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Faith in Vermont: Spring, Tweens, and Other Liminal Things

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Posted on March 19, 2019 | Blog Category:
By Faith Gong



Photo credit: Arianna Graham-Gurland

(Photo credit: Arianna Graham-Gurland)

 

I‘m writing this on the day after Ash Wednesday – a day for which there is no official name in the liturgical calendar. Outside, the weather is doing what my New England relatives call “spitting snow,” meaning that small flakes are swirling down from the sky without amounting to much on the ground. The sky is the same dirty-white color as the patches of old snow; the same color as the white birch from which our bird feeder hangs with just a thin crust of suet remaining inside. There’s no point in refilling the feeder now; there are rumors of spring, which means that the bears will start stirring on Chipman Hill again. 

“Last night, I dreamed it was spring!” one of my daughters announces at breakfast. “I could feel how warm it was!”

Spring will arrive. But for now, snow clouds obscure the Green Mountains, and there’s still great sledding on the north face of our back hill. We hover in this liminal space, the threshold between an ending and a beginning, the almost-but-not-yet. 

I feel this liminality in the weather, in this Lenten season between Ash Wednesday and Easter, and in my eldest daughter.

***

She is eleven-and-a-half, officially a “tween.” 

This label that defines my daughter rattles me unlike any label used previously to categorize her life stages: newborn, infant, toddler, and so on. 

“Tween” is a term that I don’t recall from my own adolescence. Although it dates from the 1300s as a shortened form of “between,” and was used by J.R.R. Tolkien to describe pubescent Hobbits, its popular usage denoting young people between the ages of 10 and 13 – no longer quite children but not yet teens – began around the year 2001. 

I have whiplash at how quickly it happened: Yesterday I was taking her to newborn checkups, full of nervous pride; today I’m trying to remain neutral while offering to leave the exam room so she can talk alone with her pediatrician. It caught me off guard to realize that my firstborn child has likely passed the halfway point of her years living at home with us. 

Everyone tells you how fast time passes after you have a baby, and you nod like you understand – but you don’t. You can’t; not until you’ve seen the first pimples break out on your baby’s face. 

“Oh my gosh, we need to talk about skin care!” you realize. Then you try not to panic at the thought of all the other things – some of them reallybigthings – that you need to tell her. Things you were planning to tell her but haven’t, not yet, because you had so much time and she was still too young. 

***

Half the time, she still seems too young. Here’s what it’s like to have a tween:

-You recently gave her a (tightly controlled) laptop, which she uses to write her first novel, compile quarterly family newsletters, and co-author a 22-page musical with her friend in Brooklyn. But she still styles the hair of her little sisters’ dolls and makes elaborate Playmobil setups with her friends. 

-She’s reading a book about astrophysics, but you can’t get her to browse beyond the picture books in the library. 

-She feels free to critique every aspect of your family, your parenting, your housekeeping -- often accompanied by eyerolls and stomping upstairs. But she still cries and calls for you at night; she’s afraid of the dark, of witches, and of growing up.

***

It’s surprisingly enjoyable to have a tween in the house. Before I had children of my own and taught other people’s children, this was the age that scared me. 

My daughter and her friends may be as tall (or taller) as me, but I don’t find them intimidating. These tweens are delightful: They are bitingly funny, whip-smart, well-informed about the world, and critical of popular culture. (One of my daughter’s friends speculated recently at our kitchen island that the downfall of civilization might be summed up by “the poop emoji.”)

I no longer have to entertain these adolescents; I enjoy being a fly on the wall. I listen, laugh, and marvel at the people my daughter and her friends are becoming. They are growing into themselves, and the ideas they express are no longer just what they’ve been fed by their parents, but come instead from autonomous minds. 

***

To have a child who can think for herself, perform basic tasks for herself, andeven help around the house: This is, in many ways, what we dreamed of back in those murky days of night feedings and diaper changes. 

Still, now I understand why parents of older children would look at me with bemused pity when I complained about the challenges of parenting babies. If I pressed them for a ray of hope or assurance that it got easier, they would say, “It doesn’t get easier; it gets different.” Or, “Little children, little problems; big children, big problems.” 

I figured they’d just forgotten what it was like to have infants. Now I know they hadn’t forgotten at all.

Imagine this: You haven’t had a decent night’s sleep in a decade or more, and suddenly you’re asked to write a dissertation on the theory of everything. Nothing is off limits: religion, politics, education, relationships and sex, family, your very self – all of these are up for discussion and dissection. Despite your exhausted and foggy brain, you’d better be prepared to come up with some answers.

When you do answer, half the time she doesn’t hear what you mean to say, or she interprets your tone and body language in ways that you didn’t intend. 

And you realize that this has shifted from a relationship based on you meeting her needs in exchange for affection, to a relationship that holds the promise of real connection -- so long as you’re willing to fight through everything that prevents most humans from understanding each other. 

***

It’s still spitting snow when I take the dog for a walk through our field. It’s almost dinnertime, but because the days are lengthening the sun is still sinking behind Chipman Hill. For a few minutes, the combination of sunset and snowfall creates atmospheric conditions that cause the entire sky to flame a hazy orange. It's a particular beauty that is only possible right now, because of this brief, passing, liminal moment. 

 

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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