On Summer Activities, Economic Development, and Overthinking

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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

 

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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

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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

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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?

Into the Woods

If there’s such thing as a “real Vermont winter” this is the first that our family has experienced, four years after moving here.

Massachusetts and Maine may have had it worse, but since I haven’t left Vermont since November, I really can’t say for sure. I’d suggest that once you’ve reached over a foot of snow on the ground and double-digits under 0 degrees Fahrenheit on the outdoor thermometer, any comparison seems like senseless posturing.

We’ve had both of those conditions — the snow and the temperature — here in Vermont, with no relief for a very long time. It snows, and it snows again, the fresh snow piling atop the old because the temperature hasn’t exceeded freezing in over a month.

I love it.

The reason I love this winter weather can be summed up in three words: cross-country skiing.

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

Consider the Orchid

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Somehow, I have failed to kill the orchid.

The orchid in question is the first I’ve ever owned. It was bestowed upon me this past July as a hostess gift from a visiting friend. This friend — unlike me — does not have to drive an hour in order to reach the nearest Trader Joe’s, so she arrived at our house thoughtfully bearing an array of exotic Trader Joe’s products: dried mango, chocolate-covered cherries, seasoning salt. Also: the orchid.

“It’s beautiful. Thank you,” I said as she handed me a tiny pot containing the single curved stalk upon which three delicate blossoms trembled. “I’m going to kill this.”

Click here to continue reading over at On the Willows.

Vermont Country

As a Christmas gift this year, my husband sent me away.

I mean that in the best sense: Aware that I could use a solid chunk of quiet and solitude (that’s a euphemism for “escaping the children”), my husband did some research and booked me a two-night stay at St. Joseph’s Dwelling Place, a retreat center just outside of Ludlow, Vermont.

St. Joseph’s Dwelling Place offers both guided and unguided retreat options. I chose the unguided option, which meant I had a comfortable room all to myself in a large, quiet house set on six acres at the foot of Okemo Mountain. There was only one other guest at the house the weekend I was there, and I never saw her. I read (E. B. White’s book of essays about Maine, One Man’s Meat, which was excellent company), I wrote, I took two cross-country ski jaunts, and I luxuriated in the peace and quiet.

But this is not about my time in the retreat center, restorative as it was; this is about what happened when I left the retreat center.

To continue reading my latest “Faith in Vermont” column for The Addison Independent, just click here!