Why Build Sandcastles?

sand_castle2c_cannon_beach

Ever since I was pregnant with our first child twelve years ago, with a few exceptions, our family has spent a week of every summer at the Maine coast. This summer was no exception. Our daughters consider Maine one of the fixed points of their year, and look forward to our summer week there all of the 51 other weeks.

This year brought some changes, as is inevitable with the passage of time and the aging of people. Some were bittersweet: Due to a combination of busy-ness and illness, my extended maternal relatives visited Maine for only a day instead of staying the entire week. But some were sweet: My growing daughters no longer wake at dawn demanding entertainment, being now content to sleep late and spend slow, quiet mornings reading, drawing, and talking. They can apply their own sunscreen and help lug beach paraphernalia. For the first time, we were able to enter the gift store in town that’s full of breakable items, where my daughters chuckled over the card that said, “Let’s get this party started (because I’d really like to be in bed by 11!)” – which they suggested getting for their father – and debated over which welcome mat would be most appropriate for our house: “Welcome to the Jungle,” “You’ve Made it This Far,” or “The Neighbors Have Better Stuff.”

But the beauty of our Maine week – and the reason I suspect it holds such a special place in our daughters’ hearts – is how few things change year to year. For the past six years, we’ve stayed in the same house, with a big climbing rock out front. Each visit entails several nonnegotiable activities: multiple visits to Perkins Cove Candies and the Corner Café, daily beach and rock climbing time, and an excursion to Dunne’s Ice Cream (formerly Brown’s) and Nubble Light, with dinner at Fox’s Lobster House (where their Nana spent a summer hostessing during high school.)

And when we go to the beach, the girls always build sandcastles with their grandfather – my father.

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

Inside the Blue Whale

blue_whale_clip_art_19546

This past week, as I’ve done for the past six years, I spent three straight days at Branbury Beach State Park, where I spent three hours each day teaching nature classes to children aged 5-11 as part of an annual summer camp run by our church.

On the second day of camp, my nature theme centered around blue whales, so I dug up a copy of one of our family’s favorite blue whale picture books (recommended years ago by my friend Amy, of Vermont Book Shop fame): Billy Twitters and his Blue Whale Problem, by Mac Barnett. The story centers around Billy Twitters, a boy who won’t do his chores, and who gets a whole new sense of responsibility when his parents buy him a blue whale to care for. In the end, Billy moves into his blue whale’s massive mouth, concluding: “Sometimes the only way to escape from the problems caused by your blue whale is to spend some time inside your blue whale.”

That line haunted me. After reading it aloud three times to my campers, I was certain that Mac Barnett was trying to tell me something profound, but it took me a while to pinpoint just what.

Billy Twitters moving inside his problematic blue whale reminds me of how our family has been dealing with death lately.

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

Spring Travels, Part 2: The Nation’s Capitol

IMG_20190519_202243.jpg

“We never go anywhere!

This refrain has been moaned repeatedly by certain children of mine over the past year. I have about as much sympathy for it as I do the other oft-whined complaint: “I’m bored!

They’ve heard the practical considerations: the expense and hassle of traveling with four young children, the 33 animals (last time I counted) that depend on us, the jobs and activities that constrain our schedule.

Sure, there are obvious benefits to travel for young children: It’s educational and world-expanding. The same could be said of books.

As I frequently remind my children, my own childhood trips were annual summer drives from Northern Virginia to New England to visit family, with occasional side trips. My first journeys to California and abroad didn’t happen until I was in college. And I felt none the worse for any of that; if anything, I got far more out of my travels in my 20s than I would have as a younger child.

My children have already been to California, the Caribbean, andCanada, so they’re miles ahead of where I was at their ages. But until this spring, they hadn’t explored the city of my childhood: Washington, D.C. So, when my parents announced plans to attend a memorial service in Washington, we decided to tag along.

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

Spring Travels, Part 1: The Ancestry Outing

IMG_0663

Like so many Americans, my children are made up of an improbable blend of stories from all over the world. They are the offspring of fortune-seekers who traveled back and forth between China and the West Coast for a century before settling in California in the mid-1900s, of Italians who arrived in the early 1900s to work in the shoe factories of Lawrence, Massachusetts, and of Scotch-English pilgrims who came in the 1600s seeking land and religious freedom.

It’s that last group – the colonial WASPs – who receive the least amount of attention in the ancestry narratives I tell my children. To begin with, those people came over so long ago, before the United States was even united; their stories have been swallowed by the mists of time, obscured by the constantly dividing branches of a family tree filled with Elizabeths and Johns. Not only that, but during this time when multiculturalism is being (quite rightly) celebrated, colonial Anglo-Saxon culture just seems a whole lot less interesting than Chinese or Italian heritage.

About a year ago, I realized that career opportunities and family affections had relocated both my parents and me to within a few hours of where our family’s American story started. Since my two oldest daughters are studying early American history this year, the timing seemed right to take an “ancestry outing.”  Which is why, in early May, I set out early one morning with my parents and four daughters on the 100-mile drive to Washington, New Hampshire, the location of nearly 200 years of Peasley family history.

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. 

From a Faculty Spouse to the Middlebury College Faculty, With Respect

midd_wiki_2

Despite the fact that my husband is employed by Middlebury College, our family has a fairly distant connection to campus life. The majority of our friends are not employed by the college; they’re our neighbors, members of our church, or people we’ve met through our daughters’ involvement in the homeschool community or other activities. That said, we do number some of my husband’s colleagues among our close friends. We have students over to dinner throughout the year. Our daughters have taken swim lessons from members of the Middlebury College Swim Team, and our eldest daughter is currently studying Latin with a student from the Classics Department.

All this to say: Every interaction our family has had personally with Middlebury College faculty, staff, or students has been positive.

Most of our friends are swamped with issues like how to survive the high cost of living in Vermont, how to keep their relationships healthy, or how to raise children and care for ailing parents. Just as Middlebury College is isolated geographically from the rest of the town, campus issues tend to be of little concern to most Middlebury residents, myself included.

Unless they’re really big issues. Which is what happened when my husband came home from work last week and said, “Well, there’s another brouhaha at the college.”

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

Underneath My Game Face: A Good Friday Reflection on Truth

venetian-mask-mask-venetian-d718a4-1024

My five-year-old daughter awoke in the middle of the night calling for me. As I tucked her back into bed, she was in a sweetly groggy, half-asleep state.

“Mommy,” she said, looking up from her pillow, “who should I be in my dream?”

It was such a beautiful, strange question that it caught me off guard.

“Well,” I ventured, with the sense that my answer might be vitally important, “why don’t you be yourself?”

This seemed to satisfy her. “Okay,” she nodded, closing her eyes. “I’ll just be Abigail.”

As if it were that simple.

***

For my first two decades of life, I was adept at molding myself into whomever others wanted me to be. My goal was approval: I could walk into a room, sense the prevailing winds, and do or say whatever would make the majority happy.

It hit me in my early 20s: I had navigated college, graduate school, and my early career, but I wasn’t certain that I’d ever had a single original opinion. What did I really think about anything? I’d spent my entire life asking who I should be, instead of who I was. Had anybody told me to just be myself, I wouldn’t have known where to start.

At this point I was teaching third grade at a private girls’ school in New York City. I was 25 years old. (I look back now and marvel at how anybody ever trusted my 25-year-old self with a classroom full of eight-year-old girls, but we all survived.)

It was the year 2000. This year, a threshold to a new century, was also a threshold moment in my own life. It was the year that I started taking baby steps towards my self. I was a year post-recovery from an eating disorder. I’d been dating my future husband for a year, and had begun attending a church that would be pivotal in shaping my faith. I was beginning to accept that I needed to make the best choices for me, regardless of whether I’d make everyone else happy.

I remained a mess of insecurities, bitterness, and confusion – things I struggle with mightily even today, mind you – but the steering wheel was starting to turn that would alter the course of my life ever so gradually, like a gigantic cruise ship changing course.

In the fall of 2000, Nadia walked into my third grade classroom. She was a bright, energetic eight-year-old, so it was a shock when, in November, she was diagnosed with Ewing’s sarcoma in her jaw.

***

Nadia was the first person I’d known with cancer. I remember Nadia’s mother, Judi, who seemed so strong despite the obvious emotional pain she was suffering. I remember Nadia during the various stages of her treatment – chemotherapy, surgery to remove part of her jaw and replace it with part of her shin bone, and more chemo – who seemed so strong despite the obvious physical pain she was suffering. She missed a lot of school that year, and on a handful of occasions I visited her apartment after school to work with her one-on-one, so that she wouldn’t fall too far behind.

In my memories, Nadia’s cancer ended with the school year: She completed her treatment, the cancer was gone, and the prognosis was excellent.

Five years later, after I got married and quit teaching, I left New York. We moved across the country to Berkeley, California so that my husband could go to graduate school. Much like the photographs that we packed into boxes and have never re-opened, the seven-year chapter of my life that happened mostly between East 86thand East 96thStreets was boxed away in the attic of my mind.

But sometimes Nadia slipped out. Every once in a while – when I added another name to the list of people I know with cancer, for instance, or when I read my daughters Patricia Polacco’s powerful picture book about childhood cancer, The Lemonade Club– I’d wonder how Nadia was doing.

***

This February, while searching for something completely different on the internet, a book popped up: Motherhood Exaggerated, by Judith Hannan.

That’s Nadia’s mom! I thought. I’d forgotten that Judi Hannan was a writer. I clicked for more information. In 2012, she’d written an entire book about Nadia’s journey through cancer.

I ordered a copy of Motherhood Exaggerated, and for the week that it took me to read I could hardly concentrate on anything else. It is a gorgeous book. On one level, it’s about parenting a sick child and how the effects of a life-threatening illness continue long after the illness itself has retreated, but it’s also about the broader themes of life, love, suffering, and the struggle for hope.

I read Motherhood Exaggerated as someone who’d been there but hadn’t fully experienced all aspects of Nadia’s illness. I read between the lines, recalling the bits of my own story that intersected with Nadia and her family. The book resurrected places and people I’d packed away in my mental attic years ago.

Then, one night, I turned a page and found myself.

“Ms. Cinquegrana [my maiden name] is young. She exudes a quiet serenity, which is a soothing contrast to the bubbly smiles and cheerleading attitude of hospital personnel…. Ms. Cinquegrana is always unflustered by Nadia’s appearance or latest medical crises. On the three or four occasions that she has come to our home to work with Nadia in the past few months, I would sneak peeks of her sitting with Nadia on the floor. Their bodies are always learning toward one another; their quiet talk is punctuated occasionally by giggles. It is a vision I cherish; their time together is a true oasis for Nadia.”

Don’t we all sometimes wish we could know how others see us? This was my chance, and it was a flattering portrait. But after reading that paragraph about my 25-year-old self, my first reaction was: It’s a lie.

 I don’t mean that Judi Hannan wasn’t being honest. But what she saw, what she describes, was my “game face.” know that this quietly serene, unflustered young teacher was a seething cauldron of conflict under the surface. Reading Judi’s description of me only drove home the degree to which my inside hadn’t matched my outside.

Don’t get me wrong: If this was my game face, it was an appropriate one. I’m glad that I was able to be a true oasis for Nadia. This same game face would serve me well less than a year later, when the lower school headmistress pulled me out of class one morning to tell me: “A plane’s just crashed into the World Trade Center. We don’t know what’s going on, but it’s not good, and it’s probably going to affect some of our parents. Our job is to keep the girls calm and in school for as long as possible.”

I’m not suggesting that we wear all of our emotions like a wardrobe; restraint and self-control are often the best choice, particularly when dealing with children. I only wish that I’d actually felt the “quiet serenity” I was somehow able to exude; that it had been my personal state, rather than a professional mask.

***

If I could reach back through time to Ms. Cinquegrana, I would tell her that she still has some rocky years ahead on the journey towards selfhood. September 11, and her marriage ten months later, will shake the ground beneath her. She’ll lose her bearings on who she’s supposed to be. She’ll quit teaching and enroll in a graduate program for photography – an interlude that, 15 years later, she still can’t quite understand. Then she’ll close the door on New York, move to California, and start having children.

It will be those children, those four little girls born in six years, who will force her to take her self seriously – because when you have four pairs of eyes studying you for guidance on how to be a person, it’s impossible to conceal that your inside doesn’t match your outside.

***

One night in Vermont, when all my girls were in bed, I read this line in Jonathan Safran Foer’s novel Everything is Illuminated: “Try to live so that you can always tell the truth.”

And I thought: YES, THAT is who I would like to be, and teach my daughters to be.

I no longer wanted to put on a happy face…or a kind face, or a brave face. That’s exhausting. Instead, I wanted to actually become happy, kind, and brave.

***

I don’t think it was an accident that Motherhood Exaggerated popped up on my laptop screen at the start of Lent, sending me on a voyage into the past, opening the boxes in my mental attic and plumbing the depths of who I was, who I am.

Lent is a time to take stock of our insides. If someone sacrifices themselves to save your life, chances are that you will take stock; you will think hard about how to live the life that’s been given back to you.

That’s the story of Jesus and Easter.

Lent is a time when I ask myself, “Do I really believe this crazy thing?” And when the answer is YES, my next question is, “If this is the truth, is my life telling the truth? Does my inside match my outside?”

The answer is always NO, of course — for all of us, I suspect. But when I look back, I can see that every year the distance between YES and NO gets a little smaller. It is a slow, often painful process, learning how to be myself. I have become more patient with this; it takes a long time to turn a cruise ship around, and it’s not even my hands on the wheel.