my 2020 LITERARY Favorites

2020 was a LOT of things, but for me it was (among other things) a year of READING.

I always read more during years when we have a new baby in the house, as we did this year. I find that frequent feedings — particularly those that happen in the wee hours — lend themselves to reading. The drastic narrowing of our lives due the COVID-19 pandemic didn’t hurt, either. I read for at least an hour each day of 2020, and usually had both a nonfiction and a fiction book going simultaneously.

Inspired by friends, I kept a list of the 43 books I read this year. Almost none of them were recent releases; the theme of my 2020 reading seems to be that I either re-read books from my past, or read classics that I’d always wanted to read but never gotten around to. It is not the most edgy or diverse list of books and authors, but I feel fairly unapologetic about that: There was enough edginess going on in my real life. These books were the literary equivalent of a cup of something warm and a freshly baked treat. My 2020 reading gave me comfort and challenged me in gentle ways to think deeply about community, family, and love. Because reading was one of the highlights of my year, I decided to share some of my favorite books with you. (NOTE: I am including links on Amazon, though I would encourage you to buy these at your local bookstores or used bookstores.)

Favorite Classic

This is a tie between the two works that bookended my year, both of which I hope to re-read in the future:

Middlemarch by George Eliot

Middlemarch was tough going for me at first: I read and re-read the first few pages while struggling to keep my eyes open during midnight baby feedings. But I stuck with it and was richly rewarded. It is an epic story of the choices we make, and their consequences. When I read the powerful final lines (while in the hospital with the baby), I sighed audibly with satisfaction and sorrow: “But the effect of her being on those around her was incalculably diffusive: for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.” Yes.

David Copperfield by Charles Dickens

I am not a rabid Dickens fan: I found Oliver Twist to be overwrought, and when I read Great Expectations (perhaps too early) my life remained unchanged. But David Copperfield, the final book I read in 2020, was such a delightful and stirring journey through a life that I was genuinely sorry to reach the final, thousand-something page. I plan to read more Dickens in the future.

Favorite Fiction

Hannah Coulter by Wendell Berry

The sleeper hit of my year: A quiet book about an unremarkable life that becomes remarkable in its ordinary beauty.

Favorite Non-Fiction

Tightrope: Americans Reaching for Hope by Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn

This is part memoir of Kristof’s childhood in working-class Yamhill, Oregon, and part laser-eyed examination of why so many Americans are slipping through the cracks of our society into addiction, poverty, and chronic hopelessness. I found it to be a balanced and fair look that shed light on much of what is happening in the country right now. And, while it’s not pretty, Kristof and WuDunn write with hope and make practical suggestions.

Everything Happens for a Reason, and Other Lies I’ve Loved by Kate Bowler

A young wife, mother, and rising star at Duke Divinity School (as a historian specializing in megachurches and the “prosperity gospel”), Kate Bowler was living her best life. Then she was diagnosed with Stage 4 colon cancer at age 35. Her account of that experience is painful, funny, and unforgettable. Highly recommended for those going through difficult times, or those walking alongside the difficult times of others (which is everybody) — it will change how you approach life’s hardest moments.

Favorite Biography

A Light So Lovely: The Spiritual Legacy of Madeleine L’Engle by Sarah Arthur and Charlotte Jones Voiklis

I’m not sure I can give words to how beautifully written this book is, or how it turns the traditional biographic form inside out. A gift from a friend (Thanks, Deborah!) it inspired me to embark upon a mini “L’Engle splurge” over the summer, which was well worth it.

Favorite Book About Education/Parenting

The Call of the Wild + Free: Reclaiming Wonder in Your Child’s Education by Ainsley Arment

Every summer, I indulge in what I consider “professional development reading” before we begin a new homeschool year. I’ve read a LOT of great books about education, homeschooling, and parenting, so it’s getting harder to inspire me with anything new, but The Call of the Wild + Free did just that. It’s a physically beautiful book, with gorgeous photographs and drawings, and it’s full of facts, inspiration, and practical tips for giving your children the gift of a childhood.

Favorite Series

Again, a tie:

This year, I re-read the entire Harry Potter series, as well as the entire Anne of Green Gables series. Both were the perfect pandemic reads: Harry Potter for its magical-world escapism, struggle between good and evil, and the saving power of love; Anne of Green Gables for its humor, endearing portrayal of human foibles, and depiction of our capacity for resilience under the most trying circumstances.

Favorite “New” Author

This was the year that I “discovered” Elizabeth Goudge (although she’s been dead since 1984!) I had encountered Goudge previously when I read her children’s book, The Little White Horse, to my daughters a few years ago. They adored the book, but I was lukewarm: It felt a little too fantastical, and everything tied up too neatly at the end. This year, I began reading Goudge’s grown-up fiction, and her writing takes my breath away. I began with Green Dolphin Street, which is an epic, globe-spanning story about what love really means, even when you marry the wrong person (literally the WRONG PERSON, not just “Gee, I wish I hadn’t married him/her!”) I’m now nearly through The Scent of Water, in which Goudge somehow manages to embed very tough topics (mental illness, marital strife, disappointing children, death, and disability, among others) into a charming novel about an English country village. Nothing is tied up too neatly; her books make me marvel at both the beauty and pain that co-exist in life. Next up for me is Pilgrim’s Inn.

Favorite Children’s Books

We read together a LOT as a family; I can usually be found reading aloud to all of our children on school mornings, every night before bed, and at moments in between. Our wonderful children’s librarian, Ms. Tricia (HI TRICIA!) categorizes children’s literature as either “mirrors” (books that reflect your experience back to yourself) or “windows” (books through which you can get a taste of a different experience/person.) I’ve decided to list one of each type of book here.

Favorite “Mirror” Book: The Vanderbeekers Lost and Found by Karina Yan Glaser

This is the fourth and latest book in the Vanderbeeker series, and you should read them all. The books center around a bi-racial family with five children (mirror!) that lives in Harlem (okay, that’s a bit of a window for us.) The Vanderbeekers face real-world challenges but — sometimes through misguided efforts — manage to bring light and love to everyone around them.

Favorite “Window” Book: A Long Walk to Water by Linda Sue Park

I read this to the girls as part of our history unit on Africa, and it made a huge impact on all of us. Park interweaves the stories of two 11-year-olds from Sudan: Nya, who in 2011 spends most of her time fetching water for her family, and Salva, one of the “lost boys” who becomes a refugee when the civil war separates him from his family in 1985. Not light material, but Park presents the stories with beautiful sensitivity. It opened up some wonderful conversations in our family and even inspired my daughters to try carrying water up to our house from a nearby stream (hilariously hard!) An excellent companion read is the graphic novel, When Stars Are Scattered.

Nobody knows what 2021 will bring, but I do know that it will find me reading more books! I wish you all many wonderful books in the new year.

Wrestling With Monsters

340px-frontispiece_to_frankenstein_1831

This morning, I collected our family’s weekly order of library books at the pickup spot in Ilsley Public Library’s back garden (an event that inspires a level of excitement in my children just a notch below Christmas these days.) Included in our bag of books was my book group’s pick for the month: Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. So today, a cloudy grey day when the temperature has dipped into the 50s and it feels more like the last days of autumn than the first days of summer, I am thinking about monsters.

More accurately, I am thinking about evil. Monsters are the embodiment of evil; beings that give form to our fears.

The past few weeks have been dark ones for our country. It may be June across the nation, but it feels more like November, with heavy grey clouds swirling over our collective mood as we reckon with our evil history of slavery, racism, and injustice. As part of this process, Confederate war memorials have been singled out as objects that give form to our fears: Robert E. Lee is the monster to be toppled.

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

American Orphans

1600px-photograph_of_a_family_with_their_covered_wagon_during_the_great_western_migration2c_1866_-_nara_-_518267

Our children had some friends over this past weekend, and they decided to embark on an outdoor adventure. The negotiations, as I overheard them, went something like this:

“Let’s pretend we’re on the Oregon Trail!”

“YES!”

“And also, some of us could be runaway slaves.”

“Okay, that works; that was around the same time.”

“I’ll be the Quaker person helping the slaves escape.”

“And also, we’re orphans….”

If they hadn’t been so insistent on historical accuracy, I’m pretty sure they would’ve added a couple of Jews fleeing the Nazis for good measure – they’ve played that before. (Jewish orphans, of course.)

I’m not entirely sure why children love playing at being orphans in perilous situations, but I know the attraction extends far beyond my own children. In fact, I remember loving a good orphan make-believe session myself; for at least a year of my own childhood, my friends and I pretended to be inmates in Miss Hannigan’s orphanage from the musical Annie.

Part of the appeal must lie in the sense of independence and courage that comes from imagining facing dangers alone, without the safety net of parents. In this way, games of “orphans in trouble” actually prepare our children for the reality of the world beyond childhood. The world can be a big and scary place, after all, and regardless of whether our parents are still alive, most of us have the sense at one time or another that we are on our own.

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

Adventures in Back-to-School Shopping

size0

Our family went back to school the day after Labor Day. The Addison County schools began the week before Labor Day, but since we homeschool I figured: Why be crazy? (My daughters take a great deal of joy in their delayed start; every year they fantasize about appearing on the Mary Hogan School sidewalk on the first day of school in their pajamas, munching doughnuts and waving to their friends as they get off the bus. What prevents them from putting this plan into action is that they’re not even closeto awake at that time.)

One of my favorite things about homeschooling is that I feel like I’m learning (or re-learning) right along with my daughters. As I remind them constantly, you’re never too old to learn, to grow, to change. Which may be why, this past weekend, I did something I thought I’d never do: I took my daughters shopping at big chain stores in Williston and Burlington.

I still remember our family’s first trip to the stores in Williston. We’d just moved to Vermont, and we needed to pick up a lot of cheap, basic home furnishings. We loaded our three daughters, aged three months through three years, into the minivan, and drove north for an hour. At those ages, an hour drive passes in dog years; we kept the minions pacified by tossing fruit chews into the backseat at regular intervals, and braced ourselves for long stretches of baby wailing. When we’d lived in California, an hour drive took us to wine country; driving the same distance for a bunch of chain stores hardly seemed worth the hassle. “I will do anything possible to avoid this drive,” I recall thinking to myself.

For eight years, I did avoid it. But now we have a tween, and our tween “needs” to go to Old Navy.

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

School’s Out…Forever

IMG_0621

Last weekend, I had the opportunity to visit the District #5 School in East Washington, New Hampshire. This 1849 one-room schoolhouse is now maintained by the Washington Historical Society; it closed its doors in 1938, a year in which there was only one family with school-age children left in East Washington, but it holds a significant place in our family lore. The District #5 School is where my maternal grandmother, Helen Natalie Peasley, began her school career. She walked a mile to the school down Lovell Mountain, where she lived on the family farm run by her grandfather, who grazed his cattle on the mountain. She grew up to work for decades as a teacher, and she always enjoyed telling us about her early days walking to the schoolhouse.

Now, when I hear about the debate over school consolidation in Addison County, I picture the District #5 School sitting empty, its woodstove grown cold, its rows of seats and chalkboards on display for visitors like my daughters and me. Were my grandmother alive today, she would ride the bus 7.3 miles to Washington Elementary School.

Because I homeschool all of my children, people often say to me, “You must be so glad you don’t have to worry about that!” They say this about school-related issues like classroom discipline issues, consolidation, and school shootings.

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

A Room of One’s Own

6bfcddf2fce766b661011ed4ced4032b-open-window-window-view

Our family spends a lot of time at home.

My husband leaves for his office on weekdays, but since I homeschool our daughters, our house is the center of our daily activities. We eat most meals at home, given the expense and hassle of dining out with four young children. Caring for 31 animals (give or take) and a garden during the warmer months limits our ability to travel. All told, I’d estimate that I spend an average of 147 hours a week at home – out of a possible 168.

While I haven’t been able to find a definitive figure, a quick bit of internet research turned up the estimate that the average American spends roughly 45% of their time at home (including sleep), which would translate to 76 hours a week.

I often fail to notice the obvious in my life until it’s pointed out by others. For example, a fellow homeschooling mother with whom I was sharing tea happened to drop the statement that, “Homeschooling is a full-time job.” It was like a jolt of electricity had passed through me. “OH!” I thought. “THAT’S why I’m so busy!”

That same mother, in the same conversation, enlightened me further with the observation that it’s difficult for homeschooling families to have clean, orderly houses because the kids are always there.

“OH!” I thought. “THAT’S why there’s a constant trail of books and art supplies stretching from our entryway up to the girls’ rooms, and a massive cardboard box/transmogrifier/time machine in the middle of the kitchen.  And why any attempt to wipe, vacuum, or straighten away evidence of my four children seems futile, since they’ll just undo it the next minute.”

I’ve also started to wonder if the amount of time we spend at home has something to do with why my daughters keep asking for furniture.

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

“It’s January”

wyo_snow_at_sunset

My 11-year-old daughter, usually my most centered child, was seething. Her hands clenched and unclenched at her sides, her breathing sped up, and she was gnashing her teeth – actually gnashing her teeth. (I’d never really witnessed teeth-gnashing until I had children of my own.)

“I just feel like I haven’t learned anything today!” she spewed out, throwing her pencil to the floor.

We’d passed hour three of our homeschool morning. Thus far, she had watched a portion of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech before writing a short essay about her own dreams; she had read a chapter of the historical novel Johnny Tremain; she had completed a math lesson in which she learned why bees use hexagons to build their hives; she had spent 20 minutes working on her second semi-autobiographical novel; she had read and discussed a history chapter about the early Puritans, including a comparison of the various forms of government; and she had finished a page in her Latin workbook.

But she hadn’t learned anything.

If there’s one thing that parenting and homeschooling have taught me, especially as we enter the “tween” years, it’s that these outbursts are neither logical nor personal. In response to my daughter, I said, “I’m so sorry,” and went about my business.

I decided to follow up later, after she’d cooled down. That afternoon, when I was able to get her alone, I said, “So, that thing this morning about not learning anything? Was that just a blah morning, or was is something more long-term that we should discuss?”

She shrugged. “Just a blah morning. It’s January.”

I couldn’t have said it better myself.

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

American Girls

Little_Women_28191829_-_Ad_1

On the second day of 2019, because everyone else had returned to school but our homeschooling family was taking a full second week of vacation, because our eldest daughter complained that “we never go anywhere,” and because we needed a change of scenery, we packed the minivan for an overnight trip to the Boston suburbs. It was a hastily conceived voyage, designed loosely around the goals of:

  1. Providing some sort of enrichment for our children
  2. Spending time with extended family
  3. Getting our youngest daughter to quit begging us to visit an American Girl doll store

That we were able to accomplish all of those things in less than 36 hours and live to tell about it seems near-miraculous. And it turned out to be a journey through the landscape of the American girl.

Click here to continue reading this week’s “Faith in Vermont” column (the first of 2019!) in The Addison Independent. 

Just Two Pages a Day

fullsizeoutput_87f2

Last weekend, I did something I’ve never done before: Packed my family into the minivan and drove up to Burlington for a book-signing event. I would do this for very few authors, but I did it for Kate DiCamillo.

For those who don’t have children under age 18, Kate DiCamillo is a children’s book author known for an impressive array of beautifully written and moving works, from picture books to young adult fiction. I taught her novel, Because of Winn-Dixie, to my third grade class before I had children of my own. My own children have devoured her Bink and Gollie books (co-authored with Alison McGhee), The Tale of Despereaux, and – our family’s favorite – the Mercy Watsonseries, about a pig who lives with the Watson family on Deckawoo drive and will do anything for toast with a great deal of butter on it. (I consider one of the Mercy Watsonspin-off books, Where Are You Going, Baby Lincoln?, to be among the most perfect books ever written, period.)

Needless to say, when I learned that the Flying Pig Bookshop was hosting an event with Kate DiCamillo and New Yorker cartoonist and illustrator Harry Bliss to promote their latest collaboration, Good Rosie!, I deemed it a worthwhile way for our family to spend a Sunday afternoon.

Out of the entire afternoon, one moment stuck in my head:

When asked by a young girl in the audience how she handles writer’s block, Kate DiCamillo explained that she doesn’t getwriter’s block, because her working day involves sitting down to write two pages. Just two pages a day.If those don’t turn out well, she said, it’s not writer’s block, “it’s just a bad writing day.”

This moment stuck in my husband’s head as well; my long-suffering husband, who has spent a decade listening to me bemoan my lack of writing time.

“Two pages a day,” he said to me as we exited the event.

“Yup,” I said, smiling in an attempt to look brave. “That seems pretty manageable.”

Inside, I was thinking: HOW can I find the time to write two pages a day?!?

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

Why Not?

40023398641_6d023e0f57_b

Our telephone rang towards the end of dinner one night. My husband picked up the receiver; our neighbor was on the other end.

“Are you hearing noises in the morning?” he asked.

It was an odd question to ask a family with four energetically verbal daughters, 19 chickens (including two roosters), seven ducks a-quacking, and one dog who barks at the slightest provocation.

Are we hearing noises in the morning? When are we NOT hearing noises?

My first response, when my husband repeated our neighbor’s question to me, was guilt. Were our roosters — who crow not just at sun-up, but throughout the day — becoming a nuisance? Did this have to do with my daughter’s ninth birthday party the previous day, when we’d had six rambunctious youngsters telling silly stories and dancing to the music in their heads around our fire pit long past bedtime? Or to that very morning, when four of those rambunctious youngsters awoke in the tent where they’d camped out in our yard, demanding assistance at 6:30 AM?

The answer, it turned out, was none of the above. Our neighbor was simply inviting us to come over and see the white peacock that had settled in his yard.

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