My New Collection

IMG_5387

Almost every Thursday afternoon when school lets out, my daughters and I drive to the Sarah Partridge Library in East Middlebury.  From 4:00-5:00 PM on Thursdays, Mona Rogers, the Sarah Partridge Librarian, has a “Craft Circle” for children. The original vision for this craft hour was that Mrs. Rogers would teach all of us to knit. This idea was abandoned when it became clear that most of my daughters are still too young to knit — and since my daughters make up 98% of the children who attend craft hour, they direct the agenda. In the end, Mrs. Rogers taught me to knit, which I continue to do during craft hour: I knit while standing, with frequent breaks in order to referee sibling squabbles or pull my youngest child off the bookshelves.

Between the knitting and the child-wrangling, it’s rare that I have time to look at books. But the other week, thanks to a big bowl of microwave popcorn that was occupying all of my children, I was able to peruse the used books for sale.

This isn’t a normal activity for me, children aside. I’m not especially anxious to add to our already-overflowing home bookshelves, and when I’m at the library I figure that the point is: free books! But since my children were munching their popcorn next to the shelves of used books, I could browse and still keep an eye on them.

Used book sales are about hope. There’s a reason why most of these books have been exiled from the library shelves or donated by their prior owners. There’s usually a large selection of boilerplate mysteries, spy thrillers, and romance novels. I’ve decided that cookbooks are the bread machines of books: people think they’ll use them, but instead they just take up space in the kitchen. And travel books are quickly out-of-date, plus fairly useless once you’ve actually visited the place.

But every once in a while, there’s a used book gem to be found. That day, I found it.

I can’t remember what prompted me to pick up the slim, green hardcover. It was clearly very old. The book’s title and author were stamped into the front cover — Animals Through the Year by Margaret Waring Buck — along with a beautiful print depicting two young deer, a possum, a chipmunk, and a mouse in the wild. It was clearly a children’s book — and we have so many children’s books at home that I wasn’t looking for one more.

Opening the book, I saw that it was a discard from the Sarah Partridge Library (back when it was the Community House Library). The book was first published in 1941, although this was a 1949 edition, and it had been checked out last on August 30, 1993.

When I fanned through the pages, I knew that I had to buy Animals Through the Year. It’s organized by season, and each page describes a certain animal (20 in all) and how it spends that season. The descriptions are clear and fascinating, written for young children without oversimplifying or pandering.

What really sold me, though, were the illustrations: On every page is a gorgeous block print of the animal described. Some are in color, but most are black-and-white.

Animals Through the Year cost me $1 — more than the usual 10 cents, because it was “antique.” I showed it to my daughters once we returned home, and they all huddled together on the couch, looking at the pictures while my 7-year-old daughter read out loud.  Later that night, she asked if she could take the new book to bed with her. Since then, one daughter or another has picked it up from its home on the table beside our living room “comfy chair” to look at the pictures or learn more about what our animal neighbors are doing this time of year.

Meanwhile, I have become obsessed with Margaret Waring Buck. There’s not much to be found about her, but her papers now reside in Archives & Special Collections at the University of Connecticut’s Thomas J. Dodd Research Center. The brief biography on the Dodd Center website informed me that Margaret Waring Buck was born in New York City in 1905, and died in Mystic, Connecticut in 1997. She was an illustrator, naturalist, and physiognomist. Animals Through the Year was her first book, and she wrote and illustrated ten more between 1947 and 1979. All were nature books for children, with the exception of The Face — What it Means: The Merton Method of Character Analysis,  which was based upon her studies with Dr. Holmes W. Merton on the “science” of Face Reading.

All her books are out of print now, but that hasn’t stopped me. Thanks to the magic of online shopping, I’ve been able to obtain used copies — all library discards — of In Woods and Fields, In Yards and Gardens, and In Ponds and Streams for under $10. Like Animals Through the Year, these books are filled with plainspoken information and gorgeous illustrations (ink drawings instead of block prints). Along the Seashore and How they Grow are on my wish list, because I don’t want to be greedy and buy up  Waring Buck’s entire oeuvre in one swoop; it’s important to have something to look forward to.

The obvious question is: WHY? Why have I suddenly become a fan and collector of the works of a little-known author and illustrator of children’s nature books? I am not the collecting type — haven’t collected a thing since my childhood doll and thimble collections.

I’ve thought about this, and I believe the answer is: It’s April, and there’s still snow on the ground. For over four months, the only nature we’ve seen outside has been limited to the occasional squirrel or crow. I am ready for the plants and animals to return; I am craving wildlife.

And when wildlife returns, I will pull down one of our books by Margaret Waring Buck, find the relevant page, gather my girls around me, and read. Because, 74 years later, the first words of Animals Through the Year are still true: “Many baby animals first see this beautiful world in the spring months of March, April, and May.”

 

Saying No to Lucky

IMG_5374

It’s important to learn how to say “No.”

I know, I know, you think, rolling your eyes. C’mon, tell me something new.

Here’s my best shot at something new: I’d wager that not many people have been taught to say “No” by Lucky the Leprechaun.

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

A Tale of Two Women

So there was this woman, and she was pretty comfortable. After a decade of moving every few years, she’d been settled in a nice small town for nearly five years. Healthy kids, good marriage. She was mostly “at home” with the kids, but had carved out a little sideline writing for a few blogs and her local newspaper. Life was crazy, sure: She had four young children. But she felt like she’d finally nailed the rest-work balance. Three kids were in school now. She had her village firmly in place: school, church, friends, and her parents, who lived 15 minutes away.

And she was about to lose it all, because the following year, her husband was going on sabbatical. Sabbatical: from the Greek word “sabatikos,” meaning “of the Sabbath” – the day of rest. For her husband, sabbatical was a year of rest from his job as a college professor. For her, it felt like the opposite of rest.

Click here to continue reading this post over at On the Willows.  

 

On Summer Activities, Economic Development, and Overthinking

IMG_5314

Because I have children who still live at home, and because the work I do does not (yet) contribute to our household expenses, the standard description for me is: “stay-at-home mom.”

I find this description inaccurate at best. I may be a mother who often stays at home, but the truth is that I spend an awful lot of time trying to get my children out of the house.

As much as I love my children, I never cry on the first day of school. In fact, the happiest moment of my day is usually when the mudroom door closes behind my husband and three-quarters of my daughters at 7:45 every weekday morning, and I put our fourth daughter down for her morning nap. The house is quiet, and for one blissful hour I am free to do whatever I want – even if that just means folding laundry (as it often does.)

I cry on weekends. I cry on snow days. And as summer vacation approaches, I feel panic setting in.

Summer vacation is approaching.

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

Paw Prints

 

IMG_5311

This morning we took what was almost certainly our last cross-country ski of the season. The ground is still covered with snow, but there’s an icy crust on top. The temperature at 8:30 AM was around 13 degrees, so nothing was melting, but there were other signs of the end: the sun was bright, the trees were bare, cracks had appeared in the ice beside the trail to reveal a brook’s rushing water. And there were animal tracks, too, weaving on and off of the trail at various points. If I were a tracker I could identify them for you; all I can say is that there were some medium-sized paws and some smaller paws.

***

We were listening to NPR on the radio yesterday, my two youngest daughters and me. That’s not something I do very often: listen to the news with my children in the car. But I was just happy that they weren’t demanding a Disney princess CD, or — worse — music on the radio. They were tired, half dozing. It had been a busy morning: a preschool visit, a trip to the consignment shop to drop off old baby clothes, a stop at the library for books.

I was tired, too.

The NPR announcer was reporting breaking news about the attack by gunmen on a museum in Tunis, Tunisia, in which 23 people were killed.

“Did you hear that, Mommy?” my 4-year-old piped up from the backseat. “They said people were killed.”

This is my fairy-girl, my unicorn-believer, my sprite who has her head so deep in the clouds that it’s less than 50-50 she’ll hear me when I speak directly to her.

“Yes, honey, I heard that. It’s very sad.”

“But, why were people killed? I know sometimes deer get killed, and foxes,” she mused, half to herself.

“Well, sweetie, sometimes there’s fighting. People fight each other, and sometimes people get killed.”

“So it was an accident then,” she concluded.

“Well…no. Sometimes, in some places, there are wars. People fight each other for land, or for power.”

We were almost home, so I tried to wrap things up. “This happened in Africa,” I added.

She took the bait. “Oh, so it was a really long way away.”

And just like that, the topic switched to airplane travel.

***

On the evening of that same day, I saw two deer. I was driving home from my book group meeting. The deer — two large does, from what I could tell– had just crossed the road and were heading into the trees on the opposite side.

Minutes later, an owl swooped down so low in front of my car that I thought it might hit the roof.

The wildlife sure are on the move tonight, I thought to myself. I figured it must have something to do with the coming of spring.

Whatever the season, we don’t see many deer around here. Since moving to Vermont, I’ve seen far fewer deer than in Berkeley, California, where deer would sometimes strut right down the paved streets of our suburban neighborhood and graze brazenly in garden courtyards.

In Vermont, the deer still have plenty of natural habitat in which to range, so they usually avoid developed areas.

The white-tailed deer that live in Vermont travel in social units, and they tend to move in predictable patterns. Each social unit has a summer range and a winter range of roughly 300-500 acres each.

It appears that there’s a winter deer yard back behind our house. Whenever we take a family snowshoe trek into our backyard woods, we find deer tracks and droppings along the same rocky ridge every winter. It’s like a deer highway.

This clearly wasn’t a secret, because up in the trees above the deer highway are the remains of several old hunting stands. You can’t hunt in those woods anymore, though; it’s too close to the houses.

***

My 4-year-old knocked on our bedroom door at 2:30 AM, holding her pillow and a blankie.

“I’m so, so scared,” she said.

We’re trying to stamp out this kind of behavior, but she started crying genuine tears, so I let her snuggle in with us.

The next day, she told me that she’d had very good dreams: dreams about mermaids.

***

I listened to NPR again this morning while driving down the mountain after our cross-country ski. The announcer was giving another update on the Tunisia attack. The only other person in the car was the baby, although at 20 months old she’s not much of a baby anymore.

I was alone on the road, passing through the Middlebury Gap. To my right was the Middlebury River, to my left was Green Mountain National Forest, and before me I could see the Champlain Valley through a break in the trees.

I thought how, just a relatively short time ago — 150 years? A century? — you wouldn’t know all this world news. If you lived in central Vermont, you’d probably have no idea what was happening in Tunisia.

And, it seemed to me, that wouldn’t necessarily be such a bad thing. I’m probably oversimplifying, but if your news were limited to a more local range, you’d have a clearer sense of what was expected of you, of how you could make the world a bit better: raise your family with love, tend your land with care, be kind to your neighbors.

They say that knowledge is power, and I do believe them. But I can’t help feeling that the wider the scope of my news, the less I know what’s expected of me.

The little I can do to make the world a bit better seems like one tiny paw print on a mountain covered with snow.

On March and the In-Between

IMG_5275

Even if you love winter, March can feel like a waiting room: You sit, in between where you’ve been and where you’re going, trying to focus your eyes on a tabloid (if you’re lucky) or one of those dull preventive health magazines filled with recipes and uplifting stories about B-list celebrities. Either way, you can’t focus on the magazine because every time the door opens you look up expectantly, wondering if it’s finally time.

March can feel beside the point, in-between.

The other day, I stopped our minivan at the bottom of our driveway in order to put a letter in the mailbox. As I made my way carefully across the sheet of solid ice standing between the U.S. Postal Service and me, I noticed something different. That noise…was that – birdsong? I slid back over to the minivan and opened all the windows, sending a blast of single-degree air into my daughters’ faces.

“Girls, listen!” I shouted. “Hear that? Those are birds!

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

You’ve Got Some ‘Splaining to Do

IMG_5199

The tooth fairy is notoriously cheap in our house: Her going rate is 25 cents — one shiny silver quarter — per tooth. Yesterday, while at school, my 7-year-old daughter lost her eighth tooth. She hopped off the bus with her discarded baby tooth sealed in a white paper envelope. That night, she tucked the tooth into the tiny pocket of the tooth pillow that once belonged to me, and shoved the pillow under her three bed pillows. She worried that the tooth fairy might get crushed; I reassured her that no matter how many pillows one sleeps upon, it’s impossible to crush magic.

This morning, that daughter — usually the last to be dragged from her bed — was the first one up. I heard thirteen thuds as she jumped down the stairs. She raced into the kitchen: “Mommy, look!” As she uncurled her hand, I saw…two shiny silver quarters sitting in her palm.

“Wow!” I stuttered. “You got two quarters?”

“Yup!” she beamed. “I wonder why.”

After breakfast, as the girls got ready for school, I cornered my husband in the kitchen. “Did you put another quarter under her pillow?” I hissed.

“No, why would I do that?” he answered in all sincerity. And I knew he was telling the truth; tooth fairy duty isn’t in his job description, and he’d been out late at a meeting the previous night, anyway.

So, how to explain that additional quarter? How to account for my daughter awaking to find, in addition to the Vermont quarter I’d tucked into her tooth pillow the night before, an Idaho quarter as well? Surely there’s a rational explanation; either that, or the tooth fairy is messing with me. Whatever the case, inflation has just hit the tooth market in our house.

In my experience, parenthood is filled with moments like this: happenings that I can’t quite explain, questions to which I have no answer. There are the silly things, like the tooth fairy mystery, or what happens to all those missing socks, or why, when I put our winter coats in the dryer with two tennis balls, I found only one tennis ball when I removed the coats.

Then there are the serious things. The same daughter who brought home her baby tooth from school brings home other things from school, as well: worries, slang, rumors she’s overheard. Earlier this week, she came out of her room long after we’d said goodnight. She was afraid, she said.

“Why?” we asked.

“Because a boy at school said that sometimes people shoot themselves in the head.”

And just like that, I found myself trying to explain depression and suicide to my 7-year-old at 9 o’clock at night.

In retrospect, I could’ve skirted the whole issue by turning it into a gun safety lesson: “Yes, sweetie, sometimes accidents happen with guns. And that is why you should never play with a gun if you see one at a friend’s house.” Done, and off to bed.

But that would’ve been dishonest; I knew as well as she did that her issue was not with guns. Her issue was with death.

My husband and I flailed around for a few minutes. “Well, honey, you know, sometimes people just feel really, really sad. They feel like they don’t have any hope. And so they think it’s better if they’re not alive anymore.”

“But then they’re dead.

“That’s right, but they think maybe it’s better to be dead.”

She stared at us a minute, then said, “You know, that’s doesn’t make me feel any better.”

And she was absolutely right.

Because, frankly, suicide is no place for moral tiptoeing, especially when discussing it with children. I want to teach my daughters to respect people with different viewpoints, appearances, and lifestyles. But I do not ever want my daughters to have the impression that it’s a valid life choice to kill themselves. (PLEASE NOTE: This is very different from saying that I lack sympathy for those who do.)

But how to explain all that to a 7-year-old?

I didn’t do it very well, and I’m sure we’ll have the same discussion again — also late at night, no doubt. But I did find some words that surprised myself, which is what often happens in these cases.

I said: “You know, life is kind of like a story that you tell yourself: The way you live your life depends on the kind of story you believe you’re in. And, you know how stories can have sad endings, or they can have happy endings?”

She nodded; our family’s big on stories.

“Well, people who shoot themselves in the head believe that their story has a sad ending. But I hope that’s not the story you’ll tell yourself; I hope you’ll live like your story has a happy ending.”

The “what-ifs” started then, as expected.

“But what if you’re really sick? What if you’re going to die anyway?”

These are excellent questions, and my response to them will always be: Everything depends on where you place your ending.

If death is The End — the finish line, the full stop — then we all have sad endings.

But if you believe that there’s something more than death, then all the tragedies, illnesses, and injustices life throws at you — including death itself — are just the equivalent of the various trials necessary to any good story: challenges that refine and prepare us for the ultimate ending, the one that’s happy.

Obviously I am touching closely on my family’s religious beliefs here. And when I said these things to my daughter, as often happens in these cases, I was also speaking to myself.

How can you be sure that what you believe is true? you ask.

My daughter asked the same thing, certainly not for the last time.

My answer: can’t be absolutely sure that what I believe is true. Can anybody?

I can give you plenty of sound theological and historical arguments. But those will only take us so far, because I am talking about faith. And while faith may be logical, it can’t be explained satisfactorily by logic.

Faith, by its very definition, must be believed rather than known. Faith is not fact — which makes it no less true, in my opinion. (Oxygen is not a carrot, either, but both exist.)

So perhaps I can’t explain very well, either to you or to my daughter, but I can submit this:

If none of us really knows for absolute certain where the ending lies — if we’re all just grasping towards it as best we can — isn’t it worth living as if our stories have happy endings?