Saturday, July 31, 2010

The Power of the Porch

Tonight I was on one of my brief after-dinner strolls when our neighbors called from across the street. They’ve just finished a front porch across the width of their house and they wanted me to see it. So I sat on their porch swing and we talked for 45 minutes. This is remarkable because in 21 years it’s the longest conversation I’ve had with Bob and Donna. In our suburb, as in many, backyard decks and patios are where you sit outside on a pleasant evening. Imagine all those people suddenly flipped, sitting in front of their houses where they can see their neighbors, rather than behind. Then multiply this by millions of people across the land -- and you have one way to build community, to bring us face to face with the people we live closest to.

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Friday, July 30, 2010

Only Child

Pots of soil went into its being, hundreds of gallons of water and hours of summer light. Once there were several blossoms on this plant; now there aren't any.

Instead, there is one red orb, ripening slowly in the sun.

It's that time of the summer when you realize that what you have, produce-wise, is what you'll get. So let me introduce you to my only child. Next stop: the farmer's market.

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Thursday, July 29, 2010

The City at Night

Two nights ago, when the moon was full, we drove downtown in a red convertible to see the sights. The wind whipped our hair, and even with jackets on we were chilly. As we crossed the 14th Street Bridge, the city swung into sight. The Washington Monument, the Lincoln, the White House, the Capitol. Every building white against the inky night sky. Our niece, Liz, snapped photo after photo from the back seat; it was her first visit.
Suddenly the city that is our steady spouse, our workaday companion, became our lover -- dark and sparkly and full of life.


Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Happy Birthday, Claire

Before the sweltering summer of 2010 was the sweltering summer of 1991. But early one morning, the last Sunday in the month, the heat broke. The morning sky was swirls of color and the air was clean and clear. The weathercasters said: “This is the most beautiful day of the year.” It was July 28, 1991, the day our daughter Claire was born.

So today’s post is for Claire -- daughter, sister, friend; college student, daycare assistant, giver of big hugs. When I started this blog in February, Claire cheered me on more than anyone else. Happy Birthday, Claire!


Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Little Voices

Just as there are seasons of the suburban street -- the rumble of school buses in the fall; the melody of ice cream trucks in the summer -- so too is there a life cycle over time -- the years of baby cries, followed by those of bicycle tires slapping the pavement, of squeals and yells and parents calling and yesterday (I don't know from where but I heard it) a dinner bell.
For years our street has been quiet. Our children were some of the youngest on the block and when the older kids of neighboring families moved out our kids were left behind to make their own fun.
Now a new generation is on the rise. Boys on bikes, girls on scooters, babies in prams. It makes me feel old -- and young -- at the same time.


Sunday, July 25, 2010

Mad Woman

Tonight is the premiere of "Mad Men." It's the fourth season of a show I've usually watched on DVD; this will be the first episode I've seen in real time. So we have the excitement of a premiere (even though a television premiere), the glamor of New York City in the 1960s, and for me, wondering about the popularity of this show and what it means about us. The characters are compelling, the time period just out of reach enough to be strange and wondrous, and the style is divine. We like "Mad Men" because it's a good show. But we also like it because it reminds us of the way we used to be. We smoked, we drank, we were not kind to women and minorities. But we were not as plugged in, we were not as politically correct; we were, I think, more human.


Saturday, July 24, 2010


We're in Greensboro, North Carolina, this weekend, and are about to explore it. One thing I've noticed so far is the preponderance of friend chicken and biscuit chains. I'll admit: My salad-weary mouth is watering. My southern roots are calling. There are times when only fried chicken will do.


Friday, July 23, 2010

Facing the Enemy

We are not air-conditioning people. If we could do summer the way we wanted, our windows would always be open to the breeze. But we have teenagers, and we choose our battles, so the last few summers we keep our windows up and our AC on. Still, we never lose an opportunity to throw open the sash and let the sunshine in.

Until this summer.

This summer almost every day is over 90 degrees. This summer, heat is the enemy. So we sit outside in the evening, when the sun is down and the air is a balmy 85. Or early in the morning when there's still a hint (and I mean a hint) of coolness in the air.
I used to think there was no such thing as too hot.
I'm not so sure anymore.


Thursday, July 22, 2010

Breathing Space

Oprah Magazine used to contain a double-page spread photograph of a windswept beach or mountain peak or other natural scene. It was called "Breathing Space." I loved the photos and I loved the concept. The generous bestowal of two pages with no advertising, no text, just a picture. It really was a breathing space.
Maye I'm just missing it, but I don't see "Breathing Space" in Oprah anymore. So today I offer my own breathing space. Pause here a minute to catch your breath.


Wednesday, July 21, 2010

By Heart

Apparently Socrates thought the written word was a step down from the oral tradition, which requires memorization, thought, the careful consideration of ideas. People who read, he says, "will seem to know many things, when they are for the most part ignorant." The written word offers "the appearance of wisdom, not true wisdom."

I can't say that I completely agree with the philosopher on this one. But I do know how easy it is to read a book and a few weeks later have absolutely no idea what it said. And I do appreciate the power of the remembered phrase, of learning a poem or a verse "by heart." Because the more you savor a particular combination of words, the more you love it. And because memorization liberates. Once we know the words, we carry their wisdom around with us; we are freed from the printed page. Being able to recite a few lines of poetry or prose, if only silently, lets us savor the rich thoughts of great writers and thinkers any time, any place. I wrote an essay about this a long time ago. To read it, follow this link:


Tuesday, July 20, 2010


We live these days in a kingdom of moisture. A couple weeks ago, it was hot and dry. Now it's hot and humid. Dew is heavy on the grass. Evening thunderstorms thicken the air. Our windows fog. Walking is best in the morning, unless you want to saunter.


Monday, July 19, 2010

Martha and Mary

Yesterday's gospel was a story that always rankles me. Martha and Mary, sisters of Lazarus, are entertaining Jesus. Martha is running around playing hostess while Mary sits at Jesus' feet, listening to him talk. When Martha complains to Jesus, he says, "Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken from her."

Every time I hear this Bible passage I want to scream. This is because I identify with Martha, even though I'd rather be Mary. I love to sit and talk about ideas, but I can't unless I know the homefront is secure. And the tension between these twin impulses makes me anxious.

So when I heard this familiar story yesterday I sat with my hands folded, waiting for illumination. "If I had to choose, I would side with Martha," the priest said. "But good deeds are spoiled by bad attitudes." Ahhh. Yes. That is true. It removes none of the injustice. My blood still boils. Someone has to cook the food, make the bed, sweep the floor. There will always be people who roll up their sleeves and others who wait for the sleeve-rollers. But attitude is important, and it's good to be reminded of that from time to time — even from the pulpit.


Saturday, July 17, 2010

Settling Down

Yesterday morning at 5 a.m., a 3.6 magnitude earthquake shook the D.C region. I missed it, asleep for a change. But it made me think about other minor earthquakes I've experienced. One was in New York City. That tremblor woke me out of a deep sleep; I thought the boiler in our apartment building had exploded.

The mind seeks explanations -- a passing jet, a roll of thunder -- because if the earth is not solid and grounded, then what is? But such is the nature of life that even that which we think is certain sometimes turns out not to be.

Scientists interviewed about yesterday's quake said it was nothing to worry about, that it's just part of the "creaking and grinding" of our old planet, like the "settling of an old house," the newspaper said. Even the ground beneath our feet needs to shift and stretch once in a while.


Friday, July 16, 2010

A Tunnel of Trees

In the archives of suburban history it may not amount to much, but I've been waiting for years for this to happen. For trees on the south side of our street to lean over and touch the trees on the north. For a meeting, a confab, a treaty of trees.

I've longed, of course, for the passage of green, the sympathy of branch upon branch, the slightly lost feeling I get when I'm passing through such a shaded spot. In my mind's eye are the great tree tunnels of my past, most notably Pisgah Pike in Woodford County, Kentucky, where the great, gnarled osage orange trees bend their way across an ancient, stone-lined lane.

We're not there yet in Folkstone. I doubt our oaks could contort themselves so; they are tall, skinny trees, more vertical than horizontal. What we have this summer is a start, a first glancing touch. A promise of green tunnels to come.


Thursday, July 15, 2010


Yesterday after a swim I looked at the sky, bright blue with dark clouds hovering, and I realized: Summer is half over. This is not a happy thought. So I pondered midpoints, the balance inherent in them, the way they help us see forward and back.

Because we vacationed in May this year, the summer seems lusciously long and uninterrupted. Seems precious, too. Use it all, I tell myself. From beginning to end. From early each morning till late each night.


Wednesday, July 14, 2010


Sometimes after dinner I slip out the garage door and walk down the street for a few minutes. Unlike my daytime walks, which require tennis shoes, sunglasses and earphones, these impromptu strolls are completely come-as-you-are. I walk toward the sunset, which is better viewed from the open area at the end of our street. And I walk slowly, meditatively. The point is not to move quickly through the landscape but to let the landscape seep into me. I pass two split-levels, four colonials, three flagpoles, two front porches (one of them brand-new) and our community meadow. Sometimes the stars are peeping out of the darkening sky. Before I know it, I've come to a house where the light shines yellow through the front windows, a house with a small grove of oak and holly in the front yard. It's for this that I've walked -- for our house, in perspective.


Tuesday, July 13, 2010

The Books We Left Behind

So into this age of iPhones and iPads and Kindles comes Nicholas Basbanes' book A Splendor of Letters: The Permanence of Books in an Impermanent World. And we think we have problems. In ancient times, books were threatened by scarcity of materials, by fire-loving fanatics, by bookworms (the real thing) and by textual transmission. Instead of a book failing to jump from hardback to paperback or paperback to e-book, in the fourth century books might not make the cut from papyrus to parchment. My mind is filled this morning with phantom books of the past. What wisdom do we lack because some ancient author didn't make the grade?


Monday, July 12, 2010

Open Window

Last night's respite from midsummer heat gave us the excuse to turn off the air-conditioning and throw open the windows to the night air.

Fans whir, crickets sing, a faint smell of loamy earth wafts through the house. By the middle of the night the fan has sucked in enough cool air that I pull the comforter up around my chin.

It's the best kind of chilly, air that is moist and moving and full of sounds and smells. I've missed it this summer.

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Saturday, July 10, 2010

A Change of Scene

Darkness in the morning. Rain steadier than what I thought we'd get today. Everything left out on the deck: wooden rockers, chair cushions, one very soggy beach towel. For weeks the sun has ruled; there's been no question about it. Every day a sunny day. And now today, something different. A new game in town. It's refreshing. As long as it doesn't last.


Friday, July 9, 2010

Yankee Doodle Dandy

It's July 9. The firecrackers aren't snapping and the flags aren't flapping. What remains for me is the memory of James Cagney as George M. Cohan in "Yankee Doodle Dandy." I can't stop humming "It's a Grand Old Flag," "Over There" or "I'm a Yankee Doodle Dandy." And I can't forget the sight of that powerful little man going into one of his tap-dancing riffs. He is the essence of jaunty, of sticking out one's chin and plunging into life. Was our country ever that innocent and optimistic? I replay the final scene of that movie, Cagney dancing down the steps of the White House after telling his life story to President Roosevelt, and I think yes, maybe it was.

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Thursday, July 8, 2010


The lights are blinking yellow as I drive through Fairfax on the way home from book group. It’s still warm and the wind blows hot against my face. The heat is a creature let loose upon the earth, a menace, a fire-breathing dragon singeing my toes, dragging me down. An easy excuse. And now at the end of this hot, hot, day, I’m finally outrunning it. As I drive west it cools a bit. The swagger is gone from the day. What’s left behind is swelter.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Alternate Route

For years I drove from Virginia to Kentucky on interstate highways. Then my brother figured out another pass through the hills. We call it the “Drew Way” in his honor. It’s part two-lane, part four-lane and it slices through some of the most spectacular mountain scenery this side of the Rocky Mountains. In one stretch of Route 33 that runs past Seneca Rocks, you feel like you’re in Colorado, skimming beside a mountain stream.

You can’t go as fast on the two-lane parts, but it doesn’t matter. The route grabs you, and you are part of the road and the hills and the motorcycle in front of you with the passenger on the back who keeps holding out her arms as if to embrace the view. There are wildflowers on the summits and cool air in the valleys. You are not ticking off the miles anymore; you are one with them.

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Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Gratitude and Ground Fog

A drive home across the mountains. No music, no news. Just the road and the ground fog, great swirling gobs of it. For more than an hour it rose from the earth, a sigh of gratitude, a bit of yogic breathing. It seemed as if nighttime was shedding its long robe, tossing it off in the first light of morning.

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Monday, July 5, 2010

Local History

When my dad was a boy, he snuck out one night to hear Ella Fitzgerald at a dance club a few blocks from his house. It was a black jazz club; whites were allowed only upstairs at the bar. My dad was 12 at the time, so he wasn’t allowed in it all. But he remembers standing outside and listening to Ella, and a few months ago, he looked for the building. Here it is, a shadow of its former self, but still standing. While we were looking around the property, the owner pulled up in his truck and told us that before it was a jazz club, the oldest part of the building was a steam-powered hemp factory.

You can love a place without knowing much about it, but if you know about a place, if you learn its past and its stories, how can you not be attached?

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Sunday, July 4, 2010

The Sacred and the Secular

Independence Day in the Heartland. Small flags flying. People unabashedly wear red, white and blue. A Methodist church and a sermon on national humility. All this has me thinking: How does a nation, founded in an age of belief, survive in an age of secularism? The Europeans have figured it out, but here in our earnest land, it isn't as easy. We find it harder to say one thing and do another. Our nation is still young. At least we hope it is.


Saturday, July 3, 2010

Country Roads

Yesterday, on my way to Kentucky, I drove along the Robert C. Byrd Appalachian Highway System as the late senator was lying in state at the capitol in Charleston. As I listened to eulogies on the radio, I zoomed along Route 33, Route 55, gorgeous curving two-lane roads and even the occasional stretch of four-lane pavement, roads to nowhere it might seem to outsiders, but not to West Virginians, of course. To them, the roads were proof their senator cared about them, that their state mattered. To generations of West Virginians, these roads are the way out of cloistered communities, a way out into the world beyond. But yesterday, they were a way back in.


Thursday, July 1, 2010

It's in the Bag

Yesterday I volunteered to hold the new dean's phone, keys, pens and other valuables in my purse while our photographer took his picture outside. This was all fine until it was time to retrieve the items. The blackberry was easy -- it was right on top -- the keys I fished out eventually, but to find his pens required taking everything out of my purse. This was embarrassing. I have lots of tissues in my purse. The dean was exceptionally polite and understanding and took it all with good humor. This bodes well for the future. But it feeds into every female-digging-around-in-her-handbag stereotype there is. I vow to clean up my act. You never know when your purse may be called to duty!
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