Category Archives: Thoughts on Life

Surprised by Love

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The weekend getaway was a surprise Christmas present from my husband.

Throughout our 18-year relationship, my husband has excelled at surprises. While we were dating, he orchestrated a “traveling surprise birthday party” for me: As we walked through lower Manhattan, we kept “accidentally” bumping into friends who joined us for dinner, coffee, cake. It was only when everyone converged at a late-night bowling alley that I realized the staggering amount of coordination my husband-to-be had put into the evening, which was anything but accidental.

Our engagement was a similarly impressive covert operation. No picking out the wedding ring together for us: Instead, my husband (then boyfriend) capitalized on my cluelessness to lure me to a Connecticut jewelry store, where my ring finger was measured on behalf of his cousin in California, who apparently had to have a ring from this particular boutique. On the evening of our engagement, the friends with whom we were supposed to have dinner cancelled at the last minute due to “illness,” so we ended up having a romantic dinner alone before strolling around New York City to view the Christmas decorations. It was only when my husband dropped to one knee under the Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree and held out a (perfectly sized) ring, that I had any idea of what was happening.

I like surprises, which has served me well in this relationship.

Click here to continue reading the Valentine’s Day edition of my “Faith in Vermont” column in The Addison Independent. 

The Cow on the Wall

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The cow was hanging on the wall, opposite the checkout counter at the Sweet Charity resale shop in Vergennes, and I fell in love with it immediately.

That I was in Sweet Charity, without children, on a Saturday afternoon, was due to a series of anomalous events. My husband was in Chicago for work, so a generous friend had taken pity on me and invited all four of my children over to her house to play for a couple of hours.

Faced with two precious hours of free time after two days of single parenting, I did what any woman would do: I went shopping for home furnishings with my mother, of course.

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

Three (Very Humble) Suggestions for Behaving Ourselves

My mistake was logging on to Facebook.

It was a bit of a rough weekend, wasn’t it? This weekend that began with Donald Trump’s inauguration as the 45th President of the United States on Friday, continued through the Women’s Marches around the world on Saturday, and whimpered to a close on Sunday. And from what I observed, it was rough regardless of whom you voted for in the November election.

I am not a Trump supporter, for reasons that transcend ideological differences (outlined here), so on Friday I was filled with a deep sadness. But by Saturday afternoon, when I logged on to Facebook and saw so many loving, empowered dispatches from friends and family who were participating peacefully in Women’s Marches across multiples states, I felt hopeful, maybe even a little joyful.

Then, the comments started up on social media. The comments came from liberal and conservative alike; those opposed to Trump, and those in favor. For a good 24 hours, Facebook was filled with discord and critique. The hundreds of thousands who took part in Women’s Marches might have been peaceful, but the couple hundred protestors who damaged property and scuffled with police in Washington, D.C. the day before were “animals.” Or maybe the Women’s Marches were too peaceful, because they were mostly attended by white women who are seldom targeted by police. While the Trump administration quibbled with the media over attendance estimates for the inauguration, my fellow citizens nitpicked the numbers on social media. Also: Some of the signs at the Women’s Marches were vulgar (mostly because they quoted our new President, but still, keep it classy ladies!) Even children weren’t immune: I saw statements ridiculing the youngest Trump child, statements raking the ridiculers over the coals (“monsters”), and all “liberals” branded incompetent parents based on one child who apparently set a fire on the sidewalk outside of a Trump hotel. All this between people who label themselves “friends.”

And a confession: Even I wasn’t immune. Although it’s long been my policy to refrain from making any political comments on Facebook, I broke with myself and responded to a relative who’d been spewing a steady stream of social media vitriol. While I don’t regret my comments, which I attempted to keep respectful, logical, and brief, I still felt icky after the fact: I had fed the beast.

Sunday night, I lay shaking in bed. My body had been in fight-or-flight mode, cortisol pumping through my system for the entire day. My heart and head both ached and my breathing was shallow; I felt like dark clouds were gathering over our little house. Trump’s election had shaken my faith in our country and our government; the past 24 hours of Facebook comments had shaken my faith in humanity.

So here are three small suggestions that I am making to myself for how to behave well in a politically charged climate. I write them here to keep myself honest; if they help anybody else out there, so much the better.

In the coming days, I plan to breathe deeply and:

1. Avoid passing judgement on other humans.

On inauguration morning, I woke up early to read my Bible, and my passage for the day began with Romans 2:1 (here in The Message translation): “Those people are on a dark spiral downward. But if you think that leaves you on the high ground where you can point your finger at others, think again. Every time you criticize someone, you condemn yourself. It takes one to know one. Judgmental criticism of others is a well-known way of escaping detection in your own crimes and misdemeanors. But God isn’t so easily diverted. He sees right through all such smoke screens and holds you to what you’ve done.”

Uh, okay God.

Let me be absolutely clear: The verse does not mean that we should all become doormats or moral relativists. It is not saying that there’s no such thing as right or wrong. It’s not even saying that we shouldn’t speak out against injustice, corruption, oppression, or other immoral or hateful acts.

It’s just saying that we have no right to condemn other people. We are not in the judgment seat for humanity. It is not for us to assign people to heaven or hell. Because, frankly, turn the spotlight around and we are all a mess (And boy, was that apparent on Facebook this weekend, myself most absolutely included.)

This may be related to my personal religious beliefs, but I think it’s also just good human practice: The more we get wrapped up in critiquing the deeds of others, we ourselves become hardened little nuggets of bitterness and anger.

The lovely flip side of this is that there is no person who is not redeemable. No matter what foul things a person has said or done in their lifetime, as long as they are still breathing there is the opportunity for them to change for the better. In other words: We are all deserving of grace.

This was beautifully illustrated by my child’s preschool teacher on Monday morning. During circle time, she showed the 3- and 4-year-olds the preschool’s handmade “Book of Peacemakers,” which included Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., John Lewis, Bernie Sanders (this is Vermont!), and all of the preschoolers themselves.

“Donald Trump’s not in that book!” commented one little boy.

“No, he’s not,” said the teacher calmly, without missing a beat. “He’s not, because he just became President and we don’t know how he’ll be a peacemaker yet. But when you see him doing some peacemaking, you let me know and we’ll add him to the book.”

As difficult as it may be for me to swallow the fact that he will be the leader of my children’s country for the next four years, Donald Trump is my fellow human. No matter how deeply I abhor his words or actions, he is redeemable and worthy of grace. It is not up to me to condemn him.

Also: No human being should ever be referred to as an “animal” or “monster.”

Finally: Leave the children alone.

2. Take a long, honest look at what our country actually is and has been.

Many of the emotional comments on social media this weekend could have benefited from a remedial civics lesson.

For instance, I am no fan of vulgarity. Not in my home, not outside my home, and not as a means of making a point. But our country has a very special governing document called the Constitution, and according to this Constitution, we all have the right to free speech. We have the right to put whatever words we want on a sign and march with it as a means of protest. Our right to expound upon our personal religious and political views is a massive freedom that is not available to many throughout the world; whether or not we happen to approve of someone else’s choice of words seems a rather minor concern. (I do, however, draw the line at someone running for public office who brags about having acted on his offensive words.)

I am also no fan of violent protests or property damage; I’ll pick Gandhi or Martin Luther King, Jr.’s peaceful protests every time. But the curious thing about our country is that it was actually birthed out of violent protests and property damage. The early colonists rioted and burned paper products that were being taxed under the British Stamp Act in bonfires in the middle of the street. They dumped tons of tea into Boston Harbor, which probably would’ve gotten some scathing comments if the Brits had Facebook back then. They targeted Tory sympathizers and rode them on rails through town. And then they fought a war, featuring actual weapons and death. (I bet they used some choice language, too.)

We gloss over these facts, although they’re in every American history book; we teach them to our children like they’re quaint historical points of pride. We Americans just wouldn’t stand for the tyranny! And then we call people who use similar forms fo protest today “animals.”

I am not advocating violence; I am simply reminding us that there have been times in our country’s past when we felt that violence and property destruction were legitimate ways to be heard. If people are protesting similarly today, perhaps we need to listen more closely.

Finally, a wise friend reminded me yesterday afternoon that the very things that make the character of Donald Trump so repugnant to many — his greed, his unfettered speech, his objectification of women, his self-aggrandizement — are, in fact, the very things that American culture has come to represent. As a country in general, we consume like gluttons, we worship sex and beauty, we post unfettered comments on social media, we think only about our own comfort. Perhaps, my friend suggested, we have elected exactly the President we deserve. Perhaps Donald Trump is our mirror, our Picture of Dorian Gray.

3. Take a rest from social media.

When I go fiery, my husband goes calm. So, after my weekend in the social media maelstrom, he kindly reminded me that Facebook is a company, interested in making money. In order to do this, the Facebook folks want people to stay on Facebook as much as possible. In order to do this, they’ve developed a clever little system of likes an dislikes.

Here’s how it works: We post a little nugget of our identity on Facebook. People like it! So we feel great, and we keep coming back for more. Or people don’t like it. So we feel angry and inflamed, and we keep coming back for more. We’re like those rats in neuroscience experiments who keep pushing buttons for food until they die — except that instead of buttons, we post comments.

Facebook is great for posting photos, personal updates, and for sharing information. Got a good recipe or a thought-provoking article? I’d love to see it!

But Facebook is a terrible place to air political opinions. Our “friendships” on Facebook are pale substitutes for actual, in-person relationships. The Facebook “community” is an anemic substitute for real community. Engaging in heated political debate in this forum changes nobody’s mind, and it only encourages more emotion and division. True understanding and change happen best when we sit with people in the flesh and look them in the eyes; when we listen to each other, not when we post comments at each other.

I put a 30-minute-per-day limit on my Facebook access after this weekend, and I may go further. It felt like social media was draining my time and energy, which are needed for far better things these days.

The Revolution will not happen on Facebook.

 

 

 

Teaching Our Children About History

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One afternoon earlier this month, my daughters and I gathered around our kitchen island for a snack. I began asking my eldest daughter about a book she was reading. After a few one-syllable responses, she was tired of my questioning. Looking me right in the eyes, she said:

“’Every man his own priest,’ Mommy.”

She was quoting the followers of Martin Luther (“The original, not King, Jr.,” as my daughters are fond of saying.) During the Protestant Reformation in 16th century Europe, Martin Luther started a movement that changed many of the practices of the Catholic Church and put the Christian faith more firmly in the hands of the people. “Every man his own priest,” was the rallying cry of those who advocated translating the Bible and making copies more widely available, so that people could read and interpret it for themselves.

In other words, my daughter was using a cheeky historical reference to tell me: “If you’re so interested in what I’m reading, read it yourself!”

One year ago I started homeschooling my two oldest daughters, who are now in 2nd and 3rd grades. As much as I’ve taught them over this year, they’ve taught me more. One of the most valuable lessons I’ve learned is just how much children love history.

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

The Stars At Night

by Campbell Gong

Drawing by Campbell Gong

The other night, I took the dog for a walk down our driveway.

The job of walking our dog after dinner usually falls to my husband; on these frigid winter nights, he dons hat and gloves, ski goggles and earmuffs, snow pants and winter parka, before disappearing into the snowy, blow-y dark. “Hope you make it to base camp!” I’ve been known to holler (unhelpfully) into the mudroom after him, while our daughters collapse in a pile of giggles.

Those daughters are the primary reason why my husband is the designated evening dog-walker: I’m usually occupied by dinner dishes, bedtime stories, and tuck-ins.

But on this particular night, a few days before Christmas, I needed the fresh air and the quiet. My vision was getting fuzzy from all the gift-wrapping, baking, and holiday logistics. Besides, I had a few last-minute Christmas cards to put in the mailbox.

So, after donning my warmest gear (minus the ski goggles and earmuffs), I set out down the driveway with Gracie, our clinically anxious labradoodle.

Let me set the scene, for those who have a more suburban vision of the word “driveway:” Our driveway is a ¼ mile-long, dirt-and-gravel road. We share its initial length with a neighboring house; about halfway down, the driveway branches in two, with one section leading left towards our neighbors’ house, and the other section winding to its conclusion at our front door. The driveway is unlit, as is the main road where it ends. At night, the only light comes from the single bulb outside our front door, and a handful of lights from neighboring houses – the neighbors with whom we share our driveway, the farm beyond the trees, and one or two homes across the main road.

All this to say: At night, the walk down our driveway is dark – very dark. The journey may take upwards of ten minutes round-trip, because ice and snow on the gravel drive make it necessary to step carefully. Ten minutes in single-digit temperatures can feel like a long time.

The night I walked our dog was cold and dark. It was also a clear night, so when I looked up about halfway through my walk, I gasped aloud.

We don’t see the stars much these days, do we?

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

A Brief Meditation on Failing Christmas (Again!)

Every year, I make a concerted, intentional effort to keep Christmas low-key. I buy only four gifts per child (something you want, something you need, something to wear, something to read.) I try to keep our schedule reasonable and open. I attempt to keep expectations — my own and my family’s — low. I wrestle to emphasize the quiet, reflective practice of Advent, and de-emphasizse the unwrapping frenzy of Christmas morning. I would not touch an elf on a shelf with a ten-foot pole.

So, here we are on Christmas Eve. The boxes are checked: Tree and decorations up. Presents bought and wrapped. Advent candles lit and calendar doors opened. Goodies baked. Christmas cards with smiling photograph of family addressed and sent. My children will likely be dressed, with hair (mostly) brushed, when we attend tonight’s Christmas Eve service. There is even, as I write this, a perfect snow falling over the fields.

It would look to any outside observer like I’ve nailed another Christmas. But I know better: I’ve failed. Again.

I’m not referring to minor logistical slip-ups (I forgot stocking-stuffers for the grandparents, we didn’t make it to the train display before Christmas.) I’m not even referring to more noble goals (We could’ve done more for the needy in our community.) I’m referring to my heart.

Every year, I expect to reach Chrismas Eve filled with a sense of inner peace, of quiet joy, of spiritual renaissance. I expect to feel the way that every nativity scene Mary looks: Serene. Holy. Full of love.

Instead, I feel unsettled. Stressed. Frustrated with myself and others. Exhausted. All the Advent devotionals in the world can’t made me feel more holy. If you were to look inside, I would appear more Lady MacBeth than Mary.

One thing is different this year, though: This year, it hit me that it’s okay to approach Christmas feeling broken. Not only is it okay, it’s kind of the point of Christmas. Christmas is, after all, about a light shining in the darkness. And me? I’m part of that darkness.

It’s a good thing to try and downsize Christmas, to deemphasize consumption and packed schedules and all of the other perfect trappings that we expect from ourselves. But it’s important to recognize that we can’t, by ourselves, like up to the ideal of a peaceful, holy, “Silent Night” kind of Christmas, any more than we can expect piles of gifts and mounds of food to fill up our emptiness.

We are the darkness. And if we’re trying too hard to be the light, then we’re not letting the real light — the real point of Christmas — shine as brightly as He should. We’re the moon, not the sun. And the moon by itself is just a dark lump of rock.

Put another way: The baby Jesus was laid in the straw of a feeding trough in a dark cave-stable, and that was good enough for Him.

When I remind myself of this, then I can relax into my unsettled, imperfect Christmas. I hope that you can, too. Maybe this will be the year when we rejoice at having failed Christmas, again.

A Thank-You to Snow (with correct link!)

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Sorry — this post went out to many of you prematurely yesterday, without an active link. Here it is, with a link to the full article. 

For the past several months, I’ve sensed a heaviness in my writing, an unbroken seriousness that leaves me with the uncomfortable feeling that it’s time to crack a joke.

My recent columns have reflected what I believe to be the prevailing mood of late. The news, both national and international, has been mostly bad – at least for those who did not vote for Donald Trump at home, or who are distressed by humanitarian disasters abroad. Closer to home, family members have been ill, friends have lost parents, appliances have needed repair, and the pace of life has afforded little time for rest or reflection.

The time will come when this column will again regale you with lighthearted stories about how our daughter introduced herself to a stranger by saying “Prepare to meet your doom!” (“I said it in a welcoming way!” she protested later.) Or about how our dog escaped and ran over to the neighbors’ Christmas tree farm to harass their horses – at the exact moment a charter bus full of camera-toting tourists pulled into their driveway. Or about how the very loud smoke detectors that my super-safe husband placed all over our house, keep malfunctioning at late hours.

But this will not be that column; today I’m going to write about snow.

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