Of Toddlers and Teens

I am writing this at Vivid Coffee, just off of Church Street in Burlington. It’s an ideal writing spot: hip, but also spacious, with plenty of tables and couches where one can settle in for the afternoon. And many people have settled in on this frosty afternoon; mostly UVM students, from the look of things. The drinks menu is basic, but all I need is coffee. My final coffee shop rating criteria is baked goods, and when I arrived there was a single salted chocolate chip cookie waiting in the case, just for me. Clearly it was meant to be.

I would never have found Vivid Coffee were it not for Genevieve, my daughter’s friend. I’m in Burlington today because I drove a group of four teenagers up here and turned them loose on Church Street as part of my eldest daughter’s 15th birthday festivities. 

Fifteen. We’re in a whole new parenting sphere now. She made a short but expensive birthday list, consisting of clothes, shoes, and a donation to help sexually exploited girls worldwide. Tomorrow, she plans to take the online test for her learner’s permit so that she can spend the next year driving in the company of her parents. She’s sure she’ll pass, although she hasn’t spent much time studying the 140-page driver’s manual online. I remind her that it costs $32 just to take the test. She offers to pay for it, which is thoughtful, but I know that she has only $19 in her checking account. She works as a page at the library and next week will add a second, seasonal job making wreaths at the Christmas tree farm next door; still, the money seems to flow out quickly, spent on books, accessories, and coffee shops.

Which brings me back to this café. Classic rock is playing over the speakers, but I look up the lyrics to Taylor Swift’s song, “Fifteen,” which features the line, “This is life before you know who you’re going to be.”

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

The November of Middle Age

“I think that November might be the most beautiful month,” said my daughter as we drove through the barren brown landscape. A few scraggly leaves clung resolutely to the skeletal tree branches. November, memorialized by Thomas Hood’s bleak poem (a long list of “no’s,” concluding with, “No fruits, no flowers, no leaves, no birds! – November!”) is usually far down the list of months ranked by beauty. This daughter turns 15 in two weeks, so she has a vested interest in finding goodness in her birth month. 

And yet, I could see what she meant. The sky gets bigger in November without leaves in the way. The light is spectacular: The sunrises and sunsets become kaleidoscopic shows of orange and purple and are more conveniently witnessed as the daylight contracts towards the middle of the day. And, sorry Thomas Hood, but there are birds – the hardy ones who hunker down for the winter – and they’re easier to appreciate in the absence of competition: the brilliant blue jays, sinister crows, stern red-tailed hawks, and swooping murmurations of starlings.

Here is what I have been thinking about lately: Middle age is a lot like November.

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

The Dog Days of Autumn

The fall sports season is over. As always, it was brief but intense, with afternoons that felt like tactical maneuvers as my husband and I shuttled four children who were playing two sports (soccer and field hockey) on three teams. Gone are the hours spent huddled in a folding chair amidst the growing cold and dark, trying to divide my attention equally between the players on the field, the parents and grandparents on the sidelines, and my two-year-old son who’d run off with some surrogate big siblings he’d picked up. (Our family’s scoreboard for the season boasts not a single victory, but three tied games feel close enough.) 

The garden was levelled by an early hard frost just as the zinnias and cosmos were at their peak. Now, when the golden autumn sun shines, I go outside and chop down the dead brown stems and lug them by wheelbarrow out to the compost pile like a botanical undertaker. There is still some hardy kale left in the garden, but I keep forgetting to cut it in time for dinner.

The foliage has been glorious, as usual: avenues of maple that glow red-orange, birch and poplar that spill yellow light like tree-sized buttercups. But yesterday I drove five children to and from the Vermont History Museum in Montpelier, and although the lovely drive took us across three mountain passes still decked in autumnal beauty, a 12-year-old in the car kept repeating, “This would’ve been a lot prettier last week.” 

The sunrises and sunsets have been gorgeous symphonies in purple and orange: I know this because as the days grow shorter, my twice-daily dog walks often coincide with the rising and setting sun. Sometimes there is mist haunting the fields in the mornings, or the graceful cacophony of migrating geese overhead in the afternoons.

We have done our best to check off all the boxes: we visited the apple orchard and the corn maze, we bought mums and the pumpkins for our front porch, we decked the house in gourds and fake fall leaves, the Halloween costumes are ready to go. (Which reminds me that I still need to make pumpkin bread!) According to these metrics, our fall has been a success, but I am having trouble focusing. I feel distracted from the present moment, troubled by the vague sense that I’m always missing something. This morning, my 11-year-old daughter said, “I don’t know why, but I’m not really feeling excited about anything right now,” and I thought to myself: Me, too. 

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

Goodbye Summer, Welcome Fall!

Photo by Georgia Gong

I need to come clean: Although I’ve written on this topic in a variety of ways before, I’ve always beat around the bush, obscured my true feelings, tried to be polite. But I think it’s time to be honest, to come right out and say it:

I don’t like summer.

Having made such a blunt statement of fact, I feel the need to walk it back immediately, to be more diplomatic: Summer’s not my favorite season, but it has many excellent features. 

But I won’t do it; I’m going to let my opinion stand strong and clear. The truth is that even though I’ll have to start packing school lunches, rousting kids out of bed before it’s light, and spending all afternoon driving between sports practices and music lessons, I rejoice whenever we round the corner to Labor Day. 

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

The Birds…And The Bees

It wasn’t the first time a bird had become stuck in our woodstove; this had happened twice before. 

The three events all began with a scrabbling, scuffling, fluttering noise in the corner of our living room. This type of noise can be shrugged off once or twice, but after subsequent repetitions the message is clear: There is another living thing somewhere in this room. 

The first time, it was a House Sparrow. The second time, it was an Eastern Bluebird. Now it was a European Starling. 

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

My Kids, in the Middle of the Lake

It’s funny what a difference two weeks can make. 

Just two weeks ago, I wrote a column about how my husband – always on the lookout for new ways our family can have fun together – had outfitted all seven people in our family with bicycles. I ended that column with the line: “And now my husband is starting to dream about inflatable kayaks, so perhaps we’ll see you on the water, too!”

This past week, my mother- and father-in-law flew in from California for a visit. After my husband picked them up from Burlington Airport, he swung by Costco for what has become the Traditional Post-Airport Shopping Binge. Usually they come home bearing a couple of rotisserie chickens, industrial-sized bags of baking soda, and trays of croissants large enough to feed the population of Rhode Island. 

They came home with all of that, but this time they had an inflatable kayak, too. 

The inflatable paddleboard arrived the next day, and another inflatable paddleboard is en route. 

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

Back to All That

In 1967, the author Joan Didion published an essay called “Goodbye to All That,” in which she attempted to unravel the factors that led from her falling in love with New York City to “the moment it ended” eight years later, when she and her husband moved to Los Angeles.

In 2006, inspired by Didion’s essay, I wrote my own reflection on loving and leaving New York City. Like Didion, I spent the majority of my 20s in Manhattan. Seven years later, I was preparing to move with my husband to Berkeley, California, so that he could attend graduate school. And I was surprised to feel a sense of relief – urgency, even – upon leaving the city about which I’d once written, “Finally, I am home. New York City is where I belong.” 

Reading my words alongside Joan Didion’s, it seems that we both reached the point at which New York City ceased to make us feel young and alive, and started to make us feel old and tired. For her, it was realizing that there was nobody new to meet; for me, it was the creeping gentrification that seemed to be erasing the city I’d moved to seven years before. Echoing Didion, I wrote, “[P]eople whom I might like to meet can no longer afford to live here.”

So I left, and I didn’t return for 16 years – not really. There was one weekend trip in 2008, when my husband and I brought our infant daughter to visit New York as part of an East Coast trip. We stayed with friends in Brooklyn, because by then almost everyone we’d known in Manhattan had moved to the outer boroughs. We found that navigating the city with a 6-month-old was an entirely different experience: less fun, more harrowing. When we visited those same Brooklyn friends in 2018, we set foot in Manhattan only to catch the ferry for Ellis Island. 

But it’s worth noting that about 20 years after she penned “Goodbye to All That,” Joan Didion moved back to New York City and remained there for the rest of her life. 

Last week, I returned to New York City, too.

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

The Show Must Go On

When I was in school, I was a theater kid. 

We called ourselves “Drama Queers,” which is probably no longer acceptable – but this was the 1990s. The label conveyed our pride in being different, quirky, set apart. In a suburban high school where most of our classmates spent afterschool hours zipping around the playing fields, we “DQs” sequestered ourselves in the windowless box of the theater and attempted to embody characters that were not ourselves. 

I’ll be honest: I was not a great thespian. I played a lot of “citizens” — background extras who responded to the main action. But I was better at theater than I was at sports — and I loved it. Pouring myself into somebody I wasn’t, dressing up, the camaraderie of making a story come alive onstage, the applause; theater involved all the teamwork and creativity of sports, without the need for physical coordination. (Although I did suffer a sports injury – a torn ACL – while “walking the plank” off the stage as Pirate Starkey in a production of Peter Pan).

By the end of high school my tenacity was rewarded with a smattering of lead roles, but in college I was back to “citizen” status. For my final production, I wasn’t onstage at all, but was asked to serve as stage manager. I did this job well; the organizational skills required came to me more naturally than acting. It was, in fact, a version of what I do now in my everyday life: making sure everyone is where they need to be and has what they need to have. But I wasn’t as passionate about stage managing as I was about acting, so I let the curtain fall on my theatrical aspirations. 

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

Tuesdays With Beth

“We live just around the corner from you; you should stop by with the girls sometime.” 

It can be difficult to remember how our most important relationships begin since we don’t realize that something momentous is starting at the time, but the woman with the halo of white hair, kind eyes, and sweet smile said something like that to me back in 2011, as the congregation of Memorial Baptist Church mingled one Sunday after service. 

I felt vaguely uncomfortable. We’d just moved to Vermont with our three young daughters after a decade spent in major urban areas. Although major urban areas are significantly more diverse than small-town Vermont, it was easier for us to surround ourselves with friends of similar ages and affinities when we lived in cities. To put it bluntly: No elderly woman had ever invited me to pop over with my baby and toddlers. This wasn’t in my playbook.

But this wasn’t just any elderly woman: This was Beth Wilkinson. She lived with Roy, her husband of over 60 years, in an old white house on Main Street in East Middlebury. 

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

The Year the Music Died…And How It Was Reborn

I used to love music.

I would play music in the house and in the car. I listened to music as I walked or ran the streets of New York City, Berkeley, and our neighborhood in Vermont – first on a portable CD player, then on various incarnations of the iPod. My life had a soundtrack.

I used to go to concerts. 

My relationship with my future husband began when we attended an Indigo Girls concert together. We went on to see Diana Krall perform twice, the Dave Matthews Band, Elvis Costello, the Black Crowes, U2, Bob Dylan, and numerous orchestral concerts and operas. 

I used to follow singers and bands and get excited when their newest albums were released. 

The last album that I was aware of – the album I downloaded and listened through as soon as it dropped — was Babel by the British folk rock band Mumford & Sons. It was released in 2012,  nearly a decade ago.

It will probably not surprise you to learn that 2012-2013 – the year the music died — was the year our family got a puppy and the year I gave birth to our fourth child. These two events catapulted our house into a new level of happy chaos that drowned out the music. 

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