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.

California Sabbatical: The Surprising Joy of Homeschooling


Husband: I was thinking we could go to Berkeley for the second half of my sabbatical. We have family and friends there, and I could do research in my old department at UC Berkeley.

Me: Sure, that makes sense.

Husband: And we’d enroll the girls in school in Berkeley for the spring?

Me: Oh no, I’ll just homeschool them while we’re out there.

And so, over burgers at Park Squeeze in Vergennes in the spring of 2014, some very major decisions were made very quickly.

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

California Sabbatical: Journey to Points South


In mid-February our family left the house we’re renting during my husband’s sabbatical in Berkeley, California and drove south for eight hours.

Our destination: Orange County, a sprawling collection of suburbs just south of Los Angeles.

Our purpose: To visit my husband’s brother and his family…and Disneyland.

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

California Sabbatical: Sing a Song of Traffic

The other day, my daughters were playing on the brick patio that constitutes the backyard of our rental house in Berkeley, California. As two of them scooted around on toy cars belonging to our landlords’ son, I observed the following exchange:

Bringing their vehicles to a sudden stop at right angles to each other, one daughter said, “You go ahead.”

To which the other daughter responded, “No, no, you go ahead!”

After they’d repeated this several times, I asked, “Girls, what are you doing?”

“Well, that’s what you always say, Mommy!” they explained.

That’s when I realized the degree to which my daughters have absorbed the anxiety and general distrust I feel while driving in California.

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

California Sabbatical: This Old House


About nine months ago, my husband and I decided to start looking for a place to live during our sabbatical in Berkeley, California. Sitting at home in Vermont, we assumed it would be no problem to find a furnished rental home for a family with four young children and a dog, within walking distance of UC Berkeley, on an assistant professor’s salary.

The first thing to go was the dog. It quickly became clear that four children were four strikes against us; our dog would be a deal-breaker, and would have to stay in Vermont.

The next thing to go was our budget, which turned out to be unrealistically low for most two-bedroom houses within the Berkeley city limits. Our upper limit edged higher, then higher still.

Several times, we thought we’d found “the one.” But multiple rentals slipped through our fingers, usually with landlords making excuses after we mentioned the children.

By late July, we were losing hope. Then my husband found an online listing for a two-bedroom house, walking distance to campus, at the uppermost limit of our budget. Without much optimism, he sent off an inquiry.

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

California Sabbatical: The Honeymoon Ends


Our first two days in Northern California were filled with palm trees, rainbows, and loving grandparents. On the morning of the third day – the day we would leave the comfort of the grandparents’ house and move into our rental house in Berkeley – I fell down the stairs.

As Mick Jagger said (or was it Richard Nixon?): “The honeymoon don’t last forever, kid.”

It was a stupid misstep that I’ve replayed in my head a dozen times: I was walking down the stairs of my in-laws’ house early in the morning, carrying our two-year-old daughter. It was dark. Assuming I was on the ground, I missed the final step and came crashing down onto a tile floor. My daughter was fine, but because I’d focused on holding onto her instead of cushioning my fall, I was not.

Click here to continue reading my second California edition of the “Faith in Vermont” column in The Addison Independent.

California Sabbatical, Day 1: Palm Trees!


“Wait, people are just allowed to have palm trees in their yards?” my eldest daughter marveled on our first day in California’s Bay Area.

The palm trees have been the undisputed highlight of California thus far, the first thing on my daughters’ list when we ask what they like most about our five-month sabbatical from Vermont. They’ve observed that palm trees come in different heights, with various-shaped fronds, and with trunks both shaggy and smooth.

When I start home schooling my two oldest daughters this week, our science studies will commence with a unit on palm trees.

Our journey from Vermont to California began with a drive to Burlington, where we spent the night at the airport Doubletree in order to sleep in until 3:15 AM so that we could catch our 5:30 AM flight to Detroit. By “we,” I mean the six members of our family, and our 15 bags; yes, that’s our version of traveling lightly.

Click here to continue reading about the start of our California adventure in a special edition “Faith in Vermont” column for The Addison Independent. 

Saying Goodbye: It’s Deja vu All Over Again


Last week, the woman behind me in the Hannaford supermarket check-out line asked if I knew where Salon Déjà vu was located. She wanted to get a gift certificate for somebody, she told me, but the address that she’d been given led her to the wrong place, and nobody answered the phone at the number she’d found online.

I was absolutely certain that I knew where Salon Déjà vu was, and gave the woman directions based on my knowledge. But when I drove past this location several days later, it turned out to be a different salon all together.

So, I have no idea where Salon Déjà vu is. (Note to Salon Déjà vu proprietors, if you’re out there: Update your online information!)

Only later did it strike me that Salon Déjà vu was a perfect name, given these circumstances.

Click here to continue reading my final “Faith in Vermont” column of 2015 — and the final “Faith in Vermont” column that I’ll actually write in Vermont for several months — over at The Addison Independent.

Five Misconceptions About Sabbatical


And just like that, Thanksgiving’s over. Before we had a chance to toss out the dried-out autumnal gourd decorations and boil the turkey bones for broth, there were wreaths around town, Christmas carols playing in the stores, and – could it be? – Christmas trees blinking in our neighbors’ windows. With a mere two days between Thanksgiving and the start of Advent, the holiday season seems to be upon us in an even more breathless rush than usual.

But that’s okay: I can keep breathing. It’s not like I’m also preparing to move our family across the country for five months, during which major renovations will be happening on the house we’ll move into after we return, while at the same time our current house goes on the market.

Oh, wait a minute! That’s exactly what’s happening!

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