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


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


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.

Following Through


As of today, I have finished the “birth books” of my two oldest daughters.

Their prenatal ultrasound pictures are tucked inside the front covers; photographs from their early years, baptismal certificates, birthday invitations, and Christmas cards are affixed where appropriate. Most of the lines are filled with writing — not all, as I will never be able to answer the question about the fashion trends when they were born– but enough to look like I put some effort into the thing.

The birth book seemed like such a nice thing when I was pregnant with our first baby. It even seemed essential, in the same way it seemed essential that our nursery have a “theme,” with linens matching the lamp matching the wall art. (Ours was “Safari.”) Who wouldn’t want to record their child’s earliest moments for posterity? Hadn’t my own mother kept a detailed birth book for me?

So I bought one: a thin, hard-bound book with Winnie-the-Pooh on the cover. Inside were pages dedicated to the family tree, the pregnancy and birth details, celebrations, and major developmental milestones.

It was only once I began keeping a birth book for my first — and then second — child, that I realized its reassuringly thin spine and apparent simplicity were clever disguises for something more sinister. To begin with, this was not a “birth” book: each book is designed to cover the first five years of your child’s life, up through kindergarten. There were pages to accommodate multiple baby showers (I missed my first baby shower because I was giving birth, and never had a traditional shower again.) There were questions about current events during your baby’s birth year. There were lines for recording information about every single visit to the doctor or dentist. There were guilt-inducing blank boxes in which I was instructed to paste before-and-after photos of my child’s first haircut.

In short, these birth books were designed for first-time parents. And now I had to do four of them.

By the time I got to my third and fourth children, the format of the birth books I ordered had changed slightly: Now, the books expected you to record your baby’s height, weight, and developmental milestones during each month of their first year of life.

These birth books are exercises in following through.

I responded with denial. All four birth books sat on a shelf beside my computer, and I reassured myself that I’d work on them when I had “free time.” This meant that, every couple of months, I’d enter a guilty panic when I realized I’d gotten behind and couldn’t remember when my third child began walking, or how my fourth child slept at five months. The younger half of my children are going to have hard evidence that I loved them less than their older siblings.

But this morning I recalled that both my first and second child have turned five, which means that I no longer had to keep up their birth books! Freedom! I spent a few minutes tying up loose ends, and then stashed the books in each daughter’s memory box in the closet.

Two down, two to go.


If pressed, I would say that one reason we’ve yet to wipe out poverty, war, injustice, and climate change is due to lack of follow-through. The problems are daunting, and we are all, to various degrees, lazy, selfish, exhausted, busy, and scared.

I’m no different: In addition to the baby books, the list of things I’ve left hanging includes planting a raised-bed vegetable garden, baking fresh bread weekly, going through the boxes of pictures that we shoved in a closet 5 years ago, and a pile of mending.

I am particularly bad at following through with people. During my sophomore year of college, I was asked to mentor a young woman about five years older than myself. She was the daughter of a family in town, and I gathered that she’d been a bit wild until she’d suffered a traumatic brain injury in a car accident. Now, her parents wanted her to have a friend who’d be a good influence.

I can’t recall how I became that friend; I think it was arranged through the church I attended at the time. I knew that I was in over my head almost immediately, but I persevered through a series of awkward conversations over coffee. Looking back, it seems ludicrous to charge a  19-year-old who’s just left a sheltered home with mentoring a 24-year-old who’s lived hard. I don’t remember the last time we talked. I certainly never followed through after I graduated, and have no idea what became of her.

That young woman was the first in a series of people whom I’ve failed similarly. I’ve neglected to follow through on relationships from Africa to California and in between.

The church we attend now isn’t one of those churches where people dress nicely and have all their stuff together. Every Sunday, our pews hold people who struggle openly with addiction and mental illness. (I like to imagine that Jesus would be more comfortable there than in a suburban mega-church.)

But every Sunday some of those struggling people are missing. Sometimes they’re gone for weeks or months; sometimes they disappear completely. I know this is common, but I always feel badly, like maybe if I’d been more friendly, or done something to help, they’d still be there.

I’m not proud of my lack of follow-through, and I’m trying to do better. I’m trying to reach out to people when I think of them and to do kind things when they occur to me, instead of hiding behind the “I have four young children” excuse.

Because the truth is that something is always better than nothing. And finished is always better than left hanging. Like with those baby books: Sometimes you just have to fill in what you can and call it done, even if you leave a few blank lines. There will always be blank lines. Maybe they weren’t yours to fill in, anyway.



Some Gifts of Spring


We are starting to move outward now. The turning point came a few days before Easter, when I looked outside one morning and saw that there was more bare ground than snow visible through the window.

Later that morning, I took my two youngest daughters and several friends to the playground in East Middlebury for the first time in about six months. The playground was hopping with caregivers and their young charges. As is always the case on those first warm days of spring, I saw people whom I hadn’t laid eyes on since the fall, people I’d nearly forgotten during our long hibernation.

We ate both snack and lunch outside that day. Then, while my daughters napped, I pulled the gardening book down from its shelf with some trepidation. Much to my relief, it told me that since I live in a cold climate, I can safely leave most of the gardening work until May. I left the book on the kitchen counter to refer to in another month, when the ground is thawed and dry and the chance of snow is almost zero.

As if to justify my leisure, the temperature dropped 30 degrees and it snowed the next day, and the day after that.

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

My New Collection


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.”