Thursday, September 30, 2010

The Sounds of Rain

This morning I woke up to a sound I haven't heard in a while. It will rain two to five inches today, the forecasters say. I'll wear tennis shoes to work. Meanwhile, inside the house, the downpour is not yet a nuisance. It is a sound, white noise. When I listen hard, though, the rain isn't just one sound but many. There is a low roar and a rush to it, those would be the bass notes, layered with a steady drip, drip, which are the treble. And these sounds are punctuated by the ticking of our clock and the chirping of a lone cricket. When the wind comes up it makes its own sound. There is such a coziness to a rainy day. Until you have to walk through it.


Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Artist's Date

In her book The Artist's Way, Julia Cameron says that one way to stimulate creativity is the "artist's date" — taking yourself out to a place you don't usually go. While I haven't read this book in many years, there are two ideas from it I try to practice whenever I'm feeling stale. One is writing three "morning pages" in my journal; the other is the artist's date.

The point of the latter is not some long and elaborate excursion, Cameron says. Simply trying a new route home from work will do the trick. Last Friday I drove to the oldest part of Reston to take a walk. And once there I went straight instead of turning right where I usually do. And the world opened up to me. I thought about what a different, tidy life we would have if we lived in one of those townhouse clusters. A life built around walking and the water. It's not a life I would want right now, but it's fun to contemplate.

Once back at our untidy house, one built around driving the car, I felt immediately at home. But a curtain was raised. I was shaken from my normal routine. And that's what the artist's date is all about.


Tuesday, September 28, 2010

The Hammock

On Sunday I took down the hammock and put it in the garage. I may drag it out again before storing it for the winter, but then again, I may not. The hammock greatly enhanced our summer. It was another place to be outside, and because it hung in the back of our yard, it gave us the rare vantage point of looking toward the house.

One of my favorite times to sit there was when it was getting dark and the lamps were lit in the living room and kitchen and our house looked like an orange orb, so cozy and inviting. Its flaws and dust were hidden then in the subtle glow.

Without the hammock the trees look naked. More than I miss lying in the hammock I miss looking at it. Could it be that the promise of leisure is better than leisure itself?


Monday, September 27, 2010


The more blogs I read the more I realize that mine is a blog in name only. Underneath its electronic shell it is paper, paper, paper. Ink on paper. Not that there's anything wrong with this, of course. Some of my best friends read only ink on paper. But because this blog can be anything I want it to be, sometimes I think it should be more casual, less earnest. In other words, it needs attitude. So I am looking for a random photo to illustrate this random post. And I am typing with lips pursed and brow scowled. And in the future you may see more posts with bravura. But then again, you may not.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Swing Time

"How do you like to go up in a swing
Up in the air so blue.
Oh, I do think it the pleasantest thing
Ever a child can do!"

Robert Louis Stevenson

I love the little poem in A Child's Garden of Verses from which these lines are drawn. I recited it on stage at age six and read it often to our girls when they were young. Lines from it pop into my head whenever I go "up in a swing" myself.

Maybe it's the residual kid in me but I still like to swing. There's something about moving through the air, seeing the landscape from such a moveable perch, that is uniquely satisfying. Movement enhances vision, I suppose.

Of course, swinging doesn't come as easily as it used to. It isn't that I can't pump my legs or move my arms. It's that swinging gives me motion sickness. After a few minutes I have to hop off until the world stops spinning.

But the pleasure is worth the pain. There are few activitiess that provide as direct a link to childhood as this one. So I found a two-swing set in a neighborhood to our south. It's tucked away in the woods (notice I'm not divulging the exact location), and it does not have a ridiculous sign like this one. There I can swing to my heart's content and my head's tolerance. Which means about, oh, five minutes or so.


Friday, September 24, 2010


An incomplete project puts me in limbo. It's not so bad after all. I grew up with dim images of limbo as a soft cottony place where unbaptized babies frolicked happily, unaware that they would never see the face of God. The teaching was, if I recall, people in limbo will never go to heaven, but neither will they go to hell. And they won't suffer. Limbo, then, is a land beyond time and expectations. But the thing about limbo was -- and is -- you can't will yourself to be there. You have to arrive accidentally.


Thursday, September 23, 2010


By the time autumn arrived yesterday the temperature was above 90 degrees. Our string of crisp, cool mornings and azure afternoons had come to an end. We were back to swelter.

Meanwhile, indoors, I was learning that two of the articles in the magazine I was ready to send to the printer would require substantive changes. New sources. New photos. And all the attendant re-design, re-proofing and re-angsting those require.

I once wrote a parenting article called "Two Steps Forward, One Step Back" about how children, after learning a new skill (walking, using the toilet) will occasionally regress back to their old habits (crawling, having accidents) as part of the process. Like all my articles in those days, it was meant to be instructive and encouraging. Don't get frustrated if your child wets the bed after staying dry all night for weeks. It's all part of the process!

Yesterday was like that. I remind myself that progress is not always linear, that we often reach our destinations crabwise, with much moving from side to side.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010


Today, summer turns to fall. Today, we are poised between two seasons. While there is nothing extraordinary about this in terms of climate or meteorology — it happens twice a year — equilibrium is certainly rare in terms of human conduct. How often do you meet a perfectly balanced person, one who is neither too strong nor too weak, too bright nor too dim; who is enough of this world to make a life in it but not so much as to lose all common sense or perspective.

Such a person sounds too good to be true, too wise to be real. I suppose to be human means to be swept up from time to time in passion or folly, to vibrate between the poles rather than steadily plot a center course. The way of balance and equipoise may be what we strive for (at least some of us) but it is seldom what we achieve. And maybe that's a good thing. Was it Mark Twain or Petronius who said, "Moderation in all things, including moderation."


Tuesday, September 21, 2010

A Book in a Day

It has been a while since I read a book in 24 hours, but I just did that with Nothing Was the Same, a memoir by Kay Redfield Jamison. I got hooked on Jamison’s prose when I read An Unquiet Mind, which chronicles her struggle with bipolar illness. Nothing Was the Same is about the illness and death of her husband, Richard Wyatt. The book combines raw grief with an elegant reflection on that grief.

Jamison, a psychologist and professor of psychiatry at Johns Hopkins, has studied the disease from which she suffers and she compares it with grief. Grief does not alienate as depression does, she says; grief is more useful. “Grief, lashed as it is to death, instructs. It teaches that one must invent a way back to life.”

Jamison takes you through her journey of abandonment and fear, and gives you hope that not only can people survive such journeys, they can even be transformed by them. “It is in our nature to want to hold on to love; it is grief’s blessing that we come to know that there are limits to our ability to do so.” To hold onto the love she has for her husband, she had to transform it. So she wrote this book. “I would write that love continues, and that grief teaches.” It did, and it does.


Monday, September 20, 2010

Band of Brothers

I don’t know exactly what I was doing when “Band of Brothers” first aired in 2001. Raising children, I guess. But I’ve been watching it now, courtesy of Netflix, for several weeks, and the day after I view each episode I can’t get the music or the images out of my mind. The score is elegaic but forward-moving, perfectly suited to its subject, and it breaks my heart, as does the show.

I have seen war movies, plenty of them. But there’s an unrelenting power to these episodes that brings home over and over again what we owe to these men. What they did for us and for our country. The scenes are gray, colorless: the cold, the mud, the fear, the constant presence of death. And the soldiers, they are so very, very young.

I watched the final episode last night, and it was a comfort to learn the outcome of those E Company survivors, to know that they returned home to be mail carriers and earth movers. To live ordinary lives.


Saturday, September 18, 2010

Second Chance Scent

I missed honeysuckle season this spring, was traveling or getting ready to travel, so I've relished the second bloom of this aromatic weed. It is a weed, I think, or at least it acts like one: tumbling over fences and hedges, showing up uninvited in garden plots. I love it, though. Love the way its aroma takes me back to childhood, to the days when we played outside all day long. So yesterday I picked a sprig, brought it home and put it in a tiny vase. I'm sniffing it even as I write these words. The scent of spring, transported to fall.


Friday, September 17, 2010

The Art of Walking

Sometimes when I have a free moment I browse the pages of The Footpaths of Britain by Michael Marriott. It's an old tome I picked up for a dollar at a library book sale and worth a hundred times that amount. It has sentences like this: "In many respects, indeed, the Ridgeway is the best route for aspiring distance-walkers wondering where best to open their account." Or this: "The Pennine Way, the first of Britain's long-distance paths and still claimed by many as the toughest, grandest and most romantic of them all." How can you fail to write lyrically when your country has place names like the Forest of Bowland, North Wessex Downs or Edenhope Hill?

Illustrated with mostly black-and-white and the occasional stunning color photograph, The Footpaths of Britain is charmingly out of date, with a chapter on equipment that long predates today's pricey synthetic fabrics. Of course, this only makes me like the book more.

In short, it makes me want to travel, to hoist a pack on my back and take to the hills. But more than that, it reaffirms why I write about walking. This is from the foreword by John Hillaby: "Walking is a way of reviving a very old way of life once shared by mendicant friars, beggars, bards, pilgrims and traveling artisans. As Henry James remarked, landscape is character and walking — which is a form of touching — is like making love to the landscape and letting it return that love throughout your whole body. ... Long-distance walking, I maintain, is a fine art..."


Thursday, September 16, 2010

In Search Of

The wallet was lost, so we went to find it. We started at Hunter Station, an old crossroads. Confederate troops passed through here on the way to Antietam; Union troops on the way to Gettysburg. As skinny-tire bikes blew past us (“passing on the left”), we walked briskly toward the Cross County Trail, turned left and entered an alternative universe of creek and fern.

That there is such a thing as a 40-mile ribbon of green in a place as crowded and over developed as ours is cause for jubilation. Sometimes paved, sometimes dirt or gravel or mulch, the trail meanders along stream valley parks and across hidden ridges, gladly using rejected land, the leftovers, the crumbs. Put enough crumbs together, though, and you have passage from the Occuquan in the south to the Potomac in the north.

We walked a small stretch of the trail, just enough to stretch our legs and convince us that the wallet probably was at home after all (and of course, it was). But the point wasn't the wallet; it was the walk.


Wednesday, September 15, 2010

New Route

Driving along Hunter Mill and Vale, my new route home, I pass one of the older trees in Oakton. An oak, of course. Big and broad shouldered, more than 150 years old. It’s not the oldest tree, the one Oakton was named for; that one was a few hundred feet down the road and was felled some years ago. But this tree could be a distant relative.

Last night's drive home was especially sweet. It was cool and the light was almost blinding in the western approaches but otherwise, under tree cover, it was mellow and warm. I tried to snap pictures from the car.

Why do I like the new route so much better? It may be a minute or two shorter, but there’s more to it than that. I like it because it feels like a town I’m driving through rather than a suburban development. There is a reasonable four-way stop followed by a road that curves beside a church. I pass two cemeteries, peaceful old churchyards. And the new Oakton Library is on the way, too. Sometimes I stop in and check out a book. And then there are the roads themselves; Hunter Mill and Vale are two of the area's oldest. They wind and curve and are in many places covered by a canopy of trees. Driving home this way is balm for the Metro-jangled soul.


Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Children of the Past

Yesterday I found myself in an old-fashioned neighborhood where half a dozen kids were playing outside. Middle school kids, I think, or older elementary-age. A fleet of bikes under a tired old pine. Some dubious swings hanging from spindly trees. A couple of half-hearted skateboard ramps. But the overall impression was of invention and ingenuity. Kid-engineered.

Looking at this scene made me remember the grand kid klatsches of my youth. The kickball games, SPUD, 10 Sticks, all ages invited, the big kids humoring the little ones (well, sometimes). There were children in every house, more than 25 in one block, scads of banana seat bikes, constant drama. I still remember the songs we sang, the dogs that terrified us, the hedge apples used as weapons.

I was so lost in the past that for a moment I almost forgot where I was. Then I noticed a table set up on the corner, a girl walking toward me. “Would you like to buy some lemonade?” she asked. Every kid-powered enterprise needs its funding source. I reached in my purse and pulled out a dollar.


Monday, September 13, 2010

A Lamp, a Seat Cushion, a Namesake

This was a weekend for friendship. My friend Peggy, in from Seattle for a conference and here for three glorious days of talking and fun. Such a joyful reunion. Tom's friend Reg, in from Belgium, long-lost for more than three decades, a connection regained.

Pack rats that we are, we could put our hands on several items Reg gave Tom when they were in grad school: a small desk lamp, a shaving mug, a plate, a crocheted seat cushion. I never knew the origin of these items, only knew that Tom brought them into our marriage. But what Tom learned this week has been far more amazing. Traveling with Reg was his oldest son, 28, and he is named Tom in my Tom's honor. You could not make this stuff up. Life, as always, proves the best storyteller of all.


Saturday, September 11, 2010

Half Mast

Today will be harder on many of us than the last few September 11ths, I think. Harder because of the controversies, harder because of the anger, and harder because today, at least where I live, is uncannily like that day: impossibly blue skies, a hint of fall, a day at first like many others.

In the last couple of years, three of our neighbors have erected flagpoles. There's one next door, another across the street and still another at the corner.

I just walked past that one this morning. Will and Erica, our friends who live there, have each served more than one tour of duty in Iraq. Will received the Purple Heart. Their flag is the biggest of them all. It's flying at half mast today.


Friday, September 10, 2010


Most of the time they are just there, the perfect place to hang a purse or scarf, and good for shrugging, too. But when I'm on deadline or feeling tense in other ways my shoulders move up, up, up until they are somewhere around my ears. They become a tension factory; the bad vibes they generate give me headaches, neck aches and numb, tingly hands.

Celia has magic fingers; she massages my aching muscles. The relief is instantaneous but short-lived. And since a teenager is unlikely to hang around the house to be her mother's masseuse, onto the Internet I go. Try these exercises, says one site. I have and I do. Buy yourself a phone headset and a good pillow, says another. On my to-do list. I even find a community of people whose only bond is that they have tense shoulders. The site says "anonymously connect with people who share your experiences -- like those who say 'I Have Extremely Tense Shoulders All the Time.' Read hundreds of true stories, share your own story anonymously, get feedback and comments, chat in the discussion forum, help others, meet new friends, and so much more."

Now there's a thought. A group of people whose only bond is their tense shoulders. It's a "Saturday Night Live" skit or a "Seinfeld" episode. I start to chuckle. And then I start to breathe deeply. Ahhh. My shoulders feel better already.


Thursday, September 9, 2010


I start today with a word I love. I think of it this morning because the sun, as it sinks lower in the sky, strikes trees and leaves slantwise and leaves behind pools of dappled light. How lovely is the air of almost-equinox, how balanced and beguiling. It transforms the hot and dusty world of summer into something airy and delicious. Something begging to be walked through.


Wednesday, September 8, 2010


For years I've had the luxury of reading any book I choose all the way to the end, every precious word. But now I'm involved in a project that requires reading a lot, reading fast. Which means that I must also read selectively. Must be able to skim text for the main idea, glance at headlines and subheads and topic sentences and go from there. (Even writing this makes me shiver, so close is it to SAT-speak.) But skim I must. Part of the problem is that I know how hard-won words can be. To rush past them seems disrespectful. But I'm learning to get over this. Otherwise the tower of books will topple over on me!


Tuesday, September 7, 2010

First Day of School

I haven't been a high school student or teacher for many, many years. But the day after Labor Day I forget that fact. For me this day will always be the first day of school and the last day of summer, and therefore worthy of a quick sigh, a backward glance. Even though in steamy July I might long for the clean page, the crisp new start, even though this season will, eventually, energize me — for now it's bittersweet. The crickets chirp more slowly, the morning air is brisk. Last night I wrote names and numbers on emergency contact and other school forms. Seems like everyone has homework before school begins — even parents. My lesson is brief but painful: Summer passes more quickly every year.

Monday, September 6, 2010

Ride On

Yesterday we rode our bikes farther than we thought we would. It was cool and the air had a tang to it so we pedaled past Vienna, across the Capital Beltway (such a feeling to cross that monster road on a pedestrian bridge), almost to Falls Church.

For the first part of the route the wind was at our backs and the path was mostly downhill. We were flying. I found myself dreading the uphill climb back home. A moment of insight, then: To try and take the road as it came, not to worry in advance about the hard parts, but just to suck in my gut, push harder and tackle them as they came.

It worked, sort of. The ride was pleasant all the way. Only when it was over (and today) have my muscles talked back.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Night Swim at Still Pond

It became a habit this summer, a welcome one. I'd leave home a little after 8, do some laps or aqua jog in the deep end if no one was diving. At 8:45 the guard blows the whistle; the last 15 minutes are adult swim. I sidestroke in the gloaming. While treading water, I look at the Franklin Farm windmill. I listen to the conversations around me, the mothers with babies on their hips, the fathers bonding, tossing balls with their kids. One guy with a bald spot on the back of his head does what seem like labored laps while his kid sprays him with a soaker gun every time he reaches one side or the other. I think the guy is slow, but when we swim next to each other I notice he’s just as fast as me — in other words, I’m just as slow as he.

Last night I went for what I thought might be the last swim of the season. Turns out the pool will be open the next two weekends, but I doubt I'll make it. It will be a cooler, and one of the best parts about swimming this summer — the reason I've done so much of it, I think — is how hot it's been. I don't mind bathtub-warm water.

For these reasons and more, last night's dip felt like a valedictory. It was much earlier in the evening, of course, since it's dark by 8, and I left quickly so I could drive kids to the first high school football game of fall. The pool was almost empty at the end — except for a surprise birthday party about to happen. As I was pulling out of the parking lot in the twilight I heard behind me a burst of sound. "Surprise!" and then a bunch of whooping and clapping. It was for the birthday girl, I know, but I couldn't help but think it was a round of applause for summer itself.


Friday, September 3, 2010

The Visitor

I've seen this little guy (or someone like him, I should say, because this is not my photograph!) here before, drawn by the coleus flowers on our deck. An iridescent-necked hummingbird so improbably tiny that each time I see him I think at first that I'm looking at an insect.

The hummingbird makes me think of one of my favorite essays, "Joyas Voladoras" by Brian Doyle, which begins: "Consider the hummingbird for a long moment. A hummingbird's heart beats ten times a second. A hummingbird's heart is the size of a pencil eraser. A hummingbird's heart is a lot of the hummingbird. Joyas voladoras, flying jewels, the first white explorers in the Americas called them, and the white men had never seen such creatures, for hummingbirds came into the world only in the Americas, nowhere else in the universe..."

And because this tiny bird brings an essay to mind I think of him as a muse, flying inspiration, bound to lead to a productive writing day. I hope.


Thursday, September 2, 2010

Restless Home

For the last few days, flight has been on my mind. Because it is September, because I saw in an almost-dark sky an unmistakable "V" of geese, because soon animals in our part of the northern hemisphere will search for a place to stay warm for the winter. Perhaps for all these reasons and more, I've been thinking lately about where to live when the children are on their own, when our nest is empty. Realizing, of course, that this is not a single decision but a joint one, that I love our house because we've raised (are raising) three daughters in it, still, still I'm restless on this subject.

What is it that binds you to a place? Family, friends, work, of course. But to what degree is it the land itself, the way it feels under your feet and as you drive through it on a late summer evening, aware suddenly that this once alien place, like it or not, is home.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

When Music Moves You

Last night I heard on the radio the story of Michael White, a jazz clarinetist who lives in New Orleans. Katrina destroyed his home, forced him to move out of the city for a while, but he — and his music — are back. Threaded throughout this story were tunes from his clarinet, such rich, reedy sounds — we used to hear such sounds when our clarinetist was still in high school. And they made me want to play the piano — our poor spinet has languished this summer — and to teach Celia, who said the other day that she'd like to learn.

It was always my goal to fill our house and our lives with music. Too often that means turning on the radio. But I tell myself what I tell our girls: Once the music is in your fingers, it is yours forever.

It was music, in fact, that brought Michael White and his New Orleans back to life. Here's what he said: "And then I came to realize the most valuable thing that I have, I never lost. It's inside. It's that music tradition. It's the memory of all of those parades, of all of those older musicians who -- who brought the spirit of New Orleans' music and passed it on to me, so that I could help to pass it on to others. And the spirit of that music is with me every day. Every time I play my instrument, everything I ever knew and felt about New Orleans is still alive."


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