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.

The Pod Swing

The pod swing hangs from a beam in our living room like some overripe fruit in a tropical rain forest. It is tear-shaped, made of durable lime green fabric with electric blue trim. You enter the swing through a narrow opening in the fabric; when you settle onto the round, electric blue cushion inside, you are surrounded by lime green on all sides, encased like a pupa in a chrysalis. 

The pod swing was not an intentional act of interior decorating. I never cast a critical eye on our living room and said, “You know, what this place really needs is a pod swing.” We purchased the swing on the advice of our son’s physical therapist; it’s supposed to give him practice in “not feeling in control.” 

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

A Diary of Housekeeping in Three Acts

I’m going to begin with a thumbnail sketch: 

My 7-year-old daughter came downstairs the other morning to find that my husband had cleaned out the oversized “comfy chair” in front of our woodstove while she slept. He’d taken up the seat cushion, removed the detritus that tends to gather underneath, and wiped the smudges and stains from the upholstery. 

“Daddy, where’s my baggie?” she asked.

“What baggie?”

“The one I put under the chair cushion!” she said, increasingly agitated.

“The baggie that you put under the chair cushion?” he repeated. “I don’t know. I probably threw it out when I was cleaning.”

WHAT?!?” she wailed. “NOOOOO! Why would you throw that out?!? Why wouldn’t you ask first?”

“I’m sorry,” my husband replied, getting agitated himself. “I didn’t know it was yours. What was in it that was so important?”

“My fingernail!” she sobbed.

Click here to continue reading this week’s “Faith in Vermont” post 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 Thin Ice

This Thanksgiving, I wondered whether Californians discuss their lawns the way that Vermonters discuss their heat.

When our family had recently moved to Vermont, my husband and I noticed that a certain topic never failed to arouse interest and strong opinions during gatherings with Vermonters. (This was back in the days when there were gatherings.) This topic was: How do you heat your house? 

It’s not surprising that Vermonters are fascinated by heating methods, given that some form of manmade warmth is required for comfort over half the year in Vermont. Options include fuel oil, gas, heat pumps, and wood. Discussions about heating with wood could monopolize an entire dinner party (back when there were dinner parties), with topics like: What type of woodstove do you use? Where do you get your wood? How do you stack your wood?

The topic of heating never came up in California, where we lived before moving to Vermont and where half of our extended family still lives. 

The subject of lawns arose during a virtual Thanksgiving visit over Zoom with our beloved California family members. Like many Californians, our relatives live in suburban neighborhoods in which homeowners’ associations have certain requirements about how one’s house and lawn should look. The challenge is that California has been in a drought for years, which makes it difficult to maintain a pristine green carpet in the front yard. Options include using copious amounts of water, making use of native plants, or ripping up the lawn entirely and replacing it with fake grass. (I’m not kidding about that last one.) 

Any other year, my husband and I would find it difficult to relate to a discussion of lawns. On our property, we don’t have a lawn so much as we have a yard. For much of spring and summer the yard looks green enough — except for the dead brown patches and clusters of yellow dandelions. During the growing season, my husband keeps the yard mowed, although you’ll get a better idea of what this involves when I say that he uses a brush mower to do so. And our yard resembles a relief map more than a carpet, as it’s worked over daily by chickens scratching with their feet, ducks digging with their bills, and children excavating with their shovels. 

But this year my husband has spent the past few weeks on his hands and knees, studying every dip and rise of our yard, so he has something to say about lawns. The reason for this sudden interest? My husband is building an ice rink.

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

Stone Soup

When I began writing this column in 2012, my vision was that it would be a space to record the observations and anecdotes of my young family as we explored our new home state of Vermont. I never expected to still be writing eight years later; given that timespan, it’s hardly surprising that the column’s focus has shifted as my family became less young and Vermont became less new. Somehow, though, I never seemed to lack enough material to generate a new biweekly column. 

Until now.

It’s stating the obvious to say that the restrictions made necessary by the COVID-19 pandemic have been challenging in many ways, for all of humanity. In my own case, it’s difficult to write a column of observations and anecdotes when my world is now limited mostly to my own house, yard, driveway, and immediate family. (Granted, my immediate family is quite pleased when I include them in columns, but I’ve become more concerned with protecting my children’s privacy.) Still, when COVID struck, I determined to make this column a place where people could find beauty and respite from the stresses of life, the ugliness of the news and social media. Nobody needs more hopelessness these days; it felt like one tiny thing I could do to write a few words that might give hope.

But I’ve rarely struggled to find hope as I have this week. This week, as the unseasonably warm weather we’d enjoyed in Vermont gave way at last to a more typical chill, grey November. This week, as COVID cases surged around the world and in Vermont, prompting Governor Phil Scott to issue a mandate prohibiting all multi-family gatherings, whether inside or out. This week, as there is still seemingly no end in sight to the tensions swirling around the 2020 Presidential election, let alone the brokenness it revealed in our nation. This week, as I carry the weight and sorrow of many friends and family members who have recently received bad news or are awaiting diagnoses. 

This week, I was not sure I could write a column worthy of putting out into the world. 

And then a friend’s eight-year-old son reminded me about Stone Soup. 

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

An Election Day Reflection in Praise of Tongue-Biting

I am acutely aware that this column will be published the day before Election Day. There are intense emotions swirling around November 3, 2020: an election that falls during a year of pandemic, wildfires, protests over systemic racism, and a country bitterly divided along partisan lines. Reflecting on the United States in 1967, Joan Didion wrote, “The center was not holding.” Reflecting on the United States in 2020, I ask, “Is there a center anymore, and can anybody find it?!?”

After the 2016 election, I wrote my opinion about the state of the nation. At the time, I felt an obligation – as someone who works with words – to make a statement, to add my response. If you’ve consumed any news or been on social media lately, it’s clear that now almost everybody feels this obligation. 

But I no longer do, so today I am writing about the often-underrated value of silence. 

By silence, I mean: no words, either spoken or written.

Wordlessness might seem like an odd thing for me to embrace. I am a writer. I live in a house that is full of noise and lively discussion all the time. We are a family that reads, and reads out loud, then reads some more, because individuals and cultures are formed by story. I believe wholeheartedly in the value of teaching my children written and spoken expression. If you give me money, I will buy books (or, occasionally, bookshelves.) I inhale and exhale words. 

But there can be too much of a good thing: too much chocolate, too much exercise, too much vacation. And at this point in time, there are too many words.

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

A Geese-Eye View

My daughters began digging the hole on the first weekend of October. 

The large window over our kitchen sink is my window on the world – or the world of our backyard, at least. It was from this vantage point that I spotted three of my daughters hard at work with shovels on a Friday afternoon, clustered around a growing pile of dirt right in the middle of the yard.

“What are you doing?” I called out the back door.

“We’re digging a hole!” they shouted back.

“Couldn’t you have picked a less central place to dig it?” I asked.

“Daddy said it was okay!”

And that was that.

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

summer of the wasps

Summer is now firmly behind us. It’s the time of year when I like to snuggle up in my fall uniform (jeans and a flannel shirt) with a cup of tea (I’m weaning myself from coffee after finally admitting that it affects my digestion — because why wouldn’t you give up coffee when you’re parenting a tween, a newly crawling baby, and three children in between? But that’s a subject for another column….) As the golden light of a crisp afternoon filters through the Vermont foliage, I’m contemplating the summer that just passed.

Our family’s summer was marked by the COVID-19 pandemic, political turmoil, gratitude for our newly installed heat pumps, afternoons spent in our inflatable pool, and the animated series Avatar: The Last Airbender (referred to in our house as “the show that saved summer.”) But the thing that most defined our Summer 2020 was: wasps.

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

Invisible Friends

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There are seven people who live in our house, and then there are the ones you can’t see.

I learned long ago never to use the words “imaginary friends” to describe these beings of light and air. No; they are very REAL, so the proper term is “invisible friends.”

Invisible friends first showed up sometime during the first three years of my eldest daughter’s life, although I’m not sure whether they appeared during the 20 months when she was an only child, or the following year when she was a de facto only child, with only one infant sister for company. What I do remember quite clearly is one particular lunchtime in our bungalow in Berkeley, California, when this daughter announced that her friends were coming for lunch. Could I please set places at the table for them?

Of course I could! Thrilled that my toddler was demonstrating such an active imagination, I asked, “Who are you expecting.”

“Oh,” she lisped, “Pak, Pook, Lion, Lo-Lo, Lemon, and Orange.”

This was when it hit me that an active imagination might be a mixed blessing (and it’s been hitting me almost daily ever since), but I played along. I set six extra places for lunch, and obediently opened the door and greeted six invisible guests when my daughter called out that they had arrived.

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