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.

____________________________________________________

 

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.

 

 

 

 

Vortex March 1, 2020

In my mind, March is it. It is the beginning, it is the ending, and it is the never-ending middle all at once. Sap drips from the trees onto my car, signaling that some shift of nature is afoot, yet the temperature stays well below freezing without letup, telling me that no such change is on its way. At the doorstep of March we are as close to a cold, dark January afternoon as we are to a muggy, pollen-dense May morning. March is enigmatically right in the middle of it all.

These days Elihu and I are in the middle of it all, too. We are constantly moving, ever on to the next project, the next appointment, the next milestone. However, on a quiet Sunday like this, with coffee brewing in the kitchen, blue jays scolding outside the window and a teenage boy sleeping soundly into the late morning, it doesn’t exactly feel like it. This very moment is when life feels the way I like it best; rested and unhurried. But this is just a momentary pause in our life. Deadlines, exams and concerts are approaching. Preparations are being made for presentations, tours, camps and travel. Tutors and teachers and after school clubs must be coordinated. As I sit here in the quiet of my bedroom, a shaft of morning light flickering through the curtains, I try to imagine all the things that are yet before us, but the visions are as hard to fully comprehend as last night’s dreams.

The orchestra has become a source of great joy for Elihu. He has finally found peers – other kids his age who also live on the outskirts of mainstream school culture. Smart, mathsy, musical, multilingual and funny, these outsiders are insiders here, and I am so deeply relieved and happy for my son that he has finally found a social group to which he truly belongs. Yesterday, I peeked in on the orchestra as they rehearsed the Brahms, and I witnessed my son in his own heaven. After the last note he pulled away from the horn and smiled in a way I have seldom seen. A mother could wish for nothing more. With my heart full I left him for an afternoon with his people.

This is the season of SATs for all high school juniors, but for those who have set their sights on MIT, this means two additional SAT exams. Regular high school curriculum – even the rigorous work of the Waldorf School – does not prepare a student for these extra tests, and so Elihu has been working with a tutor on the weekends. Between tuba lessons, tutors and other extra costs it has been a financially stressful time. But crazy as life is, an angel has come to us at perfectly placed times… An old friend from my past life in Chicago has sent us gifts of money simply out of the blue, and really, the timing has been truly miraculous. In the middle of it all sometimes I just don’t know how it can possibly work out, and yet somehow, it does. (An extra thanks to you, angel.)

Among the many extracurriculars that Elihu has going on are film club, math club and mock trial. Not only does he cut a fine figure in his jacket and bow tie, but his preparation is meticulous and the delivery of his statements to the court is equally impeccable. He has won best advocate twice now. Truly, if he wished, he could pursue a career in law (my paternal grandfather was a judge, so it’s in the genes I suppose), but of course this won’t be his path.

Flying has taken a backseat these days. With fields under snow, cold weather, academics and music there just isn’t a lot of time or opportunity. Elihu did however do a week-long internship in the aircraft maintenance hangar at the Saratoga County Airport recently, and that was really inspiring for him. Every day when he got home he radiated pure happiness. He learned a lot about the practical, real-life side of aviation. I’d even go so far as to say it was one of the best experiences of his life thus far.

The most thrilling and challenging event is yet to come… Elihu won runner up in the Empire State Youth Orchestra’s concerto competition (“Someone has to win, why not me?” said the young man after what felt like a pretty good audition) and he will be soloist with the ESYO repertory symphony in May. Elihu told me the other day that the moment he is most looking forward to is when he walks onto the platform with his tuba, shining under the lights, when he takes his seat, breathes for a moment, and then nods to the conductor. Indeed. Can you imagine? I still have a hard time understanding this will be happening. But we’re not there yet. There are many unseen things to be done in addition to the practice and mental preparation. Elihu needs to be fitted for a tuxedo – tails, white tie and vest, the whole nine yards – and this will require even more time and money. I don’t know how it will all come together, but I know it will. Somehow it always does.

When the heavy snows arrive in December we suspend our garbage pickup for a few months. The driveway gets increasingly narrow and icy at the end of plowing season, making it a challenge to leave containers at the roadside. By mid March we have our own private dump in the driveway. It’s a tad embarrassing to see the great mound appear as the snow melts away, and with one sunny afternoon it can become a bit pungent too. Winter snowfalls are a beautiful thing, but they do make day-to-day tasks a bit trickier. County plow trucks routinely knock over our mailbox, making it necessary to pickup our mail down the road at the post office. The coop is surrounded by great berms of snow, leaving the flock only a small area in which to move, and even our poor birds are becoming short-tempered and irritable. And this year, in addition to our temporary dump we have enormous tree limbs down throughout the property. A massive ice storm a few weeks ago left us without power for three days as well as a huge mess of downed branches and even entire trees strewn across our five open acres. The melting of March will reveal the extent of the mess. It’s got me wondering how in hell we’ll clean it all up, but one thing at a time. We’re not there yet.

Elihu and I recently went over his schedule for the next few months, and it’s rather stunning. Soloist with the orchestra. A trip to Washington state to find his new tuba, a South American tour with the orchestra, a week of study at MIT, a trip to Europe with his father. I won’t see much of him this summer, and while it saddens me, it’s OK. It gives me deep satisfaction to know that I’ve helped to make all of this happen. And it gives me true happiness knowing that my son is happy.

The sun has moved across the room, now it’s falling onto the bed. I know that it’s getting late, and we need to get moving. Chickens have been tended to, breakfast dishes stacked in the sink, and Elihu has been buzzing notes on his mouthpiece for awhile now. In a few moments we will load the tuba into the car and head off to his lesson. Later on today he will meet with his tutor. Afterwards we will head home in the dark for supper. Bed will follow, and tomorrow, after two weeks of winter break, school will start again. I will resume my work, and the preparations for the coming month’s events will begin anew.

Tomorrow we march into our future.