Walking the Labyrinth

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Were you to ask me what our family has done this summer, my response would be, “Very little.”

This summer, my daughters decided they wanted to do nothing. With the exception of a handful of brief or sporadic local activities, they shook their heads at any sort of camp or sport. Many of their friends head to sleepaway camp for weeks on end; not one Gong daughter has even a passing interest in such a thing – and, as a former miserably homesick camper myself, I’m not inclined to push it.

Sure, there was the weeklong vacation in Maine. A couple of trips to the lake and the pool. A few outings to local museums. And that’s about the sum total.

Now, this isn’t my first rodeo: When it became clear that our summer calendar was going to have its fair share of blank spaces, I printed out a nifty little sheet for each daughter with the heading, “My Summer Goals.”

“Just think of three things you want to accomplish this summer, and write them down,” I instructed them. “That way, you won’t feel like you didn’t get anything done this summer.” This is parent code for: Good Lord, we’ve got to have at least a little bit of structure or we’re all going to KILL EACH OTHER!

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

Of Anniversaries and Trampolines

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The 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 lunar landing also happens to be the 17th anniversary of my marriage. Laying the two events side by side, I’m not sure which is the greater miracle: the amount of planning, coordination, brainpower, technology, and skill required to land a man on the moon, or the amount required to pull off our wedding (to say nothing of the ensuing marriage!).

The 17th anniversary is apparently the “furniture anniversary,” so it seems fitting that this week my husband installed a major piece of outdoor “furniture” that allows our family to defy gravity just like those Apollo 11 astronauts. That’s right: We got a trampoline.

Click here to continue reading this week’s “Faith in Vermont” column in The Addison Independent — now on the op/ed page!

Why Build Sandcastles?

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Ever since I was pregnant with our first child twelve years ago, with a few exceptions, our family has spent a week of every summer at the Maine coast. This summer was no exception. Our daughters consider Maine one of the fixed points of their year, and look forward to our summer week there all of the 51 other weeks.

This year brought some changes, as is inevitable with the passage of time and the aging of people. Some were bittersweet: Due to a combination of busy-ness and illness, my extended maternal relatives visited Maine for only a day instead of staying the entire week. But some were sweet: My growing daughters no longer wake at dawn demanding entertainment, being now content to sleep late and spend slow, quiet mornings reading, drawing, and talking. They can apply their own sunscreen and help lug beach paraphernalia. For the first time, we were able to enter the gift store in town that’s full of breakable items, where my daughters chuckled over the card that said, “Let’s get this party started (because I’d really like to be in bed by 11!)” – which they suggested getting for their father – and debated over which welcome mat would be most appropriate for our house: “Welcome to the Jungle,” “You’ve Made it This Far,” or “The Neighbors Have Better Stuff.”

But the beauty of our Maine week – and the reason I suspect it holds such a special place in our daughters’ hearts – is how few things change year to year. For the past six years, we’ve stayed in the same house, with a big climbing rock out front. Each visit entails several nonnegotiable activities: multiple visits to Perkins Cove Candies and the Corner Café, daily beach and rock climbing time, and an excursion to Dunne’s Ice Cream (formerly Brown’s) and Nubble Light, with dinner at Fox’s Lobster House (where their Nana spent a summer hostessing during high school.)

And when we go to the beach, the girls always build sandcastles with their grandfather – my father.

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

Inside the Blue Whale

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This past week, as I’ve done for the past six years, I spent three straight days at Branbury Beach State Park, where I spent three hours each day teaching nature classes to children aged 5-11 as part of an annual summer camp run by our church.

On the second day of camp, my nature theme centered around blue whales, so I dug up a copy of one of our family’s favorite blue whale picture books (recommended years ago by my friend Amy, of Vermont Book Shop fame): Billy Twitters and his Blue Whale Problem, by Mac Barnett. The story centers around Billy Twitters, a boy who won’t do his chores, and who gets a whole new sense of responsibility when his parents buy him a blue whale to care for. In the end, Billy moves into his blue whale’s massive mouth, concluding: “Sometimes the only way to escape from the problems caused by your blue whale is to spend some time inside your blue whale.”

That line haunted me. After reading it aloud three times to my campers, I was certain that Mac Barnett was trying to tell me something profound, but it took me a while to pinpoint just what.

Billy Twitters moving inside his problematic blue whale reminds me of how our family has been dealing with death lately.

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

Spring Travels, Part 2: The Nation’s Capitol

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“We never go anywhere!

This refrain has been moaned repeatedly by certain children of mine over the past year. I have about as much sympathy for it as I do the other oft-whined complaint: “I’m bored!

They’ve heard the practical considerations: the expense and hassle of traveling with four young children, the 33 animals (last time I counted) that depend on us, the jobs and activities that constrain our schedule.

Sure, there are obvious benefits to travel for young children: It’s educational and world-expanding. The same could be said of books.

As I frequently remind my children, my own childhood trips were annual summer drives from Northern Virginia to New England to visit family, with occasional side trips. My first journeys to California and abroad didn’t happen until I was in college. And I felt none the worse for any of that; if anything, I got far more out of my travels in my 20s than I would have as a younger child.

My children have already been to California, the Caribbean, andCanada, so they’re miles ahead of where I was at their ages. But until this spring, they hadn’t explored the city of my childhood: Washington, D.C. So, when my parents announced plans to attend a memorial service in Washington, we decided to tag along.

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

Spring Travels, Part 1: The Ancestry Outing

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Like so many Americans, my children are made up of an improbable blend of stories from all over the world. They are the offspring of fortune-seekers who traveled back and forth between China and the West Coast for a century before settling in California in the mid-1900s, of Italians who arrived in the early 1900s to work in the shoe factories of Lawrence, Massachusetts, and of Scotch-English pilgrims who came in the 1600s seeking land and religious freedom.

It’s that last group – the colonial WASPs – who receive the least amount of attention in the ancestry narratives I tell my children. To begin with, those people came over so long ago, before the United States was even united; their stories have been swallowed by the mists of time, obscured by the constantly dividing branches of a family tree filled with Elizabeths and Johns. Not only that, but during this time when multiculturalism is being (quite rightly) celebrated, colonial Anglo-Saxon culture just seems a whole lot less interesting than Chinese or Italian heritage.

About a year ago, I realized that career opportunities and family affections had relocated both my parents and me to within a few hours of where our family’s American story started. Since my two oldest daughters are studying early American history this year, the timing seemed right to take an “ancestry outing.”  Which is why, in early May, I set out early one morning with my parents and four daughters on the 100-mile drive to Washington, New Hampshire, the location of nearly 200 years of Peasley family history.

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

School’s Out…Forever

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Last weekend, I had the opportunity to visit the District #5 School in East Washington, New Hampshire. This 1849 one-room schoolhouse is now maintained by the Washington Historical Society; it closed its doors in 1938, a year in which there was only one family with school-age children left in East Washington, but it holds a significant place in our family lore. The District #5 School is where my maternal grandmother, Helen Natalie Peasley, began her school career. She walked a mile to the school down Lovell Mountain, where she lived on the family farm run by her grandfather, who grazed his cattle on the mountain. She grew up to work for decades as a teacher, and she always enjoyed telling us about her early days walking to the schoolhouse.

Now, when I hear about the debate over school consolidation in Addison County, I picture the District #5 School sitting empty, its woodstove grown cold, its rows of seats and chalkboards on display for visitors like my daughters and me. Were my grandmother alive today, she would ride the bus 7.3 miles to Washington Elementary School.

Because I homeschool all of my children, people often say to me, “You must be so glad you don’t have to worry about that!” They say this about school-related issues like classroom discipline issues, consolidation, and school shootings.

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