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Faith in Vermont: "It's January"

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Posted on January 22, 2019 | Blog Category:
By Faith Gong



My 11-year-old daughter, usually my most centered child, was seething. Her hands clenched and unclenched at her sides, her breathing sped up, and she was gnashing her teeth – actually gnashing her teeth. (I’d never really witnessed teeth-gnashing until I had children of my own.)

“I just feel like I haven’t learned anything today!” she spewed out, throwing her pencil to the floor.

We’d passed hour three of our homeschool morning. Thus far, she had watched a portion of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech before writing a short essay about her own dreams; she had read a chapter of the historical novel Johnny Tremain; she had completed a math lesson in which she learned why bees use hexagons to build their hives; she had spent 20 minutes working on her second semi-autobiographical novel; she had read and discussed a history chapter about the early Puritans, including a comparison of the various forms of government; and she had finished a page in her Latin workbook.

But she hadn’t learned anything. 

If there’s one thing that parenting and homeschooling have taught me, especially as we enter the “tween” years, it’s that these outbursts are neither logical nor personal. In response to my daughter, I said, “I’m so sorry,” and went about my business.

I decided to follow up later, after she’d cooled down. That afternoon, when I was able to get her alone, I said, “So, that thing this morning about not learning anything? Was that just a blah morning, or was is something more long-term that we should discuss?”

She shrugged. “Just a blah morning. It’s January.”

I couldn’t have said it better myself.

***

It’s January. 

Here is what January means in this neck of the woods:

The days are longer than they were back in December – now averaging a bit more than 9 hours of sunlight each day – but with the sun rising past 7 AM and setting before 5 PM, things can still feel a bit bleak. 

The month began drably, with no snow to decorate the black trees and brown ground. Then the snow arrived. Snow can be good, because it’s more beautiful (and fun) than frozen ground. But this snow came paired with January’s customary stretch of bitterly cold temperatures. When the high is in the single digits and the low is sub-zero, playing in the snow becomes less fun. Our thermometer tends to exaggerate, but one morning last week we couldn’t see the mercury; it wasn’t really minus-30 degrees, but the thermometer thought it was.

Whatever the weather, January is in the unenviable position of a let-down month. It holds little appeal, particularly for children, as it falls right after a multi-month stretch of autumn and winter holidays. The only light on the horizon is Valentine’s Day, a minor holiday (unless you’re in the chocolate, flower, or greeting card business.)

On a personal note, January has resurrected The Cough. The Cough is a major annoyance, a racking hacking that hijacks my breath, tickles my chest, and leaves me with aching ribs. It doesn’t come with a fever or any other symptoms that might give me an excuse to take to my bed or navigate the logistics of visiting a doctor. Instead, we crank up the humidifiers, and I smear menthol on my chest and consume massive amounts of herbal cough drops, herbal tea blends with names like “Breathe Easy,” and syrups made from elderberries, wild cherry bark, and other natural remedies – all of which share a taste described by one discerning friend as “cat pee.” 

Last winter, The Cough plagued me for three straight months, beginning in December. This New Year’s Eve, as I read back over my 2018 journals and recalled how awful I’d felt the previous year, I gave thanks that I was in better health this year. The Cough began on New Year’s Day.

It’s January.

***

This January, I keep thinking about something I read by the author Anne Lamott:

dear friend once got a call from a world-famous screenwriter, who, in the throes of grandiosity, had lost or was losing almost everything precious to him. He recounted a litany of troubles and obsessions, from the distant wife to the scary child to the lack of prospects, and then demanded that my friend gave him one good reason to stay here on this vale of tears.

My friend listened attentively, which is pretty much all we have to offer, and then said, "Mornings are nice."

 

As it happens, “Mornings are nice” does not work for January – at least not in my house. Mornings involve waking up in the dark, pulling on multiple layers, and stumbling out into the sub-zero dawn in order to release the chickens and ducks from their coops. Not that they want to be let out: Most pitiful of all this winter are our ducks, who are supposed to be hardier than the chickens. They apparently didn’t get that memo; while the chickens can be lured outside by food, the ducks just sit in their coop and kvetch. (I’d never really witnessed kvetch-ing until I had ducks of my own.)

Back inside, I regain feeling in my fingers and attempt to rouse my daughters. They have only to walk up one flight of stairs to get to school, they’re usually still in their pajamas when the school bus passes our driveway, but are they grateful? Nope; they’re not much better than the ducks.

So mornings may not be nice, but the point is that sometimes we need only one small thing to endure. This January, my thing has been afternoons -- specifically between about 3:30 and 5 o’clock. This is usually when we’re driving home from afternoon activities and errands. At home, I’ll warm up a second cup of coffee, pull on my layers, go outside to walk the dog, and look up. 

Have you seen the afternoon sky lately? It begins bright blue, with wispy streaks of clouds glowing pink and gold around the edges in the late afternoon sun; it’s like being inside a giant Faberge egg. As the sun sinks lower, the sky starts to really show off: Pinks, purples, reds, and oranges crescendo into a grand finale before fading to gray. 

This week, the afternoon skies have been so spectacular that I don’t know why it hasn’t made news. Why are we all going about our business, heads down, hands on the wheel, instead of coming to a standstill and just looking?

Maybe it’s because I’m well-and-truly middle-aged now – a life stage I like to think of as “when you finally realize that all your dreams and plans have an expiration date” – but I’m a sucker for late-stage glory. I love hearing about artists, writers, and musicians who began their careers in their 40s. And you can keep the easy beauty of spring, summer, and fall; I’ll take a mid-January sunset sky. Afternoons are nice.

 

Faith Gong has worked as an elementary school teacher, a freelance photographer, and a nonprofit director. She lives in Middlebury with her husband, four daughters, assorted chickens and ducks, one feisty cat, and one anxiety-prone labradoodle. In her "free time," she writes for her blog, The Pickle Patch.

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