying that sometimes he and his wife got so busy with life that they could go two weeks without having sex. Two weeks!¬†Despite that active time in my youth I still didn’t consider sex to be at the very top of my priorities (unlike my husband who would have been happy to be so engaged most of the time) – I still couldn’t believe it,¬†two weeks? Were they crazy? Who on earth went two weeks without having sex? Man, we’d seldom gone without for two days! I remember my mind being opened up by that – and beginning to consider that the rest of the world didn’t all behave and live as we did. Wow. I’d lived in a very small, smug and satisfied world, I guess. (Later on in life I would discover that ‘two weeks without’ in a relationship wasn’t unheard of after all.)

Today I myself am part of that large, sexless world. And I honestly don’t think that it’s a bad place to be. You couldn’t have convinced me of this twenty years ago, but it’s just not that important to me in this moment. That being said, these days, now that I’ve finally got a bit of emotional distance from my ex, and now that I’ve lost a couple pounds, I can begin to vaguely imagine it again. Yet if it doesn’t end up happening again, as I feel right now, that’s perfectly ok. I’ve had enough sex – and romance – to last me, I think. Got it when the getting was good. Some might say I’ve got a case of sour grapes, but I say not. All in its time and place. And as things look right now, it still seems to me that hay is better off in the barn than in the bedroom.

Post Script: I can’t be the only one reminded of Teri Garr in ‘Young Frankenstein’…”roll een za hay, roll een za hay…” !