Changing My Mind

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It can be humbling to write a bi-weekly newspaper column: Few things more effectively highlight one’s capacity for change – or inconsistency, denial, and flip-flopping. I’m not convinced that this is a bad thing; isn’t the point of individual human existence to grow and change? Isn’t it natural that the ideas expressed in a column should evolve along with the human writing that column?

For some reason, though, we expect writers – particularly writers of regular columns – to emerge with a fully formed set of ideas that remain consistent for the life of their column. Writing, it seems, sets one’s opinions in cement, and to deviate from a previously written opinion is to reveal a weak character.

If that seems extreme, imagine Ann Coulter suddenly begging our forgiveness and espousing the ideology of the liberal left, or Nicholas Kristof announcing that he’s been wrong and human trafficking is really just a natural extension of free market capitalism. One scenario might be wonderful, one might be awful, but each would call into question the journalistic integrity of the writer.

It has been nearly three years since I began writing “Faith in Vermont.” In terms of genre, “Faith in Vermont” is best described as a “lifestyle” rather than a “political” or “opinion” column. But lifestyles, politics, and opinions are all subject to change, and such change has happened in our household:

Last month, we joined the Middlebury Natural Foods Co-op.

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

The Moms Are All Right

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This column will be published immediately following the last day of Addison County’s 2014-15 school year.

But I’m not going to write about the complex bundle of emotions that summer vacation inspires in parents: the relief of no longer having to get up before dawn to pack lunches and sign reading logs, versus the dread of 71 long days filled with sibling squabbles, sunscreen and bug spray, and the logistical gymnastics of camps and classes and vacations.

I’m not going to write about that, because now I know that the moms are all right. I’m sure that the dads are all right, too, but I haven’t had coffee with them.

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

Take It Easy

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My daughter stepped off of the school bus the other day, handed me her heavy backpack, and – as is her custom – made her way slowly up towards our house by walking on top of the rock wall alongside the driveway. As she neared her destination she stopped, dropped into a squat, and called the rest of us – her sisters and me – over. She’d discovered two inchworms hanging from their invisible filaments over the edge of a large rock. For the next ten minutes, two of my daughters remained there, transfixed, watching the two inchworms “race” up and down their threads.

Yes, I am still taking a summer vacation from The Pickle Patch, but as promised, here is the link to this week’s “Faith in Vermont” column in The Addison Independent. 

Wake Me Up When September Starts

 

I just feel like nothing’s going right.

I said this to my husband, standing in our living room one recent Sunday evening.

The night before, I had said: I feel like I have nothing to look forward to for at least the next year.

The four weeks between mid-April and mid-May were hard; some of the hardest weeks I’ve ever lived. During those four weeks, a nasty stomach virus ripped through our family. By the time it had finished, all of our children had gotten it: two of our girls were struck twice, and one had three distinct bouts of vomiting. Multiple days of school were missed. I didn’t keep track of how many loads of laundry I did, although I did count 7 in one day; the total was well into the double digits. Even my husband succumbed, spending two days in bed and canceling his classes.

Somehow I was spared, which — if you’ve spent any amount of time caring for vomiting children and spouses — can feel like a mixed blessing. More than once I thought: If I got sick, at least I could spend a day in bed. 

But I was dealing with emotional struggles, instead.

Because during this same time, a house came on the market that I wanted. You can read more  details here; suffice it to say that I longed for this house. Against all reason — even against my better judgment — I really thought that this was our house.

My husband was less convinced, which launched us into one of those times when it feels like your marriage is a neglected closet that needs to be cleaned out: We had faith that the outcome would be good, but the work wasn’t going to be much fun. We weren’t fighting, exactly: We were pondering our family’s mission and vision and goals, and how to best live those things out. That might sound noble, but it felt mostly hard. We both spent the better part of two weeks feeling sad and confused.

And then, just when it looked like we might be gaining some clarity, the house sold. Not to us.

[Note: After I wrote this post, a second house on my “interest list” went on the market — and believe me, that this would happen in the current Vermont real estate climate is highly improbable. It was gorgeous, move-in ready, 12 acres with a barn; almost too nice. Also, it was waaaaaaay out of our price range. Another loss, which felt like a cruel joke.]

I dropped into an ugly pit of depression and self-pity: I had thought something, and I’d been wrong. I had wanted something, and I hadn’t gotten it. I had to be patient, but I didn’t feel any hope. And I still had vomiting children home from school.

This is not the first time I’ve found myself in the pit; nor, I’m sure, will it be the last. And as awful as I felt, I knew that I would claw my way out eventually.

What was different this time was my foreboding that, once I clawed my way out of the pit, I was going to have a climb a mountain. That mountain involved a summer at home with all of our children (We don’t do much by way of summer camps or vacations, so there’s a lot of unscheduled togetherness. It’s both lovely and crushingly exhausting.) Following the summer, we faced a year of change and logistical challenges, as we welcomed a young woman who’d be living with us for the year and also prepared to move our family to California for five months — where I would homeschool our children for the first time.

On top of this, I received news that a friend had been diagnosed with cancer — the fourth friend with this diagnosis in a year.

Finally — and least importantly, as it was neither uncommon nor unexpected — an essay I’d sent to a literary journal was rejected.

It was that whole snowball of a month that caused me to say: I just feel like nothing’s going right. I feel like I have nothing to look forward to for at least the next year.

I realized it was ridiculous as soon as I’d said it. There I was, standing in my large, cozy house with a belly full of dinner, complaining to my compassionate husband while our four (mostly) healthy children slept upstairs.

It was a sign that I needed to step back and give myself room to regain perspective. To rest. To recover my mental and emotional and physical and spiritual health.

“There’s nothing in life that you can’t get out of,” my mother used to say when I was growing up. She meant this as reassurance for an overanxious child, and she meant it in reference to things like boyfriends, college, jobs, and drug parties. At that time, she was right. But I’ve realized recently that her saying stops being true once one reaches a certain age: Now, there really are things that one can’t get out of — or rather, there are things which, in order to get out of them, would involve so much ugly collateral damage as to render that option horribly selfish. Things like children, marriage, a whole host of decisions and relationships. Just at the point when one’s bone density decreases, one’s life choices begin to harden and calcify.

But I can get out of blogging.

So I am going to take a break from blogging until sometime in September.

Blogging is a wonderful thing. It enables writers to share their work, build a readership, and receive comments in what can be an isolating and discouraging field. On the other hand, it can start feeling a little bit like a non-stop treadmill: There is self-imposed pressure to keep producing blog posts, there is the fear that one is spending too much time writing 900-word essays instead of focusing on bigger projects, and there is the unhealthy habit of looking for validation in one’s site visit statistics.

Blogging did not put me in the pit, but taking a break is one small step towards getting out of that pit.

I will continue writing for The Addison Independent (and posting those links.) I will also take the time to focus on some book-length projects.

I’m not arrogant enough to assume that my blogging break will be a big loss to anybody. Okay, then, you think, So WHY did you bother telling us all of this? Why not just say: “I’m taking a break from this blog for the summer?” We didn’t need to know about the vomiting kids and lost real estate.

I told you all this because, on several occasions over the past year, it has come to my attention that some people (who may not be paying much attention to this blog) perceive me as “having it all together.”

When someone tells me that, my heart sinks. I used to try so hard to make people think that I had it all together; now, I think that if I’m giving the impression of having it all together, then I am failing to do my human duty.

If I had it all together, I would have no stories left to tell. If I had it all together, I would have no ability to form meaningful relationships; relationships depend on being relate-able, which someone who wears the armor of perfection is not.

Recently, I read an old Asian proverb: “Man finish house, man die.” I think people are like that, too, not just houses. I hope that I am never finished in this lifetime — there’s too much work to do.

On the other hand, I don’t revel in my imperfection. I get the sense from some writers out there — various “mommy blogs” come to mind — that it’s become a point of pride to say “I finish a bottle of Scotch every day during nap time and never clean my house and send my kids to school without their shoes on.”

I’m not saying that. I try. Like most people. I try my best. I get out of bed early each morning, I ask God for help, I do my chores.

And every so often, I fall into a deep pit and have to claw my way out.

You might not know this if you met me in person. I’m a little shy, and I write better than I speak. (Whenever someone introduces themselves to me, saying that they’ve read and enjoyed my writing, I want to apologize because I’m probably a little bit disappointing in person; I can’t edit myself in real life.)

So I suppose that I’m writing all this as a kind of public service announcement, because it never hurts to be reminded that everybody is human. And it never hurts to be reminded that there are times when it is good, appropriate, necessary to take a break.

I wish you all a peaceful summer. See you in September!

Lessons from the Garden

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The older I get, the more I love gardening.

I have commented previously in this column about my ambivalence towards gardening — the result of a childhood spent watching my parents slave away each weekend in their garden — and the unfavorable gardening conditions in my own rock-infested, tree-shaded yard. One could quite rightly characterize my current relationship with my garden as “rocky.”

But perhaps in the same way that women are said to always come to resemble their mothers, I find that my gardening behavior is increasingly coming to resemble that of my parents. I attribute most of this change to age; while young gardeners do exist, I consider them a special breed, prodigies, the Mozarts of the soil. For the rest of us, it takes age to teach us the particular blend of passion and patience required for gardening.

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

Lust for Land

My desire for land started gradually, until suddenly it had gripped me like the unbearable compulsion some pregnant women feel to eat dirt. It was a primal urge. I felt it in my mouth, back near my molars. I felt it in my hands, which wanted to clutch.

To clarify: I never felt the need to eat dirt during my pregnancies. My strongest craving occurred during my third pregnancy: It was 9 o’clock at night, and I had to have walnut shrimp (an Americanized dish served at most Chinese restaurants: batter-fried shrimp and walnuts slathered in a creamy sweet sauce.)

“I would crawl over broken glass for walnut shrimp,” I moaned to my husband, who tracked down the only place where it could be obtained so late at night: the Panda Express at the Oakland Airport.

My craving for land was like that.

It began rationally enough, almost as an intellectual exercise. I was researching Vermont dairy farming for a book I’m working on, and I kept reading heartbreaking stories about the demise of small family farms: farmers who could no longer afford to keep farming, children who didn’t want to continue farming, land that was worth more to sell off or develop than to keep.

In the five years since our family moved to Vermont, I have come to love this place passionately. I want to raise my children here, and when they grow up I hope that some of them will choose to stay, because I certainly plan to grow old in Vermont. So the fact that part of what makes Vermont Vermont was at risk — small farms, undeveloped land, local agriculture — hit me right in the heart.

What could I do?

I’m married to an economist, so I’m somewhat of a realist when it comes to the ability of government programs or agricultural subsidies to effect change. But what I could do was some version of Voltaire’s exhortation at the end of Candide: “We must cultivate our own garden.” What I could do was to get a plot of land in Vermont, care for it, and not develop it.

Once I had this idea, it was difficult to shake. It also seemed do-able. Vermont is the second least populous state in the nation (after Wyoming); due to an abundance of supply and lack of demand, it is possible to buy a house with multiple acres of land in Vermont for a relatively reasonable price.

The more I thought about it, the better it seemed. Our current house is a perfectly lovely 25-year-old cape set on one wooded and rocky acre along a paved road in a neighborhood where the houses are close enough together that we can see four other homes from our windows (when the leaves are off of the trees.) After five years in Vermont, this seems suburban and wimpy.

I craved a hundred-year-old farmhouse down a dirt road on multiple open acres with outbuildings. Such a setting would allow me to garden without my spade hitting solid rock 1/2 inch into the ground. It would allow me to plant vegetables and fruit trees and flowers that need at least partial sunlight in order to thrive. It would allow my children to range freely, without my having to worry about cars on the paved road out front. It would allow us to try raising chickens for a second time. (Our first flock of hens was massacred by neighborhood dogs; I know that massacres are a rite of passage for chicken owners, but these dogs had broken easily into our coop because we couldn’t sink fence posts securely enough into the rocky ground.) It would allow for the future possibility of larger animals: a few sheep, a couple of pigs, perhaps even a horse one day if our daughters continue to love riding.

This would be a lot of work, but it would be my work. Writing is a stationary and solitary profession. The idea of caring for some livestock and land in between hours of sitting at my computer was appealing: I could be a female version of E.B. White or Wendell Berry. And yes, we have four children: four children who, in another year, will all be in school at least part of the week. Four children who could help with chores, fondly recall their childhood on the family farm, get married on the land where they were raised.

It made so much sense to me, on both an idealogical and a practical level.

Notice that all of the pronouns thus far have been in the first person singular. And I am no longer a first person singular: I am part of a marriage, a family of six. In order to make this dream a reality, I would have to convince my un-dreamy, un-handy, and un-willing-to-take-financial-risks husband — and, to a lesser degree, my children — that it was a good idea.

So I put some logical limits on my dream. My children are incredibly happy in our town school, and nobody wants my husband to have a longer commute, so this land would have to be located in our current town. It should have 3 or more acres, and preferably some usable outbuildings. Odds are that the house wouldn’t be a new construction, but it couldn’t be a dump, either. And, of course, there were financial limits.

I kept my eyes open as I shuttled our children around town, and narrowed my focus to three or four properties that would be appealing if they ever went on the market. I settled down to wait; we weren’t going anywhere, so I was in a great position to be patient and watchful.

Then one of those properties went on the market.

It was an 1890’s farmhouse with 5 outbuildings, set on 16 gorgeous acres of mostly-cleared land with stunning views of the Green Mountains. It was actually closer to town — to the schools, my husband’s office, and my parents’ house — than our current home.

Of course, the timing was terrible: Our entire family is relocating to California for the first five months of 2016 for my husband’s sabbatical.

Also, it was outside our price range.

I went to look at it anyway, first with my parents and all my children in tow, then with my husband. The house needed a complete interior lead paint abatement and re-painting, a new perimeter drain, possible asbestos tile removal, and there were five rooms that appeared to have gone untouched — used only for storage — for 40-some years.  Still, the potential was there if we were willing to work towards it; I could see the beautiful house it would become over time.

So I held onto hope, because that’s what you do when you have a dream, right? I held onto hope for 25 days, up until that house sold. And then I mourned it hard.

It has occurred to me that this desire for land is my version of a midlife crisis; that, at almost 40 years of age, I’m hoping to rediscover my purpose and youth in a plot of land rather than a sports car or a tattoo or an affair. And it occurs to me that there are two ways of responding to a midlife crisis: either you come around to peacefully accepting that all the paths that once seemed open to you have narrowed down to the path that you’re on — or else you get bitter. Maybe I need to accept that my life — our life — is not going to end on a multi-acre small-scale farm. As I’m constantly reminding my daughters (and quoting Mick Jagger): “You can’t always get what you want.”

But maybe, maybe, this isn’t so much a midlife crisis as it is a natural desire: the desire to find a little corner of creation and sink roots down deep, to have the ability to raise your own food, to preserve some of the world’s beauty and pass it on to your children.

My husband and I had dinner with a couple who’ve lived in Vermont far longer than us, who have first-hand experience with farming. We discussed my dream of land. “Feel free to talk me out of it,” I quipped.

They didn’t. “There’s nothing wrong with wanting to own a piece of Vermont,” said the husband. “Go down the rabbit hole.”

His wife’s response was more serious. “This is what we were made for,” she said. “We were created to be stewards of the land. And if that’s what God is prompting you to do, then maybe you should listen to it.”

Maybe I should; maybe I will. In the meantime, there’s a book of Wendell Berry essays beside my bed, a brand-new membership card to our local food co-op (finally!) in my wallet, and our weekly CSA starts up next month. I guess that’ll do.

 

American Girl Dolls and the Decline of Civilization

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Grandparents get to do whatever they want — that’s my philosophy.

It wasn’t always; like most first-time parents, I tended to be overly controlling when it came to toys, food, and naps. But my children are blessed with four grandparents who love them and respect reasonable boundaries, and I realized that, after the arduous task of raising my husband and me, these grandparents are entitled to spoil their grandchildren. So these days, my default response to grandparent inquiries is: “Sure!”

And that’s how we wound up getting my daughters’ dolls’ hair styled at the American Girl store in Tysons Corner, Virginia. (“You’re doing what?” my husband asked, incredulous, before we left. “Grandparents get to do whatever they want,” I shrugged.)

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