Rest: Why You (Yes, You) Need It!

 

LambCardrossWebsite

I would love to hear about your process in realizing you need to “step back” and care for yourself. What happened to cause that? What has changed in the way you go about doing things?

Those lines are from an email I received from a college student we know.

I laughed when I read her email. I’d just been up half the night before having a panic attack. I’d laid in bed, mind racing, breathing hard, every muscle firing. Finally, so as not to disturb my sleeping husband, I went downstairs and walked around, forcing myself to breathe deeply.

Click here to continue reading my latest post over at “On the Willows.”

A Morning at the DMV

I spent the morning of my 39th birthday in the waiting room of the Middlebury DMV.

Here are a few things that you should know:

-The Middlebury DMV is a “mobile” DMV, which means that it’s not in operation every day. It’s open for business in the Middlebury Courthouse every Thursday, and alternating Wednesdays. That’s it.

-I needed to renew my driver’s license. And, since my license expired on my 39th birthday, I needed to renew it that day. (I found out later that I had a two-week grace period to renew my license, but I’m a good girl who likes to meet the deadline.)

-My birthday is on September 11.

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

In Memoriam

IMG_4658

“Writers are always selling someone out.”

So wrote Joan Didion in her preface to Slouching Towards Bethlehem.

I recalled this quote last week at breakfast, when my husband asked me over the head of our crying daughter, “Is this going to become a blog post?”

“Of course not,” I replied, indignant. “It’s too sad.”

Three hours later, I sat at my computer and composed this blog post.

Writers are always selling someone out.

Our daughter was crying because she missed Pink Sweetie.

She missed Pink Sweetie because she’d received a letter from Pink Sweetie.

Let me back up: Pink Sweetie was — is — a “lovey,” a soft little blankie with an animal head (a bear, in this case.) Pink Sweetie was a baby gift for Fiona, but Fiona passed her — along with her companion, White Sweetie — to Campbell after her birth. Campbell never passed Pink Sweetie on; she clutched Pink Sweetie, buried her nose in Pink Sweetie, brought Pink Sweetie everywhere — including the ferry across Lake Champlain, where, one fateful summer Saturday, the wind swept Pink Sweetie out of Campbell’s grip and into the water.

Campbell went through all the stages of grief in the course of  30 minutes, from denial to acceptance. We told stories about how Pink Sweetie was having a great time hanging out with the mermaids and Champ the Lake Monster on the bottom of Lake Champlain.

This was over two years ago. Nothing ever fully replaced Pink Sweetie; not White Sweetie, not even the new Pink Sweetie that Fiona bought Campbell for her next birthday. Every six months or so, Campbell would stare into space, tears welling, and say, “I miss Pink Sweetie.”

Last Friday, an envelope addressed to Campbell arrived in the mail. In it was a typed letter from Pink Sweetie, reporting that all was well under the Lake. Like Campbell, Pink Sweetie had started Kindergarten. She’d made a new friend. She’d even visited Burlington, on a seagull joyride. And she promised to wave if Campbell called her name by the Lake.

(This letter wasn’t really from Pink Sweetie, of course, but from my husband, with whom I fell deeper in love as I read it. When asked what inspired him to write and send it from his office, he replied, “My research wasn’t going very well that day.”)

As I read Campbell the letter, her mouth dropped open in amazement. She smiled. She asked, “Was that really from Pink Sweetie?” She said, “I should write back.” Then she got quiet. She stood up, walked out the screen door into the back yard, and sat on a rock. When I found her ten minutes later, she was crying quietly. “I miss Pink Sweetie,” she sobbed, when I asked what was wrong.

The crying and missing continued at regular intervals over the next few days.

One month earlier, it was Fiona who was teary after a trip to California to visit her paternal grandparents. “I miss Grandmommy!” she wailed daily.

And two weeks ago, we had 16 trees taken down in our yard, a concession to our gradual realization that the huge, beautiful trees growing mere feet from the house prevented other vegetation from surviving, brought swarms of mosquitoes, and ruined the roof and deck — in addition to being potentially dangerous.

But our daughters, who’ve read and watched The Lorax numerous times, were indignant. They were especially grief-stricken over an enormous hemlock they’d named “Evergreen,” which shaded their favorite rock and had low-hanging branches from which they could swing. Before Evergreen was felled, our three oldest girls went out to hug him and tearfully say goodbye. They saved one of his branches as a memento. Whenever they play outside, they mourn, “We miss Evergreen!”

“There’s been a lot of missing in our house lately,” I observed.

“Do you miss anything, Mommy?” Fiona asked.

And thankfully the conversation suddenly shifted gears, because I had no answer.

I’m still not sure I have an answer, unless “Yes, and no” counts as an answer.

Missing, in the way that my daughters miss, strikes me as a luxury. It’s the domain of the very young and the very tenderhearted. I am neither. I don’t shed tears over inanimate objects, trees, or people who are far away. I may wish that a favorite shirt hadn’t been trashed because it developed too many holes, I may wish that certain plants had survived, I may wish that I saw distant friends and family more often. These thoughts flit through my mind like gnats and are gone seconds later. But that’s just wistful thinking, not deep missing. 

I’m also fortunate, because most of the people to whom I’m closest, the people who will leave un-fillable gaps in my life, are still alive. At the moment.

So, what do I miss?

For a little over a year now, I’ve felt my heart acutely. Not in a medical sense, but an emotional one.  Throughout the day, a moment will strike me and I’ll feel my heart ache, swell, bleed. I’ve never been much of a cryer, but now I cry at happy endings, sad endings, church sermons, and especially while reading children’s books.

I thought this might be postpartum hormones, but I think a more accurate term is: missing.

I miss everything, all the time.

I miss the present, even while I’m experiencing it.

Because unless you’re in the middle of a crisis, the present can be heartbreakingly beautiful, crushingly joyful.

Sit with your children watching a sunset, and along with the loveliness of that moment you’re aware of how fleeting it is. You recall previous sunsets, maybe sunsets before children, before you knew all that you know now. You think of other people in the world — those you know, and those you don’t — who are watching the same sunset while suffering pain and loss. You realize that the next time you watch a sunset with your children, it won’t be the same; you’ll all be older, and maybe pain and loss will have found you in the interim. You think further into the future, to when you’ll watch sunsets alone, to when your children will watch sunsets alone.

And you miss it all: the past, the present, and the future. Because it’s all a series of sad and happy endings, all the time.

But you don’t miss the you who didn’t think this way about every moment. Because maybe this is what it means to finally be a grownup.

“Do you miss anything, Mommy?”

That’s what I would have told her.

 

 

 

The House that Electra Built

IMG_2872

Just outside the town of Shelburne, an affluent Burlington suburb, a modest purple roadside sign reading “Shelburne Museum, Open May 9 – October 31” stands at the entrance to a parking lot with sweeping views of the hills bordering Lake Champlain. The museum itself is not readily apparent. Through the fence surrounding the grounds one catches glimpses of a red round barn, a lighthouse, a covered bridge, and – is that a steamboat?

The first impression is less a museum than the oversized miniature golf course of a putt-putting giant.

It’s a wonderful place to take children; in addition to exploring the lighthouse (which protected Lake Champlain’s Colchester Reef from 1871 to 1952, and was reassembled piece by piece on the Museum’s grounds) and the steamboat (The S. S. Ticonderoga, which served ports along Lake Champlain from 1906 until 1953, when it was moved two miles overland to its resting place on the Shelburne’s lawn), there’s a locomotive and rail car parked at the former Shelburne Railroad Station, a working carousel, the old Castleton jail, and The Owl Cottage, which is filled with dress-up clothes, toys, books, and crafts.

That’s only a fraction of what’s on view at the Shelburne Museum, which encompasses over 150,000 works of art and Americana throughout 39 exhibition buildings and galleries on 45 landscaped acres. It’s exhausting, which is precisely why the Shelburne is such a wonderful place to take children; one morning at the Museum, and they’ll nap all afternoon.

For three years, I visited the Shelburne Museum only  in the company of children. I saw the same things repeatedly – the carousel, the Ticonderoga, the Owl Cottage – to the exclusion of most of the collection. So I never had time to wonder: Why?

Why this strange assemblage of buildings – barns, a one-room schoolhouse, a meetinghouse, and a roadside tavern — mostly from Vermont in the 1700s and 1800s, which were transported to the Museum in pieces and  reassembled?

Why the eclectic collections: a 4,000-piece wooden circus parade, over 400 quilts, 225 carriages, 400 dolls, 900 decoys, folk art, 19th- and 20th-century American paintings, and Impressionist masterpieces by Degas and Manet? The Museums’s website boasts: “Shelburne is home to the largest U.S. museum collections of glass canes, trivets, and food molds.”

Why?

I finally asked these questions over Labor Day weekend, when my husband and I visited the Shelburne Museum alone to see what we’d missed in the company of our four young children.

The answer, as it turns out, is: Electra Havemeyer Webb.

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

The New Playground

KidSpace4278.preview

The plan for the “New Kidspace.”

 

Middlebury’s Mary Hogan Elementary School got a new playground this summer. If you’re the parent of a young child, this is probably old news. I myself have taken my four daughters to what we call “The New Kidspace” on a weekly basis for the past month; they play on the playground while I gaze longingly at the school building and count the days until vacation ends.

The new playground is a welcome update. The “Old Kidspace” was erected back when I was in elementary school, when the height of technology was using Logo to move a pixelated turtle in a square on your computer screen. It was a splinter factory, constructed of wood and tires and heavy chains. If that sounds medieval, it was.

The New Kidspace is built mostly of plastic, which probably isn’t really plastic, but some sort of recycled composite material. It features two three-story tall towers, a series of ramps and walkways, multiple climbing walls, slides both twisty and straight, and ladders that rise perpendicular or twist around like double helixes.

After our first outing to the new playground, I asked my oldest daughter — who attended kindergarten at the Mary Hogan School last year and had daily experience with “The Old Kidspace” — to rate her experience.

“Is it better than the old playground?” I inquired.

“No,” she answered.

“Is it worse?” I asked, alarmed that my tax dollars may have been misspent.

“No,” she replied, “It’s just different.”

The next day, she was begging to return to the new playground.

And that, of course, is the essence of what it is to be a kid: Everything elicits awe and excitement. The new playground and the old playground are equally worthy, equally fun.

So my children, all four of them, give the new playground high marks. And me?

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

The Circus Way of Life?

IMG_4227

Last weekend, our family made what I called “our second annual trip to Caspian Lake.” A year ago, we spent a weekend at the Highland Lodge in Greensboro, a small lakeside town in Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom. It was the first trip we’d made as a family of six (our fourth daughter had been born two months earlier), the sun shone brightly the entire time, and the weekend left me feeling restored and hopeful. We can DO this! We can take four children to the lake and enjoy our time together!

This year, the experience was no less fun, but very different. This time, friends were with us: two parents, their combined four children, and one child’s friend. If you’re keeping track, that makes four adults and nine children in all. It rained almost the entire weekend, with the temperature never exceeding the 60s.

But thankfully, our friends had realized that Circus Smirkus was going to be in Greensboro the same weekend, and had gotten tickets for our entire group.

Circus Smirkus calls itself “Vermont’s Award-Winning International Youth Circus.” It’s the offshoot of a circus camp that’s been training children in the circus arts for 24 years; children from this camp and around the world audition to be part of a summer touring company. The 2014 troupe was composed of 30 youths, ages 10-18, who traveled around New England from June through August performing a show they’d spent three weeks putting together.

It was easily one of the best circuses I’ve ever seen. The clowns were funny, the feats of balance and coordination were impressive, and the aerialists were breathtaking. All nine children in our group, ages 1 through 12, were riveted.

Circus Smirkus is based in Greensboro, and the performance we witnessed was this summer’s final show, a sort of homecoming. At the end, the Circus Smirkus Executive Director stood to address the troupers. He exhorted them to carry the lessons of the summer — the “circus way of life” — with them wherever they went.

As we drove away, my husband grumped, “’Circus way of life?’ Why does everything have to be a ‘way of life’ these days?”

An aside: My husband did enjoy the show, which is pretty remarkable; usually he dislikes the circus. For that matter, he dislikes parades and cupcakes and just about any form of pre-planned joyful celebration. He prefers his happiness a little less showy. He aspires to become a grumpy old man.

But as I pondered his question, it occurred to me that maybe there is something to be learned from the circus, a certain “way of life” that appeals to us. Otherwise, why do people choose the circus for entertainment? Why are Circus Smirkus shows so quick to sell out? Why did I enjoy the show so much?

The story that every circus tells, it seems to me, is: What we think is impossible may just be possible. Each circus act builds upon a concept until it passes what an audience considers the “normal” limits. Toss one more ball to the juggler. Add one more person to the human chain dangling from the trapeze. Balance on the tightrope upside down. Don’t just ride your unicycle; hop on it up a series of steps – two at a time. Twist your body in ways it isn’t supposed to go.

This circus narrative appeals to me because it feels a lot like real life right now. In less glamorous, less public ways, life seems always to be asking for just a little bit more from me, until I’m teetering on the edge of the impossible. Life throws me one more baby, a dog, a husband’s business trip, houseguests, illness. And I’m supposed to manage all those things in addition to the normal everyday things, like getting out of bed in the morning and putting on clothes and making breakfast.

But the circus tells us: Yes! You can do what doesn’t seem humanly possible! Because if a human can swing from the ceiling hanging by the back of her head from a silken rope, then YOU can care for four sick children while your husband’s away!

I noticed one other thing at Circus Smirkus that I’d never noticed at any other circus: Every aerialist performing amazing feats in the air required human ballast. Each trapeze, ring, or rope that was the platform for a performer’s acrobatics was attached by a cable to a non-performing (and heavier) member of the circus company, and this person served as a counterweight, raising and lowering him- or herself in order to raise or lower the performer. They stayed in the shadows, on the sidelines, unrecognized, but the performance depended on them.

Like life, again. It’s hard to test the limits of possibility without support. When we’re hanging by a thread, there’s usually someone – more then one, if we’re lucky – holding the rope for us. If, like me, you subscribe to a higher power, you may have your people and your God keeping you aloft.

Watching Circus Smirkus, I couldn’t help but wonder: What’ll happen to these kids? What’s next for a teenager who’s supremely talented in the circus arts? My conclusion: Vegas.

But who knows? I’m not sure exactly what Circus Smirkus’s Executive Director had in mind when he referred to the “circus way of life.” Maybe he meant facepaint and unitards and ten performances a week. But maybe some of those kids will take away from their summer what I took from their performance: That the limit of what’s possible for you is probably further out than you think, especially if you have someone holding your rope.

And in between those breath-holding moments when you’re standing on your hands or keeping the balls in motion? That’s always when the clowns come in. Because when life is hard, that’s when it’s most important to remember that moments ago you were laughing, and you’ll laugh again after this act is done.