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.

Anxiety, Hand-Washing, and eye Contact: A Report From the Kids

The temperature hasn’t risen above freezing all day, but the sky is a brilliant blue traversed by wispy clouds and the sun is shining on the sparkling white snow. In our front yard, my four daughters are zipping around on their skates, playing broomball on the ice rink that my husband built to keep them outdoors and active during the winter months. After a disappointingly mild December, January finally brought the requisite three days of below-freezing temperatures necessary for skate-worthy ice, and my daughters’ joyful voices proclaim that it was worth the wait. 

They are young, happy, and carefree. 

Or are they?

Over the past week I’ve heard this question asked repeatedly: How will having lived through the COVID-19 pandemic affect this generation of young people? Surely it will have some impact on their outlook on life and their behavior, much in the way that the Great Depression, World War II, and the Vietnam War impacted the generations that lived through them. 

I’ve heard this question pondered by fellow parents, by elderly adults, and even from the (live-streamed) pulpit of my church. So, since I have a sample size of five children in my house, I decided to ask their opinion: How do they think they’ve been changed by COVID-19? 

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

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.

On Giving Up Coffee

I fell in love with coffee slowly. I wasn’t until midway through college, when a friend took it upon herself to introduce me to coffee in the form of a sugary sweet hazelnut latte, that I became interested in the beverage at all. I continued to guzzle hazelnut lattes (which I now consider “adulterated coffee”) at Starbucks franchises during my post-college years, working my way up to the “venti” size (which I believe is Italian for “the approximate volume of a bucket.”) Over time my coffee drinks included less sweetener and milk, so that when my family was living in California’s Bay Area – the epicenter of coffee snobbery – I was a coffee purist. 

For over a decade, I drank my coffee black, preferably from freshly ground beans. Although the caffeine kick was helpful as our household filled with young children, I drank coffee for love. Quality was more important to me than quantity: My habit was to drink two cups of coffee per day, one in the morning and one in the afternoon. I loved the taste of coffee, loved cradling the warm mug in my hands and inhaling its aroma, loved anticipating my second cup during those endless afternoons of early motherhood.

Which made it acutely painful when I had to give up coffee. 

Click here to continue reading the final “Faith in Vermont” of 2020 in The Addison Independent.

The Annunciation by way of Abbey Road

When I was young, I listened to The Beatles. I believe this began after Ms. Dutton, my long-haired, swishy-skirted, dulcimer-playing elementary school music teacher, taught my class to sing “Penny Lane.” (If memory serves, she also taught us “Eleanor Rigby,” which seems like a bizarre choice for a group of 10-year-olds but may explain why for years I couldn’t see anyone eating alone in a restaurant without bursting into tears. All the lonely people.)

In any event, when I told my parents that I liked this British pop group from their own youth, they encouraged my interest. We had a record player (which was retro even back then – we did have cassette tapes, and some CDs.) I spent my junior high and high school years sitting at our kitchen table doing my homework while The Complete Beatles or Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band spun on the turntable. In this I was an outlier among my peers, most of whom were listening to late 80s and early 90s pop music: Whitney Houston, Mariah Carey, Bryan Adams. I think I got the better end of the bargain. 

A Beatles song that never failed to inspire me was “Let It Be.” For an overly anxious teenager who believed perfection was the end goal, the song’s reassuring message seemed to be: Just relax; everything will be okay.

Over time, though, I soured a bit on “Let It Be.” The more life experiences I accumulated, the song’s message sounded less inspiring and closer to a potentially dangerous apathy. Even worse was that this seemed to be couched in quasi-religious terms: I assumed that “Mother Mary” was meant to be Mary, Mother of Jesus, crooning soothingly that, “There will be an answer…. Let it be.”

As I understand my Christian faith, we’re not supposed to fret about everyday issues like food and clothes (Matthew 6:34: “Do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself.”) We’re not supposed to be ruled by fear; “Do not be afraid” is one of the most repeated statements in the Bible. On the other hand, we’re definitely not encouraged to take a kicked-back, chilled-out, hands-off attitude to life’s problems. A short list of areas which we are not supposed to just “let be” includes: loving our neighbors, loving our enemies, raising children, caring for widows and orphans and immigrants, visiting prisoners, studying scripture, praying, trying to follow Jesus’s example. 

Speaking of Jesus, this Christmas holiday that we’re approaching celebrates how God put on human flesh (the literal meaning of “incarnate”) and entered our planet as a baby in order to begin a huge salvation plan that’s still ongoing. In three decades on Earth, Jesus taught crowds, healed the sick, fed the hungry, scolded the self-righteous, and even flipped some tables in the temple. The God I follow does not “let it be.”

So, although I often drink my tea and coffee from an oversized mug printed with “Let It Be” (an impulse buy from the T.J. Maxx checkout line years ago), I feel a little guilty about it. This mug, I think, does not adequately express my ideology. I’m tempted to add an asterisk with “some exceptions apply.”

But this year, I gained a new outlook on “Let It Be.”

This Advent season, I’m working my way through a new-to-me devotional: the excellent God With Us, edited by Greg Pennoyer and Gregory White. In his reflection for the first Thursday of Advent, Richard John Neuhaus writes: 

To be anxious is to be human. The question is what we do with our anxieties. The decision is between hanging on to them or handing them over. After listening to the angel, Mary handed over herself, including her anxieties. ‘Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.’ That is Mary’s great fiat – ‘Let it be.’ It is not fatalism, but faith. Fatalism is resigning ourselves to the inevitable; faith is entrusting ourselves to the One who is eternally trustworthy[.] (Bold print mine.)

I let out an audible gasp after reading that paragraph. In all the times I’d read Luke 1:38 – Mary’s response to the angel’s announcement that she’s going to become Jesus’s mother – somehow I had never noticed that she actually utters the words: “Let it be.”

But as Neuhaus points out, Mary’s “Let it be” is hardly passive. Like so much else in the Bible, it’s an almost paradoxical both/and statement: Mary is submissive, but it’s an active submission. She’s agreeing to become pregnant with, give birth to, and parent God’s son, none of which is passive (as any mother will tell you.) And, as an unwed mother in 1st century Palestine, Mary’s agreement includes the real possibility of death by stoning. When Mary says, “Let it be,” what she’s really saying is, “I’m not sure I understand this crazy, scary plan, but I’m all in: Use me.”

Suddenly, my view of The Beatles’ song — and my coffee mug – was transformed. 

“The Beatles are brilliant!” I thought (stating the obvious, but with new zeal.) “Amazing! They worked a Biblical reference into a pop song that everyone thinks is a call for Zenlike detachment but is really an anthem for active participation in plans that are bigger than us! From now on, I will drink from my mug with pride!”

I figured that I surely wasn’t the only one to discern the layers of meaning behind “Let It Be,” so I decided to confirm my theory with a little internet research. 

And it turned out that I was wrong.

In interview after interview, Paul McCartney, who wrote “Let It Be,” recounts the story behind the song: At a time when he was troubled by many things (and doing too many drugs), he had a dream in which his mother, who’d died when he was an adolescent – and whose name was Mary – stood before him and said, “Let it be.”

So, my deep theological insight was deflated shortly after its revelation. 

Except that Paul McCartney has also been quick to add that, although “Let It Be” was inspired by his dream about his mother, he wants people to feel free to interpret it however they want. That seems wise to me; the longer I’m alive, the more the world appears to be made of layers of meaning. Things are not always as they seem, or as they are intended. 

A pop song may have spiritual undertones that were never meant to be there.

That life event that seems like a terrifying mistake may really be one small part of a massively awesome plan. 

A pregnant teenager may turn out to be among the most brave and holy people in history.

A light shines in the darkness, and depending upon your Bible translation, the darkness either can’t understand it or can’t overcome it — which may mean the same thing after all. 

And a baby born in a barn may grow up to save the world.