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. 

Garden Guilt

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Please, don’t tell me that you’ve spent all day working out in the garden.

I see you, anyway: out in your yards, industriously raking leaves out of your garden beds, shoveling mulch, setting up your floating row covers.

I see you out my minivan window as I’m driving my daughters to piano, or theater, or a friend’s house, or Girls on the Run. Girls on the Run, indeed.

Those are my weekday afternoons.

And I’m not quite sure how this happened, but it appears that every single weekend between now and June is booked up with something: a Library Board retreat, a trip to see family, some sort of culturally enriching experience. Unless it’s raining; those days, I’m free.

Speaking of rain, this month seems to be taking the concept of “April showers” to an extreme. Only our ducks are happy.

Please, don’t tell me that you’ve already planted your kale.

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

 

From a Faculty Spouse to the Middlebury College Faculty, With Respect

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Despite the fact that my husband is employed by Middlebury College, our family has a fairly distant connection to campus life. The majority of our friends are not employed by the college; they’re our neighbors, members of our church, or people we’ve met through our daughters’ involvement in the homeschool community or other activities. That said, we do number some of my husband’s colleagues among our close friends. We have students over to dinner throughout the year. Our daughters have taken swim lessons from members of the Middlebury College Swim Team, and our eldest daughter is currently studying Latin with a student from the Classics Department.

All this to say: Every interaction our family has had personally with Middlebury College faculty, staff, or students has been positive.

Most of our friends are swamped with issues like how to survive the high cost of living in Vermont, how to keep their relationships healthy, or how to raise children and care for ailing parents. Just as Middlebury College is isolated geographically from the rest of the town, campus issues tend to be of little concern to most Middlebury residents, myself included.

Unless they’re really big issues. Which is what happened when my husband came home from work last week and said, “Well, there’s another brouhaha at the college.”

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

Underneath My Game Face: A Good Friday Reflection on Truth

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My five-year-old daughter awoke in the middle of the night calling for me. As I tucked her back into bed, she was in a sweetly groggy, half-asleep state.

“Mommy,” she said, looking up from her pillow, “who should I be in my dream?”

It was such a beautiful, strange question that it caught me off guard.

“Well,” I ventured, with the sense that my answer might be vitally important, “why don’t you be yourself?”

This seemed to satisfy her. “Okay,” she nodded, closing her eyes. “I’ll just be Abigail.”

As if it were that simple.

***

For my first two decades of life, I was adept at molding myself into whomever others wanted me to be. My goal was approval: I could walk into a room, sense the prevailing winds, and do or say whatever would make the majority happy.

It hit me in my early 20s: I had navigated college, graduate school, and my early career, but I wasn’t certain that I’d ever had a single original opinion. What did I really think about anything? I’d spent my entire life asking who I should be, instead of who I was. Had anybody told me to just be myself, I wouldn’t have known where to start.

At this point I was teaching third grade at a private girls’ school in New York City. I was 25 years old. (I look back now and marvel at how anybody ever trusted my 25-year-old self with a classroom full of eight-year-old girls, but we all survived.)

It was the year 2000. This year, a threshold to a new century, was also a threshold moment in my own life. It was the year that I started taking baby steps towards my self. I was a year post-recovery from an eating disorder. I’d been dating my future husband for a year, and had begun attending a church that would be pivotal in shaping my faith. I was beginning to accept that I needed to make the best choices for me, regardless of whether I’d make everyone else happy.

I remained a mess of insecurities, bitterness, and confusion – things I struggle with mightily even today, mind you – but the steering wheel was starting to turn that would alter the course of my life ever so gradually, like a gigantic cruise ship changing course.

In the fall of 2000, Nadia walked into my third grade classroom. She was a bright, energetic eight-year-old, so it was a shock when, in November, she was diagnosed with Ewing’s sarcoma in her jaw.

***

Nadia was the first person I’d known with cancer. I remember Nadia’s mother, Judi, who seemed so strong despite the obvious emotional pain she was suffering. I remember Nadia during the various stages of her treatment – chemotherapy, surgery to remove part of her jaw and replace it with part of her shin bone, and more chemo – who seemed so strong despite the obvious physical pain she was suffering. She missed a lot of school that year, and on a handful of occasions I visited her apartment after school to work with her one-on-one, so that she wouldn’t fall too far behind.

In my memories, Nadia’s cancer ended with the school year: She completed her treatment, the cancer was gone, and the prognosis was excellent.

Five years later, after I got married and quit teaching, I left New York. We moved across the country to Berkeley, California so that my husband could go to graduate school. Much like the photographs that we packed into boxes and have never re-opened, the seven-year chapter of my life that happened mostly between East 86thand East 96thStreets was boxed away in the attic of my mind.

But sometimes Nadia slipped out. Every once in a while – when I added another name to the list of people I know with cancer, for instance, or when I read my daughters Patricia Polacco’s powerful picture book about childhood cancer, The Lemonade Club– I’d wonder how Nadia was doing.

***

This February, while searching for something completely different on the internet, a book popped up: Motherhood Exaggerated, by Judith Hannan.

That’s Nadia’s mom! I thought. I’d forgotten that Judi Hannan was a writer. I clicked for more information. In 2012, she’d written an entire book about Nadia’s journey through cancer.

I ordered a copy of Motherhood Exaggerated, and for the week that it took me to read I could hardly concentrate on anything else. It is a gorgeous book. On one level, it’s about parenting a sick child and how the effects of a life-threatening illness continue long after the illness itself has retreated, but it’s also about the broader themes of life, love, suffering, and the struggle for hope.

I read Motherhood Exaggerated as someone who’d been there but hadn’t fully experienced all aspects of Nadia’s illness. I read between the lines, recalling the bits of my own story that intersected with Nadia and her family. The book resurrected places and people I’d packed away in my mental attic years ago.

Then, one night, I turned a page and found myself.

“Ms. Cinquegrana [my maiden name] is young. She exudes a quiet serenity, which is a soothing contrast to the bubbly smiles and cheerleading attitude of hospital personnel…. Ms. Cinquegrana is always unflustered by Nadia’s appearance or latest medical crises. On the three or four occasions that she has come to our home to work with Nadia in the past few months, I would sneak peeks of her sitting with Nadia on the floor. Their bodies are always learning toward one another; their quiet talk is punctuated occasionally by giggles. It is a vision I cherish; their time together is a true oasis for Nadia.”

Don’t we all sometimes wish we could know how others see us? This was my chance, and it was a flattering portrait. But after reading that paragraph about my 25-year-old self, my first reaction was: It’s a lie.

 I don’t mean that Judi Hannan wasn’t being honest. But what she saw, what she describes, was my “game face.” know that this quietly serene, unflustered young teacher was a seething cauldron of conflict under the surface. Reading Judi’s description of me only drove home the degree to which my inside hadn’t matched my outside.

Don’t get me wrong: If this was my game face, it was an appropriate one. I’m glad that I was able to be a true oasis for Nadia. This same game face would serve me well less than a year later, when the lower school headmistress pulled me out of class one morning to tell me: “A plane’s just crashed into the World Trade Center. We don’t know what’s going on, but it’s not good, and it’s probably going to affect some of our parents. Our job is to keep the girls calm and in school for as long as possible.”

I’m not suggesting that we wear all of our emotions like a wardrobe; restraint and self-control are often the best choice, particularly when dealing with children. I only wish that I’d actually felt the “quiet serenity” I was somehow able to exude; that it had been my personal state, rather than a professional mask.

***

If I could reach back through time to Ms. Cinquegrana, I would tell her that she still has some rocky years ahead on the journey towards selfhood. September 11, and her marriage ten months later, will shake the ground beneath her. She’ll lose her bearings on who she’s supposed to be. She’ll quit teaching and enroll in a graduate program for photography – an interlude that, 15 years later, she still can’t quite understand. Then she’ll close the door on New York, move to California, and start having children.

It will be those children, those four little girls born in six years, who will force her to take her self seriously – because when you have four pairs of eyes studying you for guidance on how to be a person, it’s impossible to conceal that your inside doesn’t match your outside.

***

One night in Vermont, when all my girls were in bed, I read this line in Jonathan Safran Foer’s novel Everything is Illuminated: “Try to live so that you can always tell the truth.”

And I thought: YES, THAT is who I would like to be, and teach my daughters to be.

I no longer wanted to put on a happy face…or a kind face, or a brave face. That’s exhausting. Instead, I wanted to actually become happy, kind, and brave.

***

I don’t think it was an accident that Motherhood Exaggerated popped up on my laptop screen at the start of Lent, sending me on a voyage into the past, opening the boxes in my mental attic and plumbing the depths of who I was, who I am.

Lent is a time to take stock of our insides. If someone sacrifices themselves to save your life, chances are that you will take stock; you will think hard about how to live the life that’s been given back to you.

That’s the story of Jesus and Easter.

Lent is a time when I ask myself, “Do I really believe this crazy thing?” And when the answer is YES, my next question is, “If this is the truth, is my life telling the truth? Does my inside match my outside?”

The answer is always NO, of course — for all of us, I suspect. But when I look back, I can see that every year the distance between YES and NO gets a little smaller. It is a slow, often painful process, learning how to be myself. I have become more patient with this; it takes a long time to turn a cruise ship around, and it’s not even my hands on the wheel.

A Room of One’s Own

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Our family spends a lot of time at home.

My husband leaves for his office on weekdays, but since I homeschool our daughters, our house is the center of our daily activities. We eat most meals at home, given the expense and hassle of dining out with four young children. Caring for 31 animals (give or take) and a garden during the warmer months limits our ability to travel. All told, I’d estimate that I spend an average of 147 hours a week at home – out of a possible 168.

While I haven’t been able to find a definitive figure, a quick bit of internet research turned up the estimate that the average American spends roughly 45% of their time at home (including sleep), which would translate to 76 hours a week.

I often fail to notice the obvious in my life until it’s pointed out by others. For example, a fellow homeschooling mother with whom I was sharing tea happened to drop the statement that, “Homeschooling is a full-time job.” It was like a jolt of electricity had passed through me. “OH!” I thought. “THAT’S why I’m so busy!”

That same mother, in the same conversation, enlightened me further with the observation that it’s difficult for homeschooling families to have clean, orderly houses because the kids are always there.

“OH!” I thought. “THAT’S why there’s a constant trail of books and art supplies stretching from our entryway up to the girls’ rooms, and a massive cardboard box/transmogrifier/time machine in the middle of the kitchen.  And why any attempt to wipe, vacuum, or straighten away evidence of my four children seems futile, since they’ll just undo it the next minute.”

I’ve also started to wonder if the amount of time we spend at home has something to do with why my daughters keep asking for furniture.

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

Life vs. Liberty

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It all started with 11 secondhand chickens that friends packed into plastic bins and drove to our house.

Those original 11 birds reproduced themselves, and the widescale slaughter we’d expected at the hands of predators or disease has yet to occur. At the moment, my family shares our property with 23 chickens and seven ducks; another three ducklings arrive later this month.

We raise poultry for a variety of reasons, including:

-Half of our daughters have a deep affection for these birds. (The other half is either ambivalent or wants nothing to do with anything poultry-related.)

-Poultry-keeping chores teach our children the value of hard work and responsibility. (That is, when they’re willing to drag themselves out of bed on cold, dark winter mornings to do their chores.)

-We haven’t had to buy eggs in two years – and we have eggs to spare. (Current tally: six dozen eggs in the refrigerator and another couple dozen in a bowl waiting for a carton to open up. I choose recipes based on how many eggs they use.)

-It seemed like a good idea at the time.

Whatever the reason, once we’d invested in the birds, coops, feed, and fencing, we felt a certain responsibility to keep them alive. Our dog did not share this sense of responsibility. Our dog wanted to do what came naturally: Snack!

One of the challenges of living with multiple species is navigating the fine line between the freedom of one species and the survival of another.

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

Spring Cleaning (of the Virtual Kind)

Hello! Welcome back! Yes, you ARE in the right place!

It’s starting to feel like spring here in Vermont — finally. Today, that meant that it was in the 50s and raining. After church, we somehow ended up inviting four kids over to play. If you’re counting, that’s a total of eight kids in our house. Which works beautifully when we can kick everyone outside. When it’s raining: Not so much.

Thankfully, AFTER they put together a full wedding ceremony for our youngest daughter and our cat (complete with invitations and programs, music, readings, a reception, cake, and some attempt at dancing) the rain slowed down. These are Vermont kids; they’re not afraid to go outside in a drizzle.

Since the house was quiet, since this is the last day of our family’s spring break, since we were supposed to do some spring cleaning on this spring break but all my girls declared themselves “too tired” and asked for an extension, I retreated to the office/laundry room/linen closet and decided that in lieu of actual spring cleaning, I’d clean up this blog. I’ve been wanting to give it a bit of a facelift for a while. I neatened some things up and gave it what I hope is a more simple, clean look. I like it a lot, and hope you do, too.

Things have been simpler on this blog in a lot of ways, lately. You may have noticed that I’m using it mostly to post links to “Faith in Vermont,” my bi-weekly column for The Addison Independent. For a while I felt badly that I wasn’t writing more outside my column, but I don’t anymore. That’s about what I have capacity for right now, between homeschooling four girls, shuttling them around to activities, trying to keep our little homestead in working order, and still having time to spend with my husband, my friends, myself, and God.

And, in case you didn’t hear, “Faith in Vermont” won “Best Blog on a Newspaper Website” in the New England Newspaper and Press Association’s 2018 Better Newspaper Competition! Awards only go so far — my kids still don’t listen to me — but it was a nice little affirmation that I’m focusing on the right thing…for now.

I think I’ll stick with this new blog look for a good long time, though.

Wishing you all a wonderful Sunday. Check back in on Tuesday; I’ll have a new “Faith in Vermont” column up!