The Family That Bikes Together

Our family’s pandemic coping strategies have failed to follow national – or even logical – trends. We were already living in Vermont, homeschooling, gardening, and keeping chickens when COVID-19 hit, so we had many of the boxes checked already. In fact, the pandemic prompted us to send several of our children back to school, because of the crushing social isolation of homeschooling during COVID. Sure, we did some mainstream things like buying a large inflatable pool for our yard, walking our driveway obsessively, online yoga videos, and binge-watching The Mandalorian, but I may have been the only person in the world who stopped baking sourdough in response to COVID: It took a pandemic to make me emancipate myself from my starter. 

One pandemic-related trend was dubbed: “The Great Bicycle Boom of 2020.” When it became clear that COVID-19 would be sticking around for a while, bicycle ridership and sales increased dramatically. For reasons of both recreation and safety – riding bikes was perceived as safer than riding public transportation – people scrambled for bicycles, leading to supply-chain shortages. 

On one of our mid-pandemic daily driveway walks, I floated the idea of upping our bicycle game to my husband. Our four daughters, who love riding their bikes, barreled past us, riding back and forth along the quarter-mile stretch. The issue was that neither my husband nor I had a bicycle — having had two stolen during our years living in the San Francisco Bay Area – nor did we have any way to transport our toddler. 

“Maybe we should look into getting ourselves some bikes and a trailer so we could all ride together somewhere other than the driveway,” I suggested.

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

Back to All That

In 1967, the author Joan Didion published an essay called “Goodbye to All That,” in which she attempted to unravel the factors that led from her falling in love with New York City to “the moment it ended” eight years later, when she and her husband moved to Los Angeles.

In 2006, inspired by Didion’s essay, I wrote my own reflection on loving and leaving New York City. Like Didion, I spent the majority of my 20s in Manhattan. Seven years later, I was preparing to move with my husband to Berkeley, California, so that he could attend graduate school. And I was surprised to feel a sense of relief – urgency, even – upon leaving the city about which I’d once written, “Finally, I am home. New York City is where I belong.” 

Reading my words alongside Joan Didion’s, it seems that we both reached the point at which New York City ceased to make us feel young and alive, and started to make us feel old and tired. For her, it was realizing that there was nobody new to meet; for me, it was the creeping gentrification that seemed to be erasing the city I’d moved to seven years before. Echoing Didion, I wrote, “[P]eople whom I might like to meet can no longer afford to live here.”

So I left, and I didn’t return for 16 years – not really. There was one weekend trip in 2008, when my husband and I brought our infant daughter to visit New York as part of an East Coast trip. We stayed with friends in Brooklyn, because by then almost everyone we’d known in Manhattan had moved to the outer boroughs. We found that navigating the city with a 6-month-old was an entirely different experience: less fun, more harrowing. When we visited those same Brooklyn friends in 2018, we set foot in Manhattan only to catch the ferry for Ellis Island. 

But it’s worth noting that about 20 years after she penned “Goodbye to All That,” Joan Didion moved back to New York City and remained there for the rest of her life. 

Last week, I returned to New York City, too.

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

The Show Must Go On

When I was in school, I was a theater kid. 

We called ourselves “Drama Queers,” which is probably no longer acceptable – but this was the 1990s. The label conveyed our pride in being different, quirky, set apart. In a suburban high school where most of our classmates spent afterschool hours zipping around the playing fields, we “DQs” sequestered ourselves in the windowless box of the theater and attempted to embody characters that were not ourselves. 

I’ll be honest: I was not a great thespian. I played a lot of “citizens” — background extras who responded to the main action. But I was better at theater than I was at sports — and I loved it. Pouring myself into somebody I wasn’t, dressing up, the camaraderie of making a story come alive onstage, the applause; theater involved all the teamwork and creativity of sports, without the need for physical coordination. (Although I did suffer a sports injury – a torn ACL – while “walking the plank” off the stage as Pirate Starkey in a production of Peter Pan).

By the end of high school my tenacity was rewarded with a smattering of lead roles, but in college I was back to “citizen” status. For my final production, I wasn’t onstage at all, but was asked to serve as stage manager. I did this job well; the organizational skills required came to me more naturally than acting. It was, in fact, a version of what I do now in my everyday life: making sure everyone is where they need to be and has what they need to have. But I wasn’t as passionate about stage managing as I was about acting, so I let the curtain fall on my theatrical aspirations. 

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

Tuesdays With Beth

“We live just around the corner from you; you should stop by with the girls sometime.” 

It can be difficult to remember how our most important relationships begin since we don’t realize that something momentous is starting at the time, but the woman with the halo of white hair, kind eyes, and sweet smile said something like that to me back in 2011, as the congregation of Memorial Baptist Church mingled one Sunday after service. 

I felt vaguely uncomfortable. We’d just moved to Vermont with our three young daughters after a decade spent in major urban areas. Although major urban areas are significantly more diverse than small-town Vermont, it was easier for us to surround ourselves with friends of similar ages and affinities when we lived in cities. To put it bluntly: No elderly woman had ever invited me to pop over with my baby and toddlers. This wasn’t in my playbook.

But this wasn’t just any elderly woman: This was Beth Wilkinson. She lived with Roy, her husband of over 60 years, in an old white house on Main Street in East Middlebury. 

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

The Year the Music Died…And How It Was Reborn

I used to love music.

I would play music in the house and in the car. I listened to music as I walked or ran the streets of New York City, Berkeley, and our neighborhood in Vermont – first on a portable CD player, then on various incarnations of the iPod. My life had a soundtrack.

I used to go to concerts. 

My relationship with my future husband began when we attended an Indigo Girls concert together. We went on to see Diana Krall perform twice, the Dave Matthews Band, Elvis Costello, the Black Crowes, U2, Bob Dylan, and numerous orchestral concerts and operas. 

I used to follow singers and bands and get excited when their newest albums were released. 

The last album that I was aware of – the album I downloaded and listened through as soon as it dropped — was Babel by the British folk rock band Mumford & Sons. It was released in 2012,  nearly a decade ago.

It will probably not surprise you to learn that 2012-2013 – the year the music died — was the year our family got a puppy and the year I gave birth to our fourth child. These two events catapulted our house into a new level of happy chaos that drowned out the music. 

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

Parenting Teens and Saving the Planet

One of the best parts of parenting my teenagers is discussing the world’s problems and how to solve them. 

I was about to write: “One of the best parts of parenting teenagers is how passionately they want to save the world,” but I’m not sure that’s quite accurate. Saving the world, in my experience, usually involves getting out of bed before noon on non-school days, and we’re not there yet. It also requires one to move beyond an attitude of “everything-is-terrible-and-thanks-sooooo-much-for-giving-us-this-messed-up-word-Mom-and-Dad.” We’re not there yet, either. 

But my two middle-school-aged children are becoming quite aware of the nature of the issues that they’ll inherit. At the moment they’re studying Earth Science, and they are particularly concerned with carbon emissions, deforestation, and climate change. 

Because they are a) teenagers, and b) Americans, their potential solutions to these problems mostly involve buying things. We should buy an electric car, for instance. My eldest daughter apparently needs to buy more clothes – of the sustainable, recycled material variety. Their biggest push has been for our family to begin using bamboo toilet paper in order to save the boreal forests. They directed us to a company called “Who Gives a Crap,” where we could purchase 48 rolls of bamboo toilet paper for $64 (plus tax). We have seven people living in our house; that amount of toilet paper would last us roughly two weeks. 

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

Are We All Home Alone?

This past holiday season, we introduced our youngest children to the film Home Alone. Released in 1990, Home Alone was the highest grossing live action comedy for 21 years and is generally considered a holiday classic. It tells the story of Kevin McCallister (Macaulay Culkin in his breakout role), an 8-year-old boy whose family accidentally leaves him – you guessed it – home alone when they travel to Paris for Christmas. Over the course of three days, Kevin navigates life on his own and outwits two bumbling burglars who have his house in their sights. 

It had been years since I’d watched Home Alone, but it seems to have aged well (aside from Mrs. McCallister’s enormous shoulder pads and the baffling – to my children – pay phone in the Paris airport). My household critics declared it “pretty good.” But I found the film fascinating: Thirty years after its release, Home Alone now feels like a prophetic clarion call about where our society was headed. And instead of listening, we laughed and called it must-watch holiday entertainment.

What surprised me about Home Alone was not that a family could accidentally leave a child behind. In the film, Kevin McCallister is the youngest of five children in a house full of visiting relatives; when a power outage causes everyone to oversleep their alarm clocks and a panicked pre-airport head count goes awry, Kevin is left slumbering in the attic. This was totally believable to me: In our house, it’s called “Tuesday.”

Instead, what shook me most about Home Alone is how, once Kevin is left home – after the initial euphoria wears off and he realizes he’s the target of burglars – he is so very, very alone.

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

The First Snow (A Sort of Thanksgiving)

My daughter started wishing for snow in October.

This was not an irrational desire: The first flakes of snow often begin falling sometime around Halloween. But this year, nature was not going to reward my girl with instant gratification. 

She and her sister made a “snow potion,” which they poured on our lawn while chanting incantations. She wrote poems about snow, prayed for snow at the dinner table. She broke a chunk of ice off a frozen puddle in one of our driveway’s potholes and stored it in our freezer as a sort of talisman. She wrote a list of things for which she was grateful and inserted “snow” between each item. 

Still, nothing happened. The leaves fell from the trees, ushering in our “stick season” of bare grey branches against a slate sky above dead brown fields. The days grew darker. Snowflakes appeared on the forecast, only to turn to rain. My daughter’s emotions ranged from abject despair to frustrated rage. 

We assured her that snow would come, as it does every winter. We reminded her of the video my husband filmed on the Snowbowl chairlift last March, in which she says, “I’m ready for it to stop snowing now!”

“I’m sorry! I didn’t mean it!” she howled heavenwards.

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

The Thanksgiving Paradox

Exactly one week before Thanksgiving this year my eldest child turned 14. 

Recalling the events surrounding her birth felt a little bit like walking the Stations of the Cross: Now is when the chest pain started, this is the time we went to the emergency room, here is where the doctors in labor and delivery explained about preeclampsia and HELLP syndrome, right about now they told us that the only way the baby and I would survive would be with an emergency c-section, this is when I held her for a moment before they whisked her off to the NICU.

As I ran through this timeline in my mind, I felt overwhelmed by gratitude. I gave silent thanks to God for the doctors who’d cared for us, for living in a time in place in which I had access to good health care, for all the tiny details — some of which I’m surely unaware of — that made the difference between life and death. 

The interesting thing about gratitude is that most, if not all, of our thanksgiving comes from a place in which there are two parallel stories: the one that happened, and the one that didn’t. 

My newborn daughter and I nearly died, but we didn’t. 

We had another brush with death in 2020 with our youngest child, who stopped breathing in response to a respiratory infection and was intubated in the PICU for a week. He nearly died, but he didn’t.

And just this past spring, a freak tornado missed our house by 50 yards. It could have hit us, but it didn’t. 

It needn’t be a matter of life and death: So many of the “everyday” things we’re grateful for — family, friends, shelter, food, employment, health — carry with them a shadow side, a sense of the possibility of life without these things.

I think the shadow side of our gratitude is vitally important; in fact, I think our deepest, most mature thanks comes when we hold on to and acknowledge the potential unhappy outcome even as we’re grateful for the happy one.

We tend not to do this. We want to push away all thoughts of the shadowy things that might have been. That’s natural: Those things are depressing, scary, negative. But when we do this, our thanksgiving becomes a more shallow affair. “Thank goodness I dodged that bullet,” we say, and move on. 

Perhaps the most important result of holding on to the shadow side of our thanks is that it keeps us from believing that good things have come to us because we deserve them, that we avoided disaster because of our own merits. I know full well that my children and I didn’t deserve to survive our brushes with death more than the countless mothers and children who don’t every day. That a tornado missed our house but destroyed our neighbors’ is not because of anything we did. And while we enjoy friends, family, shelter, food, employment, and health, the undeniable reality is that there are virtuous and deserving people around the world who lack these very things. 

I feel that it’s crucial to acknowledge this, because when I say “thanks,” I’m not calling out to an impersonal universe: I am thanking God. But the God I am thanking does not operate on a system of earned rewards, dispensing blessings to the good and punishment to the bad. In the words of the inimitable Anne Lamott, “God is not a short-order cook.” No: My understanding is that God is much bigger and more complex than that, with an eternal view of time and history that I do not have. 

Here is what I know: Death, loss, and tornadoes both real and metaphorical will come to us all. At times when the shadow side of life has become my reality, I have found it profoundly unhelpful to dwell on whether it was fair; what mattered most at those times was my sense that God was very much there. And that was cause for thanks even when the harvest brought in pain.

The settlers whom we call the Pilgrims understood this, I think. Last week, as part of our study of American history, my daughters and I took a virtual tour of Plimouth Plantation: A video in which actors interpreting actual Pilgrims and Native Americans were interviewed on site at the original Plimouth colony. 

During this tour, I learned that what we call the “First Thanksgiving” was really a harvest feast. By contrast, when there was something about which the Pilgrims were particularly thankful, a day of fasting and prayer would be decreed. 

In other words, the Pilgrims celebrated their gratitude not by consuming a massive meal, but by foregoing food. The people to whom we attribute our stuffed bellies every Thanksgiving actually gave thanks by allowing their stomachs to sit empty. 

This is so very different from how our culture celebrates now. It feels like a paradox: How can you possibly give thanks by going hungry? But it makes perfect sense if part of thanksgiving is remembering the shadow side: We give thanks for our plenty by recalling how it feels to be in want. 

One of my favorite poems of all time does this beautifully, so I share it with you as a wish for a deeply meaningful Thanksgiving, with equal parts shadow and light: 

THANKS

Listen
with the night falling we are saying thank you
we are stopping on the bridges to bow from the railings
we are running out of the glass rooms
with our mouths full of food to look at the sky
and say thank you
we are standing by the water thanking it
standing by the windows looking out
in our directions

back from a series of hospitals back from a mugging
after funerals we are saying thank you
after the news of the dead
whether or not we knew them we are saying thank you

over telephones we are saying thank you
in doorways and in the backs of cars and in elevators
remembering wars and the police at the door
and the beatings on stairs we are saying thank you
in the banks we are saying thank you
in the faces of the officials and the rich
and of all who will never change
we go on saying thank you thank you

with the animals dying around us
taking our feelings we are saying thank you
with the forests falling faster than the minutes
of our lives we are saying thank you
with the words going out like cells of a brain
with the cities growing over us
we are saying thank you faster and faster
with nobody listening we are saying thank you
thank you we are saying and waving
dark though it is

–W.S. Merwin, from The Rain in the Trees (Knopf, 1998) and Migration: New & Selected Poems (Copper Canyon Press, 2005). Copyright © 1988 by W. S. Merwin. 

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.