Life With a Saint

I’ve begun to suspect that I may have married a saint.

To be clear, it didn’t take me 20 years of marriage to figure out that my husband, Erick, is a uniquely kind, generous, and principled human being; he’s been that way as long as I’ve known him, and his fundamental goodness is one of the things that first drew me to him.

But lately, Erick has added a series of ascetic practices to his life that make me wonder if he’s displaying the early warning signs of becoming a desert hermit. He’s not yet wearing sackcloth and ashes, or practicing self-flagellation, but it may be only a matter of time. 

Erick is no stranger to discipline, self-denial, or extreme frugality. When I met him he was managing a hedge fund in Greenwich, Connecticut, but his only earthly possessions were confined to a few plastic bins. Then, as now, he wore his clothing until it literally fell from his body in tatters. (Much to his children’s chagrin, he takes great pride in several Sesame Street t-shirts and a black trench coat that date back to his high school days.) I have long been baffled by his habit of suddenly cutting coffee entirely out of his life for weeks at a time so as to avoid becoming dependent. He eschews all social media and imposes strict controls on his internet use. Yet he will tell you humbly that all of this discipline is necessary…because he lacks willpower. (How’s that for circular reasoning?)

This is the husband I’ve known and loved for two decades, but over the past six months he’s taken his monkish habits to the next level. 

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

Reflections on the New Year’s Fireworks

For a moment, it looks as if the weather might reshape another holiday celebration.

Like many others across the United States, our family’s Christmas was altered by the collision of a bomb cyclone and polar vortex, which brought gale-force winds and frigid temperatures to our corner of the world and knocked out our power for nearly two days. Thankfully, my parents, who live across town, never lost power. As the sun set on our cold, dark house on Christmas Eve, we packed up all our children, food, and gifts and unleashed Christmas on the grandparents. Sadly, our church never regained power in time for either the Christmas Eve or Christmas Day services; my children felt this loss more keenly than I expected, but we all adjusted. God knows we’ve all gotten used to adjusting since this decade began. 

So when it begins raining as dark falls on New Year’s Eve and my already-exhausted children seem increasingly unenthusiastic about carrying on our tradition of attending Middlebury’s annual fireworks display, I prepare to adjust our plans yet again. 

As it turns out, the rain slows to a manageable drizzle and we’re able to muster enough momentum to load everyone into the minivan and be driven very slowly by our 15-year-old (who just got her learner’s permit) to the elementary school. 

This is where the peculiar magic of small-town fireworks begins. 

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

Of Hospitals and Hawks (Faith’s Version)

If you’re celebrating the traditional Twelve Days of Christmas, today is “The Feast of the Holy Innocents.” It’s an odd celebration to place in the midst of a joyous holiday season, reminding us that Jesus’s birth came with some serious collateral damage: the deaths of numerous baby boys, killed by King Herod in a delusional and paranoid power play.

This is what I love about actual Christianity — not the American prosperity gospel version of Christianity that’s too often in the public eye, but the real, Biblical Christianity that parks itself in the midst of unanswered questions like, “How do we rejoice at the birth of one baby sent to begin God’s great rescue plan while also lamenting the senseless deaths of multiple innocent babies?” Christianity deals directly with real life, with the intersection of pain and evil and joy and good and how, to quote Taylor Swift, “Both of these things can be true.”

It seemed like an appropriate day to share one of my favorite pieces that I’ve ever written, which appeared in The Addison Independent on January 14, 2020. That holiday season was our family’s initiation into evil’s random attacks — and re-reading this piece today, I realize that it was just a training ground for what was to come. Because the Independent re-configured its website after the piece was published, it’s hard to find (though you can still find it here.) So I’m re-posting the entire thing below, as my own sort of “Taylor’s Version.”

***

One thing I’ve learned over the past few weeks is that we are able to endure a great deal more than we believe is possible. Life is not a benevolent tutor, handing down lessons one at a time in order of increasing difficulty; instead, life often feels like an opponent in a boxing match landing a punch in your ribs and then throwing a jab to your eye while you’re still catching your breath. The remarkable thing is how many of us remain in the ring. We may be hanging on the ropes, bruised and battered, but we don’t go down.

This is why, when I found the mangled carcasses of two of our chickens (the rooster in the shed, the hen on a snow drift next to the coop) after having just switched places with my husband at the bedside of our ten-week-old son (who was beginning the second week of his second stay at the University of Vermont Medical Center in less than a month) – on the same day that my husband discovered fraudulent charges on our credit card – I simply thought, “Of course: Another predator.” 

We never did put a name to our son’s predator, but it was assumed to be a virus. He’d been admitted to the pediatric intensive care unit (PICU) at UVM for “acute respiratory failure with hypoxia.” This started as what appeared to be a mild cold – gloopy eyes, lethargy, no fever, lack of appetite. The lack of appetite was our biggest concern, since a week earlier he’d been admitted to UVM after being diagnosed at a routine appointment with “failure to thrive.” Thankfully, our son had another routine checkup the day after his cold-like symptoms began, so I planned to consult his doctor then. 

At that checkup, our doctor examined our son and got very serious. 

“He needs to be seen at the hospital,” she said, her voice trembling.

“Okay. Should I drive him up to UVM?” I asked, having just been through this drill.

Her response is burned into my memory: “You don’t have time.”

It turned out that our son’s mystery virus was causing sepsis and apnea; in other words, he was having episodes during which he stopped breathing. 

There is a moment, right after crisis strikes, when you freeze. You stare at the bloody piles of feathers and think, “Where do I start?” You hand your baby over to the EMTs and wonder, “Who needs to know first? Who can watch the girls? What do I need to cancel?”

Somehow, you don’t go down. You secure the surviving chickens in the coop and grab a shovel and a trash bag. You call your husband on speakerphone while following the ambulance to the hospital, and give your son’s health history in a calm, steady voice to the ER doctors who are running tubes and wires into his little body. 

I’d never spent much time in hospitals until recently, and I was surprised at how they bolster this calm, steady, one-foot-in-front-of-the-other approach to crisis. Hospitals are their own world, with their own language and culture. Learning the language –  speaking of intubation and extubation, pulse-ox, cc’s, ng tubes, and vitals – was how I first learned to normalize a horribly abnormal situation. 

And hospitals are so quiet. These are places where the very worst happens — and I spent three weeks along corridors where the very worst was happening to children — yet never once did I see anybody break down. There were no tears, raised voices, or cries in the night, just the beep of monitors, hushed whispers, and the swish of the floor buffer. The closest I came to breaking down was when I stood by my son’s bedside that first night in the PICU. He was sedated, his lips taped in a fish-pucker around a breathing tube; a feeding tube ran through one nostril, an IV delivered fluids into his arm while a backup IV protruded from a vein in his head. Tears welled up in my eyes; as I brushed them away his nurse watched, puzzled. 

“Oh,” she said, “I guess it’s hard to see him like this, isn’t it? We see them like this all the time, so we’re used to it.”

Hospitals make it hard to feel sorry for yourself.

Our poultry predator turned out to be a hawk. The day after I discovered the two dead chickens, I startled him off the body of a third. He flew out of our shed and perched on a tree nearby. 

“Hey!,” I shouted, stomping after him through the snow, “Cut it out! Leave our chickens alone!”

He didn’t make eye contact; he stared straight ahead, impassive and unimpressed, before winging off across our field.

If the virus that infected our son had eyes, it wouldn’t have made eye contact, either. Predators are like that: It’s nothing personal, they’re just doing what they must to survive. If it’s your chickens or your child in their path, they swoop. After two weeks of testing, we were told that our son’s repeated hospitalizations boiled down to “bad luck.”

Hawks present a unique challenge, because they strike from the air. Had our predator been a coyote or a weasel, I would’ve known what to do: Keep the chickens fenced in their yard with the electric fence turned on for a week or so, until the predator gives up. But fences mean nothing to a hawk. The immediate solution was to confine the chickens to their coop all day, transforming them from “free range” to “no range.”

In many ways, having a hospitalized child is easy. Life shrinks down to the barest essentials: your child in the hospital and your children at home. Everything else drifts away. During my son’s time in the hospital, the world was ending: missile strikes, assassinations, impeachments, planes dropping from the sky, wildfires flaring from the earth. None of these things was my problem.

Gradually, my son shed the wires and tubes that had tethered him to monitors and bags; he became a free range baby once more, and we returned home. 

Home is more complicated than the hospital. How do you protect a baby’s fragile health from all of the predatory germs circling constantly? How do you rebuild a family after weeks of stress and separation?

We can’t lock our chickens in the coop forever. My husband bought shiny disks to hang on the shed, and a fake owl. He installed netting over the top of the chicken yard. These safety measures might work, or they might not. I am certain that I’ll shovel up chicken corpses again – if not thanks to this predator, then to another.

Tonight there are parents who sit watching their child’s pulse ox pleth, while nurses arrive at regular intervals to take vitals. But for tonight, at least, I am holding our baby in my arms next to our woodstove, and I am watching him breathe.

A Nearsighted Holiday

As I am writing this there are nine days left until Christmas, and we still don’t have a Christmas tree.

Bear in mind that we live next door to a Christmas tree farm. Not only that, but for the past month our two oldest children have been working at said Christmas tree farm. So we don’t really have any excuse: This December hasn’t been more busy or stressful than any other December; there just hasn’t been a good time for our entire family (because, yes, it requires the entire family) to walk next door and pick out a tree. Sometimes the nearest things are the hardest to do. 

Sometimes the nearest things are also the hardest to see. 

My annual vision checkup always falls between Thanksgiving and Christmas. This year, my optometrist gave me a Sophie’s Choice: My distance vision had worsened to the point that I was going to have to sacrifice clarity at close range in order to see far off. 

And so I have become a wearer of reading glasses. 

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

Holiday Film Review: Disenchanted

Over the Thanksgiving holiday, our entire family sat down to watch the new Disney film, Disenchanted. In a rare occurrence, all our children were excited to view the long-awaited sequel to 2007’s Enchanted. The original film, which we’ve seen multiple times, follows Giselle – a stereotypical Disney princess in search of “true love’s kiss” – as she’s transported in modern-day New York City. The film is a smart satire of the more absurd elements of traditional Disney films (including singing rats and pigeons), but of course Giselle’s dewy-eyed goodness wins over the cynical Manhattanites in the end. 

The two films bookend my parenting years: I first watched Enchanted with a visiting college friend while my newborn firstborn slept upstairs; the release of Disenchanted corresponded with that first child’s 15th birthday. 

Disenchanted reunites the stars from the original movie, including Amy Adams as Giselle, Patrick Dempsey as her husband, Robert, and Idina Menzel and James Marsden as the King and Queen of Andalasia (Giselle’s native fairytale kingdom.) Fifteen years later, these actors are all decidedly middle aged. The sequel addresses the question: What comes after “happily ever after?” When it begins, Giselle and Robert are still living in an increasingly cramped Manhattan apartment with their daughter Morgan (a young girl in the original film, she’s now a sarcastic teenager) and their baby daughter, Sofia. In a rather predictable middle-aged move, they decide to relocate to the suburbs, where Giselle is sure that they can make a fresh start. Disney-fied chaos ensues, including talking animals, large musical numbers, and the eventual triumph of goodness and love over evil. 

The movie has received a tepid response from critics. It wasn’t even released in theaters, but was streamed directly to Disney+, which says something. My own children were lukewarm-to-negative in their reviews. A friend who watched Disenchanted with her family said her response was, “What am I watching?” 

That’s all valid if you’re watching Disenchanted purely as a film. But I thought it was brilliant, because about partway through I realized that it wasn’t just a film. That’s when I leaned over and whispered to my husband, “This is the perfect metaphor for perimenopause!”

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

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.