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.

A tale of two roosters

Fall has arrived suddenly and dramatically in Vermont, with plunging temperatures and nighttime frosts. This shouldn’t have surprised, me, as this has hardly been a year of subtlety; nothing seems to have happened “just a little” in 2020. 

But whether we tumble into it headlong or ease into it gradually, fall is always a season of change. This change is evident in the weather and the leaves, but also in our lifestyles. Children are heading back to school, which this year is a bigger change than usual for most families as they adjust to remote learning or virtual/in-person hybrid arrangements. In my family, fall marks the start of field hockey season – the one athletic activity that has ever gripped my bookish, artsy brood – so four afternoons a week I am shuttling (masked) girls to practices with the town’s youth program or at the middle school. And fall means that our local apple orchard is open again, which adds a weekly errand to pick up fresh apples, cider, and cider doughnuts. 

There’s another change at my house this fall: We’ve got a new rooster. 

Cluck — er, CLICK — here to continue reading the latest “Faith in Vermont” in this week’s Addison Independent.

Like Little Children

I have a confession to make: With five children in our family, I can no longer remember important individual milestones. Were you to ask me at what ages each of my children walked, talked, cut their first tooth, I couldn’t say. I could give you a range, which would be, “Somewhere between the ages of birth and two.” 

I love my children deeply for the individuals that they are; ask me today about their personalities and tastes, and I’ll tell you in detail. But past details have all receded into the fog of thirteen years of sleep deprivation. I cannot recall my fourth child’s first word, what everyone wore for Halloween two years ago, and I have difficulty remembering everyone’s current shoe size. 

I mention this to give you a sense of how significant it is that, over the past month, three of my daughters said things that I felt compelled to record in my journal so that I wouldn’t forget. 

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

Mushrooms, Zinnias, and Changing Minds

The baby is beginning to have strong opinions. 

At the moment, his preferences manifest themselves most in the matter of food. For the first four months of his life, for a variety of health reasons, he subsisted upon a pre-digested infant formula called Nutramigen. If the words “pre-digested” make you shudder, let me assure you that this concoction smells like something you’d find in the dark recesses of a dairy barn.

But the baby didn’t complain. He gulped down the formula happily at every meal. His sisters held their noses and carried him at arm’s length, but he didn’t care that he smelled like he’d just crawled out from under a log. 

Then we started “solid foods,” which are really liquefied versions of actual foods like sweet potatoes, pears, and green beans. As far as the baby was concerned, these were all excellent additions to the Nutramigen. Beyond eating applesauce and carrots with a bit more gusto than asparagus, he didn’t show much preference between foods; it was all good.

Until he discovered watermelon. 

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

Invisible Friends

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There are seven people who live in our house, and then there are the ones you can’t see.

I learned long ago never to use the words “imaginary friends” to describe these beings of light and air. No; they are very REAL, so the proper term is “invisible friends.”

Invisible friends first showed up sometime during the first three years of my eldest daughter’s life, although I’m not sure whether they appeared during the 20 months when she was an only child, or the following year when she was a de facto only child, with only one infant sister for company. What I do remember quite clearly is one particular lunchtime in our bungalow in Berkeley, California, when this daughter announced that her friends were coming for lunch. Could I please set places at the table for them?

Of course I could! Thrilled that my toddler was demonstrating such an active imagination, I asked, “Who are you expecting.”

“Oh,” she lisped, “Pak, Pook, Lion, Lo-Lo, Lemon, and Orange.”

This was when it hit me that an active imagination might be a mixed blessing (and it’s been hitting me almost daily ever since), but I played along. I set six extra places for lunch, and obediently opened the door and greeted six invisible guests when my daughter called out that they had arrived.

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

Maintaining

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We went to Maine this summer. It felt like a minor miracle that we were able to pull off this trip: the only normal, scheduled event that hasn’t been cancelled in our lives since the COVID-19 pandemic wiped our calendar clean and confined us to our home. I will be reminding my children about our Maine trip anytime they complain of boredom for the rest of the summer.

Gong Child: “I’m SO BORED!”

Me: “Remember how we went to Maine this summer?” (Unspoken, but implied: “You ungrateful wretch!”)

Oddly enough, one of the best parts about going to Maine was coming home.

“Ah!” we sighed in wonder as we drove across the Green Mountains and saw Vermont’s familiar fields stretching out before us.

“It’s so good to be home!” we exclaimed as we entered our house, unpacked our bags, and settled back into our own beds.

Our house, which had begun to feel like a prison in the weeks before the trip to Maine, reclaimed its cherished place in our collective hearts after a week’s absence. It was nice to feel that we wanted to be at home, not just that we had to be at home.

The warm glow of homecoming lasted approximately 24 hours. Then I went outside and looked at my garden.

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