Friday, April 30, 2010

The Accidental Arborists

In honor of Arbor Day, a few words on the small forest growing in our backyard. No, not the weeds, although some of them are tall enough to qualify for small-tree status, I'm afraid. No, I'm talking about the nether reaches of our backyard, which were smooth and green and grassy when we bought this house but are now a tangled, briar-filled forest incubator. I was just back there this morning, checking on Copper, who's in dog-digging heaven, when I noticed how tall some of our volunteers are. We have several fledgling oaks and hollies and a few trees of uncertain lineage. They're the lusty newcomers, racing to catch up with the old grandfather oaks, which are dying at an alarming pace. I mourn the old trees, especially the one that came crashing down a year ago, the first day Suzanne was home from college, 100 feet and double-trunked, so that one half narrowly missed our neighbor's house and the other half narrowly missed ours. But I take comfort in the accidental forest that grows to replace these venerable giants. Some day the new trees will be old and tall, too, and I can say, I knew them as babies.

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Thursday, April 29, 2010

Dream Come True

A friend I haven't seen in years reminded me of a dream we shared in high school. We were going to throw our own ball -- ladies would wear long gowns, we would swirl and twirl to waltz music -- it would be the next best thing to Vienna.

In two weeks Tom and I are going to Vienna. We're going to see Suzanne, who's been studying there all semester. We're planning very little -- we'll let her show us her world -- but there will be music and art and coffee houses and Mozart and Beethoven and Brahms. There will be no dancing -- the ball season is in January and February -- but that doesn't matter. Suzanne was able to dance through two of them (see her photo above) and I'm content simply to return to Vienna, which I saw so many years ago.

Dreams are funny things. They never fade away, but they soften with time. They're replaced with gratitude, I think. And with memory.

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Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Taking the Stairs

In my old job I started each day by climbing to the third floor of a hundred-year-old building on a staircase that looks somewhat like this one. Now I scamper down a single flight of inside stairs, better than most, I'll admit, but definitely the hidden-away staircase of an elevator building. When stairs were the only game in town, they were broad and grand and open. You climbed them with a sense of purpose. Now it often takes me several minutes just to find the stairway, and once I do, well, I'm usually underwhelmed. I climbed one of these in a Maryland medical building Monday: dingy, dark, with an aroma that reminded me of the New York City Subway system in July. I know we can't give up elevators--they're with us to stay--this is just a small tribute to those grande dame staircases, and to the kind of living and walking and thinking they made possible.


Tuesday, April 27, 2010

There is a Morning

"Will there really be a morning? Is there such a thing as day?
Could I see it from the mountains, if I were as tall as they?"

These lines rolled through my head last night as I tossed and turned, unable to sleep. What got me going? Unsettled dreams, our upcoming travels (what they call "good stress"), or just the normal wear and tear of daily life that frays the spirit enough to set the ends flapping in the wee hours, waking us with their clamor. As usual, I shifted position scores of times, made mental lists, fretted over words said and unsaid. I didn't get up and read; I was tired enough that I hoped to be drowsy again momentarily. But the moments became hours. I did, however, drop off again eventually, so that I can at least pretend to have been asleep all night, so that I can answer Emily Dickinson's question, "Will there really be a morning?" with "Oh, yes. There is a morning, all right. And it comes much too soon."


Monday, April 26, 2010

In Medias Res

I love this phrase. I first learned what it meant when I read The Odyssey in high school. "In the middle of things." It's how The Odyssey begins: in the middle of the story.

Some days begin "in medias res." I'm catching up with myself before I've even begun. Today was like that. I woke up thinking about one of the 120 professor profiles I'm editing at work. Have I pulled out the sidebar information? Have I shown it to the professor? Plainly, it was time to get up.

So I did, and because my morning began before it started, I've tried to provide a more intentional counterpoint: I've read, I've written in my journal, and now my entry here. The weather is still and quiet, perfect for catching my breath, for attending to bird song, for feeling, in my bones, that this is a new day, a fresh start, a gift.


Saturday, April 24, 2010

Book Lust

"Where is human nature as weak as in a bookstore?" -- Henry Ward Beecher

The Friends of the Reston Library Used Book Sale is not for the faint of heart. I stumbled upon it this weekend and found myself on my knees sorting through books of essays as another woman (also on her knees) pulled them almost out of my hands.
I don't buy many books these days. My house is full of them already. But the Reston Used Book Sale is a notable exception. Hardbacks for $1.50 and paperbacks for as little as 50 cents. How could I resist Rural Hours (1850) by Susan Fenimore Cooper (daughter of James), billed as one of the earliest pieces of American nature writing and the first by a woman? Or The Footpaths of Britain, complete with marginalia from a previous owner? Or Book Lust -- a telling choice, given the quietly intent crowd at the book sale. Book lust. That's what it is. That's why I was at the book sale. It's why all of us were there.


Friday, April 23, 2010

Missing the Rose

“Mourning the Rose” was my first title for this post. But I thought better of it. After all, it’s a plant I’m missing, not a person or a pet. But the back yard seems empty without the climbing rose. For 20 years it’s shaded and delighted us. I’d always show off the tiny trellis dwarfed by the thick woody stems. I thought it showed what an able gardener I was. What it really revealed was how little I knew about climbing roses.

Its name was “New Dawn,” and when I bought it I still thought I could turn our yard into an English cottage garden. The astilbe, peony and other plants I bought at the same time never did very well. But the rose took to our hard clay soil and flourished for almost two decades.

I’m not enough of a gardener to understand what went wrong. Did I prune it too much or too little? Did it get a disease? Was it parched to oblivion in the drought two years ago? I’ll never know. But it’s hard not to see this as a metaphor. Did the rose flourish when our children were young and scampering about? Is its passing proof that life is passing me by? Nonsense, my practical self tells me. Something got it, and it’s gone. Plant another one, move on.

But about this time of year the long thorny boughs would be greening up and curling around the posts of the pergola, the buds would be full to bursting, the little bump-out roof of our kitchen would be groaning with the weight of all this bliss and all this blossom and I’d be looking forward to the rose’s biggest, grandest bloom at the end of May. Instead, I’m snapping off woody canes and throwing them on the brush pile in the back of the yard. I’m missing the rose.

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Thursday, April 22, 2010


Walking in the city, on the trudge to and from Metro or at lunchtime when I stroll around the Mall, I can't help but listen in. "We only have two months." "I said 15 not 50." "Do you think she'll be able to pull that off?" Everywhere I walk there are conversations to be overheard. I've come to think of it as "eaveswalking." It's not as intentional as eavesdropping but it's almost as satisfying.
Then what of the walker in the suburbs? My eaveswalking here is a mostly silent affair. But still, the houses talk to me. When I walk through our neighborhood each house has a story. Sometimes the story is about the people who live there now, but other times it's about people who lived in that house five, ten years ago.The family with four boys who used to play football in the front yard. The boys grew up; the family moved away. The man who planted a beautiful perennial garden. His wife once admitted, "I don't love gardening but I love the gardener." The gardener died three years ago. His wife moved back to California. But the flowers still bloom every summer.

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Tuesday, April 20, 2010

The Path

On a walk yesterday I spied a path I'd never noticed before. I followed the trail, let it take me across a bridge, past clumps of skunk cabbage and a forest floor carpeted with violets and spring beauties.
As I walked I wondered what it is about paths that so appeal to me? "There is a pleasure in the pathless woods," the poet Byron wrote. "There is a rapture on the lonely shore." Though I, too, love the wilderness, I also love the sight of a beaten dirt track curving around a bend. Do all humans share a hard-wired appreciation for this parting in the forest, for this passage through the briars? Or am I the only one? To me a path is proof that others have gone before us, that there is a way through this tangled treescape, which, lovely though it may be, is still not our home, our yard, our world.


Monday, April 19, 2010

Little Black Book

I've been a journalist for most of my adult life, but I've been a journal-keeper even longer -- since a student teacher in Mrs. Ahren's eleventh grade English class assigned us to write one for 12 weeks. I'd kept diaries before, I'd scribbled stories and poems -- but this was different. I wish I could remember the student teacher's name or the words he used, but the message I took from this assignment was to go out into the world and observe it, ponder it, make it my own. Suddenly a pen and a notebook were the keys to the kingdom.
I started carrying a small spiral notebook around in my purse, recording thoughts, observations, favorite quotations. When the 12 weeks were over, I couldn't imagine life without some notebook or other by my side.


Saturday, April 17, 2010

My Kingdom for a Gardener

The backyard is weedy, the hedges need trimming and the garden lacks vision. It's about this time of year that I always wish we had a gardener. For most household tasks, I appreciate the doing as well as the getting done -- polishing the furniture, washing the dishes, sweeping the floor. But as much as I love being outside, I find the outdoor tasks more daunting. The gap between the cottage garden of my dreams and the real, hodgepodge yard we have is too great to bridge.
Luckily, I know this stage will pass. Once the grass is mown and the summer perennials bloom, I will once again accept our yard for what it is. But until kingdom for a gardener!


Friday, April 16, 2010

This Old House

Twenty-one years ago, when we were house-hunting in northern Virginia, we told our real estate agent that we wanted an "older house." So she brought us here, to a 13-year-old (at the time) center-hall colonial with a big backyard. It wasn't exactly what we were looking for, but the older houses were closer in, smaller and more than we could afford.

Fast forward two decades. The house that once seemed new and polished is sagging and fraying. The floors creak, the windows stick and the walls, oh, they could tell you stories. We've finally found our "older house" in northern Virginia. It's our own.


Thursday, April 15, 2010


It's April 15, so deadlines are on my mind. Not just today's filing deadline, but deadlines in general. My life is built around them, and has been forever, it seems. When I was a student there were tests and papers looming regularly on the horizon. Ditto for the few years after college when I was a teacher. Then I became a journalist, a business with deadlines built into its DNA.
Through the years I've come to think of deadlines as my friends. While I rail about them, especially as they're drawing near, they keep me on task, they keep me honest -- and they keep me sane. My major problem is taking on too many of them. But yesterday, I turned down a freelance assignment because I knew I couldn't finish it in time. Is this wisdom? Is this folly? I'm not sure. But it's certainly proof of the power of deadlines.


Wednesday, April 14, 2010

The Way West

This is for Drew and Brenda, who are heading west the day after tomorrow. "We'll be living a hard day's drive from Denver," said Drew. And knowing my brother, he'll make that drive. Often.
I don't know if my parents planned it this way, but when you pack four kids in a station wagon and drive them across the country a few times at young and impressionable ages, at least a couple of them will end up with incurable wanderlust. In my family, Drew has it the worst. That he will soon be living in a city known as the "Gateway to the West" is very appropriate. I have a feeling that he will be using that gateway often. And who can blame him?


Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Snake Eyes

Last week my work computer starting acting strange. Messages popped up telling me I was under attack, that my files had been corrupted. Ben, our helpful computer guy, took a look. "You have a virus," he said. "You should turn off your computer."
I frantically tried to save files. I rushed to complete a project. I wondered why and how this happened. Most of all, I thought about how we personify mechanical malaise and call it a virus. As if my computer has a fever and an upset tummy. Or a rash and a headache.
The urge to personify is supremely solipsistic, but it's understandable. We see the world through human eyes, so a weeping willow is a grandmother with long, stringy hair and a drainage tunnel is a pair of snake eyes. Computer viruses aside, personification makes the world a warmer, friendlier place.


Monday, April 12, 2010

The Happiness Project

I've just finished reading The Happiness Project by Gretchen Rubin, a book I heard about a couple years ago when I interviewed the author for a Woman's Day story. Before the Happiness Project book, there was (and still is) a Happiness Project blog. It's chock full of tips both practical and philosophical and I highly recommend it and the book.

As for my own "happiness project," this blog is part of it. A New Year's resolution come true (unlike the earnest but vague "worry less" sort of resolution I usually make) this one is forcing me out of my comfort zone. The sneaky truth about this resolution, and an underlying premise of Rubin's book, is that happiness takes work. It requires speaking up and shutting up, list making and list shredding, risk-taking and even failure. But it's all worth it. It is joyful toil.

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Sunday, April 11, 2010

Just What the Doctor Ordered

Prescribe walking to a walker in the suburbs and she will put in the miles. Yesterday I took two walks, a short one in the morning and a long one in the afternoon.
The short one, which happened on the way home from the post office, meandered through Horsepen Run Stream Valley Park, across a stream, under a road (through a tunnel) and up along a rise on the other side. It was still chilly and the air was crisp and clear. Morning walks are full of promise.
The long walk took me from my house all the way to the Reston Trails and back. I took my camera and snapped this photo of the small farm in the neighborhood behind us. Every time I walk there I marvel at what a treasure it is. There are five-acre parcels for folks who like horses, and if you use your imagination a little, you could be a hundred miles away. It was just what the doctor ordered for a soft spring day.


Saturday, April 10, 2010

The Tug of Time

Yesterday I had the first of several procedures to tame the varicose veins that I’ve had for two decades. It wasn’t too bad, and it’s something I’ve been meant to do for years. I bring it up in this blog because, for one thing, the doctor prescribed walking to speed recovery. This is just the kind of prescription a walker in the suburbs wants to hear, of course.
But the procedure brings up the more general topic of aging and how one goes about it. I don’t think I’d ever have a tummy tuck or a face lift. But being able to wear shorts or skirts again in public would be nice. Following the same moderate philosophy, I try to eat right and exercise. But I keep in mind that I’m not in my 20s or 30s anymore and can only expend so much time and effort fighting time and gravity. Is this copping out or aging gracefully? How hard should we fight against the aches and pains, the pull of mortality? How much of our life should this consume?

Friday, April 9, 2010

The Violet

“A violet by a mossy stone, half hidden from the eye,
Fair as a star when only one is shining in the sky.”
William Wordsworth

This violet is not by a mossy stone; it’s in our weedy backyard. But a violet is never degraded by the environment in which it finds itself. It always has about it an air of quiet beauty. Maybe it’s the color combination of flower and leaf, the vividness of the purple, the way it’s grounded by the green. Or maybe it’s the way it clusters with its own, as if waiting to be gathered into a bouquet. In the general boisterousness that is spring, the violet is shy and unassuming; it hugs the ground and skirts the edge of woodland trails.
Violets are part of my emotional-horticultural heritage. My mother has always loved them and her mother, my grandmother and namesake, always loved them, too. I have very few of my grandmother’s possessions, but I do have her violet-patterned china cup and saucer set, and I treasure it.
In the universal language that is flowers, the rose stands for love, the daisy stands for innocence, and the violet — for me the violet stands for tenderness and pride. It is the beauty of new life before the world gets to it.


Wednesday, April 7, 2010

The Car Ahead

Articles on stress reduction often present this scenario: You're driving to work and someone is tailgating you. Instead of getting angry, imagine that the fast driver is late for an important job interview or his wife is about to have a baby.
For me, the opposite is true. I am the impatient driver; for me the story has to explain why the car ahead of me is going so slowly. Maybe it's a newly licensed driver on her own for the first time, I tell myself. Or an old man, clinging to his license because it gives him the freedom to live on his own.
This morning, I had a chance to study the slow driver when I pulled up next to him at a light. He was a middle aged guy wearing a loud print shirt. Next to him was a prim older lady. As soon as I saw them, I had my explanation. He was taking her to Fairfax Hospital for outpatient surgery. She was nervous, so he was driving way below the speed limit. Suddenly my impatience was beside the point. I was embarking on a normal day; for them, this day might change their lives forever. Of course, for all I know they may have been dashing out for a gallon of milk. But it doesn't matter. I drove more slowly after that.


Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Not So Fast

It isn’t that I’ve forgotten the snow or the cold. And given the choice between 9 degrees or 90 I would gladly choose the latter. So it’s not the sudden heat that bothers me, it’s how it hurries us along. Spring is best when it dallies, when it moves slowly from the brave, yellow flowers of late March – forsythia and daffodils — to the pink dogwood of mid April to the vivid azaleas of early May. Cram all of that blooming into one week and you not only end up with a wicked sinus headache but also a seasonal overload.
A one-week spring? I might as well be living back in Chicago, where spring occurred somewhere between the middle of May (when temperatures could still dip below freezing) and the beginning of June (when they would soar into the 90s). I expect better of D.C. But of course, we have what we have, so down to the basement I went to dig out a few warm weather clothes. And today I’ll have my camera with me (as I did over the weekend--the photo above was taken out the car window and is supposed to give the impression of movement!). If spring is coming in with warp speed, I want to capture it.


Monday, April 5, 2010

Morning Light

This morning I dashed outside early because I wanted to walk in time to the Strauss waltz I heard on the radio. Once out, though, I remembered why early morning was once my favorite time to walk. I strolled sans sunglasses, hoping that more of the rays would penetrate my pupils, reset my biological clock, stabilize my mood and all that other good stuff. But the morning light did something much more fundamental. It lifted my spirit.


Sunday, April 4, 2010


This morning we were awakened by a woodpecker drilling into the side of our house. The sound has the staccato intensity of an alarm, and we jumped to attention, convinced it was time to get up for work. Instead, it was time to get up and shoo away the woodpecker. Such is life in the suburbs.
Today is Easter Sunday--and our anniversary. A good day to write about abundance, profusion, the groaning Easter buffet, the bounty of buds and birds and blossoms. I doubled my recipe for rolls, I'm about to peel a dozen potatoes. We're serving ham and lamb. There is more chocolate in the house than is sane or responsible. An Easter lily perfumes the air. It's a day to rejoice.


Friday, April 2, 2010

Ritual of the Season

I went to see the cherry blossoms late yesterday. I walked down 18th Street, to 17th, past the dignified though scaffolded Old Executive Office Building, across Constitution to the Mall. By that point I was swept along with the throng. On we moved, past the Washington Monument and the World War II Memorial, its fountains flying, to our destination, the cherry trees of the Tidal Basin. I try to visit every year, even when it's cold, even though it's crowded, even if I don't have time. This year's blossoming coincides with Easter and with the first truly convincing days of spring. There were old folks and babies, screaming toddlers and young couples. Walking the path I think about the circularity of seasons and the circularity of life. I've seen the cherry blossoms with my husband, my parents, my sister, my children (when they were those screaming toddlers) and other family and friends. This year I saw them alone. I snapped pictures and savored the scene. At one point a mild breeze blew, caught some petals and sprinkled them over the crowd. Now it isn't snow that's falling, it's cherry blossom petals. The long winter is over.


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