Faith Gong: Reflections on a decade

My third daughter turned ten on March 1.

The momentousness of the occasion didn’t hit me at first. With birthdays, I’m usually just relieved to have them successfully behind us: Gifts purchased, wrapped, and opened. Cake baked, frosted, lit, and consumed. Birthday child feeling sufficiently loved and celebrated for another year.

But after the last candle was extinguished, I did the math, and it seems that I now have three children with ages in the double digits. This leaves only two children in the single digits (and without pierced ears, ten being the age at which our family considers you responsible enough to handle earrings.)

Maybe that doesn’t seem momentous to you. To me, it marks the shocking realization that the majority of my children are more than halfway to adulthood.

My daughter’s birthday points to another milestone: If she is ten, then our family has now lived in Vermont for ten years.

This daughter’s birth was interwoven with our move to Vermont. I was hugely pregnant with her and holding down the fort in California with our other two children when my husband embarked on a two-week job interview trip to the East Coast. He brought back photographs of snow-covered Middlebury (and his rental car stuck in a snowbank on the side of Route 7, a predicament from which he was rescued by helpful passersby). He accepted a job offer at Middlebury College a month before our daughter was born, and at one month old she accompanied us to Vermont for a whirlwind house-hunting trip. Two months later, we moved to Vermont for good.

Ten years is the longest I’ve lived in one place since I left home for college. Prior to Vermont, my longest sojourn was in New York City. Shortly before I left New York, I was at a party where an older woman asked whether I was a native Manhattanite. Feeling slightly flattered, I told her I’d lived in the city for seven years.

“Well,” she said, “that makes you practically a native.”

Nothing could be further from the Vermont ethos. No matter how long I live here — and I have no plans to leave — I will never be considered a native Vermonter. My two youngest children were born in Vermont, and they will never be considered native Vermonters, either. The rule here isn’t seven years, but seven generations.

Native or not, a year after we arrived in Vermont, I started writing this column. I pitched it to my editor as “a column about life in Vermont, from the perspective of a parent with young children.” Looking back, I want to pat my younger self on the head for the adorable naivete of assuming that I had any worthy insights about life in Vermont or parenting young children. 

Both parenting and Vermont are far more complicated than I realized in 2012; back then, I could see only about 10% of these two icebergs above water: the sleep deprivation and toilet training of early parenthood, and the emerald mountains and red barns of Vermont. All the while, the jagged edges of things like puberty and school, a floundering dairy industry and an opiate crisis were lurking under the water’s murky surface. I am no longer certain of what I’m dealing with.

After nine years of writing 245 of these columns, after ten years of living in Vermont and thirteen years of parenting, here is what I have learned with certainty: The most important thing to determine — in writing, parenting, and in life — is what story you are telling. Whether we’re aware of it, we all tell ourselves a story: a story about the world and our place in it, of the events we experience and the people we encounter.

I believe it’s crucial to know this, because the narrative you create, the story you tell — that’s how you live. If you’re a writer, your story has the additional power to influence how others live their lives.

For instance, one of my personal parenting low points occurred five years ago, when our family was on sabbatical for a semester. We were driving along a highway in Southern California in a car with four screaming children. Removed from my Vermont community, exhausted by homeschooling for the first time, overwhelmed by everything, I turned to my husband and said, quite seriously, “Maybe you should just drop me off at the hospital; I think I need psychiatric help.”

My husband wisely suggested that we take the kids home for a snack before committing me, and the crisis passed. Looking back on that moment, I see now that the issue was not so much my own mental health or my children’s behavior: The issue was that I was reading too much Joan Didion.

Joan Didion will always be one of my favorite authors; her use of language forever altered how I approach the craft of writing. But when I read Didion, I feel like I have no skin — like all my nerves are raw and exposed. The story she tells in her fiction and nonfiction is one of rugged pioneers who took no cut-offs and morphed into dissociated Southern Californians driving endless freeways while the Santa Ana winds set the hills ablaze with wildfires. When I immerse myself in this sort of narrative, it shapes how I see the world, how I parent, and how I live.

I don’t want to be anyone’s Joan Didion.

Nobody’s existence is neutral; there are multiple perspectives on everything, and we get to choose which perspectives we include in our own narrative.

Is the world a harsh planet in which everyone is out for themselves and nobody can be trusted? Or is it a gorgeous home that never ceases to amaze us with natural beauty and surprising acts of love by our fellow humans? Yes.

Is Vermont a state of prohibitively high taxes, a massive drug problem, an overloaded foster care system, and failing farms? Or is it a lovely collection of small communities where children can enjoy the rare gift of a childhood spent in nature, and where it’s the norm to know your local farmers? Yes.

Are children noisy, messy creatures who disrupt our sleep and prevent us from doing what we really want? Or are they miraculous beings whom we have the brief honor of shepherding through the process of becoming the next generation? Yes.

Both stories are equally true; you choose the one to live by.

My biggest regrets in parenting, writing, and living occur when I focus on the dark story; at those times, fear and anger are the primary emotions driving me. So I have determined to tell the light side of the story.

This is no Pollyannaish denial of all that is wrong in the world; on the contrary, I find that when I try to live according to a more positive narrative, it better equips me to address the negative. On the other hand, when I allow the negative to be my dominant story, I flounder in unproductive anxiety and depression.

It’s the difference between entering a dark room carrying an already-lit candle, versus entering a dark room and attempting to locate and light a candle.

It’s taken me a decade to articulate, but In my family, in my community, and in my writing, I want to be the one carrying the candle.

Faith Gong has worked as an elementary school teacher, a freelance photographer, and a nonprofit director. She lives in Middlebury with her husband, five children, 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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