Into the Woods

If there’s such thing as a “real Vermont winter” this is the first that our family has experienced, four years after moving here.

Massachusetts and Maine may have had it worse, but since I haven’t left Vermont since November, I really can’t say for sure. I’d suggest that once you’ve reached over a foot of snow on the ground and double-digits under 0 degrees Fahrenheit on the outdoor thermometer, any comparison seems like senseless posturing.

We’ve had both of those conditions — the snow and the temperature — here in Vermont, with no relief for a very long time. It snows, and it snows again, the fresh snow piling atop the old because the temperature hasn’t exceeded freezing in over a month.

I love it.

The reason I love this winter weather can be summed up in three words: cross-country skiing.

Click here to continue reading my latest “Faith in Vermont” column for The Addison Independent.

Consider the Orchid

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Somehow, I have failed to kill the orchid.

The orchid in question is the first I’ve ever owned. It was bestowed upon me this past July as a hostess gift from a visiting friend. This friend — unlike me — does not have to drive an hour in order to reach the nearest Trader Joe’s, so she arrived at our house thoughtfully bearing an array of exotic Trader Joe’s products: dried mango, chocolate-covered cherries, seasoning salt. Also: the orchid.

“It’s beautiful. Thank you,” I said as she handed me a tiny pot containing the single curved stalk upon which three delicate blossoms trembled. “I’m going to kill this.”

Click here to continue reading over at On the Willows.

Vermont Country

As a Christmas gift this year, my husband sent me away.

I mean that in the best sense: Aware that I could use a solid chunk of quiet and solitude (that’s a euphemism for “escaping the children”), my husband did some research and booked me a two-night stay at St. Joseph’s Dwelling Place, a retreat center just outside of Ludlow, Vermont.

St. Joseph’s Dwelling Place offers both guided and unguided retreat options. I chose the unguided option, which meant I had a comfortable room all to myself in a large, quiet house set on six acres at the foot of Okemo Mountain. There was only one other guest at the house the weekend I was there, and I never saw her. I read (E. B. White’s book of essays about Maine, One Man’s Meat, which was excellent company), I wrote, I took two cross-country ski jaunts, and I luxuriated in the peace and quiet.

But this is not about my time in the retreat center, restorative as it was; this is about what happened when I left the retreat center.

To continue reading my latest “Faith in Vermont” column for The Addison Independent, just click here!

 

 

Children Get Older

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That title seems obvious. But is it, really? Like most obvious life facts — you should floss daily, we’re all going to die, squirrels are evil — the always-advancing age of our children is something we’d rather not think about. So, mostly, we don’t.

In this area, I think parents of young children tend to suffer from lack of imagination as opposed to denial. It’s just impossible to imagine (even if you had the time) your helpless baby or your adorable toddler as a scrawny grade-schooler who reads to him- or herself, is capable of running a vacuum cleaner, and who also occasionally rolls his or her eyes, snaps “I don’t care!” and slams the bedroom door.

I myself can imagine only as far as that grade-schooler, because I have one now. Middle and high school are still shadowy places on the distant horizon — although they’re becoming ominously clearer the more I experience grade school behavior.

“Just wait,” every parent of young children has heard from certain well-meaning (probably) and honest (undoubtedly) parents of grown children, “it only gets harder.”

As a parent of four, with one foot in early toddlerhood and one in early grade school, I’m not convinced that “harder” is the right word. There’s not much that’s “harder” than waking up every two hours throughout the night to nurse an infant after enduring toddler tantrums, managing sibling squabbles, and serving as activities coordinator/chauffeur/errand runner all day. Granted, I speak with limited authority — I have yet to see a child through to adulthood — but I think those experienced parents are trying to say that the struggle moves from the physical realm (How do I stay alert and lug the grocery bags and my children?) to the mental/emotional realm.

By mental/emotional realm, I mean a little something like this:

You are standing outside a door that your 7-year-old has just slammed, after rolling her eyes and shouting “I don’t care!” The precipitating event changes (you weren’t properly attentive to her artwork, you let a sibling share first at dinner, you used the wrong tone of voice when making a request), but the underlying issue is always the same: she doubts your love. She’s angry with you for falling short, and she’s also angry with herself for still needing you. It spiraled out of control, and now you stand in the hall, thinking: She needs discipline; I can’t allow her to talk to me like that. I need to set boundaries of respectful behavior, to be tough. But also, she needs to know I love her, no matter how she behaves. She needs affection and reassurance. 

And you think that there’s probably some perfect combination — if you could just balance the right amount of toughness with love, or find the exact words — and the lock will spring and her eyes will light up again and you’ll hug and she’ll mend her ways and become a kind, well-behaved, well-adjusted adult. Otherwise, you imagine, she’s in for a lifetime of conflict, broken relationships, hundreds of dollars spent on therapy and pharmaceuticals.

You feel all this, because you’ve been there, on the other side of that door — it seems like just minutes ago. But you can’t quite remember what would have made the lock spring back then; you only remember the hurts that you’re still getting over.

That’s the mental/emotional realm.

[Side note: “I don’t care,” with its dishonest bluster that hides anger behind indifference and shuts down further discussion, has become my least favorite phrase. I understand now why Maurice Sendak devoted an entire children’s book — the classic Pierre – to its dark potential. I’m convinced that most of the world’s ills can be blamed on “I don’t care.”]

What the “It only gets harder” parents never told me is that adolescence — by which I mean the basic Webster’s Dictionary definition of “the state or process of growing up” — seems to begin around 1st grade. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics:

Now prepubertal, bigger, more interactive, and involved with friends, the emotionally developed 7- and 8-year-old child now uses his increasing cognitive strengths and communication skills to plot a developmental trajectory toward mature independence and autonomy. His newly formed superego, or conscience, allows the understanding of rules, relationships, and social mores. Moral development progresses. Early experiences with separation foster individuation.

Or, to quote my college developmental psychology textbook: “Parents report that children at this stage are often sulky, depressed, or passively noncooperative, or that they avoid them after an angry conflict.”

I thought I’d have more time to prepare before the eye rolls, the slammed doors, the “I don’t care”s.

When we were first-time parents, an older friend of my husband’s told him, “All you really have to worry about between birth and 2 years is  keeping them alive.” This is good advice. The following two years are spent enduring tantrums. Then, after roughly one year of peace, you find yourself trying to mold them into decent human beings — but it’s too late! They’re already pushing away.

In a jaw-droppingly beautiful essay in the September 29, 2014 issue of The New Yorker, the writer Meghan Daum hashes through her lack of desire to have children and her experiences as a court-appointed advocate in the foster-care system. One of her conclusions is that “maybe creating a diversion from aging is in fact much of the point of parenting.”

I love her writing, but I completely disagree: Since becoming a parent, I have become more acutely aware of aging. It’s not only that parenting has aged me prematurely, with its stress, sleep deprivation, and the physical toll of carrying 20 pounds of child plus 50 pounds of diaper bag. It’s impossible to deny time’s progression when every day my children unfold upwards and outwards a little bit more; I search their baby photos for clues, traces of who they are now, and I can barely recognize today’s child inside the infant they were.

Nothing in my life has forced me to grow up more than parenting.

Working out how to relate to a grade-schooler is only the latest way in which parenting is grinding me into a grown-up. To say that it’s humbling seems far too trite. I’m learning for the thousandth time that life is not all about me; when I’m on one side of that slammed door, if I insist completely on me – on my idea of justice, on what want and need, on how feel — then I blow it.

Instead, I’m learning that sometimes it’s best to let perfect justice take a backseat to mercy, because that’s a developing person on the other side of the door. I’m learning to choose my words with care and bite my tongue often, because my words carry extra weight when the recipient is still acquiring a vocabulary. And I’m learning the awful truth that it’s entirely possible to dislike your offspring on occasion, and that the grittiest work of love is not pulling away in moments of dislike, because that’s not an option: This is your child.

Above all, I’m learning that I will blow it, which is okay since it’s not all about me. I remind myself of the power of apology, the resilience of children, and the grace of the other voices in my child’s life.

Sometimes I think that parenting is kind of like what they say about doing volunteer work in Africa: I’m probably getting more out of it than they are.

 

 

 

For Shame

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shame, n 1  a: a painful emotion caused by consciousness of guilt, shortcoming, or impropriety [Webster’s Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary, 1986]

***

I am not a member at the Middlebury Natural Foods Co-op.

There! It’s out!

I have absolutely nothing against the Co-op. It’s a lovely place filled with lovely food — much of it locally produced — and staffed by lovely people. I do, on occasion, shop at the Co-op; just last week I needed two cans of garbanzo beans and I had only one child with me and the Co-op was on my way.

When I took my two cans to the register, the clerk asked, “Are you a Co-op member?” I hung my head in shame and mumbled, “No.” She looked disappointed in me.

Most people are shocked to discover that I’m not a member at the Co-op. It’s a topic that’s come up a lot lately in conversations with friends and acquaintances from all walks of life: new neighbors, my husband’s colleagues at Middlebury College, and life-long Vermonters. We’ll be discussing some food product or recipe, and they’ll say, “Oh, you can get that at the Co-op. You’re members at the Co-op, right?”

When I confess my outsider status, jaws drop. Conversation screeches to a halt. At last, broken by their silent judgement, I start babbling an explanation.

Click here to learn why I don’t belong to the Co-op — and other shameful secrets — in my latest “Faith in Vermont” column for The Addison Independent!

 

Well, The Kids Had Fun….

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Every year I fight to downsize Christmas.

Christmastime is when my soul craves meaning, peace, spiritual focus. Yet I always end up feeling like I’m beating back a crushing tide of too much: too much to do, too many gifts, too many social obligations. By December 26, even if it’s been a “good” Christmas — and it usually is — I’m exhausted and faintly disappointed that I got sucked under by too much. Again.

Who’s with me?

Anyway, this year, taking inspiration from some other families, I suggested to my husband that we drastically curtail our gift giving and use the money we’d save to take our family on a mini vacation.

He looked at me for a long minute before saying, “Yeah, because it’s always so relaxing to travel with our kids.”

He had a point, but I was undeterred. Time spent together sharing experiences as a family seemed much more meaningful than gift-wrapped boxes.  I pictured us all laughing together, cuddling together, making lasting memories. Despite knowing better, I succumbed to the rosy glow of my imagination and booked our family for a two-night stay at the Highland Lodge in Greensboro, Vermont during a long weekend in January.

We’d stayed at the Highland Lodge twice before, but always in summer. In summer we inhabit a small cabin on the Lodge property and spend our days swimming and boating in nearby Caspian Lake.

The cabins are closed during the winter months, and Caspian Lake becomes a frozen expanse dotted with ice fishing shanties, so this winter visit promised to be a very different experience.

***

On Saturday morning we crammed our minivan chock full with the ridiculous amount of gear required to spend two nights away with four young children. Thanks to our portable DVD player, the 2.5-hour drive to Greensboro was mostly peaceful. It seemed like the perfect time to get away: my husband had been particularly stressed lately, which concerned me because usually I’m the stressed one.

We arrived to find that we were sharing the Highland Lodge’s main building with one elderly couple. All weekend long my husband made references to The Shining, but it wasn’t spooky at all: It was nice not to worry about the girls bothering anybody. Willie and David, the innkeepers, kindly gave us two rooms right next to each other, clear across the Lodge from the other guests.

The girls settled in to their room, with all the bossing and bickering that entails. Then we spent a fun afternoon on the Lodge’s excellent sledding hill. I even slipped away for a short run on some of the Lodge’s gorgeous nordic ski trails. The rosy image from my imagination was becoming reality.

The call from our dog sitter came just before dinner.

***

We’ve attempted a variety of care arrangements for Gracie, our two-year-old, overly-anxious Labradoodle. Our next-door neighbors — owners of her canine friend Brinkley — used to watch her for us, which was ideal. Then they moved. We tried boarding her: The first night at the boarding kennel she jumped an 8-foot fence and ran away. (Luckily we were still in town, so I drove out and lured her back, but she’s forever restricted to a crate and leashed walks at that kennel.)

Her second time at the kennel, Gracie came down with an intestinal virus and “kennel cough,” so her first day back at home I followed her around cleaning up phlegm.

“We’re never boarding her again,” I swore.

The next time we went away, we hired a wonderful dog sitter: the son of a friend, an experienced dog watcher, who would stay at our house and care for Gracie. She’d met him only once before, so when he entered our house, she did her usual thing: barked like crazy. When he finally got her out in the yard, Gracie broke through the electric fence and ran away. She spent an entire night outside in snow and sub-freezing temperatures, before returning the next morning.

Nevertheless, the dog sitter was undeterred, and so were we. NO problem! I thought, This time we just won’t let her roam the yard. 

When I answered my cell phone at the Highland Lodge, the dog sitter said: “It’s worse than last time.”

This time, when he’d arrived, Gracie had been so nervous that she’d run around the first floor, peeing. Then she’d bolted up the stairs, jumped the child safety gate, and run down the upstairs hallway, pooping. She’d poop, step in the poop, then try to climb the walls.

When our dog sitter managed — miraculously — to get Gracie outside on the tie-out, she yanked her head through her collar and ran away.

That’s what we had to deal with, hours into our vacation.

We made arrangements: We called in the grandparents. Gracie returned later that night, my parents arrived to let her in the house, and they spent hours scrubbing her bodily fluids off our floors and walls.  How do people manage when there aren’t grandparents nearby?

***

Our daughters were up before dawn the next morning, ready for hot chocolate. If that sounds cozy, consider: one daughter doesn’t like hot chocolate, one won’t drink it with marshmallows, one will only drink it with marshmallows, and the baby wants to sit on my lap and pour her hot chocolate all over me.

We survived breakfast, and the rest of the day included more sledding, cross country skiing, and a walk on the frozen lake.

That evening, daughters successfully tucked into bed, my husband and I settled in the downstairs library to read and munch popcorn. All was peaceful, until I heard what sounded like pounding from upstairs. I mentioned it to my husband, who went to investigate.

“Uh, there’s sort of a situation,” he said when he returned. “Georgia’s in our bedroom, and she’s locked the door.”

Remember: We had two bedrooms right next to each other, and we were virtually the only people staying at this lodge in a tiny town in northeastern Vermont. So, did we lock our doors? No! My husband stashed the keys up on our closet shelf. That’s where they were when Georgia, our three-year-old, entered our room and locked the door behind her.

Georgia is prone to drama; when I arrived upstairs she was yelling and pounding on the door.

I put on my best “Calm Mommy” act. “It’s okay, Georgia,” I said soothingly. “All you have to do is turn the knob. Can you turn the knob?”

“NO!” she sobbed. “I can’t!”

“It’s just like in the Alfie book,” I reasoned [the classic Alfie Gets in First by Shirley Hughes, in which Alfie locks himself in his house and the whole neighborhood talks him through unlocking the door.] I had her pull a box of diapers over to the door and stand on it, the better to turn the knob.

“I can’t!” she kept crying from atop the diaper box.

Finally, my husband took the easy route: he called the innkeepers to find where they kept the extra keys. Georgia was released, and to this day maintains that she never locked the door.

“It was my unicorn’s fault,” she insists.

***

Vacation was almost over; in a few short hours, we’d drag our exhausted selves back to whatever horrific scene awaited us at home.

“I’m so sorry!” I moaned to my husband. “This trip was my idea, and I feel like I’m causing you more stress than if we’d stayed home! And the dog was my idea, too! And I had all these kids! All I do is stress you out!”

“Don’t be silly,” he reassured me. “The kids are having a great time.”

It’s true: Our daughters didn’t want to leave. And we returned to a house that — thanks to my parents’ ministrations — was cleaner than we’d left it. (The dog was very happy to see us.)

LESSONS LEARNED:

-Always maintain control of the hotel room keys.

-Contact the vet about anti-anxiety medication for Gracie.

-Keep grandparents close by.

-When “vacationing” with young children, the expectation should be no higher than that the kids have fun. That’s good enough.

 

Radon: It’s a Gas!

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Like most parents of young children, my husband and I block out the days between Christmas and New Year’s Day — dates that correspond roughly with the school winter vacation. During this two week period, we set aside our to-do lists, check email less frequently, and abandon our typical schedule in order to devote ourselves to more sacred pursuits, like celebrating the birth of Jesus, decorating candy canes to look like reindeer, and breaking up sibling quarrels that erupt every five minutes over nothing at all.

I never return to my to-do list so enthusiastically as I do when school resumes after the holidays. Buoyed along by the fresh energy of the new year, I’m ready to accomplish things that have nothing to do with whether the Calico Critters are distributed justly. Rarely am I so content to stay indoors and catch up on correspondence, tackle home improvement projects, and cook gallons of soup.

This new year, my husband wanted to tackle something that’s been on his to-do list since 2011: He wanted to fight radon.

Click here to continue reading my latest “Faith in Vermont” column for The Addison Independent!