Monday, December 11, 2017


As I prepare for a retreat at work, I think of yesterday morning's drive. I was out early and every branch was coated with snow. The clouds were piled in pinks and purples on the horizon and a big old red sun was peeping up above the trees.

We seldom get so much snow so early, and the timing was perfect. The houses and lawns were decked out with red ribbon and green wreaths, with lights and colors. Never was their purpose clearer: to light our way through these dark days.

But the beauty, that was something else. Roads were icy and gravel crunched beneath my tires. I drove slowly —  but still, I couldn't keep my eyes straight ahead. I kept looking up, down and around, mesmerized by the majesty of the scene around me.

The day warmed quickly. An hour later that drive wouldn't have been the same. But for those few minutes ... I was in a retreat of my own.


Saturday, December 9, 2017

First Snow

This snow meant business right from the start, clinging to grass and trees and leaf piles. I thought, as I walked, how snow cover brings out the essential nature of a thing. A fence looks more fence-like, a flower pot more flower-pot-like.

It this because it's accented in white? Or because the eye is trained in new directions?  Juncos have swooped in for seed and suet, and even, perhaps for the snow itself, flicking little bits of it as they peck. Are they drinking the snow or just moving it out of the way?

Questions without answers. On snow days, it's enough just to wonder.


Friday, December 8, 2017

Dark and Low

Winter has come to northern Virginia. We've fought it for weeks, one unseasonably warm day after another. But today the clouds are dark and low, and the trees are almost bare. When I look out the window I hear the words and the melody in my head: "All the leaves are brown, and the sky is gray. California Dreamin' on such a winter's day."

Why does it come as something of a relief, these clouds, this low sky? As if warmth has outworn its welcome. I love warm days. But there comes a point when they seem outdated. It's time for days like this, days that invite staying home and being still.

Not an option for me today or for the next few weeks, but the great pause will soon be here, the holidays and year's end. I don't want to speed up my life too much — there are exciting moments in between — but I'm looking forward to a little rest.

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Thursday, December 7, 2017

Extra Large

A brief shopping trip last night found me wandering an almost-empty mall. Clerks chatted at vacant makeup counters or fussed with jewelry displays. There was no line to see Santa. Mall walkers had the run of the place.

As I pawed through sweaters I noticed something else. Almost all of them were extra large, some even extra-extra large. And at the bookstore, a similar lack of choice: Half of the well-reviewed, recently published books I was looking for were not on the shelves.

Yes, the stores will be busier this weekend — but not that much busier, from what I've heard.  People shop with their fingers now. I know this. I do it, too. There's infinite choice, less hassle. But I miss the market square and the hustle bustle. I wonder if it will ever come back.


Wednesday, December 6, 2017

In Harmony

Last night was my fourth Singalong Messiah, and I marveled as always at how a random crew of sopranos, altos, basses and tenors can come together in minutes to make an ensemble. 

What struck me this year was the harmony, that in this most discordant of times, we came together to make music. And that the beauty of the music came not just from melody but from polyphony, from pitches that are pleasing when heard together. 

Alone, we were warbling sopranos, plodding basses, energetic tenors and earnest altos. Together we were a choir. Obviously not the smoothest and most rehearsed but a choir just the same.

It was a good way to usher in the Christmas season. 

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Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Letting it Soak

Yesterday I returned home from work to find the crockpot I'd left full of sudsy water the night before. It wasn't warm, sudsy water anymore, though. Now it was cold and gray and uninviting.

As I refilled the ceramic with warm water and soap and scrubbed it clean, I thought about how the great procrastination device of children (and adults!) everywhere — letting it soak — is often just what's needed.

Cleaning this the night before would have been a much harder task. Now I could whisk the stew remnants down the disposal, easily peel away the potato bits that had stuck to the sides. Water and time had worked their way.

Not a life-altering realization — but further proof that rushing through life is not always the best way to go.

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Monday, December 4, 2017

Bone Deep

I read in the newspaper this morning a report about the strength of prehistoric women's arms.  Although at first glance this falls into the "yeah, right, what else is new?" category, it was fascinating to view the list of chores that researchers think account for the difference:

Tilling the soil with digging sticks (the plow had yet to be invented)
Grinding the grain with stones
Milking goats or cows and processing the milk
Making pottery
Turning wool and skins into textiles

"We've largely been underestimating the scale of this work," said Alison McIntosh of Cambridge, an author of the report. All this physical activity produced bones that were larger and stronger — but also showed signs of strain. These long-ago women routinely did more than they should.

While the shin bones of modern female athletes compare to those of prehistoric women, the arm bones are another matter. The ancient women's bones appeared even stronger (and more strained) that those of current female crew team members.

I think of these prehistoric women digging and grinding, I think of my own puny arms, of my life of ease, sitting at a desk, typing words on a small keyboard.  It's good to be reminded of the difference.


Friday, December 1, 2017

R.I.P., Writer's Almanac

It always seemed too good to be true, a radio show just for writers. And now it's gone dark. Every link I click leads to a Minnesota Public Radio statement about Garrison Keillor's alleged sexual misconduct and the organization's decision to terminate its relationship with him, Prairie Home Companion and the Writer's Almanac.

The show had a 24-year run, debuting in 1993. I don't remember when I first started listening to it on the radio, but I do know I'd turn up the dial whenever it came on, would glean some historical fact or the other, that it was birthday of George Eliot or the anniversary of the publication of Walden. When my own muse was on holiday, the Writer's Almanac muse would step in. In one month, November 2011, it came to the rescue several times.

That was the fall I took the wonderful class A Sense of Place, whose professor, Charlie Yonkers (who became a friend), urged us all to have the Almanac delivered to our in-boxes. I did, and have never stopped.

My radio show station, WAMU, stopped airing the program a  few months ago, so I'd been paying even closer attention to the emails. The last one arrived November 29, which was, it informed me, the birthday of Bronson Alcott, Louisa May Alcott and C.S. Lewis. How will I learn this stuff now? Even the archives are gone.

So I re-read this last entry, pondered its power to inspire, my eyes lingering on the last line. It was the way all the Almanacs signed off, and I can hear Keillor reading these words with his distinctive deep voice: "Be well, do good work, and keep in touch."


Thursday, November 30, 2017

Birthday Surprises

An email this morning told me a package had been delivered.  I got a kick out of this — the fact that I had come in through the garage last night and overlooked this large item on the front stoop, being informed of it through a bunch of 1s and 0s on my computer. It was a funny way to begin this last day of November, the birthday of two people I love — my daughter and my brother.

But that was just the first surprise.  The second happened when I was lugging in the first — and Copper trotted around the front of the house (where he is never, ever allowed to be because he will run away) and right through the front door. The backyard gate must have been left open.

Whatever the case, it was all meant to be — the package left out overnight so that I could be there when Copper escaped, could usher him back where he belongs. The rescue of a dog that means so much to the birthday girl.

Yes, it's often a random world — but sometimes it's not. Today is one of those times.

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Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Fruit Bowl

I'm not sure why I did this, except that I felt energetic this morning, like I was coming out of a fog (post-Thanksgiving funk?). The fruit looked sleek and display-able, and the basket was on the kitchen table, holding napkins, and suddenly it seemed a crime to keep the fruit in its net bags and not in this pretty braided ceramic basket-bowl that Ellen gave me several Christmases ago.

So the napkins now sit in a pile on the table and the fruit poses on the counter. It's become a still life, an object not just of utility but of beauty.

Isn't the best kind of beauty the accidental kind? The graceful arching of tree limbs over a road. The glitter of icicles in the sun. And the gathering of fruit in a bowl.

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Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Sleeping Dogs

We all know what we're supposed to do with them. But in my house they are — or I should say he is — often riled up.

This is not my approach, though. I let sleeping dogs lie. Especially Copper, who has always been and who continues to be a lively pup.

When Copper sleeps beside me I sit quietly, enjoying his company, the presence of another living being. I don't usually cover him up (!), but I do take comfort in the gentle rhythm of his breathing and his little stretches — even when he kicks me in the ribs. I appreciate the fact that when he's still I don't have to let him in or out of the house.

On some days, the company of animals is the only company a writer needs.


Monday, November 27, 2017

Four Weeks

There will be this one, the last of November, and then three December ones. A countdown. Already I can see them fly, their days a blur of meetings and deadlines, of the buying and wrapping of gifts, the making and sending of cards. Envelopes, stamps, messages. Here we are at the beginning of it all and I can already see the end.

Back then the weeks were years, and to traverse them was pure joy. Santa came on TV at the end of the day, around the time mothers were cooking dinner. I found the container of nonpareils, the ones we sprinkled on sugar cookies, and poured them on a saucer, carefully, because they bounced. Round-and-round beads, I called them, and I lapped them up as I watched the show.

What would I ask for that year? A doll, a bicycle, an archaeology kit (which was an actual toy; I got one!). The gifts blur together. But not that saucer of round-and-round beads. It remains, along with all the giddy anticipation of the season, which I remember still and sometimes even feel.


Saturday, November 25, 2017

Last Sunday

Tomorrow is the last Sunday of the liturgical year, the feast of Christ the King. Christ the King was the name of my church and school growing up. A little pre-fab building where I made my First Communion and was confirmed and, when I was in eighth grade, was required to go to daily mass and sing at funerals.

I regret to say that we often whispered and giggled and otherwise acted as 13-year-olds do at some of those solemn occasions. It's something I've thought about through the years, the difference between then and now, when such a requirement might be considered too traumatizing. But mostly I've thought how traumatizing we might have been for the mourners. A flock of girls in green-and-gray plaid skirts with beanies on their heads and bow ties clipped onto their white blouses. Or maybe we were a hopeful sign, proof that life goes on.

In my last year of parochial school, the little church of Christ the King became the ornate Cathedral of Christ the King. It was a massive church with ornate lights and grillwork and the theme of kingship. One boring mass my friend Linda Welch counted every crown in the place. There were more than 100, if I recall.


Friday, November 24, 2017


As in a cushy chair or ample love seat.

Or a wicked stepsister's foot in a delicate glass slipper.

Or a bag of leaves crammed to bursting (as I look over a backyard full of leaves that need cramming).

Or a two bushel baskets of gourds in one bushel basket.

Overstuffed is how I felt last night after the turkey, dressing (two types), mashed potatoes (two types), green beans (two types), corn, cranberry sauce, roasted brussels sprouts and cauliflower, roasted root vegetables, autumn slaw and rolls.

And that was before the apple crumble, chocolate cookies and pumpkin praline pie.

Maybe no eating today?


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