I’m thrilled to have one of my essays in Hippocampus Magazine, a wonderful online magazine devoted to creative nonfiction. The essay reflects on a particularly scary time during my pregnancy with my daughter (fortunately, everything turned out well).
I’m excited to have an essay about my strong, self-assured daughter published on the terrific Mamalode website this week! Preschoolers sometimes get a bad reputation for constantly saying “No,” but in this essay I explore why I’m happy that my daughter feels comfortable using this word. Please click the link below to read it!
The only reason I like folding laundry is because I use it as an excuse to get hooked on a TV show. Lately, that show’s been Season 6 of Parenthood. I’m enjoying it, but I feel extremely distracted by a question nobody else on the internet seems to be asking: what in the world qualifies Kristina Braverman to be a school principal?
I suppose I can get past the fact that she and her husband singlehandedly founded their own charter school, with very little money, in just a few months. I can do a little suspension of disbelief. But come on! This is a woman who, as far as I know (and yes, I know she’s a fictional character, but bear with me), has never worked in a school. She’s never been a teacher. There’s no evidence that she has any kind of degree in educational administration. The only experiences she’s had with school are these: she was once a student in a school, and she is now a parent of a child who attends school. She may very well have a lot of ideas about school, but the fact is, she has no idea what it’s like to work in one.
Nevertheless, she has suddenly transitioned to leading a school, eliciting no surprise from any of the show’s characters or critics. This makes me worry that people somehow find her “qualifications” actually adequate for the job. Her position must be socially acceptable enough for it to make it into the show’s script without any skeptical murmurs. But why? Most people have visited a doctor’s office or sat on jury duty, but they don’t seem to think one can become a doctor or lawyer simply by hanging a sign out front and taking on clients.
I get that Kristina was inspired by her son Max’s negative experiences to create a school that would better serve students like him. That’s noble, but I still think she should have hired an experienced educator for the job (what happened to Mr. Knight anyway?). I mean, what if she had been inspired by the treatment she received during her medical scare a few seasons ago, and decided to become a surgeon instead? Wouldn’t we have at least seen her sweating over the MCATs? To be a principal, it seems like all she had to do was walk into the school. And so far, we haven’t even seen any actual teachers or support staff; there’s no sense of the many interlocking pieces that actually make a school.
Parenthood’s whole charter school storyline plays into the idea that all schools need is a passionate idea and good intentions. But good teaching and school leadership is much more than that. Take my husband for example. He’s a principal (one of those amazing “teaching principals” who has chosen to take on two classes that he teaches every day– just because he loves teaching and students that much). Frankly, he worked his tail off to become a principal. He spent eleven years teaching kids from Kindergarten through twelfth grade, in every kind of class from basic technology to A.P. English, in public and private schools on four continents. He earned three graduate degrees while working full time. He has developed fantastically innovative ideas and practices when it comes to curriculum, pedagogy, and collegiality. And all he can talk about is how much he still has to learn.
I know Parenthood is just a television show. But shows sometimes inadvertently tell us a lot about where we are as a society. Which, I guess, is how I find myself following a plot line about a school governed completely by people who have no actual experience in education. This might be socially acceptable, but in suggesting that you don’t need qualifications or experience to run a school, the show sells the education profession short. It’s also totally unrealistic.
The fact is, most people who have never taught a class would absolutely crumple after even a day of teaching. It’s hard work. And being a principal is not easier. Kristina, for example, has already flubbed a few situations, totally blowing up (in public) at the lunch vendor and escalating the defensiveness of a recalcitrant new student. Rookie mistakes! Too bad my husband wasn’t there to give her a few pointers. She could’ve used them.
Today I did a small favor for a friend. She did one for me too—a bigger one, in my opinion. Big or small, the favors got me thinking about Christmas.
We had this stupendous ice storm in Vermont on Saturday night and pretty much everybody in our corner of the Northeast Kingdom lost power, got it back, lost it again, and so on. This friend of mine lives on a high hill, over a bridge that crosses a creek. She couldn’t leave her house at first, because the road was blocked by a fallen transformer and a tree.
Just as another friend and I were hatching plans to hike water up to her house, this morning they opened the road. She still had no power or water, so I took her kids for a couple of hours and did her dishes. She gave me a bunch of her homegrown meat and forbid me to pay for it. “If you pay for it, I’m just going to go buy you something,” she said. “So don’t.” She left to do some long overdue errands and our kids played together like always; there were baths and bagels with cream cheese and Christmas books, and then she came to pick them up and we parted ways to get ready for our church services.
My in-laws who were visiting from out-of-town commented on how in keeping with the Christmas spirit it was to help each other out, which made me realize how little any of what happened between my friend and me actually had to do with Christmas, because we always do this. We’re often trading kids and food and time, and happily, with other friends who do the same. I’ve fortunately landed in a community here in the Green Mountains where such interchanges are quite common, making the fact that today was December 24th purely tangential—a coincidence, not a catalyst.
On Christmas we celebrate the birth of Jesus, deservedly, because it was a great beginning, a single event that in turn bore a lifetime. That birth grew into years of service and sacrifice, love that leapt past boundaries of race and class, hands laid on lepers and tables thrown over and food multiplied, water walked, heaven promised.
The birth was just the beginning. And the kindness, the generosity of spirit we associate with Christmas, should also be a simple beginning, a birth of something that lasts much longer. Imperfect as we all are, we can find a joy in serving one another that can sustain us well past December.
So when my in-laws remarked that the reciprocal kindness my friend and I shared was “what Christmas was all about,” I thought it was nice (they’re the type whose generosity runs all year round, after all), and perhaps it’s true, but forget Christmas! Forget one day a year. This is what life is all about. And how very blessed we are to live it.
Anyone who moves anywhere waits for this moment: the moment when you realize that you’d miss the place if you ever had to leave.
At first, when you move, the opposite is often true. The new place feels strange and you wish you could go back to the other one which, regardless of your reasons for leaving in the first place, had at least become comfortable. Known.
I remember when we first drove into our new town in Vermont, we’d been driving all night, and in the warm morning sun that would have seemed welcoming had everything not felt so odd, my husband said: “Look at those mountains. Aren’t they beautiful?” But my first thought, which I didn’t actually say, was: no. Swollen and green, they seemed to bear down on the car windows, closing in. I missed the wide blue of Lake Michigan.
Settling in, fighting homesickness, you eventually realize you only build a life by trying to, and we had moved enough to know we had to.
So we did. We went to town, shopped there, talked to people, walked in the woods, met our neighbors, attended playdates, made friends, found a church, planned a garden, raised chickens, adopted cats, muddied our floors and mopped them again and again, put pictures on the walls, and just generally bore down and took up the task of living where we were.
And then they started to happen: those moments.
Sometimes they were dramatic, like when I came back from a run at sunset and saw cloudfires, red and orange, set against the silhouette of Jay Peak. Sometimes they were ordinary, like when my kids and their friends spent a whole afternoon building a fort out of sticks (the “Ever Kids Club,” they called it) on the first semi-warm day of 2013. Either way, they were happening.
I had another one of them this Sunday. My neighbor and I went riding, as we often do, and it was just one of those perfect September days: warm, bright, too early for hunting season, too late for bugs, and we were cantering the horses down the middle of a dirt road, above the valley that dips to Lake Memphremagog, between mountains. In one of those rare moments when full appreciation aligns perfectly with experience, when you catch yourself truly loving the moment in real time instead of retrospect, I realized how much I do have here, in this new place which was only a year ago strange and frightening. Which is not to say that I don’t still miss Lake Michigan. I’ve just made room in my heart for more.
Back at the barn, my neighbor and I were trying to figure out how many more trail rides we could work in before rifle season. “We’ve got to do lots of these,” we agreed.
And how nice it feels to know there’s plenty of time.
There have always been legitimate excuses for me not to have chickens. Reasons have ranged from the rather exotic (“I live on the 13th floor of an apartment building in Shanghai”) to the mundane (“Chickens aren’t allowed in the Petoskey city limits”).
Yet I’ve always been intrigued by the idea of raising laying hens. I love eggs, and second only to growing a vegetable garden, which I also enjoy and plan to expand on this year, chickens seem like an easy way to get a better grip on food production. I told myself I’d get a few as soon as I could.
“As soon as I could” ended up taking a while. My various reasons for not raising chickens over the years frustrated me, but once we moved to Vermont I found it was easy to hide behind those reasons, too. For months after we moved here, I debated even asking my landlord whether or not he’d allow us to keep a few chickens somewhere on our ten-acre (!) yard. When I finally worked up the courage to ask and he said “Sure! Of course!” I turned my concern to housing; coops seemed too expensive. Then a friend gave me her old one. That problem solved, I worried over the logistics of chicks; should I really invest in a brooder, heat lamp, and feeders? Was I capable of raising them, or would I kill them all? Another friend offered to give me three of her baby chicks as soon as they stopped needing round-the-clock heat lamp care. I took a deep breath. “OK,” I said. “Deal.”
You’d think from all my hesitation that I didn’t actually want chickens. But that’s not it at all. I did want them–I do. It’s just that sometimes, inertia is easier. Sometimes thinking about something is easier than doing it. Sometimes the possibility is easier than the reality. When you’re just imagining something, you can’t mess it up. As soon as you start doing, well…then the mistakes creep in.
As I fretted over chickens, another friend of mine was waffling over switching to cloth diapers. Since I’ve cloth diapered both of my children, I offered my best advice. I realized I’d learned a lot about it over the years, and I knew that the concerns that seemed so overwhelming to her had easy solutions. Finally, she took the plunge and ordered a few cloth diapers. Once they arrived, it took her a few days to start using them. “I kept waiting for the right moment,” she told me later. “I told myself I’d wait until the baby’s rash cleared up. I told myself I’d wait until after the class field trip. Then I finally told myself, ‘Get over it! Just put a diaper on the baby!'”
I knew exactly how she felt. Cloth diapers were to her what chickens were to me (is it worth mentioning that this friend kept no less than twenty chickens in her barn?). I figured, if she could put a diaper on the baby, I could get the chickens.
And I did. I cleaned out a Rubbermaid tote. I bought $2 feeders and waterers, a bag of chicken food, a hunk of sawdust, and a square of hardware cloth at the farm store. Then I went to my friend’s house and came out with a cardboard box that peeped all the way home.
I was convinced they’d die the first night. I dreamed that our cats found their way into the bathroom, that the chickens found their way out. But when I woke up, there they were, peeping away. And a week later, they’re still here.
My kids love to hold them. I’ve figured out how to keep them from flooding their water with pine shavings. My husband and I are debating plans for fencing and runs. Is it hard? Not really. It’s something new, but that’s not actually the same thing. We just let ourselves think it is. Imagining having chickens, of course, was technically easier than actually having them. But it wasn’t very rewarding.
Bringing chickens into my bathroom has taught me a lesson so obvious it feels silly to write down, but I will anyway: The only way to start doing something is to start doing it.
Have you ever been in that in-between period, perhaps after moving, when “home” doesn’t refer to just one place? Several times a day I casually refer to our new house in Vermont as “home” (“I’m heading home now.” “See you at home.” “Are you stopping by home before you go to the meeting?”), but I’m about to leave for a weekend reunion in Michigan, and whenever I talk about that, I say, “I’m going home to see my friends.” These two invocations of the word seem at once casual and significant: the first refers to the home I have, the second to an idea of home I still feel and cannot simply discard based on changed circumstance.
I’m fascinated by what makes people feel at home in a particular place. Whenever I think the formula is simple–say, where someone grew up–I remember the exceptions: the friend I met in Germany, a transplant from another continent, who had settled definitively on her own in a small village outside the city and felt with admirable certainty that she was at home there; the friend’s sister who’d always felt out of place in her hometown and only settled happily once she moved across the country to a different climate; and even my own parents, who both moved to Michigan from different places but now call it their home above either of their “home” states (I know that took a while).
Home is, of course, defined practically by necessity; it’s wherever you find the job or the house, it’s wherever your immediate family lives. But once we get past the practical and focus on the felt, I’m fascinated by the question: what specific ingredients push a place from “here” to “home?”
Is it familiarity, particular people, or a sense of community, all of which grow over time and can’t be rushed? Positive associations (or the absence of negative associations), which can take root in early childhood? Personal values, which connect a person inextricably to certain elements of a place– presence of extended family, viability of career options? Hobbies (can you hunt and fish here, or can you go to a mall)? My peripatetic lifestyle has brought me to many places, but I haven’t felt at home in all of them– or even in most of them, despite living there.
I know that feeling “at home” is important to human identity. Despite the high mobility possible in our global society, identification with a particular place is grounding. My three-and-a-half year old son, who was quite shaken by our move this summer, still talks frequently about being at home now in Vermont. It’s a definite point of security for him, and I always reinforce it, even though this place is still an evolving home for me.
So yes, I’m going “home” this weekend, but I’m sure when I leave, I’ll say I’m going back “home” too. I’m leaving home to go home, twice in one weekend!
I’d love to hear some comments addressing these questions: Do you feel “at home” where you live? How do you know you’re home? How hard would it be to leave? Could you imagine yourself feeling at home somewhere else?