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.

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.