Timber!

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Since we bought our house in Vermont, a lovely Cape in the woods, our homeownership approach has been: Act first, think later.

This was certainly true when it came to the trees. “Oh look,” I exclaimed the first time we saw the house, “there are so many beautiful trees!” (We learned later that our neighborhood sits within the administrative boundaries of the Green Mountain National Forest; beyond our acre, the woods are protected by law.)

The trees are beautiful. They are important: alive and life-giving. We are big fans of trees. We’ve read The Lorax – many times.

But because we saw the house first in April, before there were leaves on the trees, we didn’t think about the leaves. Or the acorns. Or the lack of sunlight. Or the effects of leaves, acorns, and lack of sunlight on the roof and wooden decking. We didn’t question why there were massive trees two feet from the house (the prior owners had built an addition without clearing any additional space.)

Perhaps you can predict what I’m working up to here: This August, we had 20 trees taken down in our yard.

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

Fall Cleaning, or: I Love Getting Rid of Stuff

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Our school/craft area: A major site of pile-up!

I’ve never really felt the compulsion to do “spring cleaning,” unless spring happened to coincide with an upcoming move or the arrival of a new baby. I understand the point of it: You’ve been cooped up in the house all winter, and once warmer weather arrives you direct a burst of energy at the house in which you’ve been imprisoned. Time to open the windows, shake the rugs, clear the cobwebs!

Because I live in a climate that’s subject to dramatic temperature swings, from sub-zero winters to 90-degree summers, there are certain seasonal tasks to be done; spring is when I put up the screen doors, remove the plastic insulation from my daughters’ bedroom windows, set up outdoor furniture and planters, and do a final sweep around the now-cold wood stove. But these are chores, and I do them without enthusiasm while steeling myself for the approaching summer “vacation,” knowing I’ll spend the next three months refereeing sibling squabbles, shuttling four girls to various activities, and applying sunscreen to squirmy little limbs.

So I’m not inspired by spring cleaning. But this year, I had a burst of home-focused energy that began in September, a couple weeks after the start of school, and is still going strong. I think of it as “fall cleaning.”

I should probably clarify, right here and now, that my version of fall cleaning has very little to do with what the average person defines as “cleaning.” I’m not talking about the type of cleaning one does with sponges and rags and chemicals. I’m talking about making one’s living space more beautiful and comfortable.

Fall cleaning makes a lot more sense to me than spring cleaning. In spring cleaning, you’re essentially beautifying a space in which you won’t spend much time for the next several months. Sure, detritus has built up over the winter and everything needs a good airing-out, but chances are that you’ll be out in the yard or at the pool, lake, or beach more than you’ll be indoors, so who really cares?

Fall cleaning is preparing the space in which you will be shut up for the next several months. Who wouldn’t want to make their cell a little more comfortable?

So I’ve been giving our house a critical eye, and applying my energy to making it a place where I’ll enjoy spending most of my time over the winter months, often in the company of four small children.

Here’s what my fall cleaning does not involve:

1. Lots of money.

2. Major projects.

The primary reason I’ve ruled out both of the above is the reality of life with four small children. Why spend large amounts of money and time making significant improvements to our house, when our daughters will undo them in seconds with the swipe of a marker, a sudden spill, or a misdirected ball?

Instead, here is what my fall cleaning has involved:

1. Small touches to make the house more bright and fun. Winter is dark. Our house is in the woods, and gets very little light. Most of the interior walls, ceilings, and floors are exposed wood in the “post-and-beam” style. It’s suddenly occurred to me that there are very small things I can do to brighten our house. This winter, I’m painting two large pieces of wooden furniture, which will lighten them and the rooms in which they reside. I’m going to work with my daughters to create brighter, more colorful artwork to hang on the walls. I replaced the dingy old white duvet cover on our bed with one in a bright pattern. And I finally got some new light slipcovers for an ancient couch and chair that have been spilling their upholstered intestines for over a year. (Slipcovers, I figure, can be light, because I can always wash them.)

2. GETTING RID OF STUFF! More than all the small decorating touches combined, the major reason why our house feels dark and cluttered is because it’s got too much STUFF in it. Again, the kids are a major factor here: all of their toys, their artwork from school, their books, their “craft projects,” and the little pieces of junk they pick up at birthday parties and doctors’ offices and arcades…it piles up. Back when I had only one child, I heard parenting advice that went like this: Your house is not the kids’ house — it is YOUR house. Your children are guests in YOUR HOUSE. Their stuff must stay within a small, designated area rather than taking over YOUR HOUSE. It seemed so reasonable at the time; now, I say, “Yeah, right!” Houses are set up to serve their inhabitants; there are now twice as many children as adults in our house, so whose house is it, really?

Without giving up my parental authority (i.e., I still nag them about cleaning), I’ve given up on trying to make our house look like only grown-ups live here. There are signs of our daughters everywhere, as there should be at this stage. But I have not given up on waging war against stuff; this fall, I’ve been merciless. If anything is broken, it’s out. If it hasn’t been played with in over a year, it’s donated. If it’s small, plastic, and not a Lego, its days are numbered. And, finally, now that we’ve had our last child (I hope), I’m donating clothing the second our youngest outgrows it.

I love, love, love getting rid of stuff!

This burst of domestic energy is not like me. (Did I mention I’m also sewing dresses for my three oldest daughters???) I’m assuming it won’t last; I’ll spend some months brightening and painting and throwing things away, and then revert to my lazy habit of writing a blog instead of paying attention to my house. I can’t account for this change, other than to say that it’s fall cleaning, or maybe the fermenting leaves in our well water.

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Nesting place

I rarely promote things on this blog, but The Nesting Place by Myquillyn Smith has been a major inspiration to me as I’ve been fall cleaning. It’s an easy read with lots of pictures, and it’s basically a decorating book for domestic imperfectionists. Highly recommend.

 

 

Riding for Home: Thoughts on Election Day

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Because this column will run on Election Day, I feel compelled to write about local politics.

I typed that sentence, and then spent five minutes staring at my computer screen. The truth is, I’m terrified to write about politics.

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

 

 

 

 

Regrets (I’ve Had a Few)

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October in Vermont is a month that tugs your heart back and forth. It is undeniably beautiful: peak foliage season, bringing busloads of “leaf peepers” and wavering chains of backroad cyclists into our town. Looking out the windows from where I sit at my computer, I feel like I’m inside a golden box. The woods are yellow and brown and red and just the tiniest bit of green, and they glow. It’s a breathtaking time of year.

But it tugs at your heart because you know it won’t last. It’s a quick transition between the emerald warmth of summer and the white freeze of winter. And, like all transitions, it’s not without mess: the green leaves mixed in among the autumn colors, the temperatures that swing wildly from the 30s to the 70s.

It is quite possible that I’m in the October of my life right now.

I spent the first part of the month looking backwards with some regret. “If I’d known then what I know now, I’d have had all the kids right away, in my 20s, and then gone to college,” I told my husband one night. Never mind the glaringly obvious logistical problems with that statement (like: How is it in any way easier to go to college AFTER having four kids?); what I meant was that it seems wasteful that I invested in my education when I was mentally young (i.e. immature), thus delaying offspring until I was physically older. Childbirth and rearing would’ve probably been less taxing when I was physically younger, and higher education would’ve been less wasted on my when I was mentally older.

That’s all beside the point; the point is that I didn’t know then what I know now, and that’s the crucial fly in the ointment of all regrets. If I’d had children earlier, I’d have been a very different mother with very different children. If I’d waited to launch my education and career (such as it is), I’d have skipped over some vitally important formative experiences. Flip-flopping my timeline doesn’t get me to where I am now, just younger and with a better vocational plan: It changes everything.

But there I sat, in October of 2014 and in my own emotional October, looking back with regret, wondering why I hadn’t made better use of my summer.

Blah.

Then the other night, my husband pointed out that this week is the 15-year anniversary of when we started dating. That news sent me into a completely different sort of backward glancing.

It sent me back to that Halloween weekend of 1999, when a young couple on their third date had just finished a nice dinner in Greenwich Village. As they crossed lower Sixth Avenue, they held hands for the first time.

This sort of backward glancing always makes me think about how much fun it must be to be God. Because I see this couple, as if from above, and I think: They have no idea.

We didn’t know then what we know now.

We didn’t know that three years later we’d get married, after a dating relationship that tested every bit of faith and commitment we had in us.

And then, when we were newly married, there was a certain little girl who lived in our building and who always made us chuckle when we shared an elevator with her and her mother. My husband called her “the sassy Asian girl.” He’d say, “It would be fun to have a sassy Asian girl someday.”

He had no idea.

So I’ve spent these final days of October looking back over the past 15 years with this “God’s-eye view.” Revisiting the quarrels and the make-ups, the trips around the world, the years of graduate school and jobs, the loving moments with friends and family, the illnesses and the childbirths. And the thing is, when I take this view, there’s just so much joy. Joy, and wonder at it all.

And yes, there were hard and sorrowful and horrible times. But when I take the “God’s-eye view,” I don’t see any of those times with regret. I just think: I didn’t know then what I know now. I didn’t know that it would be okay in the end. I didn’t know how those moments would become crucial pieces of the whole.

Where does that lead me?

Having looked back with regret, and having looked back with joy and wonder, the common denominator is: I didn’t know then what I know now. Our cosmic ignorance in each present moment can lead to regret, or it can lead to joy and wonder. And, like most things — like October — it’s a both/and. Regrets can coexist with joy and wonder.

But, given the choice, it’s probably better for your heart to try and take the “God’s-eye view.” It’ll keep you warmer come winter.

 

The Lost Girls

Composite of video surveillance images of Hannah Graham on the night she disappeared from http://www.wtvr.com

 

Last Friday I had a dentist appointment, or what I like to think of as: My chance to catch up on People magazine. So there I was, in the waiting room, flipping through a back issue of People, when I came upon an article about the disappearance of 18-year-old University of Virginia student Hannah Graham.

Although Hannah Graham had disappeared over a month earlier, this was the first I’d heard of it. My life is like that these days. Many of you are probably more familiar than I with the details of the story: the beautiful, bright, and athletic UVA sophomore who disappeared after a party, the video footage of her wandering downtown Charlottesville alone, the man who was taken into custody with possible links to the disappearances and deaths of several other beautiful young women. When I came home from the dentist, I searched the news and learned that human remains that were found on an abandoned farm had just been positively identified as the body of Hannah Graham.

These are the kind of stories that I can’t get out of my head.

As it happens, I have some tenuous personal connections to this particular story: Hannah Graham grew up in Alexandria, Virginia, which is just a few miles from the Northern Virginia suburb where I grew up. My family has a deep affection for UVA — both my father and my cousin attended UVA Law School — and I visited Charlottesville often as a child.

Common geography aside, this sort of story always haunts me. It takes my mind to the darkest places I can imagine. What must it be like to be abducted, subjected to horrors, and killed? What must it be like to be the parent of a daughter who disappears? It’s unfathomable, and my heart breaks for Hannah, for her parents, and for too many other daughters and families who’ve suffered similar ordeals.

But there’s an aspect of the Hannah Graham story that I find especially chilling, and that’s how alone she was. I gather that there’s been some unhelpful criticism on this point already: “Why was she walking alone after midnight?”, “Was she drunk?” Before I go on, I want to be clear that I am not sitting in judgement of either Hannah Graham or her friends; there but for the grace of God go most of us when when we were 18, 19, 20…. No; the fault for this injustice lies squarely on the shoulders of whomever took and killed her.

Still: Video surveillance images from at least three separate cameras showed Hannah Graham walking or running alone through Charlottesville for over an hour. Why was she walking alone? Where were her friends — the friends she’d met for dinner, the friends she’d seen at a party?

This is where I think the Hannah Graham story becomes a commentary on our culture.

My husband and I tell our four daughters that, if they ever find themselves lost and alone — and if there’s no police officer or other obvious authority figure present — the rule is: Look for a mom. Ideally, this would be a mom they know; failing that, look for anybody who appears to be a mom or grandma. (This is not intended to be sexist, it’s just a matter of statistical safety.)

Where were the moms for Hannah Graham? Was she looking for one?

In my opinion, the most heartbreaking image from all of the news coverage on Hannah Graham is the last recorded image we have of her just before she disappears from view forever. She’s walking through a pedestrian mall; the man who was later arrested and charged with her disappearance is several yards behind her.

And between them comes a small crowd of people, walking in the same direction.

When a young girl who is possibly inebriated and probably lost can wander for an hour late at night through public places where there are groups of people out and about, and she ends up dead, that is an indictment on our community. It implicates us all.

She was so alone, but there were people around. And that’s what it’s like to live in our culture today, where it’s possible to have 500 Facebook friends whom you never see in person.

It appears that Hannah Graham did reach out for help at least once: She sent a text message to some friends saying that she was heading to a party but was lost. The technology was there; the technology worked. She had a cell phone. There were surveillance cameras. They didn’t save her.

She needed actual people. She needed the community. Where were the moms?

This is a tragic story. Unfortunately, this side of paradise, there will always be tragedy and crime. But it seems to me that some tragedies might be preventable if the community is aware, and if our children see the community as a trustworthy place to turn for help. If there’s anything to be taken from the tragedy of Hannah Graham, maybe it’s this:

We — all of us, the human community — need to keep our eyes open for the lost girls. And we need to tell our girls that if they’re lost, they should try to ask the right people for help, before the wrong ones offer it.

The Disappeared

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This is a ghost story, except that the ghosts were never living; they were things that humans built assuming they’d endure: roads, houses, towns.

I used to read with fascination about the disappearance of ancient civilizations. In a world where Google Maps allow us to access satellite views of anywhere we please with a mouse click, it seems incredible that entire cities — all those Biblical locales like Ur of the Chaldeans, or the settlements surrounding Stonehenge — could have simply vanished, returned to desert or grassland.

Well, that’s what happened thousands of years ago, when everybody built with wood, I reassured myself.

Until recently, when I realized that things still disappear. Even in Addison County, where change is slow and many buildings date from centuries past — where old houses become inns, old churches become houses, and old mills become shopping centers — things have vanished from both landscape and memory within the past 200, 50, even 10 years.

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

Learning to Knit

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This month, I’ve been learning to knit.

It’s the second — or possibly third — time I’ve learned to knit. I’m not sure, because I’ve also learned to crochet in the past and I can’t recall when I was knitting vs. crocheting. Which gives you some idea of the problem. I imagine neuroscientists studying my brain: “Fascinating,” they say, “it all lights up, except the parts responsible for recalling card games and knitting.”

My re-learning how to knit is part service project, and part for my daughters.

It’s challenging to volunteer with young children. Many of us parents were Community-Minded Volunteers for Important Social Causes before having children. When we had children, we thought, “This is wonderful! We’ve created small volunteers! They’ll grow up being involved in their community! Our family will have such fun serving together!”

Then we tried it.

The first challenge to volunteering with young children is that there just aren’t that many kid-friendly volunteer opportunities out there. They may claim to be kid-friendly, but “they” are usually childless 20-somthing idealists who haven’t thought through the implications of having a three-year-old serve food, or pick up trash, or even garden.

The second challenge is the children themselves. Young children have short attention spans and limited skills. My husband and I learned very quickly that whenever we attempted to volunteer as a family, one of us might be able to get some actual work done; the other parent spent the entire time chasing the kids around once they got bored with whatever they were supposed to be doing.

None of this is a reason not to volunteer with your children. Sure, there will be seasons when your family is of limited usefulness — maybe even detrimental to the Important Social Cause — but the point is to model commitment for our kids. It’s like how I wince whenever one of my daughters says, “I want to help!” while picking up a plate from the table, or hoisting a grocery bag, or wielding a shovel; chances are I’ll be cleaning up the mess they create by “helping,” but it’s more important to validate their desire to help.

Despite these challenges, I’d found the ideal volunteer opportunity: Every Tuesday for the past two years, I sat at the circulation desk of the Sarah Partridge Library — our town’s teeny, three-room branch library — while the sole librarian, Mrs. Rogers, led preschool story time. Whichever daughters were with me could participate in story time while I worked, and if they got wiggly they could amuse themselves in the children’s room.

That all changed this fall, when our third daughter started preschool and her pick-up time conflicted with story time.

I called Mrs. Rogers to see if there was anything else I might do to help. She suggested I help lead the Thursday afternoon craft time, when children in grades 1 and higher learn to knit. Their knit squares become a baby blanket, which Mrs. Rogers donates to a local charity.

“Sure!” I said. Craft time was conveniently after school, and my older daughters had expressed an interest in knitting.

There were only two potential red flags in my new volunteer gig:

1. I didn’t remember how to knit.

2. My oldest child is in Grade 1. Which meant I’d be bringing along three additional children who couldn’t participate in the craft time.

But Mrs. Rogers seemed okay with everything. What could go wrong?

WEEK 1: We show up to craft time 30 minutes late, because I had to get two of my daughters up from nap and into the minivan, get the other two off the bus and into the minivan, and drive into town and back in afternoon traffic to get our dog from the groomer. When we arrive, Mrs. Rogers teaches us how to roll the amount of yarn we’ll need into a ball. It turns out that this is harder than it sounds. All of my children lose interest after 5 minutes and go play with their friends in the children’s room.

WEEK 2: We show up 15 minutes late because one of my daughters had a post-school meltdown. Mrs. Rogers has everyone sand their own pair of knitting needles. Then she teaches us to “finger knit” yarn bracelets. With a great deal of help (and frustration), my two oldest daughters are able to produce bracelets. Then Mrs. Rogers makes popcorn, which my children spill all over the floor. Over the next week, they show off their knit bracelets to all of their relatives, so I suppose it was worth it.

WEEK 3: We’re on time! The knitting needles are ready! Mrs. Rogers teaches us to cast on and we begin knitting! My daughters lose interest after 3 minutes, but I’m hooked — so hooked that I neglect to stop the baby from eating popcorn off of the floor (to the horror of several grandmothers present). Then my daughters clog the toilet. There’s no plunger, so craft time ends with me scooping an enormous ball of toilet paper out of the toilet using my bare hands.

WEEK 3.5: After spending several evenings knitting and listening to old NPR podcasts, I’m confident…and addicted. Before dinner one night, I suggest to my oldest daughter that we practice knitting together. She’s delighted. The problem? She wants to practice on my knitting, not her own. Feeling much the same as when my daughters offer to “help,” I manage to squash my proprietary feelings for my own knitting and show her how to continue what I’ve started.

And she gets it!

I’m thrilled; she’s thrilled.

Then I have to get dinner on the table. At that moment, things go awry with the knitting. What follows is one of those timeless mother-daughter exchanges:

HER: Mommy!!! Help!!! This isn’t working!!!

ME: Hang on! I can’t help right now! I’m holding a boiling pot and a fussy baby!

HER (in tears): You don’t love me! You never loved me!

Or something like that.

WEEK 4: The dog jumps the fence and goes on a joy run as we’re preparing to leave for craft time; by the time we get her back in, we’re 20 minutes late. My mother shows up to help wrangle the little ones. My oldest daughter knits happily – for about 4 minutes.

“I don’t know,” I said to Mrs. Rogers the other day, “I feel like I’m creating more chaos than I’m helping.”

“Oh no, it’s good to have you here,” she said. It sounded convincing.

So we carry on. There will be knitting.

And this time, maybe I’ll even remember how to knit next year.