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!

On Writing, the Darkest Day, and the New Year

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Last week, my oldest daughter found a copy of our Christmas letter – the breezy family update that I’d slapped together to send out with our Christmas cards. She sat down at the kitchen table to read it, without my knowledge. (It’s still new and surprising that there are members of our family who can read besides my husband and me, and I’ve yet to take the necessary precautions.)

I found her there, sitting at the table, laughing and laughing. This girl is not a big laugher; at seven years old she’s become shy and serious, with a tendency to ask questions that hint at the beginnings of existential angst (“Mommy, do you ever feel lonely?”) She’d never before read anything I’ve written. But there she was, laughing out loud over something I’d written about our family.

In that moment, I remembered why I write. I also thought, If I never write another word, it’s okay; this is enough.

Click here to continue reading the final “Faith in Vermont” column of 2014 over at The Addison Independent.

Mary & Me

Our pastor (trustingly and graciously) asked me to write and deliver a brief reflection on a Bible passage during our church’s Lessons & Carols service yesterday. She gave me a choice of two passages: one was the well-known, bare facts version of Jesus’s birth; the second was a little flashier, about the angels appearing to the shepherds. 

I chose the less exciting Bible passage, because I felt like I would benefit from spending time digging into a story I’ve heard so often that I barely hear it anymore. What follows is that passage, and my reflection upon it. 

 

Luke 2:1-7

In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world. (This was the first census that took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria.) And everyone went to their own town to register.

So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem the town of David, because he belonged to the house and line of David. He went there to register with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no guest room available for them.

***

I have a really difficult time relating to Mary.

Joseph confuses me, too, but I feel like Mary should be a kind of soul sister: she was a woman, I’m a woman; she was a mother, I’m a mother.

Still, I just don’t get her. Almost every other Biblical character turns out to have been a lot like us – or, better yet, worse than us. The big names in the Bible were liars, murderers, cheats, prostitutes. But not Mary; read the Christmas story for the hundredth time, and Mary looks exactly like she did back when I was in Sunday School: humble, obedient, and perfect. Too perfect.

This is a young woman who, when an angel visits her early in Luke and tells her that she’s going to be fodder for the Nazareth tabloids by being an unwed mother to God’s son, essentially says, “Huh? Okay!” Then she starts singing poetry.

That would not exactly be my response if I were in her sandals.

Then there’s this census trip to Bethlehem with Joseph. Mary and Joseph probably traveled about 90 miles from Nazareth to Bethlehem. And, although most pictures seat Mary on a donkey, the Bible never mentions any donkey, so she may have been walking. The trip would have taken them about a week, give or take. And Mary was in her last trimester of pregnancy.

During my last trimester of pregnancy, I was either buying baby supplies or on the couch watching Downton Abbey. I was emotional, uncomfortable, and impatient. If I’d had to walk or – only slightly better – ride a donkey 90 miles, somebody would have heard about it, loudly and often.

As for the actual birth of Jesus, it seems that our Western image of Mary and Joseph arriving in Bethlehem, finding no vacancy at the Motel 6, and spending the night in a barn is about as accurate as Mary riding on a donkey.

Many Biblical scholars believe that the word “inn” is a bad translation of the original Greek word “katalymati,” which is more accurately interpreted as “guest chamber” or “upper room.” Mary and Joseph were probably traveling with members of Joseph’s extended family, and because Bethlehem was Joseph’s ancestral home, they may well have been staying with his family. A truer description of what happened on Christmas Eve is probably: Because the home where they were staying was so jam-packed, Mary had no privacy and nowhere to put her baby. So she retreated to what was either – depending on the house’s setup – a cave in the backyard where animals were kept, or a lower room where the animals and servants stayed.

You want to see my husband’s eyes widen with fear? Just try presenting him with this scenario: Hey, Erick, how about if, when Faith was 9 months pregnant, she had to walk for a week to a house full of in-laws? And then, because the in-laws wouldn’t leave her alone and hadn’t gotten the crib on her baby registry, she had to give birth among animals and lay the baby in a feeding trough?

But in the Bible, Mary never makes a peep. Western Christmas culture has interpreted this to mean that she plodded along without complaint or resentment. Also: She was blonde, pink-cheeked, and beaming peacefully the whole time.

I can’t relate to any of that.

Then I re-read this passage in Luke, which most of us have heard so often that it barely registers, and I realized that we have no idea how Mary acted or felt. There’s simply not enough information. We get a brief outline of events – just the facts, ma’am — from the journey to Bethlehem through Jesus’s birth, but nothing about Mary’s reactions. For all we know, she could have nagged at Joseph the entire 90 miles to Bethlehem. She could’ve resented the heck out of her in-laws for not having a spare crib. She could’ve been terrified about delivery, and bitter that it wasn’t the birth she’d expected. (“I gave birth to the Savior, and all I got was this lousy manger.”)

Or maybe not.

But here’s what else I realized: It doesn’t matter.

I don’t have to understand Mary in order to be rocked to the core by the Christmas story, because Mary is not the point.

The one and only point is: That’s GOD lying there in the manger.

And my guess is, God was going to do his work through Mary whether she grumbled or humbly accepted it. When the angel told her God’s plan, he didn’t present it as an option. So maybe the most remarkable thing about Mary isn’t that she was perfect, but that she recognized God’s power better than I do.

This year, God has been teaching me in many ways, most of them uncomfortable, that I am not the point: that the world, the arc of history, and even God’s plans for my own life do not hinge on my personal comfort or convenience.

That kind of thinking’s not popular in our culture today. We think in terms of self- esteem and self-actualization. We say that God has a plan for our lives, and we assume that means a fairytale ending.

The Christmas story shows that God’s plan will be worked out through us regardless of whether we agree, complain, or are comfortable. We are not the point.

But not being the point doesn’t mean that we don’t matter. We know we matter, because that’s God in that manger. For us.

We can plan all we want for a comfortable birth, but God?  God’s plan is to save us.

***

I’m now beginning two full weeks at home with all four children, all day long. So, aside from my regular obligations at The Addison Independent you probably won’t hear from me for a while. I wish you and yours a wonderful Christmas, and a joyful 2015.

Powerless

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Life changes with the phone’s ring and a single recorded sentence:

“Good morning, this is Peter Burrows, ACSU Superintendent.”

That’s the call we received at roughly 5:30 AM last Wednesday. These calls always seem to come when I’m already up, dressed, and halfway through washing my face. Which leads to the conundrum: Do I go back to bed fully clothed? Will this be the day when my children finally sleep late?

The call informed us that school would be closed for the day: the first snow day of the 2014-15 school year. What had started as an unimpressive slushy rain the day before had turned to thick, wet snow overnight. The snow would continue, on and off, for the next two days, ultimately dropping about 16 inches in our yard.

So, once again, I was forced to confront my ambivalence about snow days. This ambivalence started only when I became a parent; as a child — and as a childless working adult — snow days were welcome chances to relax and recreate. Now that I’m at home with young children, snow days don’t affect my movements or my work as much as they once did. Instead, snow days bequeath me four children — two of whom are usually in school all day and one of whom attends morning preschool — all day long.

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

 

Keeping the Cards

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When On the Willows invited contributors to write about a favorite holiday tradition, I signed up immediately.

Then I stared at the wall for several weeks.

Our family is still a little new to this holiday tradition thing.

Neither my husband nor I brought a stockpile of holiday traditions to our marriage. I’m an only child who grew up many hours away from my extended family; my parents produced festive holidays, but it seems to me that at least one sibling is necessary to create a family culture in which holiday traditions are remembered and carried on. And my husband is the son of first-generation Chinese immigrants; they combined Western Christmas traditions with Chinese cooking, which would be wonderful if either of us could cook like my mother-in-law.

It was only four years ago, when our third child was born and we moved to Vermont, that we declared ourselves officially “Home For The Holidays.” Henceforth, we would celebrate Christmas in our home rather than alternating between grandparents; extended family was welcome to come to us.

Four years isn’t a long time to develop traditions, especially with three young children and a fourth baby in the mix; we’re mostly just trying to stay afloat through the holidays.

Click here to continue reading about our holiday tradition (we do have one!) over at On the Willows.