The Grace of Decorative Gourds

I tried to resist the urge to write about gardening this year. In past years I’ve always produced at least one column focused on the agony and ecstasy of my horticultural ventures, but this year it dawned on me that talking about your gardening is a little bit like talking about your health: It’s personal, and – while people will nod politely – nobody really cares.

Still, here I am, writing about my garden, because something unusual happened this fall. 

My gardening trajectory is roughly the same from year to year. Sometime around March, full of optimism, I sit down with the seed catalogue to make a plan. I start some seeds indoors, in trays placed by my bedroom windows. Planting begins in late April and lasts through June. Tiny shoots and sprouts begin to appear – a miracle every time. I tend these new plants lovingly, with water and weeding.

Things start to fall apart every July, when we spend a week in Maine. Gardening, apparently, is incompatible with summer travel: The neglect of a single week sets my garden on a path to chaos. When I return, the weeds have asserted control for the rest of the summer. Some garden plants are flourishing, producing so much that I can never keep up and they go rotten or go to seed. Other plants have given up, and never live up to their early promise. 

Click here to continue reading about our surprise invasion of decorative gourds in this week’s “Faith in Vermont” column in The Addison Independent.

Lake Willoughby, Part 2: Sharing Stories with Tom

In my most recent column, I began writing about the weekend getaway my husband and I – and our 22-month-old son – took to Lake Willoughby in Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom. This is a continuation of that story.

The weather was unseasonably warm and humid when we arrived at Lake Willoughby, just as it had been for the past week (although I’m not sure what “seasonable” is anymore in this era of climate change). But when we awoke the next morning, we were greeted with a chilly rain that lasted, off-and-on, for the duration of our stay. 

We weren’t deterred. Whenever the rain paused, we set out on hikes or canoe rides around the lake. As fifth-time parents, we’ve learned the rhythm of hiking and canoeing with a 22-month-old: He’s a joyous participant for the first 15 minutes, he screams for the next 15 minutes, and then he falls asleep. So everyone was happy — except for the plumbing at our rental house. The plumbing was definitely not happy. 

Everything seemed fine when we arrived at the unassuming little house that had been converted into a rustic hunting lodge on the inside (complete with wood paneling, carved bear and moose figures, and plenty of antlers). It was clean and comfortable. But on our first night there, we noticed that whenever we turned on a faucet or flushed the toilet the pipes seemed to “burp.” The water would fizz and pop. We assumed that there was some air in the pipes and hoped it would pass.

By our second day at Lake Willoughby, the problem was getting worse. The water continued to fizz and pop, but the intervals when air issued from the pipes instead of water were becoming longer and more frequent. Then warm water started coming from the cold water tap. My husband went down to the basement and looked at the pump, and it didn’t look good. Concerned that we might lose water all together, we filled up some large pots in the kitchen. Then we sent a text message to the house’s owner. It was a Saturday evening, so our best hope was that perhaps a plumber could be called for the following day.

Minutes later, my husband’s phone buzzed. He looked at the text and said, “Some guy named Tom is coming over.”

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

Lake Willoughby, Part 1: Those People

Last week, thanks to the generosity of my mother- and father-in-law who were visiting us from California, my husband and I had a weekend getaway.

It’s not quite as romantic as it sounds: Our 22-month-old son came along, too. Still, it was the first time in over three years that my husband and I had been away from home – and our four daughters – together. We headed to Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom, one of our favorite idyllic escapes. (For out-of-state friends who visit Addison County to “get away from it all,” yes there are places even more sleepy and remote, and the Northeast Kingdom, nestled between the Connecticut River and the Canadian border, is one of them.)

Our destination this time was new to us: Lake Willoughby, a glacial lake carved out between Mount Pisgah and Mount Hor. At over 320 feet deep in places, Lake Willoughby Is the deepest lake entirely contained in Vermont. Known for its clarity, Willoughby was named the third best lake in New England by Yankee Magazine in 2010.

The 150-minute drive from our house to our weekend rental was a journey through Vermont’s unique blend of quiet and quirky beauty: rolling green horizon, turquoise blue sky, sparkling rivers that were equal parts water and rocks, alpine meadows dotted with grazing cows, roadside clumps of chicory, goldenrod, and Queen Anne’s Lace. The presence of humans was hinted at by widely spaced farmhouses, some in pristine condition and others in various states of disintegration. Doublewides often had an incongruous number of vehicles parked out front (“That’s either a large family gathering or a drug deal,” my husband quipped when I pointed out the third such case). Occasionally we’d pass through a town, always with a white clapboard General Store (“Groceries*Beer*Bait*Guns*Ammo*Ice Cream*Gifts”) and an auto body shop (“Moody’s Used Car’s and Part’s”).

Our rental house was a small, unassuming farmhouse a few minutes away from the north shore of Lake Willoughby in the town of Brownington (population 960). Inside, however, it had been decorated in “Hunting Lodge Kitsch”: wood paneled walls, exposed beams, carved bears and moose around every corner, and no light fixture without antlers. It was perfect. We checked in, changed into our swimsuits, and headed to Lake Willoughby’s tiny North Beach.

The view down the lake from North Beach was stunning: pristine water flanked by steep mountain cliffs. Perhaps because it has such steep shorelines, Lake Willoughby is much less developed than other lakes we’ve visited in Vermont, which may explain why there was plenty of space on the beach on a warm and sunny Friday afternoon in late August. 

But those people were there. 

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

Thoughts on Thriving

If you were reading this column back in 2020, you may remember that my “word for the year” – which I chose instead of making a New Year’s resolution – was “THRIVE.” 

When 2020 began, our baby boy had just been given the diagnosis of “failure to thrive.” This, combined with a mysterious respiratory virus, resulted in two hospital stays between December 2019 and January 2020, one of which involved the horrific experience of having our two-month-old intubated in the ICU. We needed to help him thrive; not only that, but our entire shaken family needed to figure out how to thrive together.

In retrospect, the word seems like an ironic choice: Two months later, COVID hit. 

In many ways our family did thrive in 2020, just not in the ways I might have predicted. Our little boy was the most obvious success: The months of lockdown kept him from getting sick while he gained weight and strength. He is now a hefty, active toddler. The rest of us worked hard to thrive as a family through the disappointment of cancelled plans and the monotony of housebound days. We tried to adopt behaviors that would keep ourselves and others safe during an unknown and rapidly changing pandemic situation, while still attempting to prioritize things that aided our mental, emotional, social, physical, and spiritual health. 

It was exhausting. And when the year ended, I looked around and realized that I had two adolescents in the house who were struggling to thrive.

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

A Commencement Address For 2020

For the past two years, our family has celebrated homeschool graduations. Both years we’ve had daughters who were moving up to middle school — but mostly we just wanted an excuse for a party. My daughters create a yearbook and video of the year’s highlights, we lay out a display of their school projects, we invite grandparents (virtually and in-person), and we serve refreshments. 

At our daughters’ request, my husband has delivered the commencement speech at both events. I get it: They have to listen to me, their primary teacher, for hours every day. Plus, my husband has the spiffy robe/hood/floppy hat that he wears to Middlebury College graduations, which lend a certain gravitas to our event. (I, too, have a robe and hood from earning my master’s degrees, but they’ve long since disappeared into our dress-up bin).Still, given the year that’s just passed, I have some thoughts. Were I to deliver a commencement address this year – to my own children, or to any young person – here is what I would say….

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

The Vaccine and Me

The National Guardsman standing by the front door of our town’s rec center had a copy of War and Peacetucked under his arm. 

He wouldn’t be able to read his book for some time, because the line of people waiting for temperature checks stretched into the parking lot. I was standing in that line on a sunny April morning, ready to receive my first dose of the Pfizer vaccination against COVID-19.

My fellow vaccine recipients were a diverse group: Judging by appearances, I stood in line with people of numerous races and occupations, ranging from teens to senior citizens. This may have been the most diversity I’ve seen in one place since moving to Vermont a decade ago. 

After the Tolstoy-reading National Guardsman checked my temperature, I was ushered inside the town gym, which was filled with orderly rows of chairs and tables where dozens of National Guard members ushered people through the vaccination process. Cheerful music blared as I checked in at the front desk, filled out my health history paperwork on a clipboard, got my first shot, sat for 15 minutes of observation, checked out, and received my appointment for the second vaccine dose. The entire process took less than 30 minutes. 

 “Are you scared?” my daughter had asked before I left for the appointment. 

My response was honed from years of parenting children who fear shots: “Well, I don’t think many people are usually excited about getting a shot, but I know I’m going to be OK, and I want to help get us one step closer to ending this pandemic.”

What I didn’t say was the phrase I’d been repeating to myself all morning: I’m doing this for my kids; I’m doing this for YOU.

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

Miracles

My daughter found the caterpillar during a hike in Wright Park on Labor Day 2020. 

We hadn’t seen this type of caterpillar before, its bands of green interspersed with black and gold dots. Thankfully we were with friends who knew: “It’s a swallowtail caterpillar.”

Could we bring it home to hatch? my children wanted to know. 

We could try. 

We installed the caterpillar in our butterfly house, where it coexisted with our final monarch butterfly chrysalis of the season. We researched what swallowtail caterpillars eat (plants in the carrot family) and picked it plenty of Queen Anne’s Lace leaves from our yard. We didn’t have to wait long: After a couple of days, the caterpillar had enclosed itself into a chrysalis hanging from the top rim of the butterfly house. Unlike the lovely green-and-gold chrysalis of the monarch butterfly, the swallowtail chrysalis looked more like a dead, rolled-up leaf. 

Having raised numerous monarch butterflies, we knew how to wait. We waited and waited. Our final monarch butterfly hatched and was released. Still, we waited for the swallowtail.

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

After the Tornado

Words I never expected to say: “After the tornado went through our front yard….”

Yet I heard myself say exactly that to my children on the evening of March 26, 2021. It sounded so ludicrous, so absolutely unbelievable, that I broke down in giggles.

“Uh, Mommy,” my daughter asked, “do you have post-traumatic stress?”

Maybe. Probably. I suppose some degree of trauma is inevitable in a year when I’m learning that no matter how ludicrous, how absolutely unbelievable something seems, it can still happen. “Is this actually happening?” I’ve wondered numerous times over the past year: when the COVID-19 pandemic began, when I saw news coverage of mobs storming the U.S. Capitol building, and when I watched a tornado pass by our house – in Vermont, in March. 

Vermont is not known for tornadoes, although they do happen: The state has averaged one tornado a year since 1950, which makes Vermont one of the ten states with the fewest tornadoes in the nation.  Only one other tornado in history has been recorded in Vermont in March, a month not known for thunderstorms or tornadoes.

The forecast on March 26 called for a chance of severe afternoon thunderstorms. It rained off-and-on all morning, but by lunchtime the sun was out. My daughters headed outside for their weekly (masked, distanced – we’re still in a pandemic) “nature group” playdate with two friends. Because of the forecast, I settled the six girls with painting and games in our backyard yurt, with instructions to stay in the yurt at the first sign of thunderstorms.

As I walked back to our house to put the baby down for his nap, the rain had started up again. When I reached the kitchen, the power clicked off. “That’s strange,” I thought. “It’s not all that bad outside; the storm must be much worse somewhere nearby.”

Then I looked out the window.

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

Reflections on A Decade

My third daughter turned ten on March 1. 

The momentousness of the occasion didn’t hit me at first. With birthdays, I’m usually just relieved to have them successfully behind us: Gifts purchased, wrapped, and opened. Cake baked, frosted, lit, and consumed. Birthday child feeling sufficiently loved and celebrated for another year. 

But after the last candle was extinguished, I did the math, and it seems that I now have three children with ages in the double digits. This leaves only two children in the single digits (and without pierced ears, ten being the age at which our family considers you responsible enough to handle earrings.) 

Maybe that doesn’t seem momentous to you. To me, it marks the shocking realization that the majority of my children are more than halfway to adulthood. 

My daughter’s birthday points to another milestone: If she is ten, then our family has now lived in Vermont for ten years. 

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

Crying At the Movies

We were snuggled up on the couch (or crammed in, depending on your perspective) for our family’s weekly Friday movie night. In the flickering light from the screen, I could see three pairs of worried eyes staring at me.

“Uh, Mommy,” whispered one of my daughters, “Are you okay?”

“I’m okay,” I sobbed. “This scene just gets me every time.”

We were watching the 2015 Pixar animated feature, Inside Out. The last time I’d seen this film was in a theater five years earlier, and I’d broken down in sobs during the exact same scene. 

Inside Out takes place largely inside the brain of an 11-year-old girl named Riley. Riley’s emotions go haywire during a time of major change in her life, and the film follows Joy and Sadness as they try to get Riley back on track. In the scene that always shreds me, the two emotions have met Riley’s old imaginary friend, “Mr. Bing Bong,” in her long-term memory. Joy and Bing Bong become trapped in the Memory Dump, where memories fade into oblivion. They attempt to ride a toy wagon out of the dump, but Bing Bong realizes that the two of them are too heavy. He helps Joy launch the wagon, and then he bails out in mid-air. Joy escapes, realizes he’s no longer with her, and looks back down into the Memory Dump. Bing Bong, as he vanishes, waves up at her and calls, “Take [Riley] to the moon for me, okay?”

Gah! 

It seems I will never be able to watch this scene without dissolving into tears. My children don’t understand (yet). I’m not sure I understand entirely, either: Why should I weep repeatedly over the disappearance of an animated pink cat-elephant-dolphin hybrid that only ever existed in a fictional child’s imagination? 

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