Anxiety, Hand-Washing, and eye Contact: A Report From the Kids

The temperature hasn’t risen above freezing all day, but the sky is a brilliant blue traversed by wispy clouds and the sun is shining on the sparkling white snow. In our front yard, my four daughters are zipping around on their skates, playing broomball on the ice rink that my husband built to keep them outdoors and active during the winter months. After a disappointingly mild December, January finally brought the requisite three days of below-freezing temperatures necessary for skate-worthy ice, and my daughters’ joyful voices proclaim that it was worth the wait. 

They are young, happy, and carefree. 

Or are they?

Over the past week I’ve heard this question asked repeatedly: How will having lived through the COVID-19 pandemic affect this generation of young people? Surely it will have some impact on their outlook on life and their behavior, much in the way that the Great Depression, World War II, and the Vietnam War impacted the generations that lived through them. 

I’ve heard this question pondered by fellow parents, by elderly adults, and even from the (live-streamed) pulpit of my church. So, since I have a sample size of five children in my house, I decided to ask their opinion: How do they think they’ve been changed by COVID-19? 

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

my 2020 LITERARY Favorites

2020 was a LOT of things, but for me it was (among other things) a year of READING.

I always read more during years when we have a new baby in the house, as we did this year. I find that frequent feedings — particularly those that happen in the wee hours — lend themselves to reading. The drastic narrowing of our lives due the COVID-19 pandemic didn’t hurt, either. I read for at least an hour each day of 2020, and usually had both a nonfiction and a fiction book going simultaneously.

Inspired by friends, I kept a list of the 43 books I read this year. Almost none of them were recent releases; the theme of my 2020 reading seems to be that I either re-read books from my past, or read classics that I’d always wanted to read but never gotten around to. It is not the most edgy or diverse list of books and authors, but I feel fairly unapologetic about that: There was enough edginess going on in my real life. These books were the literary equivalent of a cup of something warm and a freshly baked treat. My 2020 reading gave me comfort and challenged me in gentle ways to think deeply about community, family, and love. Because reading was one of the highlights of my year, I decided to share some of my favorite books with you. (NOTE: I am including links on Amazon, though I would encourage you to buy these at your local bookstores or used bookstores.)

Favorite Classic

This is a tie between the two works that bookended my year, both of which I hope to re-read in the future:

Middlemarch by George Eliot

Middlemarch was tough going for me at first: I read and re-read the first few pages while struggling to keep my eyes open during midnight baby feedings. But I stuck with it and was richly rewarded. It is an epic story of the choices we make, and their consequences. When I read the powerful final lines (while in the hospital with the baby), I sighed audibly with satisfaction and sorrow: “But the effect of her being on those around her was incalculably diffusive: for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.” Yes.

David Copperfield by Charles Dickens

I am not a rabid Dickens fan: I found Oliver Twist to be overwrought, and when I read Great Expectations (perhaps too early) my life remained unchanged. But David Copperfield, the final book I read in 2020, was such a delightful and stirring journey through a life that I was genuinely sorry to reach the final, thousand-something page. I plan to read more Dickens in the future.

Favorite Fiction

Hannah Coulter by Wendell Berry

The sleeper hit of my year: A quiet book about an unremarkable life that becomes remarkable in its ordinary beauty.

Favorite Non-Fiction

Tightrope: Americans Reaching for Hope by Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn

This is part memoir of Kristof’s childhood in working-class Yamhill, Oregon, and part laser-eyed examination of why so many Americans are slipping through the cracks of our society into addiction, poverty, and chronic hopelessness. I found it to be a balanced and fair look that shed light on much of what is happening in the country right now. And, while it’s not pretty, Kristof and WuDunn write with hope and make practical suggestions.

Everything Happens for a Reason, and Other Lies I’ve Loved by Kate Bowler

A young wife, mother, and rising star at Duke Divinity School (as a historian specializing in megachurches and the “prosperity gospel”), Kate Bowler was living her best life. Then she was diagnosed with Stage 4 colon cancer at age 35. Her account of that experience is painful, funny, and unforgettable. Highly recommended for those going through difficult times, or those walking alongside the difficult times of others (which is everybody) — it will change how you approach life’s hardest moments.

Favorite Biography

A Light So Lovely: The Spiritual Legacy of Madeleine L’Engle by Sarah Arthur and Charlotte Jones Voiklis

I’m not sure I can give words to how beautifully written this book is, or how it turns the traditional biographic form inside out. A gift from a friend (Thanks, Deborah!) it inspired me to embark upon a mini “L’Engle splurge” over the summer, which was well worth it.

Favorite Book About Education/Parenting

The Call of the Wild + Free: Reclaiming Wonder in Your Child’s Education by Ainsley Arment

Every summer, I indulge in what I consider “professional development reading” before we begin a new homeschool year. I’ve read a LOT of great books about education, homeschooling, and parenting, so it’s getting harder to inspire me with anything new, but The Call of the Wild + Free did just that. It’s a physically beautiful book, with gorgeous photographs and drawings, and it’s full of facts, inspiration, and practical tips for giving your children the gift of a childhood.

Favorite Series

Again, a tie:

This year, I re-read the entire Harry Potter series, as well as the entire Anne of Green Gables series. Both were the perfect pandemic reads: Harry Potter for its magical-world escapism, struggle between good and evil, and the saving power of love; Anne of Green Gables for its humor, endearing portrayal of human foibles, and depiction of our capacity for resilience under the most trying circumstances.

Favorite “New” Author

This was the year that I “discovered” Elizabeth Goudge (although she’s been dead since 1984!) I had encountered Goudge previously when I read her children’s book, The Little White Horse, to my daughters a few years ago. They adored the book, but I was lukewarm: It felt a little too fantastical, and everything tied up too neatly at the end. This year, I began reading Goudge’s grown-up fiction, and her writing takes my breath away. I began with Green Dolphin Street, which is an epic, globe-spanning story about what love really means, even when you marry the wrong person (literally the WRONG PERSON, not just “Gee, I wish I hadn’t married him/her!”) I’m now nearly through The Scent of Water, in which Goudge somehow manages to embed very tough topics (mental illness, marital strife, disappointing children, death, and disability, among others) into a charming novel about an English country village. Nothing is tied up too neatly; her books make me marvel at both the beauty and pain that co-exist in life. Next up for me is Pilgrim’s Inn.

Favorite Children’s Books

We read together a LOT as a family; I can usually be found reading aloud to all of our children on school mornings, every night before bed, and at moments in between. Our wonderful children’s librarian, Ms. Tricia (HI TRICIA!) categorizes children’s literature as either “mirrors” (books that reflect your experience back to yourself) or “windows” (books through which you can get a taste of a different experience/person.) I’ve decided to list one of each type of book here.

Favorite “Mirror” Book: The Vanderbeekers Lost and Found by Karina Yan Glaser

This is the fourth and latest book in the Vanderbeeker series, and you should read them all. The books center around a bi-racial family with five children (mirror!) that lives in Harlem (okay, that’s a bit of a window for us.) The Vanderbeekers face real-world challenges but — sometimes through misguided efforts — manage to bring light and love to everyone around them.

Favorite “Window” Book: A Long Walk to Water by Linda Sue Park

I read this to the girls as part of our history unit on Africa, and it made a huge impact on all of us. Park interweaves the stories of two 11-year-olds from Sudan: Nya, who in 2011 spends most of her time fetching water for her family, and Salva, one of the “lost boys” who becomes a refugee when the civil war separates him from his family in 1985. Not light material, but Park presents the stories with beautiful sensitivity. It opened up some wonderful conversations in our family and even inspired my daughters to try carrying water up to our house from a nearby stream (hilariously hard!) An excellent companion read is the graphic novel, When Stars Are Scattered.

Nobody knows what 2021 will bring, but I do know that it will find me reading more books! I wish you all many wonderful books in the new year.

On Giving Up Coffee

I fell in love with coffee slowly. I wasn’t until midway through college, when a friend took it upon herself to introduce me to coffee in the form of a sugary sweet hazelnut latte, that I became interested in the beverage at all. I continued to guzzle hazelnut lattes (which I now consider “adulterated coffee”) at Starbucks franchises during my post-college years, working my way up to the “venti” size (which I believe is Italian for “the approximate volume of a bucket.”) Over time my coffee drinks included less sweetener and milk, so that when my family was living in California’s Bay Area – the epicenter of coffee snobbery – I was a coffee purist. 

For over a decade, I drank my coffee black, preferably from freshly ground beans. Although the caffeine kick was helpful as our household filled with young children, I drank coffee for love. Quality was more important to me than quantity: My habit was to drink two cups of coffee per day, one in the morning and one in the afternoon. I loved the taste of coffee, loved cradling the warm mug in my hands and inhaling its aroma, loved anticipating my second cup during those endless afternoons of early motherhood.

Which made it acutely painful when I had to give up coffee. 

Click here to continue reading the final “Faith in Vermont” of 2020 in The Addison Independent.

The Annunciation by way of Abbey Road

When I was young, I listened to The Beatles. I believe this began after Ms. Dutton, my long-haired, swishy-skirted, dulcimer-playing elementary school music teacher, taught my class to sing “Penny Lane.” (If memory serves, she also taught us “Eleanor Rigby,” which seems like a bizarre choice for a group of 10-year-olds but may explain why for years I couldn’t see anyone eating alone in a restaurant without bursting into tears. All the lonely people.)

In any event, when I told my parents that I liked this British pop group from their own youth, they encouraged my interest. We had a record player (which was retro even back then – we did have cassette tapes, and some CDs.) I spent my junior high and high school years sitting at our kitchen table doing my homework while The Complete Beatles or Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band spun on the turntable. In this I was an outlier among my peers, most of whom were listening to late 80s and early 90s pop music: Whitney Houston, Mariah Carey, Bryan Adams. I think I got the better end of the bargain. 

A Beatles song that never failed to inspire me was “Let It Be.” For an overly anxious teenager who believed perfection was the end goal, the song’s reassuring message seemed to be: Just relax; everything will be okay.

Over time, though, I soured a bit on “Let It Be.” The more life experiences I accumulated, the song’s message sounded less inspiring and closer to a potentially dangerous apathy. Even worse was that this seemed to be couched in quasi-religious terms: I assumed that “Mother Mary” was meant to be Mary, Mother of Jesus, crooning soothingly that, “There will be an answer…. Let it be.”

As I understand my Christian faith, we’re not supposed to fret about everyday issues like food and clothes (Matthew 6:34: “Do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself.”) We’re not supposed to be ruled by fear; “Do not be afraid” is one of the most repeated statements in the Bible. On the other hand, we’re definitely not encouraged to take a kicked-back, chilled-out, hands-off attitude to life’s problems. A short list of areas which we are not supposed to just “let be” includes: loving our neighbors, loving our enemies, raising children, caring for widows and orphans and immigrants, visiting prisoners, studying scripture, praying, trying to follow Jesus’s example. 

Speaking of Jesus, this Christmas holiday that we’re approaching celebrates how God put on human flesh (the literal meaning of “incarnate”) and entered our planet as a baby in order to begin a huge salvation plan that’s still ongoing. In three decades on Earth, Jesus taught crowds, healed the sick, fed the hungry, scolded the self-righteous, and even flipped some tables in the temple. The God I follow does not “let it be.”

So, although I often drink my tea and coffee from an oversized mug printed with “Let It Be” (an impulse buy from the T.J. Maxx checkout line years ago), I feel a little guilty about it. This mug, I think, does not adequately express my ideology. I’m tempted to add an asterisk with “some exceptions apply.”

But this year, I gained a new outlook on “Let It Be.”

This Advent season, I’m working my way through a new-to-me devotional: the excellent God With Us, edited by Greg Pennoyer and Gregory White. In his reflection for the first Thursday of Advent, Richard John Neuhaus writes: 

To be anxious is to be human. The question is what we do with our anxieties. The decision is between hanging on to them or handing them over. After listening to the angel, Mary handed over herself, including her anxieties. ‘Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.’ That is Mary’s great fiat – ‘Let it be.’ It is not fatalism, but faith. Fatalism is resigning ourselves to the inevitable; faith is entrusting ourselves to the One who is eternally trustworthy[.] (Bold print mine.)

I let out an audible gasp after reading that paragraph. In all the times I’d read Luke 1:38 – Mary’s response to the angel’s announcement that she’s going to become Jesus’s mother – somehow I had never noticed that she actually utters the words: “Let it be.”

But as Neuhaus points out, Mary’s “Let it be” is hardly passive. Like so much else in the Bible, it’s an almost paradoxical both/and statement: Mary is submissive, but it’s an active submission. She’s agreeing to become pregnant with, give birth to, and parent God’s son, none of which is passive (as any mother will tell you.) And, as an unwed mother in 1st century Palestine, Mary’s agreement includes the real possibility of death by stoning. When Mary says, “Let it be,” what she’s really saying is, “I’m not sure I understand this crazy, scary plan, but I’m all in: Use me.”

Suddenly, my view of The Beatles’ song — and my coffee mug – was transformed. 

“The Beatles are brilliant!” I thought (stating the obvious, but with new zeal.) “Amazing! They worked a Biblical reference into a pop song that everyone thinks is a call for Zenlike detachment but is really an anthem for active participation in plans that are bigger than us! From now on, I will drink from my mug with pride!”

I figured that I surely wasn’t the only one to discern the layers of meaning behind “Let It Be,” so I decided to confirm my theory with a little internet research. 

And it turned out that I was wrong.

In interview after interview, Paul McCartney, who wrote “Let It Be,” recounts the story behind the song: At a time when he was troubled by many things (and doing too many drugs), he had a dream in which his mother, who’d died when he was an adolescent – and whose name was Mary – stood before him and said, “Let it be.”

So, my deep theological insight was deflated shortly after its revelation. 

Except that Paul McCartney has also been quick to add that, although “Let It Be” was inspired by his dream about his mother, he wants people to feel free to interpret it however they want. That seems wise to me; the longer I’m alive, the more the world appears to be made of layers of meaning. Things are not always as they seem, or as they are intended. 

A pop song may have spiritual undertones that were never meant to be there.

That life event that seems like a terrifying mistake may really be one small part of a massively awesome plan. 

A pregnant teenager may turn out to be among the most brave and holy people in history.

A light shines in the darkness, and depending upon your Bible translation, the darkness either can’t understand it or can’t overcome it — which may mean the same thing after all. 

And a baby born in a barn may grow up to save the world. 

An invitation to mourn…and hope

On Monday, November 25, 1963, all federal agencies and departments in the United States were closed. For four days, all of the commercial television networks suspended their regular programming for the first time in television history. Many schools, offices, stores, entertainment venues, and factories closed down, and those that remained open held a minute of silence. The reason? Our entire country was observing a national day of mourning proclaimed by President Johnson, following the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.

In the United States, official days of mourning are proclaimed by a sitting president in order to allow the country to grieve deaths caused by tragedy, or the deaths of former presidents. Since 1963, there have been six days of mourning for deceased presidents, although none has equaled the scale of President Kennedy’s tribute; typically, presidents are honored by flying flags at half-mast and closing federal offices. Since Kennedy’s killing, only five national days of mourning have commemorated something other than a presidential death: the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (1968), the shootdown of Korean Air Lines Flight 007 (1983), the USS Stark incident (1987), the Oklahoma City bombing (1995), and the September 11 attacks (in 2001, although technically this was a “National Day of Prayer and Remembrance,” which has continued annually.) The total deaths across those five events: 3,471.

National days of mourning are not unique to the United States; almost every other country in the world holds them for similar reasons, and they may last multiple days or even months. To mourn is to express deep sorrow over a loss; when nations experience the collective loss of a leader, or of multiple lives due to a tragedy, it seems fitting – necessary, even – to set aside a time to weep. 

Which is why I hope that, at some point, we will have a national day of mourning to allow ourselves to grieve for those who have died from the Covid-19 pandemic in the United States – a number that, as I write this, stands at nearly 300,000 people. (To put this number in perspective, it’s roughly equivalent to losing every single person in the entire city of Greensboro, North Carolina– or Pittsburg, or St. Louis.)

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

On Thin Ice

This Thanksgiving, I wondered whether Californians discuss their lawns the way that Vermonters discuss their heat.

When our family had recently moved to Vermont, my husband and I noticed that a certain topic never failed to arouse interest and strong opinions during gatherings with Vermonters. (This was back in the days when there were gatherings.) This topic was: How do you heat your house? 

It’s not surprising that Vermonters are fascinated by heating methods, given that some form of manmade warmth is required for comfort over half the year in Vermont. Options include fuel oil, gas, heat pumps, and wood. Discussions about heating with wood could monopolize an entire dinner party (back when there were dinner parties), with topics like: What type of woodstove do you use? Where do you get your wood? How do you stack your wood?

The topic of heating never came up in California, where we lived before moving to Vermont and where half of our extended family still lives. 

The subject of lawns arose during a virtual Thanksgiving visit over Zoom with our beloved California family members. Like many Californians, our relatives live in suburban neighborhoods in which homeowners’ associations have certain requirements about how one’s house and lawn should look. The challenge is that California has been in a drought for years, which makes it difficult to maintain a pristine green carpet in the front yard. Options include using copious amounts of water, making use of native plants, or ripping up the lawn entirely and replacing it with fake grass. (I’m not kidding about that last one.) 

Any other year, my husband and I would find it difficult to relate to a discussion of lawns. On our property, we don’t have a lawn so much as we have a yard. For much of spring and summer the yard looks green enough — except for the dead brown patches and clusters of yellow dandelions. During the growing season, my husband keeps the yard mowed, although you’ll get a better idea of what this involves when I say that he uses a brush mower to do so. And our yard resembles a relief map more than a carpet, as it’s worked over daily by chickens scratching with their feet, ducks digging with their bills, and children excavating with their shovels. 

But this year my husband has spent the past few weeks on his hands and knees, studying every dip and rise of our yard, so he has something to say about lawns. The reason for this sudden interest? My husband is building an ice rink.

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

Stone Soup

When I began writing this column in 2012, my vision was that it would be a space to record the observations and anecdotes of my young family as we explored our new home state of Vermont. I never expected to still be writing eight years later; given that timespan, it’s hardly surprising that the column’s focus has shifted as my family became less young and Vermont became less new. Somehow, though, I never seemed to lack enough material to generate a new biweekly column. 

Until now.

It’s stating the obvious to say that the restrictions made necessary by the COVID-19 pandemic have been challenging in many ways, for all of humanity. In my own case, it’s difficult to write a column of observations and anecdotes when my world is now limited mostly to my own house, yard, driveway, and immediate family. (Granted, my immediate family is quite pleased when I include them in columns, but I’ve become more concerned with protecting my children’s privacy.) Still, when COVID struck, I determined to make this column a place where people could find beauty and respite from the stresses of life, the ugliness of the news and social media. Nobody needs more hopelessness these days; it felt like one tiny thing I could do to write a few words that might give hope.

But I’ve rarely struggled to find hope as I have this week. This week, as the unseasonably warm weather we’d enjoyed in Vermont gave way at last to a more typical chill, grey November. This week, as COVID cases surged around the world and in Vermont, prompting Governor Phil Scott to issue a mandate prohibiting all multi-family gatherings, whether inside or out. This week, as there is still seemingly no end in sight to the tensions swirling around the 2020 Presidential election, let alone the brokenness it revealed in our nation. This week, as I carry the weight and sorrow of many friends and family members who have recently received bad news or are awaiting diagnoses. 

This week, I was not sure I could write a column worthy of putting out into the world. 

And then a friend’s eight-year-old son reminded me about Stone Soup. 

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

An Election Day Reflection in Praise of Tongue-Biting

I am acutely aware that this column will be published the day before Election Day. There are intense emotions swirling around November 3, 2020: an election that falls during a year of pandemic, wildfires, protests over systemic racism, and a country bitterly divided along partisan lines. Reflecting on the United States in 1967, Joan Didion wrote, “The center was not holding.” Reflecting on the United States in 2020, I ask, “Is there a center anymore, and can anybody find it?!?”

After the 2016 election, I wrote my opinion about the state of the nation. At the time, I felt an obligation – as someone who works with words – to make a statement, to add my response. If you’ve consumed any news or been on social media lately, it’s clear that now almost everybody feels this obligation. 

But I no longer do, so today I am writing about the often-underrated value of silence. 

By silence, I mean: no words, either spoken or written.

Wordlessness might seem like an odd thing for me to embrace. I am a writer. I live in a house that is full of noise and lively discussion all the time. We are a family that reads, and reads out loud, then reads some more, because individuals and cultures are formed by story. I believe wholeheartedly in the value of teaching my children written and spoken expression. If you give me money, I will buy books (or, occasionally, bookshelves.) I inhale and exhale words. 

But there can be too much of a good thing: too much chocolate, too much exercise, too much vacation. And at this point in time, there are too many words.

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

A Geese-Eye View

My daughters began digging the hole on the first weekend of October. 

The large window over our kitchen sink is my window on the world – or the world of our backyard, at least. It was from this vantage point that I spotted three of my daughters hard at work with shovels on a Friday afternoon, clustered around a growing pile of dirt right in the middle of the yard.

“What are you doing?” I called out the back door.

“We’re digging a hole!” they shouted back.

“Couldn’t you have picked a less central place to dig it?” I asked.

“Daddy said it was okay!”

And that was that.

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

summer of the wasps

Summer is now firmly behind us. It’s the time of year when I like to snuggle up in my fall uniform (jeans and a flannel shirt) with a cup of tea (I’m weaning myself from coffee after finally admitting that it affects my digestion — because why wouldn’t you give up coffee when you’re parenting a tween, a newly crawling baby, and three children in between? But that’s a subject for another column….) As the golden light of a crisp afternoon filters through the Vermont foliage, I’m contemplating the summer that just passed.

Our family’s summer was marked by the COVID-19 pandemic, political turmoil, gratitude for our newly installed heat pumps, afternoons spent in our inflatable pool, and the animated series Avatar: The Last Airbender (referred to in our house as “the show that saved summer.”) But the thing that most defined our Summer 2020 was: wasps.

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