Sunday
Sep112016

What I Remember

In late June of 2001, we moved out of Manhattan and up to the Hudson Highlands. I had a three-month-old baby, Tess. She was a little more fragile than other newborns; she was born five weeks early and had spent ten days in the NICU before coming home to us. She needed lots of extra holding; it seems like I spent most of that summer nursing her while reading the entire Inspector Lynley series, which I checked out in bulk from our new library.

With Tess's arrival, we had four children aged 8 and under. Our two oldest had just started at their new school the week before--Christian in third grade and James in kindergarten. Two-year-old Hope followed me around our new house every day and asked me when we were going to go "home." I hadn't had much time to get to know people, what with unpacking and post-partum sleep deprivation, but we had met three houses' worth of very kind neighbors. 

The morning of September 11th, Patrick took the train into Manhattan for work, like he did every day. I put the boys on the school bus, cleaned up breakfast, and was reading to Hope and nursing Tess. A knock on the door interrupted us; I went to answer it while trying to comfort indignant Tess. It was darling, newly wed Mary, my neighbor from across the street.

"Is Patrick all right?" she asked. 

I told her that as far as I knew, he was fine, and asked why. 

"Does he work in the World Trade Center?"

"No, he's not downtown; he's on the east side," I said. "His office is across the street from the United Nations." 

"Oh, good." Her relief was obvious.

I asked her what was going on, and she told me a plane had hit one of the Twin Towers. I pictured one of the small private planes that I'd often seen flying along the Hudson River. I asked her in, and we made our way around all the unpacked boxes to the master bedroom. We sat down on the edge of my unmade bed and turned on the TV while I bounced fussy Tess until my thighs ached. I still didn't know the new channel lineup, but I eventually found CNN, and Mary and I watched the coverage of the crash together.

Just after the first plane hit the North Tower, it seemed like a bizarre accident; no one at that point thought the plane had crashed deliberately. But as we watched the live coverage, listening to reporters trying to figure out what was going on, the second plane hit the South Tower--right in front of our eyes. 

That was when everything changed. For me, the event instantly transformed from a tragic but random event to an apocalyptic attack of unknown proportions. Looking back, that is what I remember most clearly: that we had no idea what the next target would be, or how many targets there would be. Once the Pentagon was hit, my terrified mind told me that an attack on the UN was a logical possibility--and my husband was far too close to it for comfort. I frantically tried to reach Patrick in every way I knew how. 

He had a cell phone, but at that point, all cell phones were useless; the city's cell towers had all been on top of the WTC. And no one at Patrick's law firm was picking up the phone. Social media and smart phones didn't exist, and email was a rudimentary thing in those days. Sometimes it's difficult to remember how different the world was before texting and tweeting and instant messaging. But I remember how isolated and desperate I felt that day. 

But our phone started to ring. Members of our new church congregation knew Patrick worked in the city, but they didn't know where. I told people over and over again that I was positive he was safe, but that was a lie. 

And then the school called; all the children were being sent home. I met the boys at the bus stop, gave the three older kids a snack, and let them watch VHS tape after VHS tape on the little TV upstairs. I couldn't tear myself away from the news coverage, but I didn't want the kids to see any of it. I'd witnessed people jumping or falling out of the upper floors of the towers. CNN only showed that footage once, when it was live; mercifully, I never saw it again, but I'll never forget it. 

That morning, Patrick got off the train at Grand Central Station and walked a few blocks uptown, as he always did. He passed several people who were standing on the street and looking south. In New York, you don't generally pay attention to strangers doing odd things, but he finally asked a construction worker what was going on. The guy said he'd been working at the top of one of the Trump buildings and had seen a plane hit one of the World Trade Center towers. Patrick's initial reaction was the same as mine--it had to have been an accident. 

By the time he got to his office, the second tower had been hit, and the law firm immediately shut down and sent everyone home. Patrick went back to Grand Central and got on a Hudson Line train--but he and all the other anxious passengers sat waiting in the station for a long time. Finally armed men came down the platform and asked everyone to exit the train and the building as quickly as possible. The historic station was thought to be a potential target and had been closed. People started stampeding off the train and through the halls; Patrick says that's the only time he was truly frightened. 

Once outside, he waited in a block-long line for a pay phone so he could call me. We talked briefly, and I can't describe the relief I felt when I heard his voice. Once we hung up, I burst out sobbing and couldn't stop for a long time. I knew he was safe for the moment, but no one knew what would happen next. 

Patrick went over to Times Square, where the Jumbotron showed live footage of what was going on downtown. He stood with thousands of other people in the streets and watched the second tower collapse. 

In ever increasing shock, he decided to see if he could take a ferry across the Hudson to Hoboken; he figured that his parents or I could then drive down and pick him up. He walked west to Eleventh Avenue. There he saw two alarming things. First, the line for the ferry was literally a mile long. He realized getting across the river was not an option.

But far worse, for the first time he saw people walking up the avenue from downtown. They were grey with dust, hollow-eyed, and numb. They looked like zombies. 

He turned and also walked uptown--all the way to his best friend from college David's apartment at 106th and Broadway. He and David and Catherine (David's wife) sat on their couch for hours, glued to CNN. The Pentagon. Pennsylvania. Footage of the towers on endless repeat. It was sickening, but it was almost impossible to look away.

A while later, it was announced that trains were running on the Hudson Line again, so Patrick walked up and over to the Harlem station and waited for a train. He says that when one finally arrived, it was packed to the gills, like a Tokyo subway train at rush hour. He elbowed his way on and got home to us a little more than an hour later. Holding him in my arms late that afternoon was the best feeling in the world--except that I knew that thousands of families weren't so lucky. 

The days that followed are a blur. I know there was no school the following day--maybe not for the rest of the week. Patrick eventually went back to work, and life slowly assumed a more normal routine. But it was a new normal, far different than the one we'd had until that morning. And the world hasn't been the same since.

I experienced intense survivor's guilt for months. We'd abandoned our beloved city just weeks before, and now it struggled to rebuild without us there to help. We still visited Manhattan often, but we could no longer claim it as our own. 

One night the next spring, I was driving along the river in New Jersey for some reason, and I saw the Tribute in Light for the first time. I hadn't known about it beforehand; remember, there was no Facebook, no Instagram, and I didn't watch the news very often. At first, I thought it was some sort of hallucination. The sight of those two beams of light reaching up from the ground and into the infinite sky--it was astonishing. I had to pull over and stare, my grief renewed. 

Three and a half years later, Patrick and new baby Daniel and I were on our way to London for a quick trip. Due to a passport mixup, we couldn't take our original plane. We already had a babysitter for the other four chlidren, so we stayed overnight in a hotel in downtown Manhattan. Our window directly overlooked the Ground Zero site, which was brightly lit, with heavy equipment driving around and people working. I couldn't bear to look at it for more than a minute, and quickly drew the blackout shades. 

Fifteen years later, I still get emotional when I talk about the events of that day. Probably everyone old enough to remember does. And I can't help thinking of another day four years before 9/11.

On a rare day off, Patrick and I took Christian and James downtown. We walked along Battery Park and ate street hot dogs. Christian chased seagulls while James watched from the stroller, laughing glorious toddler belly laughs. It was a gorgeous, clear day, so we decided to go up to the observation deck at the top of the World Trade Center. I'd been up to the top of the Empire State Building, but had never seen the view from the Twin Towers. We stood in line for quite a while, but it was James's nap time by this time. Normally, he happily fell asleep in his stroller, but this day, he was fidgety and cranky. 

Finally, when it was apparent that James would not be distracted or lulled in any way, I turned to Patrick. "Let's go up another day," I said. "After all, it'll always be here." 

But we never did make it back.

Thursday
Aug182016

Slow Cooker Breakfast Cobbler

Chopped nectarines and plums form the base of my latest cobbler. I don't know why this photo loaded sideways, and I can't seem to fix it.

Bonne rentrée! Happy Back to School!

School day mornings are pretty busy, so I make breakfast the night before. This is one of our favorites. These days, with only four kids at home, I serve half of it one day and put the rest in a covered stoneware dish in the fridge. The next morning, I gently warm up the second half in the oven before serving.

This recipe is filling, but not terribly sweet (making it ideal for breakfast, in my opinion). I'm sure you could add more sugar, if you wanted. But try it this way first.

My slow cooker is a 6-quart Cuisinart with a "keep warm" feature--nice, but not necessary for this recipe.

Slow Cooker Breakfast Cobbler

1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter

4 cups fruit, fresh or frozen*

1/3 cup white sugar

Another 1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter

2 cups all-purpose flour

1/4 cup brown sugar

1 tablespoon baking powder

1/2 teaspoon salt

1 cup heavy cream (best), sour cream, or buttermilk

2 eggs

Melt the first stick of butter directly in the slow cooker; mine has a "Sauté" feature that I turn on briefly. Pour the fruit in; there should be enough to cover the bottom of the pot. Sprinkle the white sugar over and stir to combine. 

Melt the second stick of butter in a small saucepan. Meanwhile, combine the flour, brown sugar, baking powder, and salt. Add the cream and eggs to the melted butter and stir well. Pour the butter/cream/egg mixture into the dry ingredients and stir only until combined. (If you overstir, your cobbler will be tough.) The batter will be sticky and very thick.

Spoon batter over the fruit to cover it. Put the lid on the cooker and set it for six hours. Go to sleep and have yummy dreams.

The next morning, serve warm, with some cream on top, if desired. Serves eight.

* I buy frozen fruit in bulk from Bithell Farms. (They are not paying me to say so.) Yesterday, I had some stone fruit that was getting too ripe, so I used what I had. Use any fruit or combination you like; we love sour cherries and blueberries and/or chopped apricots, nectarines plums, peaches, and apples. 

Sunday
Mar272016

Svithe: Christ's Gifts

Painting from the book This is Jesus, by J. Kirk Richards

A svithe is seventh-day tithe, invented by Th. This is the talk I gave today in church as part of our Easter Sunday worship service.

I remember well my first experience with repentance. When I was about five years old, I was at the supermarket with my mother, and I asked her if she would buy me some chewing gum. She said no, and I was very disappointed. I wanted that gum. And then, at the checkout line, while my mother was busy with my two younger sisters, I noticed that the carton holding the chewing gum had the words “Free Gift” printed on it—doubtless some kind of mail-away offer requiring proof of purchase. However, even though I knew it was wrong, I decided that the words “Free Gift” meant I could take the gum while no one was looking and put it in my pocket. 

Once we got home, my mother noticed me chewing something and demanded to know what it was. I showed her the empty pack of gum and tried to employ my “Free Gift” defense strategy. My mother would have none of it. She bundled up my sisters again, marched me back to the store, and summoned the manager out of his office. I then had to confess what I had done and apologize. I felt alone, exposed, and utterly friendless. My mother gave the manager a nickel—that’s how much gum cost in 1971—and we left. Mortified by the experience, I vowed never to sin again, because I didn’t think I could ever live through another instance of such embarrassment and shame. Unfortunately, that was a promise I could not keep, though I can say with confidence that I have not stolen anything since. 

As a footnote, I must admit that when I found out that children younger than eight years old were not accountable for their misdeeds, I felt a little ripped off. But I acknowledge that my mother taught me a powerful lesson that day.

Here’s a more tragic story of restitution: In the thirteenth century, Jacopone da Todi, a successful young lawyer, married a devout young woman named Vanna. Though he loved his wife, da Todi was a greedy, worldly man who frequently gave himself over to temptations. Not long after they were married, the couple attended a tournament, and Vanna was killed when the stands in which they were sitting collapsed. After her death, da Todi found that Vanna had been wearing a garment of sackcloth under her gown. He was stricken to his core to realize that she had been secretly doing so for months in an effort to perform penance for his many sins. 

Da Todi, in his shock and guilt, gave up his legal practice, gave away all his money and possessions, and lived a long life of poverty and repentance: preaching, serving others, and seeking to live as the Savior did. He was a gifted poet, and wrote many laudi, or poems of praise, to express his devotion to God. 

His most famous poem is “Stabat Mater Dolorosa,” which means “the sorrowful mother stood.” In it, da Todi imagines Mary’s grief at witnessing the sufferings of Jesus. The Stabat Mater has been set to music dozens of times by composers like Palestrina, Haydn, Schubert, and Dvorak, and has been sung as part of Easter worship services for centuries. Here is part of a nineteenth-century translation. 

At the Cross her station keeping,

stood the mournful Mother weeping,

close to her Son to the last.

Through her heart, His sorrow sharing,

and His bitter anguish bearing,

now at length the sword has passed.

 

O how sad and sore distressed

was that Mother, highly blest,

of the sole-begotten One.

Christ above in torment hangs,

she beneath beholds the pangs

of her dying glorious Son.

 

Is there one who would not weep,

whelmed in miseries so deep,

Christ's dear Mother to behold?

Can the human heart refrain

from partaking in her pain,

in that Mother's pain untold?

 

For the sins of His own nation,

She saw Jesus wracked with torment,

All with scourges rent:

She beheld her tender Child,

Saw Him hang in desolation,

Till His spirit forth He sent. Edward Caswall, Lyrica Catholica, 1849

Though I am a mother, and know firsthand how parents suffer when their children are in pain, I, like da Todi, can barely imagine Mary’s grief. I am sure, though, that Mary would have taken on some of her son’s pain, shouldered part of his load, if she could have. We have this urge when we see that those we love are hurting. 

But, though we are commanded to mourn with those who mourn (Mosiah 18:9), our sorrow does not pay the price for the mistakes of others—or for our own. And though we covenant to comfort those who stand in need of comfort, any relief we provide is only temporary. Vanna da Todi, though moved to an act of vicarious penitence by love, could not redeem her husband. Mary, though she stood by her Son “to the last,” could not lessen his burden. And Jacopone da Todi, though he spent decades praising God through his virtuous acts and beautiful poetry, could not atone for the mistakes of his youth.

Only Jesus Christ can reconcile us to our Father by offering flawless, complete, unlimited atonement for our sins. That Atonement has four parts: 

Christ’s condescension to live a sinless, perfectly obedient life in humble circumstances; 

his infinite suffering in the Garden of Gethsemane

his willing death on the cross of Calvary

and his triumphant resurrection from the borrowed tomb of a friend

Gethsemane: In Gethsemane, Jesus not only paid the price for every one of our sins, great and small, but he also suffered each of our pains, sorrows, and infirmities. How could he do so in a matter of mere hours? And how could he suffer beforehand for everything that has happened in the almost 2,000 years since that night—and beyond? 

This crucial piece of the Atonement must somehow have been wrought outside of the restrictions of time itself. In fact, as the Only Begotten Son of our Heavenly Father, the mortal Christ had power over both death and time. Because of this, he was free to experience every second of every life of the billions of his brothers and sisters—and he chose to, so that he would know through his own experience how to succor us. (Alma 7:11-12) He did not do so from afar, through some kind of spiritual movie screen. There is no distance between him and our iniquities and afflictions. 

This means that each one of us, immersed in time, literally have Jesus with us right here, right now. Our bad behavior may chase away the Holy Spirit, but Christ chooses to stay through it all. Our currently finite minds have a hard time comprehending this. But in the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus’ last recorded words are “lo, I am with you alway, even until the end of the world.” (Matthew 28:20) These are not the kind words of a well-intentioned friend. This is a statement of fact, an echo of his own words to Isaiah: “Fear thou not; for I am with thee.” (Isaiah 41:10)

Likewise, in the parable of the sheep and the goats, when Jesus tells us “Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me,” (Matthew 25:40) he is not speaking figuratively. He is declaring a literal truth. Whether to lift up or to beat down, whether to serve or to hurt—because the Savior is with others each moment, we are doing whatever we do unto him as well. None of us is ever alone—which can be both a comfort and a condemnation.

The Cross: Throughout his earthly life, Jesus did not experience spiritual death, or in other words, the separation from God that befalls us through sin. He had the constant companionship of his Father. To the Jews in the temple, he declared, “he that sent me is with me: the Father hath not left me alone; for I do always those things that please him.” (John 8:29) Later, he testified to his apostles at the Last Supper, “Behold, the hour cometh, yea, is now come, that ye shall be scattered, every man to his own, and shall leave me alone: and yet I am not alone, because the Father is with me.” (John 16:32

But there was a moment on the cross when Christ realized that he was suddenly and utterly alone. “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me,” he cried in agony. (Matthew 27:46) Elder Holland has said that “For His Atonement to be infinite and eternal, Christ had to feel what it was like to die not only physically but spiritually, to sense what it was like to have the divine Spirit withdraw, leaving one feeling totally, abjectly, hopelessly alone.” (Jeffrey R. Holland, “None Were With Him,” April 2009) It was only after that his suffering was finished, and he could lay down his life. His family and friends then hurried to lay his body to rest before the Sabbath began that evening. 

All the next day, while his people rested from their labors in observance of the fourth commandment (Luke 23:56), Christ was at work. In the spirit world, he proclaimed “liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to them that [were] bound…to give unto them beauty for ashes, the oil of joy for mourning, the garment of praise for the spirit of heaviness; that they might be called trees of righteousness, the planting of the Lord, that he might be glorified.” (Isaiah 61:1, 3) He offered himself to all, both living and dead, both those who knew who he was and those who had never heard of him. 

The Resurrection: And then, on Sunday morning, he took up his body, never to die again. Mary Magdalene, hurrying to the garden to finish the traditional anointing process of Christ’s body, was shocked to find the tomb empty. Later, Christ appeared to her, and she recognized him once he called her by name. She then ran to announce the joyful news to the other disciples. Jesus had risen, and become “the firstfruits of them that slept.” (1 Corinthians 15:20) In doing so, he opened the way for us all.

Near the end of his first letter to the saints in Corinth, Paul expounds on this mystery: “We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye..for the dead shall be raised incorruptible.” Paul tells us that this is a fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy: “Death is swallowed up in victory.” (Isaiah 25:8) He goes on to marvel, “O death, where is thy sting, O grave, where is thy victory?…thanks be to God, which giveth us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.” (1 Corinthians 15:51-57, ed.)

Though he promises us perfect bodies in the next life, Christ chose to keep several physical imperfections as part of his glorified immortality. The scars of the wounds inflicted upon him remain still, and have become a sign to the world that he is who he says he is. “Arise and come forth unto me,” the resurrected Lord commanded the Nephites when he first appeared to them, “that ye may thrust your hands into my side, and also that ye may feel the prints of the nails in my hands and in my feet, that ye may know that I am the God of Israel, and the God of the whole earth, and have been slain for the sins of the world.” (3 Nephi 11:14) And the multitudes did so, one by one, that they might each have their own personal witness of the reality of the Savior. Those present at his Second Coming will have that same individual opportunity. (D&C 45:51)

I am overcome when I consider the Savior’s gifts to me. The beauty of this marvelous earth. Countless opportunities to repent and forgive. The temple and its covenants; the scriptures and the way I hear God’s voice whisper to me through them. His teachings; his example; my sure knowledge that he is the Christ. His offering to share his yoke with me, even though I will never be able to pull my own weight. His willingness to spend an untold amount of time experiencing all of my moments, good and bad. And finally, gloriously, reconciliation to my Heavenly Parents through his victory over sin and death. 

And there is more. To quote Elder Holland again: “Because Jesus walked such a long, lonely path utterly alone, we do not have to do so. His solitary journey brought great company for our little version of that path—the merciful care of our Father in Heaven, the unfailing companionship of this Beloved Son, the consummate gift of the Holy Ghost, angels in heaven, family members on both sides of the veil, prophets and apostles, teachers, leaders, friends. All of these and more have been given as companions for our mortal journey because of the [Christ’s] Atonement.” (Jeffrey R. Holland, ibid.)

I say these things humbly in the name of my Savior and yours, even Jesus Christ, Amen.

Wednesday
Feb102016

Nutella Hamantaschen

We studied the Book of Esther in seminary this morning. As part of our discussion, I explained the festival of Purim and how it's celebrated--which, of course, meant I had to make hamantaschen last night as a treat for today's class. 

Haman is the villain of Purim, and hamantaschen, which is Yiddish for "Haman's pouches/pockets" represent the pouches of money the wicked man offered in exchange for destroying the Jews. (Spoiler alert: Queen Esther foils Haman's evil plan.)

In traditional recipes, the three-cornered cookies are filled with poppy seeds, a date-nut mixture, or jam. Personally, I like all of those options, but I wanted my hamentaschen to appeal to teen palates (and to my husband's), which is where the inspiration to fill them with Nutella came in. And, I have to say, they're pretty amazing. I checked the internet after I baked these, and apparently I'm not the first to think of this, but I still feel like a genius.

2 sticks unsalted butter, ideally at 60 degrees F

1 cup sugar

4 cups all-purpose unbleached flour

1-1/2 teaspoons baking powder

1 teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon vanilla

2 eggs, plus 1 more for egg wash

About 3/4 cup Nutella*

Cream the butter and sugar together for 5 minutes, stopping the mixer and scraping down the sides a couple of times. (For reasons why this step is essential to your success--and why you want the butter at 60 degrees--read this excellent post.) In the meantime, stir the flour, baking powder, and salt together and set them aside.

Add the vanilla to the butter-sugar mixture, then add the eggs one at a time, beating for 30 seconds and scraping down the sides of the bowl after each. Stir in the flour mixture with the mixer at lowest speed, and mix only until the dough is combined. (Overmix it, and the cookies will be tough.) Divide the dough into two balls, flatten them into discs about an inch thick, wrap them tightly in plastic wrap, and refrigerate them for two hours. This allows the butter and flour to integrate fully, making a much tastier cookie. 

Heat the oven to 350 degrees F. Beat the third egg in a small bowl with a fork until it's a nice, uniform yellow. This is your egg wash. Roll out one disc of dough on a very lightly floured surface until it's about a quarter of an inch thick. With a three-inch round cookie cutter (or a glass, which is what I used), cut as many circles as you can as efficiently space-wise as you can. A dough scraper or a sharp spatula can help you move them around without destroying their shape. 

Using a pastry brush, brush one circle lightly with egg wash, then drop about a teaspoon or slightly more of Nutella onto the cookie's center (I use two eating teaspoons, scooping with one and scraping the Nutella off the spoon and onto the cookie with the other. This avoids the finger licking conundrum.)

Fold up three sides of the cookie and pinch the corners together. Crucial step: brush the outside corners thoroughly with egg wash. This will glue them and prevent them from collapsing in the oven. The pinches will not hold on their own, and then you'll have hamanbrochen (Haman disasters). Ba-dump-bump: I'm here all week, folks.  

Place the filled hamantasch (singular; "hamantaschen" is plural) on a cookie sheet lined with a silicone baking mat. This also is essential; otherwise, the egg wash will glue the cookie to the pan (or parchment paper). Repeat this process for each cookie, then take the other disc out of the fridge and start all over again.

(You'll see that my batch in the photo above aren't super uniform. That's because it was literally nearly 90 degrees in my kitchen last night, because I refuse to turn on the air conditioner in February. I was working as fast as I could, but the dough still warmed up really quickly. But I tell myself that they look rustic and artisanal that way. )

Bake for about 15 minutes, until the bottom edges and corners of the cookies are turning golden brown. Let cool completely on cookie sheets, then gently loosen each cookie with a dough scraper or sharp spatula and remove to a plate. 

(You can re-roll the dough scraps and make some plain sugar cookies, but the re-worked scraps will be tougher and not really fit for company. I'd roll this dough out, cut it in pieces, bake them plain, and maybe put some Nutella on them after they are baked and cool.)

Makes about two dozen, not counting the dough scraps. These are super delicious: the not-too-sweet dough is the perfect foil for the creamy, rich Nutella. I didn't feel bad at all serving them to my students at 6:45 a.m.

*You can use jam instead if you've got a nut allergy issue or for some insane reason don't like the celestial taste of chocolate and hazelnuts together. If you do, use a really high quality, not-too-sweet variety (preferably homemade), and use a little less than a teaspoon for each cookie. 

Sunday
Feb072016

VCFA: The First Residency

It's been about two and a half weeks since I got home from Vermont. Here's a little bit about my experience and what I learned. 

The short version is that it was amazing. Before I got there, I had no idea the level of talent or the selectivity of the program. The faculty is outstanding, and the student writing was of a much higher level than I'd imagined. 

The longer version: to recap, I've started a low-residency MFA program at Vermont College of Fine Arts. Here's how it works: you start off with a ten-day residency on campus in Montpelier. Amidst lectures and workshops and readings and hijinks and bonding, you're assigned an advisor for the coming semester. You meet with her/him and create an outline of what you want to study for the next six months. Once home, you work your tail off and turn in "packets" to your advisor roughly once per month--five per semester. Each packet for a first semester student includes:

  • two short critical essays, either on a writer's body of work or an element of craft;
  • 20-40 pages of new creative work (short stories, the beginning of a novel, etc.);
  • an annotated bibliography of books you've read that month, including a minimum of ten novel-length books (that means reading a minimum of fifty books per semester);
  • and a detailed cover letter to your advisor explaining your process and experience over the course of the month.

In subsequent semesters, the amount of work remains about the same, but it breaks down somewhat differently.

Your advisor receives your packet on the appointed date, takes a few days to review it carefully, then sends you feedback and guidelines for the following packet. Lather, rinse, repeat. After the fifth packet is turned in, you start getting ready for the next residency. And so it goes. I have four more residencies: July, January; July, January. The fifth one will be my graduate residency in January 2018, which doesn't sound that far away. 

What the above outline doesn't tell you is how much fun the program is. Yes, it's a ton of work. But it's the kind of work a person like me geeks out on. For the nearly two weeks I was on campus, I got to talk about books and writing with people who were just as enthusiastic about them as I am. Everyone is so kind AND smart AND funny AND talented. It really does feel like Hogwarts or Brakebills or Chalet School

A few of many highlights:

The readings, especially those by our class. There are about 24 of us, and everyone who read something impressed me. Not just the published people, like Brendan or Kim or Shellie or Melanie (who were all outstanding), but people whose names you don't know yet. But you will. 

My workshop, led by Uma Krishnaswami and Nova Ren Suma, two of the wisest, kindest, most modest yet insightful writers I've ever met. The workshops mix in students from all semester levels; there were about ten of us meeting every other day or so for a couple of hours with Nova and Uma. I never wanted it to end. Again, a ton of talent and potential were displayed in each student's work, and the critiques were among the most encouraging, most incisive, and most thoughtful I've ever experienced. 

Getting assigned Uma as my advisor! I'm SO THRILLED. She's incredible.

When Nova found out her book The Walls Around Us had been nominated for an Edgar--on a workshop break. She just gasped and held her phone out to us. We promptly squealed. It was awesome.

School traditions and pride and togetherness they build. The themed parties, the "name reveal" by the third semesters, the epic poem, the walking soccer, graduation itself...the playfulness both helped leaven the serious work that was going on and energized us all. 

The library and its resources. The chief librarian looks like the Vermont version of Gene Wilder's Willy Wonka, and my classmates and I were just as wowed by library orientation as we would have been in a chocolate factory. "It's like Christmas morning," breathed one of my friends as we went through all of the services available to us online. Yep, pretty much. 

Tim Wynne-Jones graciously signing my tattered, well-loved copies of his picture books. 

Alan Cumyn's lecture on learning narrative structure and voice from story songs--which he sang.

A spontaneous, heady, bionically nerdy dinner discussion about Pratchett as departed genius, Lovecraft and Card as fallen prophets, sonata-allegro form, harmonics, resonance, and hamburgers with a couple of other students and National Book Award-winner (and faculty member) Will Alexander. (The faculty just come and randomly sit with you in the cafeteria and strike up discussions. It's kind of amazing.)

My roommate, Melanie: fun, considerate, interesting, tolerant. Thanks, Mel. So glad we got roommate married for the next two years!

Tom Birdseye's freewheeling lecture on out-of-the-box research. 

Lunch with just our class and Kirby Larson. (Challenge: trying not to sound like Chris Farley when asking her questions.)

Tim's on-site interview with M.T. Anderson discussing his brilliant new book, Symphony for the City of the Dead; meeting Anderson afterward.

Word games and impromptu music in the Wine Pit (one of the dorm lounges).

All the knitters (myself included) stitching away through every lecture and reading.

My new friends. My friend Julie had told me what a close-knit group the VCFA faculty, students, and alumni are, but it's hard to believe until you experience it. 

I know I'm just beginning, but already I enthusiastically recommend this program to any writer. Soon, I'll be as vocal an evangelist as Julie. I just turned in my first packet yesterday, which was a great feeling. Stay tuned for more Vermont adventures!