We All Fall Down

“Mommy, what do two lines mean?” my nine-year-old daughter called across the kitchen. 

And just like that, the Bad Thing entered our house: the coronavirus, COVID-19, SARS-CoV-2, the Omicron variant. Call it what you will; it was here, among us, infiltrating our family’s immune systems. 

Against all odds, we’d managed to fight it off successfully for two-and-a-half years – no small feat with seven people in our household going off to work, to school, to activities. We were cautious in the beginning, abiding by the CDC guidelines for masking and distancing. As those guidelines relaxed and vaccines became available, we started to relax, too. We gradually resumed our social lives, we started to travel again, we dropped our masks. 

Even as we puzzled over why we didn’t get sick, we suspected that we couldn’t avoid it forever. All around us, people continued to test positive for COVID; the cautious along with the reckless, the unvaccinated and vaccinated alike. The noose was tightening, the virus circling ever closer. But the more people we knew who got sick, the less frightening it felt: Nobody seemed to be getting hospitalized for COVID anymore, and everyone we knew recovered after experiencing symptoms that spanned “a throat tickle” to “a bad cold.” When our youngest child – our two-year-old son who is at increased risk for respiratory issues – was vaccinated in July 2022, my husband and I stopped worrying and started placing bets on when the pandemic would arrive at our door, even joking about the optimal time for our family to get sick.

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

Surf City…With Kids

[An earlier version of this post appeared without a link to the full article. My apologies!]

I am typing this from a desk in our Airbnb rental house in Huntington Beach, California: a beige stucco bungalow in a residential neighborhood of tightly packed stucco bungalows surrounded by high walls. There are three palm trees in the front yard. The back yard consists of a cement patio and a small patch of astroturf (an increasingly popular option in a region that suffers from continuous drought conditions and water restrictions.) 

That’s a backyard?!?” my 11-year-old daughter exclaimed. “I’ve seen bigger swimming pools!” 

Her insistence that a yard should be at least as big as a swimming pool was evidence of how living in Vermont has skewed our perspective. 

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

On Change and Summer

The “classroom” where I homeschool my two youngest daughters is an open space with sloping ceilings built on top of our garage. There are windows on all four sides of the room. Throughout May and June, as our school year wound down, I had a view of two things just beyond our yard that seemed to represent the changes happening in the larger world. 

It was early spring when I first noticed the surgical mask caught on a bush at the edge of the woods. My daughter’s desk is directly underneath a west-facing window, and as I glanced outside one day while helping her with a math assignment, a flash of blue caught my eye. We’ve all become far too familiar with this particular blue during these years of the COVID-19 pandemic. I’m still not sure how a surgical mask came to be tangled up in the branches of a bush several meters from our house; my best guess is that it blew out of someone’s car.

I didn’t remove the mask. For starters, it was just far enough through thick brush to make it an unpleasant chore. But I was also curious to see what would happen to it if left to its own devices. Would the wind, which often blows quite strongly through our yard, dislodge it? Would future archaeologists find it, preserved in our heavy Vermont clay, and date it back to the time of the pandemic? 

Against all odds and weather, the mask clung to that bush. Every school day I’d look out the western window and see that tenacious flash of blue. At first it stood out in stark relief against the bare grey branches. As the leaves began to emerge, it became more difficult to discern. And then, one day, I looked outside to discover that it had been swallowed entirely by the lush green of new summer leaves. 

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

The Birds…And The Bees

It wasn’t the first time a bird had become stuck in our woodstove; this had happened twice before. 

The three events all began with a scrabbling, scuffling, fluttering noise in the corner of our living room. This type of noise can be shrugged off once or twice, but after subsequent repetitions the message is clear: There is another living thing somewhere in this room. 

The first time, it was a House Sparrow. The second time, it was an Eastern Bluebird. Now it was a European Starling. 

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

Favorite Books of 2021

New Year: Time to Organize Our Bookshelves!

Last year I enjoyed sharing my favorite books of 2020, so I decided to do it again this year. It turns out that I love keeping a list of the books I read: It’s easy to do even when traditional journaling feels like too much effort, and it’s fun to look back and recall the books that shaped my year. Without further ado, therefore, I present my picks from 2021:

Favorite Fiction (Sorry, I couldn’t pick just one!)

The Elegence of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery.

This was my sleeper hit of the year: I would never have read this book had someone in my book group not picked it for a month’s read, and I almost abandoned it because I found the characters, all of whom live in an apartment building in Paris, so irritating at first. But as I continued, I was shocked as the tale morphed slowly into a beautiful fable full of beauty and love. The ending took my breath away. Please read it, and stick with it!

Island of the World by Michael D. O’Brien.

At 839 pages, this book is a commitment — perfect for the winter months. It follows the ordinary, extraordinary Josip Lasta from his childhood in Bosnia, through the horrific events of post-World War II Yugoslavia, to a new life in New York City. A sweeping story of loss and redemption, it’s one of those books about which I can only say, “It’s about life.”

Deacon King Kong by James McBride.

Set in a Brooklyn housing project in 1969, Deacon King Kong tells the story of Sportcoat, an alcoholic church deacon who inexplicably shoots the neighborhood drug dealer. McBride, who grew up in the Red Hook Projects, pulls us into a shifting landscape in which Italian mobsters are losing ground to the up-and-coming drug trade, and a community is trying to hold its center when all forces seem to be against it. This is a tale of surprising grace.

Favorite Classic

Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen

This year I read (or re-read) all of Jane Austen’s books. Any one of them would be worth a mention here, but Sense and Sensibility remains my all-time favorite. The story of sisters Marianne and Elinor Dashwood and their vastly different responses to the trials of young love (sense vs. sensibility) is surprisingly modern, bitingly funny, and ultimately inspiring: It will make you want to be a better person. (I’ll also put in a shout-out for the movie version starring Emma Thompson and Kate Winslet).

Favorite Non-Fiction

More Than a Woman by Caitlin Moran

This is another book I would never have read had it not been a book group pick. (Bless you, book group!) It’s not my typical fare: British journalist Moran can be very, very crass — British-sailor-on-a-bender-in-the-pub crass. But she’s written a hilarious and honest memoir of middle aged womanhood. Her insights into marriage, work, friendship, and (gasp!) parenting teenagers often startled me with their wisdom.

The Anthropocene Reviewed by John Green

My teenager introduced me to John Green when she invited me to read his young adult novel, The Fault in Our Stars (also worth a read), but The Anthropocene Reviewed is a book of essays written for adults. Its conceit is a series of “reviews” of various features of our current geologic age — both the manmade and the natural. Some of Green’s observations are so beautiful and profound that they move me to tears (see, in particular, “Sunsets” and “Googling Strangers”). Pro Tip: John Green and his brother Hank also host a podcast called “Dear Hank and John” that we’ve really enjoyed listening to with our older children.

Take Good Care of the Garden and the Dogs by Heather Lende

Heather Lende lives in a small town in Alaska, and if nothing else this book would be a fascinating look into her world. But it’s so much more: A series of essays loosely organized around her near-death and recovery from a horrific bicycle accident. If that sounds like a downer, it’s anything but: This is one of the most life-affirming books I’ve read all year. I feel some kinship with Lende, who also has five children and writes a column for her local paper. Her description of how she writes her column (“I try not to think about it for four or five days…[and] by then I’ve started to panic….”) is spot-on.

Favorite Books on Christian/Spiritual Topics

Everybody Always by Bob Goff

Bob Goff (who also wrote the excellent Love Does)is perhaps the only author who can convince me to even consider skydiving. I’m always inspired by his completely open, loving approach to all humankind (including, in this book, a child-abducting Ugandan witch doctor).

Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places by Eugene Peterson

Not a light read (the subtitle is A Conversation in Spiritual Theology) but a beautifully written and profound one. Like Bob Goff, Peterson inspires me to examine my faith and question where I’m getting too comfortable. This is the first book I’ve read by the late Eugene Peterson; next up is A Long Obedience in the Same Direction. (If I had a category for “Best Book Titles,” he’d win that, too!)

This Beautiful Truth by Sarah Clarkson

Clarkson introduced me to the concept of “theodicy” — the study of how a good God can coexist with an evil world. In this book, she uses her gorgeous prose to detail her own struggles with mental illness, and to advocate for the breaking-in of beauty as evidence of God’s goodness.

Favorite Children’s Book

Greenglass House by Kate Milford

I read this book twice this year: once by myself, and once aloud to my children. It has become one of my all-time favorites. Milford masterfully creates a world within the confines of Greenglass House, a cozy old smugglers’ inn where sundry travelers are stranded by a Christmas snowstorm. As it turns out, none of the travelers are there by accident; they’re united by the mysteries and surprises contained within Greenglass House. This is an especially excellent read for families with adopted children.

Favorite Book About Education/Parenting

Hearts of the Mountain by Tal Birdsey

Twenty years ago, Tal Birdsey and a small group of parents founded a tiny, unconventional middle school in Vermont’s Green Mountains. In this book, Birdsey compresses his decades of teaching into a single, representative “year” at the North Branch School. Full disclosure: This was particularly interesting to me because two of my children currently attend NBS. However, I’d recommend this book for anybody who teaches or parents middle schoolers: It’s a remarkable depiction of the magic that can occur when you love each student for who they are, and give them the space to express their deepest selves.

That’s it! As always, I’ve provided the Amazon links but would encourage you to support your local bookstore(s). Wishing you a 2022 full of the joys of good books!

Enter Video Games

I am writing this column on the afternoon of the day after Christmas, while the rest of my family are playing video games out in the yurt.

Every word of the previous sentence was made possible by my husband. For starters, he participated in the creation of “the rest of my family” – our children. And since their arrival, he has devoted a significant portion of his substantial brain power to dreaming up ways to keep them playing. (Our children have him to thank for the treehouse, trampoline, and ice rink. Plans for a zipline are in the works, I hear).

The yurt was my husband’s vision, anticipating the day when our adolescent children would long for a semi-private space to hang out with friends (and when we’d want that space to be as close to home as possible). It was built in December 2019, before we had adolescent children or a pandemic. Now that we have both, the yurt has become a key ingredient to our family’s sanity: a detached space with great ventilation where we’ve hosted numerous small gatherings in ways that felt safe. I like to think of it as my husband’s Field of Dreams(“If you build it, they will come.”).

Of course, an empty yurt isn’t much fun. Once the yurt was erected, my husband shifted his focus to filling it (or, more accurately, convincing generous grandparents to fill it). Christmas of 2019 brought us a foosball table. Last Christmas we were gifted a digital projector and large screen, so that we could watch movies out in the yurt. 

And this Christmas, it was video games in the form of a Nintendo Switch. 

Click here to continue reading this week’s “Faith in Vermont” column in The Addison Independent. https://www.addisonindependent.com/2021/12/28/faith-gong-enter-video-games/

In Which We Make a Gingerbread House

Like most pivotal events, it started with a simple question: “Mommy, are they doing the gingerbread houses again?”

By “they,” my daughter was referring to the Vermont Folklife Center in Middlebury, which has hosted the annual Gingerbread House Competition for the past 23 years. Individuals and families create gingerbread houses reflecting the year’s theme, and community members vote for their favorite entries. Usually, the houses are displayed at the Folklife Center, but for the past two years the competition has been virtual, with photos of entries available for viewing online. 

Viewing the year’s gingerbread houses has become a favorite holiday tradition for our family: Every year my children look forward to seeing the amazing and beautiful things that people create out of edible materials. Every year, they say, “We should enter next year!” And every year, I have successfully deferred our actual involvement in creating a gingerbread house – until now. 

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

My Interview on Vermont Viewpoint

I did a fun new thing today: Ric Cengeri of “Vermont Viewpoint” invited me onto his radio show to discuss my writing and my recent column on field hockey. Here is the link to the interview.

Ric is a veteran journalist and a fantastic interviewer, so you should probably listen to the entire show and subscribe to the podcast. However, if you’re craving efficiency, I’m on for the final 30 minutes.

I will add that this was my first LIVE radio interview, and it was a little terrifying. After it was finished I second-guessed just about everything I said, including the ages of my kids. So please know that if anything I say offends you, it offends me more.

Thank you, friends, for listening and for continuing to read this!

Dispatch From the Field Hockey Sidelines

Field hockey season ended yesterday. 

Cue: Angel choirs, rainbows and unicorns, my husband and I holding hands and skipping towards the sunset through a field of wildflowers. 

Ever since field hockey season started in late August, we have clung to the promise of October 18 like a life raft on a stormy sea. To hear my husband and me talk, you’d think that after October 18 the peaceable kingdom would reign on earth: our family would be well rested and content, our calendar would have empty spaces, our vehicles could go more than a week on a tank of gas, and the lion would lie down with the lamb. “After October 18, everything will be easier,” we promised each other all fall. 

My daughters love field hockey, so they will be sad. And because we love them and want them to be happy, we will be sad, too. A little bit. 

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