Holiday Hullabaloo Makes for Tired Mom

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We were just between the main course and dessert of our Thanksgiving meal, when my daughters asked when we could start decorating for Christmas.

Once I’d convinced them that it was not appropriate to begin ripping down the Thanksgiving gourds, turkeys, and autumn leaves and to retrieve the Christmas boxes from the basement immediately, they began happily making plans for the Advent season in between bites of apple pie.

“Oh, I can’t wait to make the Christmas cookies!” my ten-year-old exclaimed.

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

Dispatch from the West Coast

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I’m writing this at the dining room table of my brother- and sister-in-law’s home in Orange County, California, on the final day of a weeklong visit with family on the West Coast. From where I sit, I see the clear blue sky that hasn’t changed all week; the Southern California weather has been perfectly sunny, warm, and dry. I see the red tile roofs of neighboring houses in this suburban development, where nearly every day we’ve walked a few steps across the lawn to the neighborhood pool. I see a row of palm trees; despite having spent five years as a California resident myself, I never get over the palm trees.

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

Walking the Labyrinth

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Were you to ask me what our family has done this summer, my response would be, “Very little.”

This summer, my daughters decided they wanted to do nothing. With the exception of a handful of brief or sporadic local activities, they shook their heads at any sort of camp or sport. Many of their friends head to sleepaway camp for weeks on end; not one Gong daughter has even a passing interest in such a thing – and, as a former miserably homesick camper myself, I’m not inclined to push it.

Sure, there was the weeklong vacation in Maine. A couple of trips to the lake and the pool. A few outings to local museums. And that’s about the sum total.

Now, this isn’t my first rodeo: When it became clear that our summer calendar was going to have its fair share of blank spaces, I printed out a nifty little sheet for each daughter with the heading, “My Summer Goals.”

“Just think of three things you want to accomplish this summer, and write them down,” I instructed them. “That way, you won’t feel like you didn’t get anything done this summer.” This is parent code for: Good Lord, we’ve got to have at least a little bit of structure or we’re all going to KILL EACH OTHER!

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

Of Anniversaries and Trampolines

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The 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 lunar landing also happens to be the 17th anniversary of my marriage. Laying the two events side by side, I’m not sure which is the greater miracle: the amount of planning, coordination, brainpower, technology, and skill required to land a man on the moon, or the amount required to pull off our wedding (to say nothing of the ensuing marriage!).

The 17th anniversary is apparently the “furniture anniversary,” so it seems fitting that this week my husband installed a major piece of outdoor “furniture” that allows our family to defy gravity just like those Apollo 11 astronauts. That’s right: We got a trampoline.

Click here to continue reading this week’s “Faith in Vermont” column in The Addison Independent — now on the op/ed page!

Why Build Sandcastles?

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Ever since I was pregnant with our first child twelve years ago, with a few exceptions, our family has spent a week of every summer at the Maine coast. This summer was no exception. Our daughters consider Maine one of the fixed points of their year, and look forward to our summer week there all of the 51 other weeks.

This year brought some changes, as is inevitable with the passage of time and the aging of people. Some were bittersweet: Due to a combination of busy-ness and illness, my extended maternal relatives visited Maine for only a day instead of staying the entire week. But some were sweet: My growing daughters no longer wake at dawn demanding entertainment, being now content to sleep late and spend slow, quiet mornings reading, drawing, and talking. They can apply their own sunscreen and help lug beach paraphernalia. For the first time, we were able to enter the gift store in town that’s full of breakable items, where my daughters chuckled over the card that said, “Let’s get this party started (because I’d really like to be in bed by 11!)” – which they suggested getting for their father – and debated over which welcome mat would be most appropriate for our house: “Welcome to the Jungle,” “You’ve Made it This Far,” or “The Neighbors Have Better Stuff.”

But the beauty of our Maine week – and the reason I suspect it holds such a special place in our daughters’ hearts – is how few things change year to year. For the past six years, we’ve stayed in the same house, with a big climbing rock out front. Each visit entails several nonnegotiable activities: multiple visits to Perkins Cove Candies and the Corner Café, daily beach and rock climbing time, and an excursion to Dunne’s Ice Cream (formerly Brown’s) and Nubble Light, with dinner at Fox’s Lobster House (where their Nana spent a summer hostessing during high school.)

And when we go to the beach, the girls always build sandcastles with their grandfather – my father.

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

Underneath My Game Face: A Good Friday Reflection on Truth

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My five-year-old daughter awoke in the middle of the night calling for me. As I tucked her back into bed, she was in a sweetly groggy, half-asleep state.

“Mommy,” she said, looking up from her pillow, “who should I be in my dream?”

It was such a beautiful, strange question that it caught me off guard.

“Well,” I ventured, with the sense that my answer might be vitally important, “why don’t you be yourself?”

This seemed to satisfy her. “Okay,” she nodded, closing her eyes. “I’ll just be Abigail.”

As if it were that simple.

***

For my first two decades of life, I was adept at molding myself into whomever others wanted me to be. My goal was approval: I could walk into a room, sense the prevailing winds, and do or say whatever would make the majority happy.

It hit me in my early 20s: I had navigated college, graduate school, and my early career, but I wasn’t certain that I’d ever had a single original opinion. What did I really think about anything? I’d spent my entire life asking who I should be, instead of who I was. Had anybody told me to just be myself, I wouldn’t have known where to start.

At this point I was teaching third grade at a private girls’ school in New York City. I was 25 years old. (I look back now and marvel at how anybody ever trusted my 25-year-old self with a classroom full of eight-year-old girls, but we all survived.)

It was the year 2000. This year, a threshold to a new century, was also a threshold moment in my own life. It was the year that I started taking baby steps towards my self. I was a year post-recovery from an eating disorder. I’d been dating my future husband for a year, and had begun attending a church that would be pivotal in shaping my faith. I was beginning to accept that I needed to make the best choices for me, regardless of whether I’d make everyone else happy.

I remained a mess of insecurities, bitterness, and confusion – things I struggle with mightily even today, mind you – but the steering wheel was starting to turn that would alter the course of my life ever so gradually, like a gigantic cruise ship changing course.

In the fall of 2000, Nadia walked into my third grade classroom. She was a bright, energetic eight-year-old, so it was a shock when, in November, she was diagnosed with Ewing’s sarcoma in her jaw.

***

Nadia was the first person I’d known with cancer. I remember Nadia’s mother, Judi, who seemed so strong despite the obvious emotional pain she was suffering. I remember Nadia during the various stages of her treatment – chemotherapy, surgery to remove part of her jaw and replace it with part of her shin bone, and more chemo – who seemed so strong despite the obvious physical pain she was suffering. She missed a lot of school that year, and on a handful of occasions I visited her apartment after school to work with her one-on-one, so that she wouldn’t fall too far behind.

In my memories, Nadia’s cancer ended with the school year: She completed her treatment, the cancer was gone, and the prognosis was excellent.

Five years later, after I got married and quit teaching, I left New York. We moved across the country to Berkeley, California so that my husband could go to graduate school. Much like the photographs that we packed into boxes and have never re-opened, the seven-year chapter of my life that happened mostly between East 86thand East 96thStreets was boxed away in the attic of my mind.

But sometimes Nadia slipped out. Every once in a while – when I added another name to the list of people I know with cancer, for instance, or when I read my daughters Patricia Polacco’s powerful picture book about childhood cancer, The Lemonade Club– I’d wonder how Nadia was doing.

***

This February, while searching for something completely different on the internet, a book popped up: Motherhood Exaggerated, by Judith Hannan.

That’s Nadia’s mom! I thought. I’d forgotten that Judi Hannan was a writer. I clicked for more information. In 2012, she’d written an entire book about Nadia’s journey through cancer.

I ordered a copy of Motherhood Exaggerated, and for the week that it took me to read I could hardly concentrate on anything else. It is a gorgeous book. On one level, it’s about parenting a sick child and how the effects of a life-threatening illness continue long after the illness itself has retreated, but it’s also about the broader themes of life, love, suffering, and the struggle for hope.

I read Motherhood Exaggerated as someone who’d been there but hadn’t fully experienced all aspects of Nadia’s illness. I read between the lines, recalling the bits of my own story that intersected with Nadia and her family. The book resurrected places and people I’d packed away in my mental attic years ago.

Then, one night, I turned a page and found myself.

“Ms. Cinquegrana [my maiden name] is young. She exudes a quiet serenity, which is a soothing contrast to the bubbly smiles and cheerleading attitude of hospital personnel…. Ms. Cinquegrana is always unflustered by Nadia’s appearance or latest medical crises. On the three or four occasions that she has come to our home to work with Nadia in the past few months, I would sneak peeks of her sitting with Nadia on the floor. Their bodies are always learning toward one another; their quiet talk is punctuated occasionally by giggles. It is a vision I cherish; their time together is a true oasis for Nadia.”

Don’t we all sometimes wish we could know how others see us? This was my chance, and it was a flattering portrait. But after reading that paragraph about my 25-year-old self, my first reaction was: It’s a lie.

 I don’t mean that Judi Hannan wasn’t being honest. But what she saw, what she describes, was my “game face.” know that this quietly serene, unflustered young teacher was a seething cauldron of conflict under the surface. Reading Judi’s description of me only drove home the degree to which my inside hadn’t matched my outside.

Don’t get me wrong: If this was my game face, it was an appropriate one. I’m glad that I was able to be a true oasis for Nadia. This same game face would serve me well less than a year later, when the lower school headmistress pulled me out of class one morning to tell me: “A plane’s just crashed into the World Trade Center. We don’t know what’s going on, but it’s not good, and it’s probably going to affect some of our parents. Our job is to keep the girls calm and in school for as long as possible.”

I’m not suggesting that we wear all of our emotions like a wardrobe; restraint and self-control are often the best choice, particularly when dealing with children. I only wish that I’d actually felt the “quiet serenity” I was somehow able to exude; that it had been my personal state, rather than a professional mask.

***

If I could reach back through time to Ms. Cinquegrana, I would tell her that she still has some rocky years ahead on the journey towards selfhood. September 11, and her marriage ten months later, will shake the ground beneath her. She’ll lose her bearings on who she’s supposed to be. She’ll quit teaching and enroll in a graduate program for photography – an interlude that, 15 years later, she still can’t quite understand. Then she’ll close the door on New York, move to California, and start having children.

It will be those children, those four little girls born in six years, who will force her to take her self seriously – because when you have four pairs of eyes studying you for guidance on how to be a person, it’s impossible to conceal that your inside doesn’t match your outside.

***

One night in Vermont, when all my girls were in bed, I read this line in Jonathan Safran Foer’s novel Everything is Illuminated: “Try to live so that you can always tell the truth.”

And I thought: YES, THAT is who I would like to be, and teach my daughters to be.

I no longer wanted to put on a happy face…or a kind face, or a brave face. That’s exhausting. Instead, I wanted to actually become happy, kind, and brave.

***

I don’t think it was an accident that Motherhood Exaggerated popped up on my laptop screen at the start of Lent, sending me on a voyage into the past, opening the boxes in my mental attic and plumbing the depths of who I was, who I am.

Lent is a time to take stock of our insides. If someone sacrifices themselves to save your life, chances are that you will take stock; you will think hard about how to live the life that’s been given back to you.

That’s the story of Jesus and Easter.

Lent is a time when I ask myself, “Do I really believe this crazy thing?” And when the answer is YES, my next question is, “If this is the truth, is my life telling the truth? Does my inside match my outside?”

The answer is always NO, of course — for all of us, I suspect. But when I look back, I can see that every year the distance between YES and NO gets a little smaller. It is a slow, often painful process, learning how to be myself. I have become more patient with this; it takes a long time to turn a cruise ship around, and it’s not even my hands on the wheel.

Spring, Tweens, and Other Liminal Things

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Photo credit: Arianna Graham-Gurland

I‘m writing this on the day after Ash Wednesday – a day for which there is no official name in the liturgical calendar. Outside, the weather is doing what my New England relatives call “spitting snow,” meaning that small flakes are swirling down from the sky without amounting to much on the ground. The sky is the same dirty-white color as the patches of old snow; the same color as the white birch from which our bird feeder hangs with just a thin crust of suet remaining inside. There’s no point in refilling the feeder now; there are rumors of spring, which means that the bears will start stirring on Chipman Hill again.

“Last night, I dreamed it was spring!” one of my daughters announces at breakfast. “I could feel how warm it was!”

Spring will arrive. But for now, snow clouds obscure the Green Mountains, and there’s still great sledding on the north face of our back hill. We hover in this liminal space, the threshold between an ending and a beginning, the almost-but-not-yet.

I feel this liminality in the weather, in this Lenten season between Ash Wednesday and Easter, and in my eldest daughter.

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