Tuesday, August 31, 2010


As summer winds down, I think of vacations past, of long drives along unfamiliar roads, of pulling into a place we've never been before. The western United States and Canada are good for this. Endless highways, scenery that never stops. A few days in this landscape and the shoulders drop, the headache goes away. Something relaxes in me that I hadn't known was tight.

Funny thing: After I write this post I read (on Metro) from a chapter in Marianne Wiggins' book The Shadow Catcher called "Lights Out for the Territory," these words: "The drive had all these syncopations, then — the percussion of the asphalt road, the alternating rhythms of the landscape braiding, like convergent channels of a river, through divergent threads of time."

Yeah, something like that!


Monday, August 30, 2010

The Company of Animals

On days I work at home I spend quiet time with Copper and Hermes. They're with me now on the (rapidly warming) deck. If I need to stretch, I'll throw the ball with Copper or take him on a walk (a word which cannot be said unless immediate action is intended). I turn to Hermes for mental stimulation. He talks, after all, though his vocabulary is limited. He is also good for comic relief, especially when he sneezes at the wild birds to get their attention. They must wonder what kind of creature lives in a cage and says "I love you."

The company of animals on a busy Monday morning. They keep me humble; they keep me sane.


Saturday, August 28, 2010

Morning Glory

When summer began I had high hopes for a flowery bower, a vine-entwined pergola under which we would sip tea in the morning and eat our raucous dinners at night. The deck was empty without the climbing rose, and we would make up for it with some cheap lattice panels and the promise of a vine. It's taken the whole summer but finally we have tendrils, slight, clingy things that wrap themselves around whatever they can find. And today, we have a purple morning glory, a sweet gift at summer's end.


Friday, August 27, 2010

The View from a Hammock

Finally home after a 12-hour workday, I flop on the hammock. It's almost dark, and Tom is grilling. He uses a clip-on light to see what he's flipping. Two lamb chops (for him), portobello mushrooms and zucchini for Celia and me. From time to time there's a flare of orange light — our grill is a feisty thing — which brightens the deck. I feel lazy lying in the hammock. But not lazy enough to get up and move. Instead, I watch the color disappear from the leaves. As I swing, they fade to black.


Thursday, August 26, 2010


At work I interview the new dean, then transcribe the tape and edit the conversation for a magazine Q&A. At home I interview people for a freelance article, transcribe their tapes, then tell their stories. I've listened to a lot of tape lately, my fingers flying on the keyboard, sometimes getting all tangled up with each other trying to keep up with the voices. I marvel at all the pitches, the inflections, the pacing. Most of all, I marvel at the stories: a man grows up in Africa, learning how to bake at his mother's side; a young woman receives a kidney from a high school classmate, which makes it possible for her to become an medal-winning cyclist and a mother.

A lot has changed about this business I'm in. But one thing that hasn't are the stories. And whenever I'm feeling flat, stunned, gasping for air, I try to remember them.


Wednesday, August 25, 2010

A Test Spin

Today I take my travel mug out for a test spin. A gift from Claire before she left for college, a thoughtful gift because she's been hearing me rant these summer mornings about drips and leaks and all around failure, this travel mug holds just enough tea to get me to Vienna, warm and wide awake, ready for the day.
Say what you will about the engines of cars, their marvelous innards. What I look for in a vehicle is the cup holder. It must be sturdy, it must be ergonomic, it must not take the whole coin tray with it when I pick it up. Life has its trials and it has its consolations. Leaving for work at six a.m. (already late today!) is a trial; drinking tea along the way is my pleasant consolation.

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Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Fellow Traveler

I took early to Thomas Hardy novels. I've never understood why, have always hoped it wasn't some incipient fatalism at work. Because I never much cared for the tragic endings. It was the landscape and the pacing; it was rural England, rustic characters, the weaving of maypoles, the quaffing of mead. I could imagine I was far, far away from Lexington, in another place and time.

Walking to Metro this morning, staying close on the heels of the man in front of me, made me think of fellow travelers. Hardy novels seem to open with two lonely souls falling into step together and making their way across the moors. With their chance meeting the novel begins and all the wondrous words that follow come from those first shared steps.

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Monday, August 23, 2010

Empty House

The nest may not be empty but the house certainly is. Claire moved into George Mason housing yesterday, Suzanne is well settled at Wooster and Celia spent the night at a friend's. Am I only imagining it or does the place just feel emptier, the air thinner?

Being a parent means letting go — that's something you learn from the very beginning. But that doesn't make it any easier. Twice this weekend while walking I stopped to talk with friends about their children going off to college or grad school. Raising kids is what the suburbs are about. Which raises the question: What happens when the children grow up and move away?

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Map Quest

Yesterday Tom went to the map store to buy a world atlas — and the store was out of business. I did a little googling and found out that the store had been around for 40 years and that Tom missed the last day — and the incredible sale — by less than a week.

Then I thought, it's the googling that's the problem. Google Maps, that is. And Mapquest, and of course, the GPS. But today I don't write to lay blame, only to celebrate. So let us now praise the printed map, from fold-out models to large, laminated ones that cover most of a wall. From globes to atlases. From street maps to nautical charts.

Maps let us see where we're going and where we've been. They offer us all the possibilities, not just a narrow route ahead. I can stare at a map for hours, studying how one road leads to another, imagining the lives of the people who live where I'm looking. I love the way a map feels after it has a few trips under its belt, wrinkled and dog-eared, softened from use. In time it takes on the land it chronicles, becomes part of the process. A map is tangible proof of the miracle of travel, armchair or actual.


Friday, August 20, 2010

Perpetual Motion

Today on my walk through the suburbs I listened to a violin piece by Paganini called "Perpetual Motion." This work goes up and down the scale in an almost manic manner,and it reminds me, I'll admit, of myself.

I've always liked to be on the move. I enjoy walking, running, biking, swimming — activities that keep the old body moving. This is fine, of course, good for the heart and lungs and large muscles. It's good for the mind, too; it scours away worries and anxieties.

Perpetual motion can be a problem, however, especially when you don't allow yourself time to process one task or emotion before you move on to the next. In that case, efficiency can be counterproductive. It stifles creativity, which thrives in a looser loam. So as I was walking I vowed to be less productive in the future. Not today, though. I have too much to do!


Thursday, August 19, 2010

Flash Flood

Yesterday morning I turned right out of our neighborhood and entered a world of water. At the bottom of the first hill were deeper pools than I thought I should attempt. But the road was too narrow to turn around, so I plunged through, plumes of spray arcing above the windows. For the rest of the 20-minute trip, I struggled to see the road in front of me enough to figure out which side of it was most submerged. Sheets of rain poured across the pavement. I gripped the steering wheel with both hands, turned the wipers to the highest setting, and drove very, very slowly to the Metro parking garage. It was, in short, terrifying. Emily Dickinson said it best: "Nature, like us, is sometimes caught without her diadem."


Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Farewell to the Saab

Today our beloved 1986 white Saab sedan takes one final trip when the vehicle-donation truck comes to pick it up. It's like losing a member of the family.We brought all three of our babies home from the hospital in this car. We took countless trips back to Kentucky and Indiana to see our families in it, chugging up and over the Appalachian Mountains more times than I can count. The Saab has been to Montana and Arizona and New Mexico, to Oklahoma and Texas and Tennessee. It moved us from Arkansas to Massachusetts and then, a couple years and one baby later, from Massachusetts to Virginia. We carried tools in it, bikes in it, even a cello and a string bass in it. I still remember which side the gas tank is on by imagining Suzanne as a baby in a car seat, diagonally across from me in the driver's seat.

Tom bought the Saab before we were married, and we first drove it on the brow of a flat-topped mountain in Arkansas. From this idyllic childhood, the Saab moved on to a serviceable middle age. In the last five years it managed to keep going through a few minor ailments and then what we all feared would be its final illness, an injury that involved rust, an axle and the entire front end. For months the car languished in our driveway. But Tom put it back together again.

We have no idea how many miles the Saab has logged; the odometer broke years ago. The headliner is long gone and the finish is pockmarked. But through it all, the Saab has maintained its dignity, its good nature and its fine bones. It is a noble, willing car; it has heart.

I once wrote an essay about the day we finally broke down and bought a mini-van. It was raining when we went to pick it, I said. Even the heavens were crying. Well, it's raining today. Raining buckets. We're losing the Saab. Even the heavens are crying.


Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Riding Shotgun

Yesterday I rode eight and a half hours in the passenger seat. I could read on the straightaways, but on the curvy roads I napped or snapped photos or just looked out the window. There's a place in the middle of West Virginia that looks like the West. Jagged rocks, a wildness to the landscape. It makes me think of all the long road trips we've taken, how they always feel like the real thing. Getting away to a place you can drive to, a world apart at the end of the road.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Only Connect

Yesterday 70 of us gathered in an old monastery boarding school to visit with people we barely knew or didn't at all know, first cousins, second cousins, third cousins, with many degrees of "removed." People connected by the slenderest but strongest of threads. Family. We came with covered dish and grandma's jam cake, with old photographs and family trees, with stories and reminiscences. There were many pairs of dark, deep-set eyes. So many of us have them that they must be a family trait.

Afterward I looked at Dad's photo album, a gift from his sister, my Aunt Dolly, gone now. Inside were pictures of two of the cousins I had just seen, only instead of 75 and 70 they were 12 and 7 -- a long-legged boy, a pigtailed girl -- all their lives ahead of them. And seeing both in one day, the real people and their younger selves, was a punch to the gut. Because people, even the best ones, do not live forever.

"Only connect! That was the whole of her sermon.
Only connect the prose and the passion, and both will be exalted,
And human love will be seen at its height.
Live in fragments no longer.
Only connect..."

--E.M. Forster, Howards End


Sunday, August 15, 2010

Midnight Oil

I'm a morning person, at my best when the sun is rising and dew is on the grass. But sometimes the thoughts of day settle best at night. Sometimes, it's only when everyone else is asleep that I can put the day to rest, can concentrate on a task, can finish the chapter or paragraph or journal entry. Today has been like that. We're in Kentucky, visiting with family, fixing food, working on a project. My mind is a jumble of words and emotions and things to do. But one by one, the doors close, my mind clears. The words flow, my keyboard rattles, the familiar rhythm. Soon I'll be spent, I'll read a few minutes and fall asleep. Maybe sooner than I think.


Friday, August 13, 2010

Other Rare Occurrences

We looked for shooting stars last night and didn't find them. But inside our house another rare phenomenon was occurring. The convergence of three sisters, all together, in our kitchen. This doesn't happen very often, it won't happen again until, oh, probably November. But how it gladdens my heart to see our girls together. Here they are in earlier days — which now seem so long ago.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Shooting Stars

Tonight, if we're lucky, we'll look skyward and see specks of light streaking across the night sky. It's the Perseid Meteor shower, late summer's elusive fireworks. I say elusive because clouds or city lights often edge them out of eyesight. But some years the heavens have cooperated. One summer we saw the meteors from lawn chairs by a lake in Arkansas; another year we camped out in our neighbor's driveway. More often than not we just turn off our porch light, walk outside and wait. The brilliance is fleeting and it's easy to think you've imagined it. But you haven't. It's a glimpse of the beyond, and it's unforgettable.


Wednesday, August 11, 2010


I'm not a graphic designer, but editing a magazine — and taking pictures for this blog — have made me more aware of the orientation of a photograph, whether it's horizontal or vertical. And being known to muse about things from time to time (!) I have mused about this, too. Yes, the vertical is stirring. It is the mountain, the skyscraper, the urge to touch the sky. But for everyday photos, give me the horizontal. It is restful, it is kind, it neatly fills the page or screen. It is the horizon, telling us how far we can go.


Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Blame it on Tchaikovsky

Before I was a walker, I was a runner. I ran through Lincoln Park in Chicago, along Todd's Road in Lexington, around the reservoir in Central Park. I ran in the suburbs for a while, too — until my knees caught up with me. Now I walk — fast — figuring it's better for my body if I keep at least one foot on the pavement as I pace.

Sometimes when I'm feeling strong and listening to good music, though, my emotions get the better of me. That happened yesterday. It was a brass-driven piece, loud, bombastic, a show stopper. The sort of symphony that provokes applause after movements. If I can't move around as well today, I'm blaming it on Tchaikovsky.

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Monday, August 9, 2010

Money and Happiness

Yesterday's New York Times ran an article about a couple who stepped out of the rat race and now live a simple, happier life in a 400-square-foot apartment with 100 possessions (each, I think!). The article mentions the research of Thomas DeLeire at the University of Wisconsin. He recently discovered that of nine categories of consumption, the only one positively related to happiness was leisure spending on vacations, fishing poles and the like. I don't know about fishing poles, but you wouldn't have to sit too long on our living room couch to know where we stand in this debate. We take great vacations — and our rumpled, well-loved house tells the tale.

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Saturday, August 7, 2010

The Meadow

To search for the soul of the summer, you could travel from mountains to shore, from lake to canyon, from baseball diamond to golf course. But you could also head to the nearest meadow. That's what I did this morning. And there amidst the buzzing bees and jumping crickets, in the bright sun and rough foliage, I found the soul of summer. The heat and the heft of it. The brightness of it, the sturdiness and the shagginess. There was Queen Anne's lace, Joe Pye Weed and goldenrod just coming into bloom. Above all were the grasses, tall and lanky and swaying over the scene as if to fan it and cool it down.

I used to overlook meadows; I found them ordinary. I preferred cool wooded glades. But lately I've realized what a treasure the meadow is, how it captures summer in its openness and lack of guile.


Friday, August 6, 2010


The other night, in a fit of hedonism, I watched the movie "Crazy Heart" on my laptop while lying outside in the hammock. It was the ultimate luxury: two hours of downtime outside, watching a movie, slightly swaying under the trees. And what made it possible? Wireless communication.

I realize that many of my posts rail against technology. Here's one that does not. A post in praise of cordless phones, laptop computers, inventions that untether us. I remember how I would contort myself to talk in private on a corded phone: squeezing into closets, stepping into darkened rooms, buying extra long phone cords that twisted and tangled. Now I take a phone with me wherever I go.

It's interesting, though, that the privacy I searched for in the old days has not exactly been served in the wireless era. Are we truly untethered, or are we bound by much longer and more insidious cords?

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Thursday, August 5, 2010

Trees in Need

In the 21 years we've lived here we've lost a lot of our big, beautiful red oaks. They have been toppled by hurricanes, blown down by heavy winds and parched by heat. The first tree experts we called in were sensitive folk with college degrees and a calm, Zen-like manner. They didn't so much diagnose our trees as they did feel their pain. More recently, we've hired daredevil cowboys who would as soon fell a tree as look at it. In other words, our attitude as tree owners has paralleled our evolution as parents. The longer we've been doing it, the more casual we've become.
Until now.
Something is killing our trees. We've lost five in the last two years, and hey, we don't have an infinite number here. So yesterday another tree expert visited our house. What's killing our trees, he said, is drought. Let the watering begin.


Wednesday, August 4, 2010

So Far Away

The words to the Carole King song “So Far Away” are in my head these days: “Doesn’t anybody stay in one place anymore?” Not because I’m longing for someone who’s moved away—nothing as dramatic as that. It’s more the pace of life that has me humming, the days that zoom by, the children growing up, the seasons passing. Sometimes middle age seems like one big whoosh.

But some of the disorientation is self-imposed. It comes from the constant distraction of living, of interruptions by text and email, of time disjointed and concentration broken. The “anybody” who doesn’t stay in one place anymore, that’s me.


Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Small Pond

I jog past the cattail pond on West Ox, a containment pond, I suppose. But filled with cattails and buzzing with insects it becomes much more. It makes me think: There are as many hidden glades and sunny meadows in our neighborhood as one needs to inspire creative thought, to parse an identity. In other words: There are revelations that come to me along the path, and if I'm listening, they will find me. The natural world, even one as cramped and pruned as ours, holds wisdom.


Monday, August 2, 2010

Awed into Silence

It's August now. Mornings are later and evenings earlier. Some of my after-dinner strolls end in darkness. But a few nights ago I walked mid-gloaming, and the sky shimmered with light. The colors were those of a baby's nursery, pinks and blues. Only they were lit from inside and shone with the brilliance of the spectrum; they were almost kaleidoscopic.

Before there were televisions and computers and electric lights to read by late at night, there were sunsets to awe us into silence, to send us off to sleep believing in something larger than ourselves.


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