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.

On Change and Summer

The “classroom” where I homeschool my two youngest daughters is an open space with sloping ceilings built on top of our garage. There are windows on all four sides of the room. Throughout May and June, as our school year wound down, I had a view of two things just beyond our yard that seemed to represent the changes happening in the larger world. 

It was early spring when I first noticed the surgical mask caught on a bush at the edge of the woods. My daughter’s desk is directly underneath a west-facing window, and as I glanced outside one day while helping her with a math assignment, a flash of blue caught my eye. We’ve all become far too familiar with this particular blue during these years of the COVID-19 pandemic. I’m still not sure how a surgical mask came to be tangled up in the branches of a bush several meters from our house; my best guess is that it blew out of someone’s car.

I didn’t remove the mask. For starters, it was just far enough through thick brush to make it an unpleasant chore. But I was also curious to see what would happen to it if left to its own devices. Would the wind, which often blows quite strongly through our yard, dislodge it? Would future archaeologists find it, preserved in our heavy Vermont clay, and date it back to the time of the pandemic? 

Against all odds and weather, the mask clung to that bush. Every school day I’d look out the western window and see that tenacious flash of blue. At first it stood out in stark relief against the bare grey branches. As the leaves began to emerge, it became more difficult to discern. And then, one day, I looked outside to discover that it had been swallowed entirely by the lush green of new summer leaves. 

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

The Birds…And The Bees

It wasn’t the first time a bird had become stuck in our woodstove; this had happened twice before. 

The three events all began with a scrabbling, scuffling, fluttering noise in the corner of our living room. This type of noise can be shrugged off once or twice, but after subsequent repetitions the message is clear: There is another living thing somewhere in this room. 

The first time, it was a House Sparrow. The second time, it was an Eastern Bluebird. Now it was a European Starling. 

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

My Kids, in the Middle of the Lake

It’s funny what a difference two weeks can make. 

Just two weeks ago, I wrote a column about how my husband – always on the lookout for new ways our family can have fun together – had outfitted all seven people in our family with bicycles. I ended that column with the line: “And now my husband is starting to dream about inflatable kayaks, so perhaps we’ll see you on the water, too!”

This past week, my mother- and father-in-law flew in from California for a visit. After my husband picked them up from Burlington Airport, he swung by Costco for what has become the Traditional Post-Airport Shopping Binge. Usually they come home bearing a couple of rotisserie chickens, industrial-sized bags of baking soda, and trays of croissants large enough to feed the population of Rhode Island. 

They came home with all of that, but this time they had an inflatable kayak, too. 

The inflatable paddleboard arrived the next day, and another inflatable paddleboard is en route. 

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

The Family That Bikes Together

Our family’s pandemic coping strategies have failed to follow national – or even logical – trends. We were already living in Vermont, homeschooling, gardening, and keeping chickens when COVID-19 hit, so we had many of the boxes checked already. In fact, the pandemic prompted us to send several of our children back to school, because of the crushing social isolation of homeschooling during COVID. Sure, we did some mainstream things like buying a large inflatable pool for our yard, walking our driveway obsessively, online yoga videos, and binge-watching The Mandalorian, but I may have been the only person in the world who stopped baking sourdough in response to COVID: It took a pandemic to make me emancipate myself from my starter. 

One pandemic-related trend was dubbed: “The Great Bicycle Boom of 2020.” When it became clear that COVID-19 would be sticking around for a while, bicycle ridership and sales increased dramatically. For reasons of both recreation and safety – riding bikes was perceived as safer than riding public transportation – people scrambled for bicycles, leading to supply-chain shortages. 

On one of our mid-pandemic daily driveway walks, I floated the idea of upping our bicycle game to my husband. Our four daughters, who love riding their bikes, barreled past us, riding back and forth along the quarter-mile stretch. The issue was that neither my husband nor I had a bicycle — having had two stolen during our years living in the San Francisco Bay Area – nor did we have any way to transport our toddler. 

“Maybe we should look into getting ourselves some bikes and a trailer so we could all ride together somewhere other than the driveway,” I suggested.

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

Back to All That

In 1967, the author Joan Didion published an essay called “Goodbye to All That,” in which she attempted to unravel the factors that led from her falling in love with New York City to “the moment it ended” eight years later, when she and her husband moved to Los Angeles.

In 2006, inspired by Didion’s essay, I wrote my own reflection on loving and leaving New York City. Like Didion, I spent the majority of my 20s in Manhattan. Seven years later, I was preparing to move with my husband to Berkeley, California, so that he could attend graduate school. And I was surprised to feel a sense of relief – urgency, even – upon leaving the city about which I’d once written, “Finally, I am home. New York City is where I belong.” 

Reading my words alongside Joan Didion’s, it seems that we both reached the point at which New York City ceased to make us feel young and alive, and started to make us feel old and tired. For her, it was realizing that there was nobody new to meet; for me, it was the creeping gentrification that seemed to be erasing the city I’d moved to seven years before. Echoing Didion, I wrote, “[P]eople whom I might like to meet can no longer afford to live here.”

So I left, and I didn’t return for 16 years – not really. There was one weekend trip in 2008, when my husband and I brought our infant daughter to visit New York as part of an East Coast trip. We stayed with friends in Brooklyn, because by then almost everyone we’d known in Manhattan had moved to the outer boroughs. We found that navigating the city with a 6-month-old was an entirely different experience: less fun, more harrowing. When we visited those same Brooklyn friends in 2018, we set foot in Manhattan only to catch the ferry for Ellis Island. 

But it’s worth noting that about 20 years after she penned “Goodbye to All That,” Joan Didion moved back to New York City and remained there for the rest of her life. 

Last week, I returned to New York City, too.

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

The Show Must Go On

When I was in school, I was a theater kid. 

We called ourselves “Drama Queers,” which is probably no longer acceptable – but this was the 1990s. The label conveyed our pride in being different, quirky, set apart. In a suburban high school where most of our classmates spent afterschool hours zipping around the playing fields, we “DQs” sequestered ourselves in the windowless box of the theater and attempted to embody characters that were not ourselves. 

I’ll be honest: I was not a great thespian. I played a lot of “citizens” — background extras who responded to the main action. But I was better at theater than I was at sports — and I loved it. Pouring myself into somebody I wasn’t, dressing up, the camaraderie of making a story come alive onstage, the applause; theater involved all the teamwork and creativity of sports, without the need for physical coordination. (Although I did suffer a sports injury – a torn ACL – while “walking the plank” off the stage as Pirate Starkey in a production of Peter Pan).

By the end of high school my tenacity was rewarded with a smattering of lead roles, but in college I was back to “citizen” status. For my final production, I wasn’t onstage at all, but was asked to serve as stage manager. I did this job well; the organizational skills required came to me more naturally than acting. It was, in fact, a version of what I do now in my everyday life: making sure everyone is where they need to be and has what they need to have. But I wasn’t as passionate about stage managing as I was about acting, so I let the curtain fall on my theatrical aspirations. 

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

Tuesdays With Beth

“We live just around the corner from you; you should stop by with the girls sometime.” 

It can be difficult to remember how our most important relationships begin since we don’t realize that something momentous is starting at the time, but the woman with the halo of white hair, kind eyes, and sweet smile said something like that to me back in 2011, as the congregation of Memorial Baptist Church mingled one Sunday after service. 

I felt vaguely uncomfortable. We’d just moved to Vermont with our three young daughters after a decade spent in major urban areas. Although major urban areas are significantly more diverse than small-town Vermont, it was easier for us to surround ourselves with friends of similar ages and affinities when we lived in cities. To put it bluntly: No elderly woman had ever invited me to pop over with my baby and toddlers. This wasn’t in my playbook.

But this wasn’t just any elderly woman: This was Beth Wilkinson. She lived with Roy, her husband of over 60 years, in an old white house on Main Street in East Middlebury. 

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