Surf City…With Kids

[An earlier version of this post appeared without a link to the full article. My apologies!]

I am typing this from a desk in our Airbnb rental house in Huntington Beach, California: a beige stucco bungalow in a residential neighborhood of tightly packed stucco bungalows surrounded by high walls. There are three palm trees in the front yard. The back yard consists of a cement patio and a small patch of astroturf (an increasingly popular option in a region that suffers from continuous drought conditions and water restrictions.) 

That’s a backyard?!?” my 11-year-old daughter exclaimed. “I’ve seen bigger swimming pools!” 

Her insistence that a yard should be at least as big as a swimming pool was evidence of how living in Vermont has skewed our perspective. 

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.

Dispatch from the West Coast


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


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


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 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


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


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


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


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


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.”