Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Down and Out

"We're just homeless people, trying to keep ourselves together," said the woman as I passed her this morning. "One of these days we're gonna live in a house again, just like you." I often see homeless people on my way to Georgetown Law, but this woman and the two others walking with her were sane, dressed for work, in a hurry. Just like me.

When I walk in the suburbs, I write about trees and flowers and reflections in the rain. When I walk in the city, I write about people, the down and out as well as the up and coming. Walk in the city for long and it will break your heart.

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Tuesday, March 30, 2010

The Spring Issue

Yesterday, Celia and I watched the documentary "The September Issue," which is about Anna Wintour, Grace Caddington and others putting out the September issue of Vogue magazine. It was fun to watch together, especially after watching "Coco Before Chanel" over the weekend.
The timing was interesting, though, because I had just finished reading the final (printer's) proofs of Georgetown Law the same day and my desk is littered with page proofs, little yellow stickies and other proof of editorial toil.

Of course, we didn't have a celebrity cover shoot with Sienna Miller and our models weren't wearing gowns worth tens of thousands of dollars. But once you discount these, er, differences, the editorial process is remarkably similar. Putting out a magazine takes time, has its own seasons and dramas. It's about winnowing down, removing what isn't necessary. It is often tedious but ultimately fun.


Monday, March 29, 2010

Blue Monday

For most people, a blue Monday is what we have today in Washington, D.C., a rainy start to the week. But for me a Blue Monday will always be a candy bar, a most scrumptious treat -- melt-in-your-mouth cream candy on the inside and thick semi-sweet chocolate on the outside. It's a regional specialty, sold only in Kentucky as far as I know.

Given that the closest Blue Monday is hundreds of miles away, I will scrimp on the description. Were I to explain how it tastes to bite into one of these confections, the slight bitterness of the chocolate, followed by the exceptionally creamy and sweet innards of the bar... well, I might start climbing the walls. Instead I search through my files for a photo. It's not of a Blue Monday; that's probably copyrighted by Ruth Hunt Candies. Instead, it's a photo Suzanne took at a candy shop in Bratislava. A chocolate fountain par excellence. So for chocolate lovers everywhere--from Kentucky to Slovakia--here's to Blue Mondays.


Saturday, March 27, 2010

Squeaky Clean

Three months ago our dishwasher broke, and we have yet to replace it. Sometimes when I’m scrubbing an especially crusty dish, a Cream of Wheat bowl that wasn’t immediately soaked, for instance, I ask myself why the holdup. Part of it is frugality, another part is economy (there are usually only three of us here now). But most of all, it's because I enjoy the feel of suds up to my wrist, the squeak of a clean glass rinsed clear, the slow act of drying, always remembering the line I learned as a child from our babysitter, that a good dish dryer makes up for a bad dish washer. There is a lot of life wisdom in that line.
So even though washing dishes is a chore, especially after a long day at work, I take pleasure in the menial task. It’s tedious work that lets me think about what’s happening in my life. In that sense, it’s a lot like ironing, only the sink has a view. While swishing in the warm water, I can study the trees and measure the place of the sun in the sky. That just doesn't happen when I load the dishwasher.


Friday, March 26, 2010

Freeze Frame

Before the hedge can grow the bud must disappear, must burst open and give up its life for the leaf. But before that happens there is a moment of equilibrium, just a few days in the spring when the pink of the bud and the green of the leaf are in perfect balance. At that moment, the hedge doesn't look at all as it will this summer, dark green and shaggy. It is, instead, the frosting on a birthday cake or a young girl's party dress. That is the moment I was trying to capture in this picture. It's not quite there. It lacks the delicacy of the plant in person, the slight chill in the air, the sound of the birds fluttering about it.

If it turns cold, this equipoise may last till next week. But I’m not counting on it. Like so much beauty, it’s momentary. If you don’t look closely, you’ll miss it entirely.

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Thursday, March 25, 2010

Living with Longing

If I remember to turn my head when I walk from Metro to work, I see a sliver of the Capitol dome. And still, after many years, I can't believe I'm here.

People from big cities don’t know what it’s like to grow up in a world where things are always happening somewhere else. When I was a child in Lexington, we went to Cincinnati to shop, to Dayton to visit family and, eventually, to Indiana and Illinois and New York for college. For us, the important stuff was happening elsewhere. And seeking it, traveling or moving or going away to find it, gave us something to aspire to -- gave us, you might say, a life’s work.

Children raised near the center of world gravity (like my own) live where things are already happening. They don’t arrive in a big city with a sense of astonishment so deep and so grand as to resemble madness.

When you start your life away from the fray, you learn to live with longing. You don’t always get what you want. It is a healthy tension.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Plant in a Hurry

There are more beautiful pictures of daffodils, but the reason I like this one is that you can see, on the left hand side of the plant, a speared leaf. This plant is in a hurry. It has grown right up through the leaf, has moved it skyward. And that is how I sometimes feel in spring, lifted up, buoyed by something larger than all of us -- the life force stirring again.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Missing Out

Yesterday I talked with a woman on Metro. Nothing much, just a small conversation. But any pleasant exchange is a surprise when people are packed so close together. She was sitting on the aisle and the man she'd been sharing her seat with had just missed his stop. "I wish he'd told me that he needed to get out," she said. I nodded politely. After all, I'd just taken the seat he had vacated. I was glad he was gone.

As she explained more, I learned that the man may have assumed she was getting up because she was putting her magazine away. He was trying to read her body language and (perhaps I'm making him more deferential than he actually was) save her from standing up sooner than she needed to. Was he, too, leaving cues about his intentions, cues that she wasn't picking up?

But then she said more. "We have all this technology. We have email and cell phones and computers. But we still don't know how to communicate."

I would take it a step further. Perhaps we don't communicate because we have the technology. It keeps our gaze down at our palm instead of outward, toward each other.

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Sunday, March 21, 2010

Birthday Boy

I know it is a bit irreverent to refer to a musical genius as a birthday boy, but it's the first full day of spring and time for a bit of irreverence. Today is full of bird song. It doesn't need a score. But if you're looking for one, try this piece by Bach, born 325 years ago today.


Saturday, March 20, 2010

Ready to Rock

Walking in the suburbs takes its toll -- there are cars to dodge, creeks to wade, paths to plod. Sometimes, rest is required. And what better way to take it than in a rocking chair, where I can sit and move at the same time.

A sure sign of warm weather in our house is when the rocking chair comes out of the garage and onto the deck. Now it sits in a place of honor; it's a front row seat on the great outdoors.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Angels and Pins

Medieval theologians, it is said, debated how many angels could dance on the head of a pin. After a week of reading page proofs, I have decided that editors are the modern-day equivalent of these learned (foolish?) folk. We talk of how to space the dots in an ellipsis and we fret about the length of a dash. We discuss semi-colons as if they were old friends. Like the scholastics, we have a deep reverence for our subject. We believe it matters. Like them, I fear, we are bound for extinction.


Thursday, March 18, 2010

Spring Peepers

I heard them last night on my first after-dinner walk of the spring. I ripped off my headphones and ran a few feet, straining to make sure I wasn’t mistaken, that the sound I heard was really spring peepers. March 17 seems early for the little guys, especially after the winter we’ve had, but I guess the mild weather has coaxed them from hibernation.

The sound was unmistakable; it is the first song of spring, of warm days and cold nights, of still water and marshy lowlands. It seems ages since I heard the last crickets of fall chirping ever more slowly in the chill autumn air. We’ve had five months of quiet winter evenings since then. Now, with the peepers, nights are full of sound again.


Wednesday, March 17, 2010


The Irish may not be great walkers, but, by God, they are great talkers. And since walking and talking are meant for each other, and since this is the day that everyone is Irish (or would like to be) let us raise a glass to the sons and daughters of Erin wherever they may be. Sláinte!


Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Daylight Rearranging

Say what you will about the time change: We early risers know it isn't daylight saving -- it's daylight rearranging. For us, springing forward is a step backward into night. But to be honest, I'm relieved. I welcome the inky starts to my day, the hush of the hours before dawn. Dark mornings are the best cover-up going; no makeup needed. Dark mornings are also easy on the eyes; they're a gradual salvo to the sun. In a few weeks I'll see light and color again on my way to work, the birds will be singing, the air will be soft. But for now, for a few more weeks, darkness reigns. Daylight rearranging -- bring it on.

Monday, March 15, 2010

A Walker in the Mist

This weekend's walks were as much liquid as solid. Moisture clung to my hair and face. My breath came in clouds, and my skin felt clammy and alive. It was invigorating to walk in the mist, to feel heaven and earth as one. The weekend's weather brought to mind a nursery rhyme that begins, "One misty moisty morning, when cloudy was the weather, I chanced to meet an old man, dressed all in leather." I'm not sure leather was the best garment choice this weekend.


Sunday, March 14, 2010

Clock Emeritus

Today as we "spring forward," the one clock in our house we won't rush to reset is our charming cuckoo, our most independent-minded timepiece. Like a retired guard dog that barely lifts his head when burglars stroll off with the family silver, our cuckoo long ago stopped being a reliable time keeper. It's been elevated to clock emeritus, the pulse of our house. As for keeping time, well, let's just say we don't use it when we have to catch a train.

But we treasure our cuckoo clock just the same. Its tick-tock is the rhythm of breathing; it sounds as if it were meant to be. Besides, we have too few items in our possession that are this human - that work simply and not always efficiently, that can be fixed at home, and that when broken cannot be immediately replaced. Things like these are more than possessions; they are companions. Put enough of them in a house and you make it your own.

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Saturday, March 13, 2010

Cleaning Time

The signs all point to a day cleaning out the basement or closet or garage. It's raining. It's Saturday. I sat down to write in my journal this morning and was distracted by the cover of "Oprah" magazine -- "De-Clutter Your Life." There is nothing left for me to do but grab the trash bag and have at it. But wait a minute. I can write a post about de-cluttering, about how hard it is for me to do, about how many things I keep because I love the person who gave them to me. But how, when I finally make myself throw away what's irrelevant and unused, I feel light and energetic and newly born.


Friday, March 12, 2010

Reflections in the Rain

I woke up this morning to the sound of an old friend. It was rain, liquid precipitation, that which does not need to be shoveled. It runs off in rivulets; it takes care of itself. It is also taking care of the snow, what's left of it. Only the parking lot mountains remain.
I walked out on the deck and tiptoed through the puddles. Cold and clammy, they shiver in the breeze. If snow is a pillow, rain is a mirror. It glistens in the dull light; it has a life of its own. Unlike the snow, it reflects the world back to us.


Thursday, March 11, 2010

The Elemental Tree

Yesterday on a walk I spotted the tentative pink blossoms of a cherry tree. Only part of it was budding, as if it were dipping its toe in the water of spring, testing to be sure that the warm air and bright sun are not illusions. I’ve noticed other trees with a pinkish haze about them, an aura of what is to come. And although our forsythia isn’t yellow, it has a fullness that comes before the bud.

Before it’s too late, then, let us celebrate the elemental tree, the tree unadorned with leaf or flower. The heft of a trunk, the way branches frame the sky. This winter has been hard on trees; many were so weighted with snow that they will never rise again. But others have, inexplicably, survived.

Willa Cather wrote, “I like trees because they seem more resigned to the way they have to live than other things do.” I agree.


Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Swans and Gulls

On Metro this morning I read from "The Outermost House" by Henry Beston. Beston was a naturalist and this book is a classic. The section I read today cataloged the flocks of birds he studied during the year he lived alone in a small house on a Cape Cod dune. Here he describes a flight of swans: "Glorious white birds in the blue October heights over the solemn unrest of ocean -- their passing was more than music, and from their wings descended the old loveliness of earth which both affirms and heals."

I rode the Metro escalator up into the cold gray dawn of Judiciary Square and walked east toward my office with those words echoing in my head. And suddenly there in front of me were scores of gulls, careening and crying as they wheeled in the urban sky. It was probably garbage that brought them here, but I'd rather imagine their flight as evidence of that "old loveliness." They're here to remind us that we share the earth, that, as Beston says of animals, "They are not brethren, they are not underlings; they are other nations, caught with ourselves in the net of life and time..."


Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Journeys and Destinations

At no time does the quotation "life is a journey, not a destination," seem more apt than when you take a four-day trip, two days of which are spent driving there and back. I've always appreciated the meaning of this line, that the striving matters as much as the goal we're striving for. But it's always been hard for me to practice. Some of us are cursed; we are goal-driven by nature.
But on this trip, I did enjoy the journey as well as the destination. Part of it was the mountain scenery, the high snows on the peaks and the rushing streams in the valleys. But most of it was sharing the trip with Claire. We talked the whole way -- and the miles flew. For the journeys of life to matter more than the destinations, companionship is key.


Sunday, March 7, 2010

Green Grass of Home

I've lived in Virginia for 21 years. It's where we're raising our children, where we work and have friends. But sometimes I yearn not for the home I live in now, but for the home of my youth. So two days ago, Claire and I headed west on I-66, toward the foothills of the Blue Ridge, past the broad, beautiful Shenandoah Valley and into the great heart of this country. We drove through Mooresville and Elkins and Charleston and Huntington and Winchester and, finally, into Lexington. This is horse country: white fences and rolling hills. It's a land of big meadows and few trees. But on this visit I've found myself looking down at the earth and the first few snowdrops of spring. It's the Kentucky soil I romped and played on as a child, and I need to touch it every so often. The green grass of home.


Friday, March 5, 2010

Metro Music

Washington, D.C. is not kind to street musicians. The most recent and infamous example of this happened a couple years ago when the brilliant violinist Joshua Bell played Bach and Schubert on his 1713 Stradivarius outside the L'Enfant Plaza Metro stop while a crowd of morning commuters rushed by. Almost no one stopped to listen.

But there are exceptions, and one of them happened yesterday at Metro Center when a crowd gathered around three men singing "Under the Boardwalk" and other barbershop favorites. I've heard these guys before, and I know they've been arrested (Metro doesn't allow music on its cars and platforms; that might make the trip too pleasant). But the buskers always come back, sometimes three of them, sometimes four, with their doo-wop melodies and their studied gestures and their hat to collect the day's earnings.

Every time I hear them I think about the first time I heard them. It was late, 7 or 8, and I was blurry-eyed from reading page proofs, trying to get the magazine to the printer. And there they were, singing "What is Your Name?" Every time they reached the refrain, a woman in the crowd would shout, "It's Donna. I already told you — my name is Donna." It was a priceless Metro moment. We all laughed; we caught each other's eyes. In a way, just a small way, we felt as one.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Write On

In a way I don't blame the post office. I mean, if all you delivered were bills and junk mail, wouldn't you want to cut back? I'm speaking of the Postal Service's recent proposal to stop Saturday mail delivery. And I'm thinking that we are to blame, we the former letter-writing public. We bloggers and e-mailers, we Facebookers and Tweeters. We of the keyboard instead of the pen.

I try to write real letters; I really do. But all I can manage are several a month. Compare that with the Victorians, who seemed to write a letter an hour – or even compare it with an earlier version of myself. Tom and I have boxes of old letters in our basement, thin blue airgrams, envelopes stuffed with ink-stained paper, missives of all shapes and sizes. We can't bear to part with them; they are real, tangible proof of our loves and losses. They tell our story.

Now our story is told with keystrokes and stored in tiny chips. Now our story can vanish with a click of the wrong key, a toppled cup of coffee, a hard drive gone bad. I've come to embrace this new, hectic way of communicating. But if there comes a Saturday when the mail truck is silent, when there isn't even a chance of getting a real letter, that will be a sad day indeed.


Tuesday, March 2, 2010


I passed a neighbor on my walk yesterday. “Now instead of shoveling snow, I’m shoveling gravel,” he said with a shrug. Last month, overly enthusiastic plows managed to gouge out part of the crushed-rock path that runs alongside the main road in our neighborhood and throw it in people’s yards. Now the snow is melting, but the gravel isn’t.

With apologies to those with March birthdays, this has never been my favorite month. When I lived in Chicago, March meant cold rain. When I lived in New England, March meant mud. Since we’ve lived in Virginia, my opinion of March has improved considerably. You can usually count on yellow daffodils, bright bursts of forsythia, even cherry blossoms. But this is at the end of the month, not the beginning. What we have now are bruised skies, blustery winds, snow that’s seen better days. March is a good month for going to the dentist, for cleaning out closets, for tackling chores that aren’t much fun.

When Suzanne was little, she received a pair of slippers for Christmas. Weeks went by and she never put them on. “When are you going to wear your slippers,” I asked one day, hoping she might finally confess what I suspected, that she didn’t much like them. She thought for moment, put a finger on her cheek, and finally said, “March!”

My point, exactly.


Monday, March 1, 2010


For a large chunk of my professional writing career, I wrote about children. I interviewed experts on crawling and sleeping and temper tantrums. I shared what I learned with the readers of Parents or Working Mother or some other magazine. Then I wrote a book about how too much expert advice can make us crazy. Suffice it to say, I didn't write as much about child rearing after that! But I think about children every day because I have three daughters and because creating a family with Tom continues to be the great adventure of my life.

So this post is about glee. It's about the soundtrack of the TV show Glee, which blared from the car stereo when I drove to Maryland yesterday. Celia and I listen to this when we're driving together, and I've come to love it for that reason. The night before, at a crazy busy restaurant in Herndon, we bought a schmaltzy Austrian accordion CD because we sat next to the Viennese accordion player – and Suzanne is studying in Vienna. And last but not least, as I drove back yesterday from Maryland, I listened to the U.S.-Canada Olympic gold-medal match, because Claire has gotten me excited about ice hockey.

When our children are young, we guide them and shape them; we are their world. As they grow up, they take us into worlds we could not have imagined. They remind us what life was like when we were just coming alive to it. And that, in itself, is reason for glee.


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