My Kids, in the Middle of the Lake

It’s funny what a difference two weeks can make. 

Just two weeks ago, I wrote a column about how my husband – always on the lookout for new ways our family can have fun together – had outfitted all seven people in our family with bicycles. I ended that column with the line: “And now my husband is starting to dream about inflatable kayaks, so perhaps we’ll see you on the water, too!”

This past week, my mother- and father-in-law flew in from California for a visit. After my husband picked them up from Burlington Airport, he swung by Costco for what has become the Traditional Post-Airport Shopping Binge. Usually they come home bearing a couple of rotisserie chickens, industrial-sized bags of baking soda, and trays of croissants large enough to feed the population of Rhode Island. 

They came home with all of that, but this time they had an inflatable kayak, too. 

The inflatable paddleboard arrived the next day, and another inflatable paddleboard is en route. 

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

The Family That Bikes Together

Our family’s pandemic coping strategies have failed to follow national – or even logical – trends. We were already living in Vermont, homeschooling, gardening, and keeping chickens when COVID-19 hit, so we had many of the boxes checked already. In fact, the pandemic prompted us to send several of our children back to school, because of the crushing social isolation of homeschooling during COVID. Sure, we did some mainstream things like buying a large inflatable pool for our yard, walking our driveway obsessively, online yoga videos, and binge-watching The Mandalorian, but I may have been the only person in the world who stopped baking sourdough in response to COVID: It took a pandemic to make me emancipate myself from my starter. 

One pandemic-related trend was dubbed: “The Great Bicycle Boom of 2020.” When it became clear that COVID-19 would be sticking around for a while, bicycle ridership and sales increased dramatically. For reasons of both recreation and safety – riding bikes was perceived as safer than riding public transportation – people scrambled for bicycles, leading to supply-chain shortages. 

On one of our mid-pandemic daily driveway walks, I floated the idea of upping our bicycle game to my husband. Our four daughters, who love riding their bikes, barreled past us, riding back and forth along the quarter-mile stretch. The issue was that neither my husband nor I had a bicycle — having had two stolen during our years living in the San Francisco Bay Area – nor did we have any way to transport our toddler. 

“Maybe we should look into getting ourselves some bikes and a trailer so we could all ride together somewhere other than the driveway,” I suggested.

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.

Call of the Wild

Over the course of the past week, I was awakened several times by howling coyotes. 

It’s not news that we have coyotes in the woods and fields around our house: I hear them yipping and calling to each other throughout the year, most frequently during the summer months when I’m doing chores outside at sunset. But there’s something especially haunting about coyotes howling in the middle of a snowy winter night – something eerie and lonely that goes straight to your soul. 

I’m not a particularly light sleeper, so it’s interesting that these howls have awakened me from deep slumber multiple times. It could be because we haven’t heard coyotes in a while; months will go by without a single howl. Although the range of coyote packs varies, it generally encompasses several miles, so we hear coyotes only when their range brings them nearest to our house.

These particular howls have sounded much closer than ever before, however, which may be another reason why they’re catching my attention. Although my husband has slept through these mid-night cries, he’s remarked on the closeness of coyote noises when he’s been putting our poultry to bed lately. As further proof of proximity, he had a pre-dawn close encounter with two coyotes who crossed our driveway while he was walking the dog. Although it’s common for us to hear coyotes, this is the first time anyone in our family has actually seen one. 

Or perhaps I’m waking up to these howls because, as a mother, I’m conditioned to awake when there are cries in the night. Usually those cries come from my children, but coyote howls are often described as resembling female screams or baby cries. With a house that ranges from a teenage daughter to a two-year-old, it’s hardly surprising that my weary brain gets confused. 

It just so happens that I’ve been thinking about loud noises quite a bit lately, because we’re trying to teach our two-year-old son to stop screaming at the cat. 

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

January in Four Scenes

During our family’s early years in Vermont, my friend Deborah warned me that January was the coldest month. “There’s usually one week every January when the temperature never gets above freezing,” she said. 

So far, history has proven her correct. But January 2022 is an overachiever: As I look ahead at the 10-day forecast I see only one day with temperatures over 30°. Most nights dip down into negative temperatures; this morning at our house it was -22°.

My daughter – the same one who shouted snowfall spells at the sky in October – now moans, “I’m tired of winter; I want spring!” But, in general, we take the frigid temperatures in stride. We make jokes like, “Oh look, it’s warmed up to a balmy -5°!” We stay inside and are grateful for woodstoves, good books, hot drinks, and Darn Tough socks. And when the temperature is reasonable – anything above 10° — we jump at the opportunity to go skiing. 

Still, things got so bad that our school district cancelled school one day because of the cold. Nothing was falling from the sky, but the wind chill was supposed to make temperatures feel like -35°. It was a surprising move for Vermonters, and there were mixed reactions to the district’s rationale (something about buses not starting and kids getting hypothermia at recess). The independent school that my two oldest daughters attend, which usually follows the district’s closures, announced in multiple emails with capitalized subject lines that school WOULD carry on. One of these communications included the sentence: “We aren’t a bunch of weenies.” 

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

Reflections on a Starling Murmuration

My daughters and I watched in fascination as the black cloud pulsed and swirled over our yard. Its movement was organic and unpredictable as it rose, fell, expanded, contracted, pulled to the left and then to the right. Finally, in response to a signal not accessible to human understanding, it dropped down onto our lawn. 

The cloud moved as a single entity, but it was composed of hundreds of birds: European starlings. 

It was the third such starling cloud we’d seen that day in our travels around town, and one of dozens we’d witness throughout the autumn of 2021. The phenomenon was gorgeous, mysterious, and left me with nothing but questions.

What was going on? How and why were so many individual birds moving as one? I didn’t recall seeing these starling swarms in past autumns: Was this something new, or something I’d failed to notice until now? 

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

Navigating the Corn Maze Tradition

The holiday season for our family begins at Halloween and passes through Thanksgiving and Christmas before culminating on New Year’s Eve. During that same timespan we also celebrate three birthdays, so it feels like two-and-a-half months of continual celebration, which is both wonderful and exhausting. 

We’ve accumulated a series of traditions that anchor these holiday celebrations: things we “always do,” things we “have to do,” lest the holidays not feel properly acknowledged. On the one hand, I love having family traditions that my children will recall with nostalgia: Halloween pumpkin carving and pizza at their grandparents’ house before trick-or-treating, the annual Thanksgiving football game and play, carrying our Christmas tree home from our neighbors’ farm, cookie decorating and beeswax candle-making, our enormous 25-candle Advent wreath (one candle for each day of December) and the gigantic smoke cloud it generates when extinguished for the final time. 

But I’ll be honest: Sometimes I feel like I’m a hostage to our traditions. The things we “always have to do” dance around on my cluttered mental to-do list throughout the holidays, torturing me with whispers of parental guilt: If you can’t fit me in, you’ll be letting down your kids. This will always be remembered as the year we DIDN’T (bake cookies/see the train display/have a Thanksgiving play). After ALL they’ve missed out on during the pandemic, can you really disappoint them like this? 

And that is why, a week before Halloween, I realized that we had to find a way to shoehorn a visit to the corn maze into a busy weekend. 

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

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.