Category Archives: Holidays

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.

Marching on Memorial Day

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“Can we march in the Memorial Day parade again this year?”

Out of nowhere, one of my daughters popped this question during breakfast on a morning in mid-April. Memorial Day was over a month away. We were all the way across the country from Vermont, on sabbatical in Berkeley, California. And I hadn’t even finished my first cup of coffee of the day.

Such is the place that Middlebury’s Memorial Day parade occupies in the hearts of my children.

At long last, Faith is back in Vermont! Click here to continuing reading about Memorial Day parades, freedom…and libraries, in this week’s “Faith in Vermont” column in the Addison Independent.