Beauty on the Driveway

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For the past 65 days, one of my lifelines has been a quarter-mile strip of sandy gravel. Its surface is mostly white, except for the places where we attempted to patch the potholes with cheap grey gravel. From the look of things, the potholes are winning.

My lifeline has been my driveway.

Our family has developed a daily routine around the driveway. First thing in the morning, while I’m fixing breakfast, my husband takes the dog for a run several times up and down the driveway. After breakfast, I strap the baby into a chest carrier and set out with my daughters for a single pre-school lap up and down the driveway – me walking, them usually on bikes. In the late afternoon, when the baby wakes from his nap, I put him in the stroller, put the dog on a leash, and walk as many laps up and down the driveway as time permits until dinner. Sometimes I’m joined by my daughters, sometimes by my husband, but often I’m alone.

The driveway gives us exercise. It allows us to breathe in fresh air and soak in Vitamin D. It takes us to the mailbox, which holds the treat of letters from the outside world or packages of online purchases more often these days.

But the greatest gift that the driveway gives me is beauty.

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

Why Keep a Garden, Chickens, or Children?

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This will likely be a short column, because we are in the midst of putting in our garden.

I have a complex relationship with my garden – as, I suspect, do many. Starting around March, a feeling that has lain dormant throughout the winter begins to stir in me: panic. Suddenly, I feel the urge to start drawing up a planting schedule and ordering seeds. This feeling intensifies as the days lengthen. By the time we start planting, usually in late April, my panic has been replaced with a lingering guilt. I feel guilty if I’m not out working in the garden when the weather is fine. When the forecast calls for rain, I am almost always relieved; nobody would expect me to be out working in my garden in the rain, would they?

Yet I will tell you that I love gardening.

This year, our gardening season has overlapped almost exactly with the COVID-19 quarantine. I hear that more people are planning to put in gardens this year, driven perhaps by the desire to have a food source that doesn’t involve navigating grocery stores, or inspired by more unscheduled time at home. But I wonder how many people shared this thought along with me, as I pulled on my garden gloves and picked up my shovel: Finally! Something I can control!

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

The Greater Good

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In order for me to have time and quiet in which to write this column, my husband took all five of our children to ride bikes around their grandparents’ neighborhood.

Once upon a time, this would have been a normal occurrence on a Sunday afternoon, but not today.

This is the first time I have been alone – really and completely alone, without a single member of my family in the house – in over a month.

This is the first time my children have been in a vehicle, the first time they have pulled out of our driveway onto the main road, in over a month.

“I forget what it’s like to ride in a car!” exclaimed my eldest daughter as they prepared to leave. “How do we do it?”

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

God on a Respirator: A Reflection for Good Friday

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I began writing a reflection for Lent back in early March. Then the world got turned inside-out as the COVID-19 pandemic spread around the globe, filling intensive care units, distancing us from each other by six feet or more, wiping our calendars clean, and confining us to screens within our homes.

When I went back to take a look at my pre-COVID-19 reflection, I found that I could no longer relate to what I’d written; my words belonged to a former life.

I am going to begin with two assumptions:

1) That Jesus Christ is “God the Son,” and

2) That what we are commemorating during Good Friday and Easter is Jesus’s death by crucifixion, followed by his resurrection from the dead three days later.

I recognize that not all of my readers will share those assumptions, but I am not going to spend time arguing them here. (If you’re interested in excellent, logical arguments in this arena, I’d refer you to C.S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity, and Rebecca McLaughlin’s Confronting Christianity: 12 Hard Questions for the World’s Largest Religion.)

So.

COVID-19 is a virus that attacks the lungs. It destroys lung cells as it starts to replicate, which triggers the immune system to step in. But the immune response may also destroy lung tissue and cause inflammation, which can lead to pneumonia. As the air sacs in the lungs become inflamed and fill with fluid, it becomes more difficult for the lungs to get oxygen into the bloodstream. People who die from COVID-19 are usually dying from multiple organ failure and septic shock due to lack of oxygen.

Crucifixion, which was developed by the Persians around 300-400 BC, was perfected by the Romans and used as a punishment for the worst offenders. It’s death by slow torture: Hands and feet were nailed or tied to a cross, and as the arms and legs gave way over time the victim would bear his entire weight on his chest. This put the victim into a state of perpetual inhalation; death resulted from suffocation or organ failure due to the resultant lack of oxygen.

In other words: Both COVID-19 and crucifixion involve death by asphyxiation.

I have been reflecting upon this over the past week. What it means, if you accept my opening assumptions, is this:

God has experienced firsthand what it feels like to die from COVID-19. 

God has felt the crush of chest pressure, God has gasped for breath, God’s oxygen saturation has plummeted, God’s heart has raced and then stopped all together.

I’m just going to leave it at that. I’m not going to interpret it or tell you how it should make you feel.

You may find it comforting that God in human form underwent the worst that the world can throw at us, and therefore understands what we are experiencing right now.

You may find hope that, in rising from the dead, God demonstrated that death does not have the final say and promises an ultimate resurrection of all things.

You may feel infuriated. “I don’t want your sympathy, God,” you may be thinking. “If you know how bad things are here, why don’t you FIX them already?”

All of those seem like valid responses, good places to start. Let’s approach Good Friday with whatever we’re feeling, be it awe or anger, and let God take it from there. The most important thing, it seems to me, is that we feel something.

Breathless

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I’ve seen several articles lately in which mental health professionals explain the emotions that humankind is experiencing right now – when the worldwide death toll from the COVID-19 virus continues to rise and the social distancing guidelines under which we have been placed stretch out indefinitely – as grief. Collective grief. If this is the case, then it looks like I’ve reached the anger stage.

I don’t consider myself an angry person, but I suppose we are all angry people; some of us just deal with or bury our anger better than others. My own anger is usually hidden deep beneath layers of trying to be “nice” and desperately wanting everyone to like me. There’s something about this global pandemic, however, which is causing my anger to bubble to the surface.

What am I angry at? It’s not that our family’s life has ground to a standstill, our movements confined to our home, and our social interactions limited to digital platforms. We spent a lot of time together as a family before quarantine, we’ve been homeschooling our children for the past four years, our homestead comprises twelve acres and a quarter-mile driveway, I enjoy having my husband around the house, and I’m an introvert. I have very little to complain about in this arena, other than bemoaning the increased time we’re spending in front of screens to maintain extra-familial relationships.

My anger is a result of our family’s experience with illness – illness that may or may not be COVID-19 – over the past three weeks.

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

Letter From Quarantine

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I wasn’t sure what this column should be about. Then, I wasn’t sure if I’d be able to write it.

Last week, I thought, “Everyone’s writing about the new coronavirus, so perhaps I shouldn’t. Maybe my column can be a refreshing break from the news of the world.” But it quickly became clear that to write about anything other than the COVID-19 pandemic that’s sweeping the world would be to ignore an enormous elephant in the room, as the number of confirmed cases rose across the nation and entered Vermont, and as the first Addison County resident tested positive.

As the COVID-19 numbers climbed higher, our family’s world got smaller each day. Middlebury College, where my husband teaches, began spring break a week early and will recommence classes remotely. Appointments and events were crossed off our calendar until there was nothing left. Our typical movements around town were restricted as restaurants, shops, and the library closed their doors.

At some point, it hit me – as it probably hit all of us – that this was a BIG DEAL. By the end of the week, I was suggesting that my daughters keep journals to record their experiences during what will surely be considered an historic event.

So, although there’s surprisingly little material to write about in being at home with five children – at least, not much material that I haven’t mined already — I decided to try.

Then we got sick, and suddenly I wasn’t sure that I’d be able to write anything for a long time.

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

Advice from a Homeschooling Mom

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Vermont schools are closing their doors from March 18 until April 6 (at least) in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, joining schools across the country that are going dark in a proactive effort to curtail the spread of this virus. As one school district after another cancels classes, I’ve received numerous requests from friends nationwide, all asking a version of the same question: “As a homeschooling mom, do you have any advice for us on homeschooling our kids?”

Before answering that question, I’ll admit that I’m writing this from a position of privilege: Our family is somewhat uniquely situated so that COVID-19 has had a less shocking impact on our daily lives. We’ve been homeschooling our kids since 2016. With five children, we have a large stash of toilet paper already on hand. We live in a small town, and our yard is 12 acres of rolling fields, plus a treehouse, yurt, and trampoline. The college where my husband teaches went remote last week, so he’s had to figure out how to teach his courses digitally, but his job is secure and he can work from home. This is privilege, and I acknowledge that others are struggling in many ways in which our family is not.

But if you’re still with me, I’d like to offer you encouragement rather than advice. My brief answer to the question, “How do we homeschool our kids during this time?” is: Don’t worry about it.

Here’s a question back for you: Has your school district told you that you’re responsible for ensuring your child’s academic progress while school is suspended? No? Then, congratulations! You get a pass; this is not your job.

Of course, if your school has provided work packets, or if they’re conducting online learning, by all means support your child in those things.

And if the idea of homeschooling fills you with joy – if it’s something you’ve always wanted to try and now you finally have the chance – go for it! You probably don’t even need my advice in this case; you’re likely soaking in all the online resources and philosophies and reading lists already.

But what I’m hearing and seeing most is a lot of stress from parents, who are overwhelmed with the idea that they have to translate their child’s schooling over to their home environment with only a few days’ notice. These parents are drawing up schedules, purchasing workbooks, and scouring the internet for learning apps. In between, they’re posting crazy-eyed memes on social media.

Let’s all take a deep breath.

I wonder where this stress is coming from, this pressure to transform from parent to teacher like a superhero in a phone booth. I’m unaware of any school district explicitly placing this expectation on parents. I suspect that it comes from…ourselves. It’s reinforced by our social circles, and reinforced further on social media – because if all of our friends are managing somehow to pull off structured, enriching homeschooling, we need to keep up or risk feeling like inadequate people and failed parents.

But the great thing about expectations, whether from inside ourselves or from others, is that we have the freedom to say “no” to them – which is what homeschooling families have been doing for decades.

So I’d encourage you to feel free to treat the next few weeks as a school holiday. This is not a normal time, and it’s okay to act like it’s a special occasion. (My own family has decided to take our spring break from school earlier than planned.) A few weeks – even a few months – without structured learning are not going to rot your children’s brains or interfere with their chances of getting into a decent college. Should you be fortunate enough to be home with your family at this time, enjoy each other! How often are we commanded to stop the frantic pace at which most of us live our lives? Appreciate the gift of time together. Do what you’d do on a snow day. Rest, play, eat, repeat. As long as your kids aren’t spending all day in front of a screen, they’re going to be just fine.

Now, I understand that after a couple of weeks of unstructured free time your children are likely attempting to destroy each other and you are losing your mind; that happens in my house, too. This is when routine and structure become essential to everyone’s sanity. You can call this “homeschooling,” if you like, but here’s a tip: Before you get started, consider the difference between “school at home” and “homeschooling.”

My biggest mistake when I started homeschooling was to try and schedule our days as if we were doing “school at home.” I’ve spent the past few years trying to wean myself and my children from the idea that our homeschooling should look just like conventional school, only at home —  complete with discrete subject areas blocked out for certain lengths of time. (I even scheduled in “RECESS” for the first couple of years!)

Here’s the difference: You are not attempting to shuttle 30-some children through a school day in which they need to reach government mandated benchmarks. You are your children’s parent, which gives you a unique relationship with them that even the best teacher can never achieve. And your setting isn’t an institutional school building, but your very own house.

To get yourself started, here are a few things you might do:

*TONS of reading aloud. (Now is a great time for epic series that feature good vs. evil and are full of hope – think Narnia, Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, or even the Little House series. Our family has also enjoyed Patricia C. Wrede’s Enchanted Forest Chronicles, and we’re planning to begin S. D. Smith’s Green Ember series.) When your voice gets tired, put on some audio books.

*Games, of the board and card variety.

*Go outside as much as possible. If you don’t have a large yard – or any yard – drive to a local hiking trail.

*Crafts – by which I mean blank paper and whatever markers, crayons, colored pencils, or paints you have around. If you’re feeling crazy, you can toss in some scissors or glitter glue.

*Cook together.

*Work on those sewing or knitting projects that are sitting half-finished in the tote bag.

*Watch movies – especially if you’ve read the book first!

*Write actual letters to family and friends.

My guess is that, after a few days of this, you’ll look around and realize that your kids are actually learning, just not in ways that look like conventional school. They’ve probably started writing books, putting on plays, making music, building cities or zoos or airports, creating art. That counts! And what they’re learning this way will actually stick, unlike many of the things that they’re forced to memorize in a school setting. This is the beauty of homeschool.

If you want to take it one step further, notice what your children are passionate about. Is it a book series? Legos? A particular animal? Manga? Dump trucks? Poland in the 19th century? Identify one thing and help your child follow their passion: Look it up online, get books about it, watch films about it – follow the rabbit hole as far as it leads. The secret is that any subject area has embedded in it mathematical, literary, scientific, and historical applications – and your child won’t even notice, they’ll be having so much fun.

While you’re at it, share with your child something that you’re passionate about, something that brings you joy.

You and your children are likely processing a great many things right now. Everyone’s senses are heightened, we’re all mourning cancelled plans, and even leaving the house feels like a calculated decision. It’s exhausting. You don’t need one more thing that’s going to add stress to your life, so if homeschooling feels like that, don’t do it. Give yourself grace and space so that you can parent your children through this.

Your children don’t need you to be their teacher right now; they need you to be their parent. They need the security of your love, and they need you to model how to be calm even when the world is not. They don’t need their home to be a school; they need their home to be a place of rest, happiness, and comfort.

Comfy Chair Wars

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I’ll be honest with you: It’s not easy for me to focus on writing this column. Last night, we turned the clocks ahead one hour, but the baby seems not to have noticed. And it’s 46 degrees and sunny outside, with only a few patches of snow on the ground. (If you’re not a Vermonter, that’s amazing spring fever weather this time of year!) I’ve sent my family off to open barn at the sheep farm, and about the last place I want to be is inside forcing my exhausted brain to transcribe coherent thoughts while the ducks are having a party on the lawn outside.

But these signs of spring give me hope that we may be approaching a truce in the Comfy Chair Wars of 2020.

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

Pajama Games

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Now that we have a new baby in the house, one of the first questions I get asked (on rare occasions when I appear in public) is: “How are you sleeping?”

The implication is that, because babies are known for waking multiple times in the night to eat, my husband and I must not be getting a full night’s sleep. This is true, but it’s nothing new: My husband and I haven’t gotten a full night’s sleep in almost thirteen years.

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

On February, and the Search for Home

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After a fairly lackluster winter, we had our first big snowstorm yesterday.

Today, the world beyond my windows is gorgeous. Because the snow was preceded by ice, the tree branches bend low and glitter in the sunlight as if they’re encased in glass. Temperatures have yet to rise above freezing, so the snow still lies heavy on the evergreens. I’m unsure of the total accumulation – I’d estimate somewhere between 8 to 12 inches – but the fields are blanketed white, and the remaining hay bales in our neighbor’s field look like marshmallows tipped on their sides. The sun came out today, in a bright blue sky broken by puffy white clouds. To step outside is to experience “the white way of delight,” as my daughters say, quoting from Anne of Green Gables.

Last week, my eldest daughter asked me to send her to boarding school in Florida.

She was joking, I think. But then again, it’s February. Apparently it’s not easy to be a Vermont kid in February.

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