Dispatch from the West Coast

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I’m writing this at the dining room table of my brother- and sister-in-law’s home in Orange County, California, on the final day of a weeklong visit with family on the West Coast. From where I sit, I see the clear blue sky that hasn’t changed all week; the Southern California weather has been perfectly sunny, warm, and dry. I see the red tile roofs of neighboring houses in this suburban development, where nearly every day we’ve walked a few steps across the lawn to the neighborhood pool. I see a row of palm trees; despite having spent five years as a California resident myself, I never get over the palm trees.

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

I Feel Sad About Target

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It’s not often that Vermont makes the national news, but on October 19, Vermont leaped to the top of my NPR news feed with the headline: “After 55 Years, Target Will Finally Open a Store in Vermont.”

It may shock out-of-state readers to learn that Target, the retail giant with over 1,800 stores across the nation, lacked a Vermont location before now. But it’s true: When my eight-year-old daughter heard me relaying the news to my husband, she asked, “What’s Target?”

(My eldest daughter reminded her: “Remember? It’s that store in California that has special escalators for your shopping carts.” This is true of the Target store nearest our old home in Berkeley, California, but the shopping cart escalators will likely be absent from the Vermont Target, which, at 60,000 square feet, is considered a “small” Target.)

A Target opening elsewhere would hardly be newsworthy, but Vermont’s capitulation makes it the 50th state to welcome Target. Until now, Vermont’s been the lone holdout, but no longer.

To learn why I’m not doing a victory dance over Target, click here to read my latest “Faith in Vermont” column in The Addison Independent.

The Summer of Patience

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The summer of 2016 may hereafter be referred to by our family as: “The Summer of Patience.”

Ah, patience! Defined as, “the capacity to accept or tolerate delay, trouble, or suffering without getting angry or upset,” patience seems to be on the wane in 21st century America. Sure, we give respectful lip service to patience and toss around platitudes like, “Patience is a virtue,” but the truth is that our entire culture is increasingly constructed to discourage the practice of patience.

We have apps for everything. Want groceries? Restaurant reservations? Taxi service? Up-to-the-nanosecond traffic updates? Gasoline delivered to your car? A potential life partner? All these and more can be acquired with the touch of a finger. (It’s not even accurate to say, “With the click of a button” anymore. Buttons have been replaced by button icons on a flat screen, possibly because the effort of pressing an actual button wastes precious time.)

Remember when two-day delivery was a luxury? (I believe that was sometime last year.) Now we expect two-day delivery, and my Amazon.com account allows me to request same-day delivery for everything from diapers to dog food.

“Seize the day!” “Strike while the iron’s hot!” “Grab the bull by the horns!” These are old expressions, but they seem particularly relevant in our fast paced and competitive culture – a culture in which self-help gurus exhort us to “Be your best self, TODAY!” and nobody bats an eye.

The result of all this efficiency is that we begin taking it for granted that life will be as quick and easy as a drive-through Starbucks. Our collective capacity for patience has shrunk, and it shows.

Click here (or just touch your flat screen’s button icon) to continue reading this week’s “Faith in Vermont” column in The Addison Independent. 

California Sabbatical: Some Lessons of Sabbatical

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I was not exactly looking forward to our family’s sabbatical in Berkeley, California. Our five-month sojourn was a year-and-a-half in the planning, so my mind had plenty of time to run through every nightmarish scenario imaginable. I worried that we couldn’t possibly find a comfortable and affordable home for a family of six. I worried that I would be stuck in this uncomfortable and expensive home all day long with four bickering children and no breaks. I worried that I would miss our life back in Vermont and become depressed.

Yet, even as I worried about these things, here’s how I expected the narrative to unfold: We would arrive in Berkeley, and everything would be fine! All of my worries would prove unfounded, and – as has happened repeatedly in the past – I would say, “I don’t know why I worried so much!”

Imagine my surprise, then, when in fact everything I’d worried about came true – and then some! A few weeks into our sabbatical, not only was I depressed, missing Vermont, and stuck all day in a cramped and expensive rental home with four bickering children, I’d also been blindsided by unexpected setbacks. I hadn’t expected to fracture my foot on our second day in California. I hadn’t expected my husband and children to miss Vermont as much as I did. I hadn’t expected to find the Bay Area – where we’d lived for five years – infinitely more challenging than I remembered because we were no longer used to city life and lines and traffic. I hadn’t expected our California friends to be so very, very busy that it would take months to see some of them.

“It wasn’t supposed to go this way,” I told my husband tearfully. “I worried, so everything was supposed to work out.”

It took nearly the full five months for me to realize that sabbatical was an enormous gift to our family.

Click here to continue reading about the lessons I learned from our sabbatical in this week’s “Faith in Vermont, California Sabbatical” column in The Addison Independent. (This will be the FINAL California edition of this column — actually filed from Oregon, where our family is on vacation before heading back to Vermont!)

 

California Sabbatical: Goodbye To Berkeley

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As we prepare to leave Berkeley, California and return home to Vermont, here are some Berkeley stories from the past five months of our family’s sabbatical:

 

It’s late January. We are a few weeks into our homeschool curriculum, and for science I’ve been taking my daughters on nature walks around our neighborhood to observe West Coast flora and fauna. This particular morning, we’re squatting on the sidewalk sketching a Bird of Paradise plant, when a nearby house’s door opens and a man emerges. I’m concerned that he’s about to chase us away, but he asks what we’re doing in a friendly manner.

Then he says, “My wife sent me out here to offer you some lemons.” He gestures towards the lemon tree in his front yard, laden with lemons bigger than my fist (he tells us they’re Eureka lemons.) He cuts down four lemons, one for each of my daughters. We thank him and take the lemons home; later, we will use a recipe from The World of Little House, a companion book to Laura Ingalls Wilder’s series of pioneer memoirs, to make delicious lemonade from these lemons.

For more of our Berkeley adventures, click here to continue reading this week’s California edition of “Faith in Vermont” in The Addison Independent. 

Using Our Words

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I took my two-year-old and my five-year-old to a playground this afternoon, while my two older daughters attended their little homeschool History Club.

After a while, my five-year-old came up to me and said, “Mommy, I want to play with somebody. Somebody new. Somebody who’s not my sister. I want to make a new friend.”

There weren’t many other children at the playground: a handful of babies, the rejected two-year-old sister — and three girls who were, from the looks of them, about two years older than my daughter. Of course, these were the girls my daughter was eyeing.

“Go ahead and ask if you can play with them,” I prompted, praying silently that these “big girls” would be kind.

“I’m feeling a little shy,” she said. “Will you come with me?”

So I said I would hold her hand and come with her, but I wouldn’t speak for her — she had to do the asking.

Hand-in-hand, we approached the big girls.

Here is what my daughter said, completely on her own, in her tiny voice:

“Hi, I was wondering if I could play with you? Because I don’t have a friend here, and I’m feeling lonely.”

They were kind: They said yes. (Thankful prayer from me.)

I walked away from this exchange marveling at the beautiful request my daughter had made. It was simple, honest, and vulnerable. This is not because my daughter is anything special — of course, think she’s something special, but really she’s just a regular kid. She said what she did precisely because she’s a regular kid, and to say anything else wouldn’t occur to her.

And then I realized that the days when my daughter can make this sort of request are numbered.

Think about it: If somebody approached you and said, “I was just wondering if we could hang out for little bit, because I don’t have a friend and I’m feeling lonely,” how would you react? I know how would react: I’d probably make some excuse and dash off. We adults are generally too busy for this kind of neediness. If we’re honest, vulnerability freaks us out a little bit.

It’s funny: I’ve spent the first five years of each of my daughters’ lives — what will amount to twenty years’ worth of effort — encouraging, begging, pleading with them to use their words. “Please, stop screaming and just tell me what you want,” I exhort them.

But then, not too long after — by about mid-elementary school, by my estimation — we (the big “we:” society, culture, all of us) begin implicitly teaching our children to stop using their words. To put up a brave front. To not say what they want. Because in our world, to be vulnerable, to admit loneliness, is to be weak. It freaks people out. It’s tantamount to an admission of failure.

It occurs to me that a great deal of trouble — emotional distress, interpersonal strife, political discord — might be avoided if we hadn’t somehow been discouraged along the way from just using our words.

 

California Sabbatical: They Paved Paradise

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It’s late afternoon, and I’m looking east through the big picture windows of my favorite café in Berkeley, California. I’m used to seeing the Green Mountains when I look east, but today I see the Berkeley Hills.

There’s no confusing the Berkeley Hills for the Green Mountains. The slopes of the Berkeley Hills are covered with more houses than trees; the electric lights in those houses are blinking on right now, and will outshine the constellations tonight. The hills’ summits are ridged with cell phone towers. And to see the Berkeley Hills I must look across a parking lot, past six lanes of traffic and the BART train tracks, and beyond a network of power lines and street lights.

A refrain runs through my head that’s been haunting me since we arrived in Berkeley for my husband’s sabbatical. It goes like this: What have we done?

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

A Little Scary

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Hi there, readers.

Something a little scary happened today: Remember my Pickle Patch post from this past weekend, “An Open Letter to the Citizens of Berkeley”? Well, it quickly became my most-read post in history. Apparently it touched a nerve, mostly in a good way: In the two days after it was published people I didn’t know — people who live in Berkeley — were commenting on Facebook with lots of “Me, too!” And today, it’s been published in the opinion section of Berkeleyside, Berkeley’s online independent newspaper. 

This is not a total surprise to me: I knew that Berkeleyside was considering publishing the piece. I’d even gotten a kind email from one of their editors, Tracey (clearly not one of the Berkeleyites I’m writing about), who concluded with: “One thing: are you ready for the comments people might leave on this if we publish it? I hope I’m proved wrong, but some of those same people may well choose to share their views with you in the comments section.”  

I read Tracey’s email, and I responded that I’d be okay with that. Then I closed my computer and the next thing I did — truly — was to pray. It was the same prayer I’ve prayed lots of times now (most recently when we bought our new house in Vermont) and it went like this: “If this is supposed to happen, help me get through it. And if it isn’t supposed to happen, then that’s totally fine by me!”

It’s been several days since Tracey’s email, so I just assumed that it wasn’t happening. And that was fine by me. I had mixed feelings about this being my most popular piece, anyway: It’s a little angrier than the things I usually like to put out into the world.

Then, this afternoon, a friend alerted me that my piece was up on Berkeleyside.

So, I’m sitting here trying very hard not to read the comments section. But I’m also inviting you to go on over there and check it out, even if you’ve read it before. I made some changes to it that I think will make it stronger (not hard, since I cranked out and posted the first version in one hour!) And, you know, you’re also welcome to post a nice comment 😉

As we say around here, “Peace.”

California Sabbatical: Where The Heart Is?

When friends and family from Vermont ask how we’re doing during our five-month sabbatical in Berkeley, California, I usually answer, “It’s been a good experience. But it’s not home.” 

The funny thing is, it was home.

I’ve been contemplating this concept of home: What is it that makes one place clearly home, and another place – a perfectly nice and familiar place filled with beloved friends and family – so clearly not home?

Obviously, home is where your house is, in the physical sense. But I am talking about the more spiritual sense of “being at home.”

The old platitude claims, “Home is where the heart is.” One of my daughters drew a picture and captioned it with this saying. When my husband asked, “Where’s your heart?” she didn’t miss a beat: “Vermont.”

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

An Open Letter to the Citizens of Berkeley

Good People of Berkeley:

I’m here from out of town, although I used to live among you. So, I’m prepared to tell you how the rest of the country thinks of you. Mention “Berkeley” to most people, and they immediately conjure up an image of progressive, liberal, peace-loving descendants of the 1960s hippie movement, eating artisanal whole foods while dressed in tie-die and smelling of patchouli. It’s a stereotype, sure, but in my experience it’s a stereotype that the population of Berkeley does little to discourage.

Except for the “peace-loving” part.

Berkeleyites, never have I been among a more stressed-out, rage-filled group of people.

How do I know that you’re stressed-out and rage-filled? Because never in my four decades of life have I been as scolded by complete strangers as I have been in the past five months that I’ve spent among you.

I have been chastised for my driving (usually for not being aggressive enough.) Other people have scolded my children for minor offenses, and then turned and criticized my parenting. And, just this morning, I was barked at for not realizing that the proper system in the bakery where we had taken our children for breakfast — where the line snaked out the door — was not to select your items from the open bins first and then take your place in line (which, confusingly, is the system when the line is shorter), but was instead to wait on line first and select your items as you passed the bins.

Now, I recognize that angry, stressed-out scoldings of total strangers are not unique to Berkeley, but the fact is: I’ve only experienced them here. Sure, I come most recently from a small town in Vermont where everyone knows everyone, which tends to encourage kindness (in public, at least.) But I also lived in Manhattan for seven years. And never once, in all that time, was I lashed out at the way I have been in Berkeley, where I’ve averaged at least one scolding a month.

Let me also say this: The people I actually know in Berkeley are kind, and peace-loving. These scoldings all come from people I don’t know, which, frankly, makes them worse. I can take correction from my husband and close friends, whom I trust to know me, but scolding from a stranger who has no idea of my struggles (although they are generally apparent in the four wiggly young children surrounding me) seems completely unjust.

And do you know who the worst offenders are? Affluent-appearing Caucasian men and women in their 60s and 70s; in other words, the very people who were alive during the Summer of Love and “Give Peace A Chance” and “Imagine” and “I’d Like to Buy the World a Coke.” The very people who gave Berkeley the stereotype it still bears.

I understand that it’s stressful to live here: You have to sit in traffic and wait in lines for everything – even if you wake up at 8 AM on a Saturday, the bakery line still stretches around the store. I understand that this degree of congestion fosters the idea that other people are aggravating impediments to your own personal muffin consumption, in much the same way that you might take compassion on one ant in your house, but when there’s a line of ants marching across your floor you have to annihilate the suckers. I understand that, in order to live in a city where the median home price is in the $800,000 range you probably work long hours creating technology that encourages human relationships to be played out over screens. I understand that living in a place with a reputation for progressive thinking might encourage a certain aggressive self-righteousness. But here, as an ambassador from small-town Vermont, are two simple suggestions for you, Berkeley:

  1. First, let’s just agree that we should never, ever, EVER take it upon ourselves to correct other people’s children or give unsolicited parenting advice. I think most parents of young children would agree with me that the only times we welcome interference or advice are: 1) If we’ve asked for it, or 2) if death is imminent (i.e. my child is running into traffic.) Otherwise, not to put too fine a point on it: BACK OFF.

No, my children are not perfect. That’s because they are children – they are works in progress. And guess who’s responsible for raising them? ME, that’s who. I’m doing my best to raise responsible adults, but we’re not there yet, and it’s hard work.

My children aren’t perfect, but neither are they monsters. And, if you stopped a moment, you might think that they’re kind of cute. Maybe you could even smile at them, because one thing my children and I have both noticed is that nobody smiles at them here. You might feel better if you did.

So, lady in front of us in line for the gas station bathroom, next time you see a mother surrounded by four young children and one of her children neglects to cover her cough: Before you lash out at mother and child, perhaps consider that this mother has a lot on her hands, that maybe she was about to remind her child of proper hygiene before you stepped in, and also this is a gas station bathroom and those germs are surely not the worst ones around.

  1. BE KIND. The people around you are just as complicated and sensitive as you are. They have hopes and dreams and struggles, just like you do. It behooves us all to consider one another’s humanity as we interact. The things you say and the way that you say them have an impact on people.

Back to my bakery experience: When the man in line barked at me for what he perceived as my cutting the line, he had no idea of my story. And when I apologized and explained that we were from out of town and hadn’t known the system, it made absolutely no difference in the tone he used with me. When my eyes strayed behind him in hopes of finding sympathy elsewhere, I saw that the man behind him was snickering at me, presumably at my stupidity.

These were grown men, and they made me feel like I was back in junior high.

And you know what? It ruined my morning. My scone felt like sand in my mouth, my heart rate was elevated for the next hour; I felt like a bad person. And all we were trying to do was to take our daughters out to a special breakfast.

Berkeleyites who read this might be thinking: Grow a tougher skin. Don’t let one jerk ruin your breakfast. To which I submit: Is that really how we want to be with each other? Grow tougher skins so that others can spew their rage all over us without consequence?

Berkeley is one of the most innovative and creative regions in our country right now. You don’t have to let people steal your muffins, but don’t tell me you can’t come up with more polite methods of correcting people.

There are signs up around Berkeley now that read, “Drive Like Your Kids Live Here.” My daughter saw one of these signs and misread it: “Mommy!” she laughed, “That sign said, ‘Drive Like Your Kids!’ They want you to drive like your kids!”

It was a hilarious misinterpretation that’s become a family joke. But I can’t help thinking how it’s indicative of the Berkeley way of life. All of the signs – the face Berkeley presents to the outside world – seem to encourage responsible and kind cohabitation. Yet in reality, many Berkeleyites are driving like their kids – both literally on the road and metaphorically in their interactions. They bash into each other and cut each other off and honk their horns like a bunch of preschoolers on the playground.

Because the truth is, your politics don’t make you a peacemaker. Neither does your money,  your intelligence, or your success. Peacemaking comes from recognizing that every single person out there was created special and deserving of respect. That’s what we teach our kids, right? So let’s drive like our kids live here.