In 1967, the author Joan Didion published an essay called “Goodbye to All That,” in which she attempted to unravel the factors that led from her falling in love with New York City to “the moment it ended” eight years later, when she and her husband moved to Los Angeles.
In 2006, inspired by Didion’s essay, I wrote my own reflection on loving and leaving New York City. Like Didion, I spent the majority of my 20s in Manhattan. Seven years later, I was preparing to move with my husband to Berkeley, California, so that he could attend graduate school. And I was surprised to feel a sense of relief – urgency, even – upon leaving the city about which I’d once written, “Finally, I am home. New York City is where I belong.”
Reading my words alongside Joan Didion’s, it seems that we both reached the point at which New York City ceased to make us feel young and alive, and started to make us feel old and tired. For her, it was realizing that there was nobody new to meet; for me, it was the creeping gentrification that seemed to be erasing the city I’d moved to seven years before. Echoing Didion, I wrote, “[P]eople whom I might like to meet can no longer afford to live here.”
So I left, and I didn’t return for 16 years – not really. There was one weekend trip in 2008, when my husband and I brought our infant daughter to visit New York as part of an East Coast trip. We stayed with friends in Brooklyn, because by then almost everyone we’d known in Manhattan had moved to the outer boroughs. We found that navigating the city with a 6-month-old was an entirely different experience: less fun, more harrowing. When we visited those same Brooklyn friends in 2018, we set foot in Manhattan only to catch the ferry for Ellis Island.
But it’s worth noting that about 20 years after she penned “Goodbye to All That,” Joan Didion moved back to New York City and remained there for the rest of her life.
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.
“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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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!)
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!
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.”
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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).
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!)
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.
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.
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!
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.