Of Toddlers and Teens

I am writing this at Vivid Coffee, just off of Church Street in Burlington. It’s an ideal writing spot: hip, but also spacious, with plenty of tables and couches where one can settle in for the afternoon. And many people have settled in on this frosty afternoon; mostly UVM students, from the look of things. The drinks menu is basic, but all I need is coffee. My final coffee shop rating criteria is baked goods, and when I arrived there was a single salted chocolate chip cookie waiting in the case, just for me. Clearly it was meant to be.

I would never have found Vivid Coffee were it not for Genevieve, my daughter’s friend. I’m in Burlington today because I drove a group of four teenagers up here and turned them loose on Church Street as part of my eldest daughter’s 15th birthday festivities. 

Fifteen. We’re in a whole new parenting sphere now. She made a short but expensive birthday list, consisting of clothes, shoes, and a donation to help sexually exploited girls worldwide. Tomorrow, she plans to take the online test for her learner’s permit so that she can spend the next year driving in the company of her parents. She’s sure she’ll pass, although she hasn’t spent much time studying the 140-page driver’s manual online. I remind her that it costs $32 just to take the test. She offers to pay for it, which is thoughtful, but I know that she has only $19 in her checking account. She works as a page at the library and next week will add a second, seasonal job making wreaths at the Christmas tree farm next door; still, the money seems to flow out quickly, spent on books, accessories, and coffee shops.

Which brings me back to this café. Classic rock is playing over the speakers, but I look up the lyrics to Taylor Swift’s song, “Fifteen,” which features the line, “This is life before you know who you’re going to be.”

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

The November of Middle Age

“I think that November might be the most beautiful month,” said my daughter as we drove through the barren brown landscape. A few scraggly leaves clung resolutely to the skeletal tree branches. November, memorialized by Thomas Hood’s bleak poem (a long list of “no’s,” concluding with, “No fruits, no flowers, no leaves, no birds! – November!”) is usually far down the list of months ranked by beauty. This daughter turns 15 in two weeks, so she has a vested interest in finding goodness in her birth month. 

And yet, I could see what she meant. The sky gets bigger in November without leaves in the way. The light is spectacular: The sunrises and sunsets become kaleidoscopic shows of orange and purple and are more conveniently witnessed as the daylight contracts towards the middle of the day. And, sorry Thomas Hood, but there are birds – the hardy ones who hunker down for the winter – and they’re easier to appreciate in the absence of competition: the brilliant blue jays, sinister crows, stern red-tailed hawks, and swooping murmurations of starlings.

Here is what I have been thinking about lately: Middle age is a lot like November.

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

The Dog Days of Autumn

The fall sports season is over. As always, it was brief but intense, with afternoons that felt like tactical maneuvers as my husband and I shuttled four children who were playing two sports (soccer and field hockey) on three teams. Gone are the hours spent huddled in a folding chair amidst the growing cold and dark, trying to divide my attention equally between the players on the field, the parents and grandparents on the sidelines, and my two-year-old son who’d run off with some surrogate big siblings he’d picked up. (Our family’s scoreboard for the season boasts not a single victory, but three tied games feel close enough.) 

The garden was levelled by an early hard frost just as the zinnias and cosmos were at their peak. Now, when the golden autumn sun shines, I go outside and chop down the dead brown stems and lug them by wheelbarrow out to the compost pile like a botanical undertaker. There is still some hardy kale left in the garden, but I keep forgetting to cut it in time for dinner.

The foliage has been glorious, as usual: avenues of maple that glow red-orange, birch and poplar that spill yellow light like tree-sized buttercups. But yesterday I drove five children to and from the Vermont History Museum in Montpelier, and although the lovely drive took us across three mountain passes still decked in autumnal beauty, a 12-year-old in the car kept repeating, “This would’ve been a lot prettier last week.” 

The sunrises and sunsets have been gorgeous symphonies in purple and orange: I know this because as the days grow shorter, my twice-daily dog walks often coincide with the rising and setting sun. Sometimes there is mist haunting the fields in the mornings, or the graceful cacophony of migrating geese overhead in the afternoons.

We have done our best to check off all the boxes: we visited the apple orchard and the corn maze, we bought mums and the pumpkins for our front porch, we decked the house in gourds and fake fall leaves, the Halloween costumes are ready to go. (Which reminds me that I still need to make pumpkin bread!) According to these metrics, our fall has been a success, but I am having trouble focusing. I feel distracted from the present moment, troubled by the vague sense that I’m always missing something. This morning, my 11-year-old daughter said, “I don’t know why, but I’m not really feeling excited about anything right now,” and I thought to myself: Me, too. 

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

Story of My Life

Perhaps because I’m a writer and a lover of literature, it’s been helpful for me to view life in terms of story. I’m a firm believer that, whether we’re aware of it, we all tell ourselves stories about the world and our place in it, and that our view of the world is formed by the particular stories we think we’re in. Are you a hero in an epic adventure, a supporting character in a buddy comedy, or a victim in a tragedy? Your outlook and attitude will be shaped accordingly.

In other words: We have some control – if not over circumstances themselves, then at least over how we frame those circumstances. I will often remind my children of this: “You could tell yourself that everything’s terrible and nobody loves you, or you could tell yourself a different story.” Either way, life will tend to affirm your narrative.

Live with other people long enough, and you may also notice the ways in which our stories bump into each other. Sometimes this works out neatly and we have coauthors and collaborators along for the ride. But sometimes other people may try to cast us in their own stories in roles that we don’t want to – or shouldn’t – play. “Resist being a part of that narrative!” I cautioned my daughter just the other day. 

Again, this framework implies some sense of control: I believe that the stories we tell ourselves shape our life experience, and I believe that we can choose with whom we will collaborate in writing our life stories. Sometimes, I take it even further: When the sun is shining and life is going well, I can often delude myself into believing that, to quote the oft-quoted poem “Invictus” by William Ernest Henley, “I am the master of my fate, I am the captain of my soul.”

But every so often – and increasingly, the older I get – events occur that make me question whether I’m the primary author of my own life. I suspect very strongly that I am not.

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

We All Fall Down

“Mommy, what do two lines mean?” my nine-year-old daughter called across the kitchen. 

And just like that, the Bad Thing entered our house: the coronavirus, COVID-19, SARS-CoV-2, the Omicron variant. Call it what you will; it was here, among us, infiltrating our family’s immune systems. 

Against all odds, we’d managed to fight it off successfully for two-and-a-half years – no small feat with seven people in our household going off to work, to school, to activities. We were cautious in the beginning, abiding by the CDC guidelines for masking and distancing. As those guidelines relaxed and vaccines became available, we started to relax, too. We gradually resumed our social lives, we started to travel again, we dropped our masks. 

Even as we puzzled over why we didn’t get sick, we suspected that we couldn’t avoid it forever. All around us, people continued to test positive for COVID; the cautious along with the reckless, the unvaccinated and vaccinated alike. The noose was tightening, the virus circling ever closer. But the more people we knew who got sick, the less frightening it felt: Nobody seemed to be getting hospitalized for COVID anymore, and everyone we knew recovered after experiencing symptoms that spanned “a throat tickle” to “a bad cold.” When our youngest child – our two-year-old son who is at increased risk for respiratory issues – was vaccinated in July 2022, my husband and I stopped worrying and started placing bets on when the pandemic would arrive at our door, even joking about the optimal time for our family to get sick.

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

Lessons From a Paddleboard

“If we’d really thought this through, we probably wouldn’t be going,” I said to my husband as we loaded up the minivan for our family’s final trip of the summer. 

We’d agreed to the trip – four days in New York’s Finger Lakes region with our friends Jeff and Annie and their three children – in the flush of good feeling following a wonderful Vermont visit together in February. 

Jeff and Annie are those rare friends with whom we’ve only become closer after marriage, children, and moves. I went to college with them both, and we all ended up in New York City after graduation. There were some lean years when we lived on opposite coasts, but since our families reconnected at our 20th college reunion and we discovered that our children were kindred spirits (my children recently declared their offspring, “honorary cousins”), we’ve tried to get together regularly.

The Covid pandemic interfered for a couple of years, but this past winter we gathered for a long weekend and picked up right where we’d left off.

“Let’s do a trip together this summer,” we gushed as we hugged goodbye. 

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

Goodbye Summer, Welcome Fall!

Photo by Georgia Gong

I need to come clean: Although I’ve written on this topic in a variety of ways before, I’ve always beat around the bush, obscured my true feelings, tried to be polite. But I think it’s time to be honest, to come right out and say it:

I don’t like summer.

Having made such a blunt statement of fact, I feel the need to walk it back immediately, to be more diplomatic: Summer’s not my favorite season, but it has many excellent features. 

But I won’t do it; I’m going to let my opinion stand strong and clear. The truth is that even though I’ll have to start packing school lunches, rousting kids out of bed before it’s light, and spending all afternoon driving between sports practices and music lessons, I rejoice whenever we round the corner to Labor Day. 

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

Surf City…With Kids

[An earlier version of this post appeared without a link to the full article. My apologies!]

I am typing this from a desk in our Airbnb rental house in Huntington Beach, California: a beige stucco bungalow in a residential neighborhood of tightly packed stucco bungalows surrounded by high walls. There are three palm trees in the front yard. The back yard consists of a cement patio and a small patch of astroturf (an increasingly popular option in a region that suffers from continuous drought conditions and water restrictions.) 

That’s a backyard?!?” my 11-year-old daughter exclaimed. “I’ve seen bigger swimming pools!” 

Her insistence that a yard should be at least as big as a swimming pool was evidence of how living in Vermont has skewed our perspective. 

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

The Wedding of My Decade

At the end of July, I attended a friend’s wedding in Indianapolis.

Sounds simple, right? 

Friends, if anything was ever simple, these days nothing is simple.

I was thrilled back in September 2021, when my dear friend and former college roommate, Kristin, texted me a photo of an engagement ring on her finger. Kristin is a dedicated and hardworking pediatrician in Indianapolis, so she’s had little time for romance over the decades since college, but she’d found love at last with a longtime friend and fellow doctor, Jeff. I’d never met Jeff in person, but he’d joined Kristin in tormenting me with pictures and gifts of my greatest living fear: squirrels. I figured it was a good sign; to paraphrase the late Stephen Sondheim, “It’s the friends that you annoy together…that keep marriage intact.”

My first order of business was to figure out exactly where Indianapolis was. (I’m only halfway joking: As someone who has lived on both coasts but whose entire Midwest experience is limited to a few days in Chicago, I conform to the stereotype of those who consider the vast middle of America “flyover country.”)

The next task was to figure out how to get there from here. As with most locations, it’s impossible to get a direct flight from Vermont to Indiana, but I could string together two fairly short flights with a layover in New York City. 

Should I take my entire family? I should not. Although my children love her and look forward to her squirrel-themed gifts every Christmas, Kristin assured me that Indianapolis would be hot, humid, and generally miserable in July. This, combined with the cost of airline tickets, tipped the scales: I would attend the wedding alone. 

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

On the End of the World (With a Book Recommendation)

The other week, I found myself having repeated versions of the same conversation with various friends, family members, and myself. 

A few examples:

My husband, who is reading the sermons of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. for a research project, shared some of Dr. King’s thoughts on race, nonviolence, and forgiveness. Preached in the 1950s and 60s, his sermons are prophetic and his words are just as true and necessary today. “Was anybody listening?” I wondered.

We had friends over for dinner the other night and began discussing literature. My friend Jane mentioned reading James Baldwin and thinking, “He wrote all this back then?! Wasn’t anybody listening?”

I pulled out a book for summer reading that’s been sitting on my shelf for some time: Resident Aliens: A provocative Christian assessment of culture and ministry for people who know that something is wrong, by Stanley Hauerwas and William Willimon. Then I noticed that my copy – which was published in 2014 – is the “Expanded 25th Anniversary Edition.” Which means that for at least the past 33 years some people have been saying that things are wrong both inside and outside the Christian church. Was anybody listening?

My father, who is reading a biography of Thomas Jefferson, shared this quote from a letter Jefferson wrote to John Holmes in 1820: “I regret that I am now to die in the belief that the useless sacrifice of themselves by the generation of 1776…is to be thrown away by the unwise and unworthy passions of their sons [.]” 

Did you catch that?!? Just 44 years after the Declaration of Independence, one of our founding fathers died believing that America had failed.

Life is usually so busy and loud that it takes a lot for me to have an epiphany. But these events, within the span of a single week, seemed to be circling around a single concept. Was it that humans have terrible hearing? That we do hear, but are too distracted or selfish to act? Or perhaps that humans, regardless of our hearing, have terrible memories: We cycle through the same problems, and what seem like new problems today have actually been problems for generations?

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