Lake Willoughby, Part 1: Those People

Last week, thanks to the generosity of my mother- and father-in-law who were visiting us from California, my husband and I had a weekend getaway.

It’s not quite as romantic as it sounds: Our 22-month-old son came along, too. Still, it was the first time in over three years that my husband and I had been away from home – and our four daughters – together. We headed to Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom, one of our favorite idyllic escapes. (For out-of-state friends who visit Addison County to “get away from it all,” yes there are places even more sleepy and remote, and the Northeast Kingdom, nestled between the Connecticut River and the Canadian border, is one of them.)

Our destination this time was new to us: Lake Willoughby, a glacial lake carved out between Mount Pisgah and Mount Hor. At over 320 feet deep in places, Lake Willoughby Is the deepest lake entirely contained in Vermont. Known for its clarity, Willoughby was named the third best lake in New England by Yankee Magazine in 2010.

The 150-minute drive from our house to our weekend rental was a journey through Vermont’s unique blend of quiet and quirky beauty: rolling green horizon, turquoise blue sky, sparkling rivers that were equal parts water and rocks, alpine meadows dotted with grazing cows, roadside clumps of chicory, goldenrod, and Queen Anne’s Lace. The presence of humans was hinted at by widely spaced farmhouses, some in pristine condition and others in various states of disintegration. Doublewides often had an incongruous number of vehicles parked out front (“That’s either a large family gathering or a drug deal,” my husband quipped when I pointed out the third such case). Occasionally we’d pass through a town, always with a white clapboard General Store (“Groceries*Beer*Bait*Guns*Ammo*Ice Cream*Gifts”) and an auto body shop (“Moody’s Used Car’s and Part’s”).

Our rental house was a small, unassuming farmhouse a few minutes away from the north shore of Lake Willoughby in the town of Brownington (population 960). Inside, however, it had been decorated in “Hunting Lodge Kitsch”: wood paneled walls, exposed beams, carved bears and moose around every corner, and no light fixture without antlers. It was perfect. We checked in, changed into our swimsuits, and headed to Lake Willoughby’s tiny North Beach.

The view down the lake from North Beach was stunning: pristine water flanked by steep mountain cliffs. Perhaps because it has such steep shorelines, Lake Willoughby is much less developed than other lakes we’ve visited in Vermont, which may explain why there was plenty of space on the beach on a warm and sunny Friday afternoon in late August. 

But those people were there. 

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

Dog Days

It’s that time of year again.

Our family has now logged in eight straight weeks of summer vacation. We have spent countless sultry days at the lake, eaten gallons of ice cream, lit sparklers, chased fireflies. Our annual trip to the Maine coast has come and gone. I am tired of weeding the garden. My daughters have stayed up late binge watching “The Clone Wars” so often that it feels routine. “What are we doing today?” they ask each morning, and – although much of what I thought we’d do this summer has been left undone – I am running out of ideas. School remains weeks away.

The dog days: In our house, they aren’t so much about the weather as they are about a fuzzy, sultry, oppressive state of mind. 

This year, however, my daughters have taken the concept of the dog days literally, by renewing their campaign for a puppy.

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

Maintaining

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We went to Maine this summer. It felt like a minor miracle that we were able to pull off this trip: the only normal, scheduled event that hasn’t been cancelled in our lives since the COVID-19 pandemic wiped our calendar clean and confined us to our home. I will be reminding my children about our Maine trip anytime they complain of boredom for the rest of the summer.

Gong Child: “I’m SO BORED!”

Me: “Remember how we went to Maine this summer?” (Unspoken, but implied: “You ungrateful wretch!”)

Oddly enough, one of the best parts about going to Maine was coming home.

“Ah!” we sighed in wonder as we drove across the Green Mountains and saw Vermont’s familiar fields stretching out before us.

“It’s so good to be home!” we exclaimed as we entered our house, unpacked our bags, and settled back into our own beds.

Our house, which had begun to feel like a prison in the weeks before the trip to Maine, reclaimed its cherished place in our collective hearts after a week’s absence. It was nice to feel that we wanted to be at home, not just that we had to be at home.

The warm glow of homecoming lasted approximately 24 hours. Then I went outside and looked at my garden.

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

Inside the Blue Whale

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This past week, as I’ve done for the past six years, I spent three straight days at Branbury Beach State Park, where I spent three hours each day teaching nature classes to children aged 5-11 as part of an annual summer camp run by our church.

On the second day of camp, my nature theme centered around blue whales, so I dug up a copy of one of our family’s favorite blue whale picture books (recommended years ago by my friend Amy, of Vermont Book Shop fame): Billy Twitters and his Blue Whale Problem, by Mac Barnett. The story centers around Billy Twitters, a boy who won’t do his chores, and who gets a whole new sense of responsibility when his parents buy him a blue whale to care for. In the end, Billy moves into his blue whale’s massive mouth, concluding: “Sometimes the only way to escape from the problems caused by your blue whale is to spend some time inside your blue whale.”

That line haunted me. After reading it aloud three times to my campers, I was certain that Mac Barnett was trying to tell me something profound, but it took me a while to pinpoint just what.

Billy Twitters moving inside his problematic blue whale reminds me of how our family has been dealing with death lately.

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

Our Newest Addition

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According to our family’s well-loved edition of D’Aulaires’ Book of Greek Myths, Hermes, the “merriest of the Olympians, was the god of shepherds, travelers, merchants, thieves, and all others who lived by their wits.” That’s a diverse set of patronages; the bottom line is that, although best known for zipping around in his winged shoes and winged helmet, Hermes was a bit of a trickster.

So it’s particularly appropriate that my daughters named their new kitten Hermes, since we were basically tricked into adding him to our family.

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

Oh, My Dog!

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Of all the human and non-human species that make up our family, I’ve written the least about our dog, Gracie. My daughters always do nutty things, the ducks and chickens teach us about life and death, and my husband is the “straight man” in the midst of the chaos.

But Gracie, our five-year-old labradoodle, is complicated.

The contributions that a dog is expected to make to a family typically include: companionship, affection, and exercise. My daughters insist that Gracie adds all three to our lives: Their interactions with Gracie mostly involve snuggling on the floor, feeding her treats, and dressing her up in funny costumes, all of which Gracie submits to dutifully. “Gracie’s the best dog in the WORLD!” a daughter exclaims daily.

My husband and I would agree that Gracie adds exercise to our lives, because one of us has to walk her on a leash at least twice a day. We have to walk her on a leash because we don’t have adequate fencing at our house, and we can’t trust Gracie to be outdoors off-leash. We can’t trust Gracie to be off-leash because, for the five years that we’ve known her, Gracie has demonstrated repeatedly her inability to control her emotions.

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

Work and Play

Our family just returned from our annual vacation in Ogunquit, on the southern coast of Maine. Ever since 2007, when I was pregnant with our first child and living in California, my mother’s side of the family – which includes my aunt, two cousins and their husbands, and a growing number of second cousins — has converged upon Ogunquit for a week of beaches, lobster, and family fun. Other family members who live nearby drop in for a day, and we visit my father’s side of the family in New Hampshire on our way home.

My husband and I have missed only three Maine vacations over the past decade: two because we had newborn babies, and one because we had just moved to Vermont (that year, the entire family renounced Maine and came to visit us!) This tradition is so ingrained in the pattern of our daughters’ lives that they think of it much the same way that they think about their birthdays, or Halloween, or Christmas: as something to be planned for and looked forward to all year long.

This year’s week in Maine was much the same as it always is: We walked across the footbridge to get candy in Perkins Cove, jumped waves and built sandcastles on Little Beach, climbed the rocks by Nubble Light after eating mammoth ice cream cones from Dunne’s, held “Family Olympics” and a play produced by the youngest family members, and stayed in the same house where we’ve set up camp for five years.

But tradition can’t stop the march of time, so our Maine vacation this year was also unique. Ogunquit 2017 was marked by the same unseasonal rain and chilly weather that we’ve experienced in Vermont: We had only three good beach days of the seven we spent in Maine, so we spent more time that usual in shops and museums. Because our children are growing up, some were less enthusiastic about dressing up as pirates for this year’s play, but I was able to have more uninterrupted conversations with other grown-ups than I can recall during any previous summer. And our annual lobster dinner was marred somewhat when our second child, a budding vegetarian, realized that her father was about to kill four lobsters on her watch, and all but chained herself to the refrigerator in protest.

Then there was this: As my husband and I walked along the Marginal Way, a gorgeous path winding along the cliff-tops above the crashing ocean waves, he turned to me and said, “You know, I feel like three days of vacation is just about enough for me at this point in life.”

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

 

 

The Stars At Night

by Campbell Gong

Drawing by Campbell Gong

The other night, I took the dog for a walk down our driveway.

The job of walking our dog after dinner usually falls to my husband; on these frigid winter nights, he dons hat and gloves, ski goggles and earmuffs, snow pants and winter parka, before disappearing into the snowy, blow-y dark. “Hope you make it to base camp!” I’ve been known to holler (unhelpfully) into the mudroom after him, while our daughters collapse in a pile of giggles.

Those daughters are the primary reason why my husband is the designated evening dog-walker: I’m usually occupied by dinner dishes, bedtime stories, and tuck-ins.

But on this particular night, a few days before Christmas, I needed the fresh air and the quiet. My vision was getting fuzzy from all the gift-wrapping, baking, and holiday logistics. Besides, I had a few last-minute Christmas cards to put in the mailbox.

So, after donning my warmest gear (minus the ski goggles and earmuffs), I set out down the driveway with Gracie, our clinically anxious labradoodle.

Let me set the scene, for those who have a more suburban vision of the word “driveway:” Our driveway is a ¼ mile-long, dirt-and-gravel road. We share its initial length with a neighboring house; about halfway down, the driveway branches in two, with one section leading left towards our neighbors’ house, and the other section winding to its conclusion at our front door. The driveway is unlit, as is the main road where it ends. At night, the only light comes from the single bulb outside our front door, and a handful of lights from neighboring houses – the neighbors with whom we share our driveway, the farm beyond the trees, and one or two homes across the main road.

All this to say: At night, the walk down our driveway is dark – very dark. The journey may take upwards of ten minutes round-trip, because ice and snow on the gravel drive make it necessary to step carefully. Ten minutes in single-digit temperatures can feel like a long time.

The night I walked our dog was cold and dark. It was also a clear night, so when I looked up about halfway through my walk, I gasped aloud.

We don’t see the stars much these days, do we?

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