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.

Mom Goes to Doe Camp

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It started with fly fishing.

My daughters were asking to go fishing. Neither my husband nor I, both suburban kids, have any fishing experience aside from some childhood Girl Scout and Y Camp trips. I’ve been keen to learn, though, and felt particularly drawn to fly fishing which, in my mind, is associated with two of my favorite things: Norman MacLean’s gorgeous story A River Runs Through It, and Brad Pitt’s performance in the movie of the same name.

But, as I understand it, fly fishing involves hours of standing in water. It doesn’t seem compatible with being the mother of four young daughters. I decided to shelve it for a few years.

Then, on our anniversary, my husband handed me a tiny figurine of a doe. He was sending me to Doe Camp.

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

 

 

 

Rest: Why You (Yes, You) Need It!

 

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I would love to hear about your process in realizing you need to “step back” and care for yourself. What happened to cause that? What has changed in the way you go about doing things?

Those lines are from an email I received from a college student we know.

I laughed when I read her email. I’d just been up half the night before having a panic attack. I’d laid in bed, mind racing, breathing hard, every muscle firing. Finally, so as not to disturb my sleeping husband, I went downstairs and walked around, forcing myself to breathe deeply.

Click here to continue reading my latest post over at “On the Willows.”

A Morning at the DMV

I spent the morning of my 39th birthday in the waiting room of the Middlebury DMV.

Here are a few things that you should know:

-The Middlebury DMV is a “mobile” DMV, which means that it’s not in operation every day. It’s open for business in the Middlebury Courthouse every Thursday, and alternating Wednesdays. That’s it.

-I needed to renew my driver’s license. And, since my license expired on my 39th birthday, I needed to renew it that day. (I found out later that I had a two-week grace period to renew my license, but I’m a good girl who likes to meet the deadline.)

-My birthday is on September 11.

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

In Memoriam

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“Writers are always selling someone out.”

So wrote Joan Didion in her preface to Slouching Towards Bethlehem.

I recalled this quote last week at breakfast, when my husband asked me over the head of our crying daughter, “Is this going to become a blog post?”

“Of course not,” I replied, indignant. “It’s too sad.”

Three hours later, I sat at my computer and composed this blog post.

Writers are always selling someone out.

Our daughter was crying because she missed Pink Sweetie.

She missed Pink Sweetie because she’d received a letter from Pink Sweetie.

Let me back up: Pink Sweetie was — is — a “lovey,” a soft little blankie with an animal head (a bear, in this case.) Pink Sweetie was a baby gift for Fiona, but Fiona passed her — along with her companion, White Sweetie — to Campbell after her birth. Campbell never passed Pink Sweetie on; she clutched Pink Sweetie, buried her nose in Pink Sweetie, brought Pink Sweetie everywhere — including the ferry across Lake Champlain, where, one fateful summer Saturday, the wind swept Pink Sweetie out of Campbell’s grip and into the water.

Campbell went through all the stages of grief in the course of  30 minutes, from denial to acceptance. We told stories about how Pink Sweetie was having a great time hanging out with the mermaids and Champ the Lake Monster on the bottom of Lake Champlain.

This was over two years ago. Nothing ever fully replaced Pink Sweetie; not White Sweetie, not even the new Pink Sweetie that Fiona bought Campbell for her next birthday. Every six months or so, Campbell would stare into space, tears welling, and say, “I miss Pink Sweetie.”

Last Friday, an envelope addressed to Campbell arrived in the mail. In it was a typed letter from Pink Sweetie, reporting that all was well under the Lake. Like Campbell, Pink Sweetie had started Kindergarten. She’d made a new friend. She’d even visited Burlington, on a seagull joyride. And she promised to wave if Campbell called her name by the Lake.

(This letter wasn’t really from Pink Sweetie, of course, but from my husband, with whom I fell deeper in love as I read it. When asked what inspired him to write and send it from his office, he replied, “My research wasn’t going very well that day.”)

As I read Campbell the letter, her mouth dropped open in amazement. She smiled. She asked, “Was that really from Pink Sweetie?” She said, “I should write back.” Then she got quiet. She stood up, walked out the screen door into the back yard, and sat on a rock. When I found her ten minutes later, she was crying quietly. “I miss Pink Sweetie,” she sobbed, when I asked what was wrong.

The crying and missing continued at regular intervals over the next few days.

One month earlier, it was Fiona who was teary after a trip to California to visit her paternal grandparents. “I miss Grandmommy!” she wailed daily.

And two weeks ago, we had 16 trees taken down in our yard, a concession to our gradual realization that the huge, beautiful trees growing mere feet from the house prevented other vegetation from surviving, brought swarms of mosquitoes, and ruined the roof and deck — in addition to being potentially dangerous.

But our daughters, who’ve read and watched The Lorax numerous times, were indignant. They were especially grief-stricken over an enormous hemlock they’d named “Evergreen,” which shaded their favorite rock and had low-hanging branches from which they could swing. Before Evergreen was felled, our three oldest girls went out to hug him and tearfully say goodbye. They saved one of his branches as a memento. Whenever they play outside, they mourn, “We miss Evergreen!”

“There’s been a lot of missing in our house lately,” I observed.

“Do you miss anything, Mommy?” Fiona asked.

And thankfully the conversation suddenly shifted gears, because I had no answer.

I’m still not sure I have an answer, unless “Yes, and no” counts as an answer.

Missing, in the way that my daughters miss, strikes me as a luxury. It’s the domain of the very young and the very tenderhearted. I am neither. I don’t shed tears over inanimate objects, trees, or people who are far away. I may wish that a favorite shirt hadn’t been trashed because it developed too many holes, I may wish that certain plants had survived, I may wish that I saw distant friends and family more often. These thoughts flit through my mind like gnats and are gone seconds later. But that’s just wistful thinking, not deep missing. 

I’m also fortunate, because most of the people to whom I’m closest, the people who will leave un-fillable gaps in my life, are still alive. At the moment.

So, what do I miss?

For a little over a year now, I’ve felt my heart acutely. Not in a medical sense, but an emotional one.  Throughout the day, a moment will strike me and I’ll feel my heart ache, swell, bleed. I’ve never been much of a cryer, but now I cry at happy endings, sad endings, church sermons, and especially while reading children’s books.

I thought this might be postpartum hormones, but I think a more accurate term is: missing.

I miss everything, all the time.

I miss the present, even while I’m experiencing it.

Because unless you’re in the middle of a crisis, the present can be heartbreakingly beautiful, crushingly joyful.

Sit with your children watching a sunset, and along with the loveliness of that moment you’re aware of how fleeting it is. You recall previous sunsets, maybe sunsets before children, before you knew all that you know now. You think of other people in the world — those you know, and those you don’t — who are watching the same sunset while suffering pain and loss. You realize that the next time you watch a sunset with your children, it won’t be the same; you’ll all be older, and maybe pain and loss will have found you in the interim. You think further into the future, to when you’ll watch sunsets alone, to when your children will watch sunsets alone.

And you miss it all: the past, the present, and the future. Because it’s all a series of sad and happy endings, all the time.

But you don’t miss the you who didn’t think this way about every moment. Because maybe this is what it means to finally be a grownup.

“Do you miss anything, Mommy?”

That’s what I would have told her.