A Room of One’s Own

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Our family spends a lot of time at home.

My husband leaves for his office on weekdays, but since I homeschool our daughters, our house is the center of our daily activities. We eat most meals at home, given the expense and hassle of dining out with four young children. Caring for 31 animals (give or take) and a garden during the warmer months limits our ability to travel. All told, I’d estimate that I spend an average of 147 hours a week at home – out of a possible 168.

While I haven’t been able to find a definitive figure, a quick bit of internet research turned up the estimate that the average American spends roughly 45% of their time at home (including sleep), which would translate to 76 hours a week.

I often fail to notice the obvious in my life until it’s pointed out by others. For example, a fellow homeschooling mother with whom I was sharing tea happened to drop the statement that, “Homeschooling is a full-time job.” It was like a jolt of electricity had passed through me. “OH!” I thought. “THAT’S why I’m so busy!”

That same mother, in the same conversation, enlightened me further with the observation that it’s difficult for homeschooling families to have clean, orderly houses because the kids are always there.

“OH!” I thought. “THAT’S why there’s a constant trail of books and art supplies stretching from our entryway up to the girls’ rooms, and a massive cardboard box/transmogrifier/time machine in the middle of the kitchen.  And why any attempt to wipe, vacuum, or straighten away evidence of my four children seems futile, since they’ll just undo it the next minute.”

I’ve also started to wonder if the amount of time we spend at home has something to do with why my daughters keep asking for furniture.

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

Life vs. Liberty

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It all started with 11 secondhand chickens that friends packed into plastic bins and drove to our house.

Those original 11 birds reproduced themselves, and the widescale slaughter we’d expected at the hands of predators or disease has yet to occur. At the moment, my family shares our property with 23 chickens and seven ducks; another three ducklings arrive later this month.

We raise poultry for a variety of reasons, including:

-Half of our daughters have a deep affection for these birds. (The other half is either ambivalent or wants nothing to do with anything poultry-related.)

-Poultry-keeping chores teach our children the value of hard work and responsibility. (That is, when they’re willing to drag themselves out of bed on cold, dark winter mornings to do their chores.)

-We haven’t had to buy eggs in two years – and we have eggs to spare. (Current tally: six dozen eggs in the refrigerator and another couple dozen in a bowl waiting for a carton to open up. I choose recipes based on how many eggs they use.)

-It seemed like a good idea at the time.

Whatever the reason, once we’d invested in the birds, coops, feed, and fencing, we felt a certain responsibility to keep them alive. Our dog did not share this sense of responsibility. Our dog wanted to do what came naturally: Snack!

One of the challenges of living with multiple species is navigating the fine line between the freedom of one species and the survival of another.

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

Spring, Tweens, and Other Liminal Things

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Photo credit: Arianna Graham-Gurland

I‘m writing this on the day after Ash Wednesday – a day for which there is no official name in the liturgical calendar. Outside, the weather is doing what my New England relatives call “spitting snow,” meaning that small flakes are swirling down from the sky without amounting to much on the ground. The sky is the same dirty-white color as the patches of old snow; the same color as the white birch from which our bird feeder hangs with just a thin crust of suet remaining inside. There’s no point in refilling the feeder now; there are rumors of spring, which means that the bears will start stirring on Chipman Hill again.

“Last night, I dreamed it was spring!” one of my daughters announces at breakfast. “I could feel how warm it was!”

Spring will arrive. But for now, snow clouds obscure the Green Mountains, and there’s still great sledding on the north face of our back hill. We hover in this liminal space, the threshold between an ending and a beginning, the almost-but-not-yet.

I feel this liminality in the weather, in this Lenten season between Ash Wednesday and Easter, and in my eldest daughter.

Click here to continue reading my latest “Faith in Vermont” column in The Addison Independent. 

Tall Tales

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My daughters often ask for stories about me when I was young, and I often disappoint them. There are a few classics that they never seem to tire of, consisting mostly of the handful of misbehaviors in my otherwise dull, law-abiding life (like the time my protest over the new door color of my childhood home ended in a paint spill all over the driveway, for instance, or the time I helped friends smuggle a drum of ice cream out of our college cafeteria.)

The surprising thing is that, as a writer who traffics in stories, I seem to have a terrible memory for stories of my own. Or perhaps that’s one reason why I write: Any stories that I don’t set down on paper quickly enough are at risk of vanishing into the swirling mists of to-do lists and calendar details in my brain. Just the other day, my eldest daughter told a story about our family.

“That didn’t happen,” I said.

“Yes, it did,” she insisted. “I read it in one of your columns.”

So, there you go.

Click here to continue reading this week’s “Faith in Vermont” column (which just won first place in the New England Newspaper and Press Association’s Better Newspaper Contest for “Best Blog on a Newspaper Website!”)

Disagreeing with Maggie Gyllenhaal

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One night at the end of December, I attended a film screening and discussion at Middlebury’s Town Hall Theater. This is not how I typically spend my evenings, and I would have missed the event completely were it not for a friend who invited me as part of her birthday celebration.

The film being shown was The Kindergarten Teacher, about which I knew nothing in advance. I assumed it would be a charming, lighthearted depiction of the agony and ecstasy involved in shepherding children through their first year of formal schooling (something I know a bit about, as I’m in the midst of homeschooling my kindergartener.)

The big draw for me was that the film’s star, Maggie Gyllenhaal, would be present for a question-and-answer session with her husband, Peter Sarsgaard. I have admired the talent of both of these actors in their past films — and I admired the calm, quiet way in which I witnessed them navigate The Vermont Book Store with their two daughters a couple of years ago. (Although when I returned home from that shopping trip, a little star-struck, to report my celebrity sighting – in Vermont! – the 23-year-old Middlebury College graduate who was living with us at the time looked at me blankly before saying, “Maggie Gyllenhaal…? Wait – is she related to Jake Gyllenhaal?”)

The Kindergarten Teacher was not a charming, lighthearted film. True to its title, it was the story of a kindergarten teacher, but this kindergarten teacher – a 40-something woman in the Manhattan suburbs – harbors an unfulfilled longing for poetry and culture. She’s taking continuing education poetry classes, but her poems receive lukewarm responses. Her husband is supportive but seems baffled by her longings; her two teenaged children barely look up from their devices to speak to her. So, when she discovers that one of her kindergarten students is a poet prodigy, she’s determined to nurture his talent – a goal that turns increasingly dark: In the film’s climax, she kidnaps her student in a perverse attempt to keep the little boy artistically pure.

Maggie Gyllenhaal acts beautifully in the title role, building sympathy with her audience so that we wince when she begins making horrible decisions. The Kindergarten Teacher is not an easy film to watch, but I’m glad that I did: It was well made and thought provoking.

And the discussion that followed the film was perhaps more thought provoking than the film itself.

“This is a film about what happens when women are silenced,” Maggie Gyllenhaal declared in her opening comments.

And although I admire her talent and her parenting, I thought, “Huh?!?”

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

The Search for a Theme Song

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Before I had children, back when I was a twenty-something elementary school teacher in New York City and had just started dating my future husband, I used to watch the quirky television sitcom Ally McBeal. Though most of that show has sunk into the mists of my past, one moment sticks with me: the episode when Ally’s therapist tells her to pick a theme song for her life (and Ally spends the rest of the episode bopping along to “Tell Him.”)

This episode confirmed what I’d always felt to be true: Life had a soundtrack.

My life, at least, always seemed to have a soundtrack. As an only child, records (the kind that spun on a record player) filled the silence instead of siblings: Some of my earliest memories are of playing alone while listening to records of classic musicals – My Fair Lady, Annie, The Sound of Music, Guys and Dolls, The King and I. Later, the musicals were replaced by my parents’ old Cat Stevens and Beatles albums.

There were cassette tapes, too, especially after I started school. My first cassette was Michael Jackson’s Thriller. By middle school, we were making and exchanging mix tapes (lots of Billy Joel, as I recall.)

My first CD was the soundtrack to Disney’s The Little Mermaid. CDs remained the primary music media into my Ally McBealdays: We’d buy the latest album by U2 or Sting at Tower Records or Barnes & Noble and listen to it on our stereo or portable CD player. As a newlywed graduate student, I traversed Manhattan to a soundtrack of Tori Amos and Counting Crows.

The Dixie Chicks will forever be the soundtrack of my first pregnancy; Mumford & Sons accompanied my second.

But I worry that I’ve deprived my own children of a soundtrack for their lives.

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

“It’s January”

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My 11-year-old daughter, usually my most centered child, was seething. Her hands clenched and unclenched at her sides, her breathing sped up, and she was gnashing her teeth – actually gnashing her teeth. (I’d never really witnessed teeth-gnashing until I had children of my own.)

“I just feel like I haven’t learned anything today!” she spewed out, throwing her pencil to the floor.

We’d passed hour three of our homeschool morning. Thus far, she had watched a portion of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech before writing a short essay about her own dreams; she had read a chapter of the historical novel Johnny Tremain; she had completed a math lesson in which she learned why bees use hexagons to build their hives; she had spent 20 minutes working on her second semi-autobiographical novel; she had read and discussed a history chapter about the early Puritans, including a comparison of the various forms of government; and she had finished a page in her Latin workbook.

But she hadn’t learned anything.

If there’s one thing that parenting and homeschooling have taught me, especially as we enter the “tween” years, it’s that these outbursts are neither logical nor personal. In response to my daughter, I said, “I’m so sorry,” and went about my business.

I decided to follow up later, after she’d cooled down. That afternoon, when I was able to get her alone, I said, “So, that thing this morning about not learning anything? Was that just a blah morning, or was is something more long-term that we should discuss?”

She shrugged. “Just a blah morning. It’s January.”

I couldn’t have said it better myself.

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