Category Archives: Uncategorized

Spring, Tweens, and Other Liminal Things

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Photo credit: Arianna Graham-Gurland

I‘m writing this on the day after Ash Wednesday – a day for which there is no official name in the liturgical calendar. Outside, the weather is doing what my New England relatives call “spitting snow,” meaning that small flakes are swirling down from the sky without amounting to much on the ground. The sky is the same dirty-white color as the patches of old snow; the same color as the white birch from which our bird feeder hangs with just a thin crust of suet remaining inside. There’s no point in refilling the feeder now; there are rumors of spring, which means that the bears will start stirring on Chipman Hill again.

“Last night, I dreamed it was spring!” one of my daughters announces at breakfast. “I could feel how warm it was!”

Spring will arrive. But for now, snow clouds obscure the Green Mountains, and there’s still great sledding on the north face of our back hill. We hover in this liminal space, the threshold between an ending and a beginning, the almost-but-not-yet.

I feel this liminality in the weather, in this Lenten season between Ash Wednesday and Easter, and in my eldest daughter.

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

Tall Tales

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My daughters often ask for stories about me when I was young, and I often disappoint them. There are a few classics that they never seem to tire of, consisting mostly of the handful of misbehaviors in my otherwise dull, law-abiding life (like the time my protest over the new door color of my childhood home ended in a paint spill all over the driveway, for instance, or the time I helped friends smuggle a drum of ice cream out of our college cafeteria.)

The surprising thing is that, as a writer who traffics in stories, I seem to have a terrible memory for stories of my own. Or perhaps that’s one reason why I write: Any stories that I don’t set down on paper quickly enough are at risk of vanishing into the swirling mists of to-do lists and calendar details in my brain. Just the other day, my eldest daughter told a story about our family.

“That didn’t happen,” I said.

“Yes, it did,” she insisted. “I read it in one of your columns.”

So, there you go.

Click here to continue reading this week’s “Faith in Vermont” column (which just won first place in the New England Newspaper and Press Association’s Better Newspaper Contest for “Best Blog on a Newspaper Website!”)

Disagreeing with Maggie Gyllenhaal

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One night at the end of December, I attended a film screening and discussion at Middlebury’s Town Hall Theater. This is not how I typically spend my evenings, and I would have missed the event completely were it not for a friend who invited me as part of her birthday celebration.

The film being shown was The Kindergarten Teacher, about which I knew nothing in advance. I assumed it would be a charming, lighthearted depiction of the agony and ecstasy involved in shepherding children through their first year of formal schooling (something I know a bit about, as I’m in the midst of homeschooling my kindergartener.)

The big draw for me was that the film’s star, Maggie Gyllenhaal, would be present for a question-and-answer session with her husband, Peter Sarsgaard. I have admired the talent of both of these actors in their past films — and I admired the calm, quiet way in which I witnessed them navigate The Vermont Book Store with their two daughters a couple of years ago. (Although when I returned home from that shopping trip, a little star-struck, to report my celebrity sighting – in Vermont! – the 23-year-old Middlebury College graduate who was living with us at the time looked at me blankly before saying, “Maggie Gyllenhaal…? Wait – is she related to Jake Gyllenhaal?”)

The Kindergarten Teacher was not a charming, lighthearted film. True to its title, it was the story of a kindergarten teacher, but this kindergarten teacher – a 40-something woman in the Manhattan suburbs – harbors an unfulfilled longing for poetry and culture. She’s taking continuing education poetry classes, but her poems receive lukewarm responses. Her husband is supportive but seems baffled by her longings; her two teenaged children barely look up from their devices to speak to her. So, when she discovers that one of her kindergarten students is a poet prodigy, she’s determined to nurture his talent – a goal that turns increasingly dark: In the film’s climax, she kidnaps her student in a perverse attempt to keep the little boy artistically pure.

Maggie Gyllenhaal acts beautifully in the title role, building sympathy with her audience so that we wince when she begins making horrible decisions. The Kindergarten Teacher is not an easy film to watch, but I’m glad that I did: It was well made and thought provoking.

And the discussion that followed the film was perhaps more thought provoking than the film itself.

“This is a film about what happens when women are silenced,” Maggie Gyllenhaal declared in her opening comments.

And although I admire her talent and her parenting, I thought, “Huh?!?”

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

The Search for a Theme Song

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Before I had children, back when I was a twenty-something elementary school teacher in New York City and had just started dating my future husband, I used to watch the quirky television sitcom Ally McBeal. Though most of that show has sunk into the mists of my past, one moment sticks with me: the episode when Ally’s therapist tells her to pick a theme song for her life (and Ally spends the rest of the episode bopping along to “Tell Him.”)

This episode confirmed what I’d always felt to be true: Life had a soundtrack.

My life, at least, always seemed to have a soundtrack. As an only child, records (the kind that spun on a record player) filled the silence instead of siblings: Some of my earliest memories are of playing alone while listening to records of classic musicals – My Fair Lady, Annie, The Sound of Music, Guys and Dolls, The King and I. Later, the musicals were replaced by my parents’ old Cat Stevens and Beatles albums.

There were cassette tapes, too, especially after I started school. My first cassette was Michael Jackson’s Thriller. By middle school, we were making and exchanging mix tapes (lots of Billy Joel, as I recall.)

My first CD was the soundtrack to Disney’s The Little Mermaid. CDs remained the primary music media into my Ally McBealdays: We’d buy the latest album by U2 or Sting at Tower Records or Barnes & Noble and listen to it on our stereo or portable CD player. As a newlywed graduate student, I traversed Manhattan to a soundtrack of Tori Amos and Counting Crows.

The Dixie Chicks will forever be the soundtrack of my first pregnancy; Mumford & Sons accompanied my second.

But I worry that I’ve deprived my own children of a soundtrack for their lives.

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

“It’s January”

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My 11-year-old daughter, usually my most centered child, was seething. Her hands clenched and unclenched at her sides, her breathing sped up, and she was gnashing her teeth – actually gnashing her teeth. (I’d never really witnessed teeth-gnashing until I had children of my own.)

“I just feel like I haven’t learned anything today!” she spewed out, throwing her pencil to the floor.

We’d passed hour three of our homeschool morning. Thus far, she had watched a portion of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech before writing a short essay about her own dreams; she had read a chapter of the historical novel Johnny Tremain; she had completed a math lesson in which she learned why bees use hexagons to build their hives; she had spent 20 minutes working on her second semi-autobiographical novel; she had read and discussed a history chapter about the early Puritans, including a comparison of the various forms of government; and she had finished a page in her Latin workbook.

But she hadn’t learned anything.

If there’s one thing that parenting and homeschooling have taught me, especially as we enter the “tween” years, it’s that these outbursts are neither logical nor personal. In response to my daughter, I said, “I’m so sorry,” and went about my business.

I decided to follow up later, after she’d cooled down. That afternoon, when I was able to get her alone, I said, “So, that thing this morning about not learning anything? Was that just a blah morning, or was is something more long-term that we should discuss?”

She shrugged. “Just a blah morning. It’s January.”

I couldn’t have said it better myself.

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

American Girls

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On the second day of 2019, because everyone else had returned to school but our homeschooling family was taking a full second week of vacation, because our eldest daughter complained that “we never go anywhere,” and because we needed a change of scenery, we packed the minivan for an overnight trip to the Boston suburbs. It was a hastily conceived voyage, designed loosely around the goals of:

  1. Providing some sort of enrichment for our children
  2. Spending time with extended family
  3. Getting our youngest daughter to quit begging us to visit an American Girl doll store

That we were able to accomplish all of those things in less than 36 hours and live to tell about it seems near-miraculous. And it turned out to be a journey through the landscape of the American girl.

Click here to continue reading this week’s “Faith in Vermont” column (the first of 2019!) in The Addison Independent. 

Mudroom Mercy

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When we first looked at the house that is now our home, the realtor told us that all other prospective buyers had walked away after they saw it: The house’s layout was just too strange for anybody to figure out how to make it work.

Enter my husband, who, in a fit of visionary-ness, saw how we could make this half-finished house with the wonky floor plan work for us.

In order to make it work, we turned the first-floor living room and bathroom into our master bed- and bathroom. Our four daughters sleep in the second-floor bedrooms, and use the second-floor bathroom. (In our current stage of parenting, this setup provides me excellent exercise running up and down the stairs at all hours of the day and night.)

Our house’s floor plan figures into the story I’m about to tell. The crucial detail is this: The master bathroom is the only bathroom on the first floor, and it – and the master bedroom beyond it – are accessed by a door off of the kitchen.

This is a story about expectations. And I had great expectations that Thursday, a week after Thanksgiving.

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