The Circus Way of Life?


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.


How Does My Garden Grow?


I’m an ambivalent gardener. This stems from my upbringing: As the only child of parents who have Miracle Gro running through their veins, I grew up observing the obvious pleasure that gardening bought my parents, along with the beautiful results. Weekends at our house were often spent in the backyard, where my parents’ tireless weeding, mulching, planting, and cutting turned our suburban acre into a verdant paradise.

On the other hand, I spent a lot of time playing alone in that backyard, breathing in the fertilizer fumes, and I may have resented — just a tiny bit — the time that my parents spent focusing on the flowerbeds when they could have been driving me to the mall.

Click here to continue reading this week’s “Faith in Vermont” column for The Addison Independent.

How Many Children Should You Have?


Our rainy-day tent is full!

Last week, my husband took our two oldest girls to California to visit family for six days; I stayed in Vermont with our two youngest. It was the first time our family had carved ourselves up for an extended period of time. The decision wasn’t easy; I was just a smidge bitter that I’d have to skip a trip to the beautiful place that was our home for five years, and where we still have many dear friends and family. But it was a decision born of frugality (my husband had enough miles to cover exactly three airfares) and practicality (Ever tried flying cross-country with a newly-walking one-year-old? It’s like six hours of wrestling a very stubborn baboon; it can be done, but it’s best avoided).

I wasn’t sure the split was equitable. My husband took the louder half of our children; I was left with the half that can’t do as much for themselves — the half that still throws food and needs diapers. Our three-year-old wasn’t sure about the arrangement, either. She lost her two big sisters, whom she alternately irritates and idolizes, and was left with her baby sister, who doesn’t do much except toddle after her and chew her toys.

For the first 24 hours after half of our family flew West, I had a perpetual lump in my throat. It was so quietToo quiet. I missed the chaos.

Things looked a lot different after a good night’s sleep; after I’d put the toddler and the baby down at 7:30 PM and they’d slept a solid 12 hours. No post-lights-out bedtime party. No feet running down the hall at 5:30 AM to the cries of, “I have to use the potty!” I only had to prepare meals for myself and two other people! I only had to pick up after two people! I only had to get two people ready and out the door in the morning! And these two people actually sleep during nap times! It was so, so easy.

Which got me thinking about how many kids one should have. I know I’m not the only one thinking this, because almost every day my website statistics show that somebody’s been directed to this post because they’ve done a search for something like, “Should I have a fourth child?”

I would never actually answer that question. I have no idea. I never planned how many children I would have, never had a magic number in mind. Having children is extremely personal, and it’s usually not going to turn out how you planned it, anyway. However, if you are the kind of person for whom intention and biology are aligned; the kind of person who says, “Here’s how many children I want, and their birth spacing, and their genders,” and it happens just as you wish — then the rest of us resent you like crazy. But this is for you: My extremely biased and very tongue-in-cheek reflections on offspring numbers.

One child. As I always tell the concerned parents of only children, “I’m an only child and I turned out just fine (twitch, twitch).” Parents of only children tend to be concerned; in many cases, that may be why they only had one child. One child is a good match for people who like a sense of control and order: the worriers, the perfectionists, the cloth-diaperers. The temptation for outsiders is to say, “One child; they have it so easy!” DO NOT BE FOOLED: In my opinion, one child is about as hard as it gets. First, having only one shot at child-rearing puts a lot of pressure on the parents (and the child): This is it, and if Junior ends up becoming a terrorist, that’s all you’ve got. Second, if you have an only child, you’re all they’ve got. You are the playmate, the entertainment, the bells-and-whistles. My own four children will entertain themselves reasonably well for an hour or more, because they have each other; if any one of them was an only child, I’ve have no peace. My hat is off to all parents of only children; I don’t know how my mom did it.

Two children. In retrospect, this is probably the ideal number of children. Two children are easily managed and, after a certain age, will be able to entertain each other. If Junior becomes a terrorist, then you still have a backup. However, there are risks inherent in having two children. First, if Junior gets carried off by a bird of prey, then you’re left with an only child. Second, if the siblings don’t get along (and there’s no guarantee that they will), then instead of entertaining each other they’ll fight constantly, and you’ll feel like a bouncer in a biker bar.

Three children. This isn’t bad, either. It’s a particularly good option for those who find that two children feel just a little too easy, or those who haven’t gotten the desired gender on the first two tries. (WARNING: My economist husband tells me that if your first two children are the same gender, your chances of having another child of that gender are greater than 50% with number three, and the percentage goes up as you add children. We’re living proof.) The complication with three children is that it’s an odd number, so chances are someone’s going to feel left out. Also, three children automatically creates The Dreaded Middle Child. But if Junior becomes a terrorist, you can still say, “The majority of my kids turned out great!”

Four children. Ending up with four children is probably preceded by a conversation that goes something like, “Well, we’re not completely broken yet. Want to try for another?” This is when it starts to get crazy. You will need a minivan, if three children didn’t already push you over the edge. You will never go out without someone saying, “FOUR children?!? You sure have your hands full!”  You will feel guilty about overpopulation. You will be embarrassed by the amount of trash and recycling you set out on your curb. The noise level in your house will leave your ears ringing for an hour, should you manage to escape. (My favorite description of having four children comes from comedian Jim Gaffigan: “Imagine you’re drowning…and then somebody hands you a baby.”) But four children can be an awful lot of fun. It’s a nice even number: Everyone gets a buddy. And if Junior becomes a terrorist, you won’t even notice.

Five or more children. This is above my pay scale. If you have five or more children, chances are that you need them to help on the farm, or you’re trying to land your own reality show. If not, you’re just a saint. Five children is the point at which I would no longer feel even a tiny bit good about my parenting at the end of the day, because there’s no possible way I could  begin to give everyone the love and attention they need. But some people do it, and do it well, and I’m in awe of them. I’m also in awe of their bodies, because five or more pregnancies and childbirths? YEOW!

As lovely as my week as a parent of two was, it didn’t feel right until all four of my girls were reunited. When everyone was back together under one roof,  I felt so grateful for all of the love, the noise, the mess. For about an hour. Then they started driving me crazy again.

Good luck!

Minibury Guest Post: Meet the Parent VI

Meet the Parent icon

Maine Saville is one of those moms I see all the time around town at kid-related activities, but aside from a quick “hello,” or commenting on her very adorable newborn, I’ve never had much opportunity to talk with her. Whenever I do, she always makes me laugh.

Then last month I ran into Maxine at Junebug, and she said she’d been enjoying these “Meet the Parent” profiles; that she’d learned of a mom who’d just moved into her neighborhood through reading one. So I promptly recruited her to be my next profil-ee. (Lesson: Be careful about talking to me!)

I knew I’d made a good choice when Maxine emailed me her responses, prefaced by: I am on my phone in my driveway while kids sleep (ah, peace)! What parent can’t relate?

Click here to continue reading the latest in my “Meet the Parent” guest series for Minibury.

Going Batty

Since our family moved to Vermont from more urban environs, I’ve often thought — and sometimes said — “It’s wonderful to live in a place where our children can see a variety of wildlife in its natural habitat, where the animals around us aren’t limited to those that managed to survive having their environment paved over and built upon.”

I say this during the magical moments when my daughters are catching toads in our yard, or when they spot an owl in a tree across the street, or when a doe and her fawn run right in front of us. I find it harder to say when my husband is emptying the 857th mousetrap, or when I’m digging a deer tick out of my child’s back, or when the smell of close-range skunk drifts through the bedroom window at night.

You take the bad with the good.

Like the other day, when I entered my husband’s home office to put our one-year-old daughter down for a nap in the playpen where she’d been sleeping because we’d had weekend houseguests. The shades were pulled, the room dim, but out of the corner of my eye I saw something that made me think, “What a large moth!” As the thing reversed direction and came straight towards me, I thought, “That’s no moth, that’s a BAT!”

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




A Spiritual Life…With Kids?


In the juggling act of life, most of us try to keep multiple balls in the air in order to maintain our mental and physical health. The balls in play typically involve some combination of work, relationships, exercise, relaxation, and spiritual life.

Adding children is akin to lobbing a cannon ball into the mix.

At least, it was for me. After having children, work and relationships were bumped aside, exercise and relaxation fell to the ground and rolled away, and spiritual life…how do you maintain a fulfilling spiritual life with young children? Is it possible to have daily “quiet time” when no time is quiet?

Click here to continue reading over at On the Willows.

Dispatch from the Beach

Photo from our second trip to Maine, with only one child. (We have no photos from our current trip!)

Photo from our second trip to Maine, with only one child. (We have no photos from our current trip!)

Our family spent this week in a rented house on the Maine coast, as we have for four of the past six summers (the two absences were due to the summer births of babies #2 and #4). By “our family,” I mean my husband and me, our four children, and my parents. Also with us — just down the road — are my mother’s sister, her two daughters (my cousins), their husbands, and their four combined children. Assorted family members visit us throughout the week. It’s a reunion of sorts, a vacation (of sorts), and a very fun time. Our daughters look forward to Maine all year. This trip is becoming a tradition, one that’s full of memories. The first time we came here, we were living in California and I was pregnant with our first child. A lot has changed in six years.

Now that we live in Vermont, Maine is a nice place to visit for two reasons. First, it has a seacoast, which landlocked Vermont does not. (This means that my husband spends a lot of time worried about waves and rip tides, which our daughters — experienced lake and pool swimmers — only encounter here.) Also, Maine is convenient; we can get here in about 5 hours, which includes an hour break for lunch. (In other words, we arrive before the battery dies on our portable DVD player.)

But now that we live in Vermont, I’ve also noticed that our Maine vacation seems a little backwards. You see, for most people a beach vacation entails “getting away from it all,” going somewhere with “a slower pace of life.” This was certainly true the two summers when we traveled to Maine from the San Francisco Bay Area. But now…now we live “away from it all.” Finding a location with “a slower pace of life” than our small town in Vermont would entail visiting a smaller town in Vermont.

These days, the Maine beach town that we’ve always visited seems bustling, over-developed, congested. It’s filled with tourists from fancy places like Boston and New Jersey. They drive fancy, fast cars, and they don’t stop when they see you waiting to cross the street.  Enormous new beach “cottages” are being constructed on every square foot of land. The only bookstore in town closed down and became the 57th tacky souvenir shop. And 30 minutes of our 5-hour drive to Maine are spent inching along in traffic on the three-mile stretch between the interstate and our rental house.

If it sounds like I’m cranky and complaining, I’m really not. Maine may no longer be the idyllic retreat that it once seemed, but it’s always fun to be somewhere other than home for a time. The beaches are beautiful. We get to visit with family whom we rarely see the rest of the year. Maine offers us new experiences and sights, like lighthouses and lobster boats and saltwater taffy (which, in one hilarious episode this summer, my oldest daughter tried, disliked, and then was unable to spit out. “It’h sthicky!” she cried, bent over the trashcan and clawing at her mouth.)

This particular summer, I’ve noticed something else backwards about our trip to Maine: For some strange reason, being at the beach brings out the best behavior in my daughters. For instance, our first morning here my two oldest girls woke up at the crack of dawn, as is their custom. But instead of bursting into our bedroom and demanding water or the toilet, I heard them walk quietly downstairs. Then I heard clanking noises, which immediately alarmed me. Surveying the situation from the top of the staircase, I saw that they’d gone downstairs, fetched one of the rental house’s games, set it up in the living room, and were now happily engaged in a round of “Connect 4.”

I tiptoed back to bed.

That might have been just a blip, a temporary foray into maturity. But after breakfast that same morning, my three oldest daughters slipped upstairs. Ten minutes later they emerged. They were dressed. Their hair was done. Their teeth were brushed. And, as they proudly showed us, they’d cleaned their rooms and made their beds. These are the very things that I spend an hour hounding them to do every morning back home.

“Girls,” I exclaimed, “I’m so proud of you! This is wonderful! But just tell me something: Why don’t you act this way when we’re at home?”

“Mommy, we’re on vacation!” one of my daughters replied, as if that explained it all.

And maybe it does.