Category Archives: Holidays

When You Feel Like Your Family is Killing You: Thoughts On Washing Feet (and a Little Bit of Politics)

Have you ever felt like your family was killing you?

I don’t mean killing with intent, of course; I’m talking about a slow and steady nibbling away at your emotional, physical, and spiritual health. The sense that your blood is flowing directly into their veins, and your breath is being sucked up by their lungs. The fear that it might really happen: You may not be able to take one more step, answer one more question, or get out of bed tomorrow morning. The joy-sucking realization that you’re giving and giving, they’re taking and taking, and the equation will probably never be balanced.

I have felt this way. My neck and shoulders become cement and I feel like I’m carrying three times my body weight — the combined total weight of my people. My people, who want me to answer “How long does it take to get to the Moon?”, slice them an apple for snack, listen to their latest piano piece, and admire their newest Lego creation — all at the same time. My people, who throw themselves down screaming in front of a whole schoolyard full of people when I won’t carry them to the car — because I’m already loaded down by three backpacks. And that was just yesterday.

The endless dishes, crusty countertops, overflowing baskets of laundry, popcorn and Cheerios crunching underfoot: These things seem to sit on my chest and crush my breath.

Many’s the time I’ve longed for a diagnosis — not a terribly bad one, of course, but one in which the doctor says, “I’m sorry, the only cure is for you to spend a week in bed, in total silence.”

The last time I felt sure my family would kill me was two days ago, in the pre-dawn hours between Maundy Thursday and Good Friday. Earlier in the day, when I wasn’t homeschooling two daughters, shuttling everyone else back and forth from activities, or hosting two little friends who were over to play, I was hustling to get five apple trees and two blueberry bushes — which had arrived the day before and needed to be planted within 48 hours — into the ground.

When I collapsed into bed that night, I was looking at about six hours of sleep before I had to wake up and do it all over again.

At about 12:30 AM, the screaming started.

One of our daughters was scared. So scared that she woke up two of her sisters, who had to be soothed down. So scared that she couldn’t sleep.

At 1:30 AM, after three trips up and down the stairs, doing all that I could to comfort and reassure (prayers, back rubs, silent meditation, etc.), I dragged my pillow and an extra quilt upstairs and made a “bed” by pulling two beanbags together.

My neck and shoulders had become cement, and I settled in for a long, sleepless night on the floor. My daughter continued to cry on and off, and I cried, too.

They are killing me, I thought. This is SO UNFAIR. 

It wasn’t until the next day that I realized the parallels between my night on the floor and this Easter holiday that we’re celebrating.

(I’m going to write a little bit about Jesus now. If you don’t celebrate Easter, or don’t believe in Jesus’s spiritual legacy, please don’t stop reading; This is a story to which I think anybody can relate.)

***

In the hours between Maundy Thursday and Good Friday, the Bible tells us, Jesus also spent a sleepless night. Jesus also cried. He was stretched out on the hard ground of the garden of Gesthemane. He’d just celebrated the Last Supper with his disciples, and he knew he’d been betrayed by Judas – one of that chosen family of disciples – to Jerusalem’s religious leaders. He knew that those leaders were coming at any moment to arrest him and lead him off to death.

The differences between Jesus and me are clear. Jesus never said, “This is SO UNFAIR!” He was distressed. He asked if God could take away what was coming. But, unlike me, Jesus didn’t whine.

Also, unlike me, Jesus actually was about to die.

***

After this realization hit me, I recalled the conversation I’d had with my daughters the night before.

We were reading about the Last Supper in the Gospel of John. We read about how, before Jesus celebrated the Passover meal with his disciples, he took off his robe, put on an apron, and washed their feet. Their filthy, smelly, walking-on-dirt-and-dung-strewn-1st century roads feet. He told them to be servants like him; to wash each other’s feet and love each other.

Next, Jesus predicted that one of the disciples would betray him. When asked who would do such a thing, Jesus dipped a piece of bread in wine and handed it to Judas Iscariot. Judas promptly left to collect on the 30 pieces of silver he’d get in exchange for Jesus’s life.

“Wait,” one of my daughters interrupted, “So, was Judas there for the foot washing part, too?”

In all my years of reading about the Last Supper, I’m embarrassed to say, this thought had never occurred to me.

“I guess he was,” I answered. “The Bible says Jesus was gathered with all his disciples. Judas was a disciple, so he must’ve been there the whole time.”

And it felt like a punch right to my gut: Jesus washed the filthy, smelly feet of the man he KNEW was going to cause his death.

***

As I staggered around, exhausted, that morning after my sleepless night, I thought about how Jesus, knowing he was actually going to die, washed the feet of his murderer and spent a sleepless night of agony without whining.

I am far from being Jesus, but maybe I could try to cultivate those same attitudes with respect to my family.

Maybe, just maybe, we could all try to cultivate those same attitudes with respect to each other.

***

It’s not just our families that cause us sleepless nights: Especially now, at this particular moment in history, it’s almost impossible to keep from worrying over the state of our nation and our world. Terrorism and genocide headline international news. Political parties — and their supporters — refuse to listen, talk, or work together. Emotions are high in my own little town over a controversial speaker who was recently invited to speak at Middlebury College.

These things can slowly nibble away at our emotional, physical, and spiritual health.

Everywhere you look, we are divided: nation against nation, race against race, gender against gender, party against party, humans against world. The list goes on, until all the “against’s” crack open and release a flood of vitriolic social media posts, strident position statements, nonsensical legislation, and anxiety-provoking newscasts.

I have been divided against myself as well. Shortly after the U. S. Presidential election, I read something online — I can’t remember who wrote it — the gist of which was: “Now, more than ever, we need writers to give voice to what’s going on.”

I’m a writer, I thought, so I guess I should write about what’s going on. Otherwise I might be complicit; I might become part of the problem.

I wrote a couple of posts about the state of our nation. People who agreed with me were complimentary, and those who didn’t agree either don’t read or stayed gracefully silent.

But I never felt quite right about these posts. So, for the past few months, I’ve stuck to my usual subject matter: Vermont, my children, birds and trees and weather, quaint happenings in our small town. All the while, I’ve felt terribly guilty that I wasn’t addressing Bigger Things.

As I thought about sleepless nights, Jesus, foot washing, and family, I realized the source of my angst: By adding my political opinions to the mix, I feared becoming part of the problem. By choosing sides publicly, I would be complicit in deepening the already deep divides between us. Because at the bottom, the problem isn’t Trump, or ISIS, or Charles Murray: The problem is that we are all picking our sides, digging in our heels, writing our posts and statements against each other.

This is not to say that we shouldn’t care about injustice, or that we shouldn’t speak or act against assaults to human rights. This is to say that we need to choose our issues and how we address them with care.

And it may be that the most important things we do to fight injustice are not done publicly, or on social media. Things like washing feet.

Jesus showed love to Judas, who was about to kill him, by washing his feet. I don’t want to cheapen this act with an overused word  like “love” or “grace;” but perhaps if we applied a little more of  “whatever it takes to wash the feet of your killer” to our lives, our politics, our world, we might see radical change.

“But, Faith,” you say, “Jesus did that, and he was killed anyway.”

Yes, he was. And — regardless of whether you subscribe to the resurrection or the religion that arose after his death — I think most would agree that the world was radically changed.

***

So, for now, I will continue to write about things that are true and beautiful: Vermont, my children, birds and trees and weather, quaint happenings in our small town. And I will continue trying to do “whatever it takes to wash the feet of your killer” when I feel like my family — both the family in my house and my family in the world — is killing me. Given the choice, I’d rather live out what I’m for, rather than write about what I’m against.

Happy Easter.

Surprised by Love

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The weekend getaway was a surprise Christmas present from my husband.

Throughout our 18-year relationship, my husband has excelled at surprises. While we were dating, he orchestrated a “traveling surprise birthday party” for me: As we walked through lower Manhattan, we kept “accidentally” bumping into friends who joined us for dinner, coffee, cake. It was only when everyone converged at a late-night bowling alley that I realized the staggering amount of coordination my husband-to-be had put into the evening, which was anything but accidental.

Our engagement was a similarly impressive covert operation. No picking out the wedding ring together for us: Instead, my husband (then boyfriend) capitalized on my cluelessness to lure me to a Connecticut jewelry store, where my ring finger was measured on behalf of his cousin in California, who apparently had to have a ring from this particular boutique. On the evening of our engagement, the friends with whom we were supposed to have dinner cancelled at the last minute due to “illness,” so we ended up having a romantic dinner alone before strolling around New York City to view the Christmas decorations. It was only when my husband dropped to one knee under the Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree and held out a (perfectly sized) ring, that I had any idea of what was happening.

I like surprises, which has served me well in this relationship.

Click here to continue reading the Valentine’s Day edition of my “Faith in Vermont” column in The Addison Independent. 

Teaching Our Children About History

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One afternoon earlier this month, my daughters and I gathered around our kitchen island for a snack. I began asking my eldest daughter about a book she was reading. After a few one-syllable responses, she was tired of my questioning. Looking me right in the eyes, she said:

“’Every man his own priest,’ Mommy.”

She was quoting the followers of Martin Luther (“The original, not King, Jr.,” as my daughters are fond of saying.) During the Protestant Reformation in 16th century Europe, Martin Luther started a movement that changed many of the practices of the Catholic Church and put the Christian faith more firmly in the hands of the people. “Every man his own priest,” was the rallying cry of those who advocated translating the Bible and making copies more widely available, so that people could read and interpret it for themselves.

In other words, my daughter was using a cheeky historical reference to tell me: “If you’re so interested in what I’m reading, read it yourself!”

One year ago I started homeschooling my two oldest daughters, who are now in 2nd and 3rd grades. As much as I’ve taught them over this year, they’ve taught me more. One of the most valuable lessons I’ve learned is just how much children love history.

Click here to continue reading this week’s latest “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. 

A Brief Meditation on Failing Christmas (Again!)

Every year, I make a concerted, intentional effort to keep Christmas low-key. I buy only four gifts per child (something you want, something you need, something to wear, something to read.) I try to keep our schedule reasonable and open. I attempt to keep expectations — my own and my family’s — low. I wrestle to emphasize the quiet, reflective practice of Advent, and de-emphasizse the unwrapping frenzy of Christmas morning. I would not touch an elf on a shelf with a ten-foot pole.

So, here we are on Christmas Eve. The boxes are checked: Tree and decorations up. Presents bought and wrapped. Advent candles lit and calendar doors opened. Goodies baked. Christmas cards with smiling photograph of family addressed and sent. My children will likely be dressed, with hair (mostly) brushed, when we attend tonight’s Christmas Eve service. There is even, as I write this, a perfect snow falling over the fields.

It would look to any outside observer like I’ve nailed another Christmas. But I know better: I’ve failed. Again.

I’m not referring to minor logistical slip-ups (I forgot stocking-stuffers for the grandparents, we didn’t make it to the train display before Christmas.) I’m not even referring to more noble goals (We could’ve done more for the needy in our community.) I’m referring to my heart.

Every year, I expect to reach Chrismas Eve filled with a sense of inner peace, of quiet joy, of spiritual renaissance. I expect to feel the way that every nativity scene Mary looks: Serene. Holy. Full of love.

Instead, I feel unsettled. Stressed. Frustrated with myself and others. Exhausted. All the Advent devotionals in the world can’t made me feel more holy. If you were to look inside, I would appear more Lady MacBeth than Mary.

One thing is different this year, though: This year, it hit me that it’s okay to approach Christmas feeling broken. Not only is it okay, it’s kind of the point of Christmas. Christmas is, after all, about a light shining in the darkness. And me? I’m part of that darkness.

It’s a good thing to try and downsize Christmas, to deemphasize consumption and packed schedules and all of the other perfect trappings that we expect from ourselves. But it’s important to recognize that we can’t, by ourselves, like up to the ideal of a peaceful, holy, “Silent Night” kind of Christmas, any more than we can expect piles of gifts and mounds of food to fill up our emptiness.

We are the darkness. And if we’re trying too hard to be the light, then we’re not letting the real light — the real point of Christmas — shine as brightly as He should. We’re the moon, not the sun. And the moon by itself is just a dark lump of rock.

Put another way: The baby Jesus was laid in the straw of a feeding trough in a dark cave-stable, and that was good enough for Him.

When I remind myself of this, then I can relax into my unsettled, imperfect Christmas. I hope that you can, too. Maybe this will be the year when we rejoice at having failed Christmas, again.

Lessons from a Lightsaber

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The cultural world of our daughters – our two oldest daughters, in particular – currently revolves around the Star Wars saga. They have watched four of the seven films created by George Lucas: a multi-generational epic of the Skywalker family’s adventures on the dark and light sides of the Force, “a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away.” They have read every book about Star Wars that they can get ahold of, including a biography of Lucas himself. They are so well versed in Star Wars trivia that they know the backstory of every minor character, can sketch out the Star Wars galaxy from memory, and measure time in terms of B.B.Y. (Before the Battle of Yavin) and A.B.Y. (After the Battle of Yavin.)

Last month, one of our daughters celebrated a birthday (Star Wars-themed, of course.) Her aunt and uncle gave her an online gift certificate for Amazon.com. It was hardly a surprise when she decided to use that gift to buy herself a lightsaber: the weapon of choice for both Jedi and Sith.

She spent a great deal of time perusing the lightsaber options. “I want to make sure that it’s not junky,” she explained. She counted the days until it was delivered to our doorstep. When the chosen lightsaber arrived, it was all that she had wanted: an extendable blade, complete with lights and sound effects.

Several minutes later, I was preparing to break down the lightsaber box for recycling when this same daughter approached me with a melancholy expression.

“What’s wrong?” I asked.

“I don’t know,” she sighed. “I guess the lightsaber’s just not as exciting as I expected.”

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

The More Things Change

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At the end of August, as has been our custom for the past three summers, our family spent a weekend at the Highland Lodge, on the shores of Caspian Lake in Greensboro, Vermont. Travel with four young children is never easy, so when we find a location that works, our tendency is to return to it again and again. We began an annual pre-school stay at the Highland Lodge shortly after the birth of our fourth child, and it has become one of our happy places.

Returning to the same vacation spot year after year provides the comfort of knowing what to expect. It provides a coherent chain of memories: Remember what we did here last year? And it provides an encouraging sense of perspective and progress: Every year the children are older, easier, more self-sufficient. Remember those things we were so worried about the last time we were here? Everything turned out okay!

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