After the Tornado

Words I never expected to say: “After the tornado went through our front yard….”

Yet I heard myself say exactly that to my children on the evening of March 26, 2021. It sounded so ludicrous, so absolutely unbelievable, that I broke down in giggles.

“Uh, Mommy,” my daughter asked, “do you have post-traumatic stress?”

Maybe. Probably. I suppose some degree of trauma is inevitable in a year when I’m learning that no matter how ludicrous, how absolutely unbelievable something seems, it can still happen. “Is this actually happening?” I’ve wondered numerous times over the past year: when the COVID-19 pandemic began, when I saw news coverage of mobs storming the U.S. Capitol building, and when I watched a tornado pass by our house – in Vermont, in March. 

Vermont is not known for tornadoes, although they do happen: The state has averaged one tornado a year since 1950, which makes Vermont one of the ten states with the fewest tornadoes in the nation.  Only one other tornado in history has been recorded in Vermont in March, a month not known for thunderstorms or tornadoes.

The forecast on March 26 called for a chance of severe afternoon thunderstorms. It rained off-and-on all morning, but by lunchtime the sun was out. My daughters headed outside for their weekly (masked, distanced – we’re still in a pandemic) “nature group” playdate with two friends. Because of the forecast, I settled the six girls with painting and games in our backyard yurt, with instructions to stay in the yurt at the first sign of thunderstorms.

As I walked back to our house to put the baby down for his nap, the rain had started up again. When I reached the kitchen, the power clicked off. “That’s strange,” I thought. “It’s not all that bad outside; the storm must be much worse somewhere nearby.”

Then I looked out the window.

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

The Pod Swing

The pod swing hangs from a beam in our living room like some overripe fruit in a tropical rain forest. It is tear-shaped, made of durable lime green fabric with electric blue trim. You enter the swing through a narrow opening in the fabric; when you settle onto the round, electric blue cushion inside, you are surrounded by lime green on all sides, encased like a pupa in a chrysalis. 

The pod swing was not an intentional act of interior decorating. I never cast a critical eye on our living room and said, “You know, what this place really needs is a pod swing.” We purchased the swing on the advice of our son’s physical therapist; it’s supposed to give him practice in “not feeling in control.” 

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

Reflections on A Decade

My third daughter turned ten on March 1. 

The momentousness of the occasion didn’t hit me at first. With birthdays, I’m usually just relieved to have them successfully behind us: Gifts purchased, wrapped, and opened. Cake baked, frosted, lit, and consumed. Birthday child feeling sufficiently loved and celebrated for another year. 

But after the last candle was extinguished, I did the math, and it seems that I now have three children with ages in the double digits. This leaves only two children in the single digits (and without pierced ears, ten being the age at which our family considers you responsible enough to handle earrings.) 

Maybe that doesn’t seem momentous to you. To me, it marks the shocking realization that the majority of my children are more than halfway to adulthood. 

My daughter’s birthday points to another milestone: If she is ten, then our family has now lived in Vermont for ten years. 

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

Why We Are Celebrating

“Daddy, don’t forget to pick up some cupcakes at the store, okay?” 

My husband, who was heading out the door to run his usual Saturday morning errands, turned to look questioningly at our 9-year-old daughter. “What are the cupcakes for?”

“For Pip’s birthday party!”

“Wait…sorry…um…. Who is Pip?”

“You know,” she said, undaunted. “Pip is my little china dog figure.”

My poor husband: You could almost see him thinking, this is not what I signed up for, as he spluttered, “Your china dog…? NO. I’m not going to get cupcakes for a china…. Oh, okay, fine.” 

My husband wasn’t aware of It, but Pip’s birthday had been in the planning stages for nearly a week. My daughter had chosen a date, made posters to invite her sisters, and designed teeny-tiny little invitations for the other animal figures in our house. While my husband was at the store buying cupcakes, my daughters made a little “Happy Birthday” banner for Pip, blew up some balloons, and created an animal-figure-sized dance floor.

Later that afternoon, my daughters celebrated Pip the china dog’s birthday with store-bought cupcakes.

We are approaching the one-year anniversary of the moment when the COVID-19 pandemic changed our lives. This was a year none of us expected to have, nor was the experience uniform: Restrictions were added, lifted, and added again. Some suffered horrific loss, others were inconvenienced. Fear, frustration, and hope danced crazily through our emotional landscapes. 

As I look back over the past year – still at close range — it struck me that if someone in the future were to ask me how our family spent the pandemic, one of my first responses would be: “We celebrated more.”

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

Crying At the Movies

We were snuggled up on the couch (or crammed in, depending on your perspective) for our family’s weekly Friday movie night. In the flickering light from the screen, I could see three pairs of worried eyes staring at me.

“Uh, Mommy,” whispered one of my daughters, “Are you okay?”

“I’m okay,” I sobbed. “This scene just gets me every time.”

We were watching the 2015 Pixar animated feature, Inside Out. The last time I’d seen this film was in a theater five years earlier, and I’d broken down in sobs during the exact same scene. 

Inside Out takes place largely inside the brain of an 11-year-old girl named Riley. Riley’s emotions go haywire during a time of major change in her life, and the film follows Joy and Sadness as they try to get Riley back on track. In the scene that always shreds me, the two emotions have met Riley’s old imaginary friend, “Mr. Bing Bong,” in her long-term memory. Joy and Bing Bong become trapped in the Memory Dump, where memories fade into oblivion. They attempt to ride a toy wagon out of the dump, but Bing Bong realizes that the two of them are too heavy. He helps Joy launch the wagon, and then he bails out in mid-air. Joy escapes, realizes he’s no longer with her, and looks back down into the Memory Dump. Bing Bong, as he vanishes, waves up at her and calls, “Take [Riley] to the moon for me, okay?”

Gah! 

It seems I will never be able to watch this scene without dissolving into tears. My children don’t understand (yet). I’m not sure I understand entirely, either: Why should I weep repeatedly over the disappearance of an animated pink cat-elephant-dolphin hybrid that only ever existed in a fictional child’s imagination? 

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

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.

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.

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.