Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Happy Birthday, Celia

Our youngest daughter, Celia, was born 16 years ago today, and by preschool she was already exhibiting a sense of style, a certain flair. She did not inherit these traits; they are her own through and through.

Celia loves to shop — and I shop as little as possible. In the last year we have reached a tentative truce. She shops with friends and easily doubles or triples the amount of time I spend in stores. But sometimes we shop together. And then the fun begins.

"Oh no, Mom," she says when she sees me eying something for myself. "Why do you always pick out the most shapeless dress?" Sometimes her only comment is a single arched eyebrow. I am relearning through Celia to put the fun back in fashion.

A youngest daughter is a link to the future, a push to the present. She is a sweet reminder of youth.

Happy birthday, Celia!


Monday, November 29, 2010

Table for Five

A holiday is like a wave; it races up from afar, engulfs and buoys us, then retreats. When family is scattered, traveling is the best way to stay close. So we traveled, and we celebrated, together. Now the wave has receded. We are all home.

But we have the memories of being together. The yellow building on the right is where we went for lunch on Saturday, just the five of us, sitting at a tiny table meant for four in a cramped place that accommodates 30 at the very most. It reminded me of our dinner table on a good night: the inside jokes, the rolling of eyes, the togetherness. I miss it already.


Saturday, November 27, 2010

Called Back

Suzanne lends me the book Refuge by Terry Tempest Williams to read this weekend. I am drawn into William's tale of grief and renewal and into her landscape of Utah and the Great Salt Lake.

Reading this book, especially these lines, leads me back to my own thoughts of home and land:

"A blank spot on the map is an invitation to encounter the natural world, where one's character will be shaped by the landscape. ... The landscapes we know and return to become places of solace. We are drawn to them because of the stories they tell, because of the memories they hold, or simply because of the sheer beauty that calls us back again and again."

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Friday, November 26, 2010

Freaky Friday

I don't remember exactly when I first heard this day described as Black Friday, but it couldn't have been more than 10 years ago. Since then the commercial has steadily encroached on the celebratory to the point where sales start only a couple of hours after the dishes are dried and the leftovers put away.

Don't get me wrong: I like bargains. And this day has always been the traditional start of the Christmas season. But the marketplace rules us so much anyway that I resent its claiming any more turf.

So when others were out scoring bargains I was sleeping. And now that the day is more than half over I'm just writing a post.

It's a freaky Friday.


Thursday, November 25, 2010

Under One Roof

We've never been a family that goes around the table and says what each is thankful for. But if we were, I would say today that I am thankful to have all these people I love under one roof: my parents and husband and children, my brother and sister, my nieces. A few people are missing, but all in all a good turnout.

So pass the turkey and the stuffing and the pumpkin pie. Family is the bounty that blesses us best.


Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Pie Crust

Like everything else, cooking has its seasons. Fall is the time for hearty soups and stews, for roasts and root vegetables and, of course, for pie. I've never been too interested in the fillings; for me, the point of the pie is the crust.

I use Crisco. No butter. No margarine. And when in doubt, I use more Crisco. I sift two cups of flour with one teaspoon of salt, then cut in three-fourths cup (or slightly more) of Crisco. Once that's blended into a pebbly mixture, I add six to eight tablespoons of ice-cold water and lightly stir (just until blended) with a fork.

At this point I barely touch the stuff — I just quickly turn it out onto a floured board, roll, shape and slide into the pie pan. The more I fiddle with it, the tougher it gets.

Pie crust, like so many things in life, is best approached with a full heart and a light hand.


Tuesday, November 23, 2010

The Buzzing Brain

Just as we gravitate to candidates or causes because we already know and like what they have to offer us, so too do we choose books because we expect them to reflect a world view — or a hunch — we already have.

And so it is with The Shallows by Nicholas Carr. I remember reading a review of this book when it came out a few months ago and wanting to buy it immediately. But I forgot the title and the author. This is a telling fact. Because the subtitle of the book is What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains.

I was hoping to find in this book an explanation for why it seems more difficult for me to concentrate, why I interrupt my reading or writing constantly throughout the day to check e-mail or Google a word. And I'm finding that and so much more.

"Our use of the Internet involves many paradoxes, but the one that promises to have the greatest long-term influence over how we think is this one: the Net seizes our attention only to scatter it." Carr cites brain studies and other research to support his claims. He provides an intellectual history of the reading brain. And he reaches this conclusion: "The mind of the experienced book reader is a calm mind, not a buzzing one."

So it may be that I chose this book because I knew it would support a theory about the world I already have. But even so, this once-calm but now-buzzing brain thinks Carr is onto something.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Little Cat Feet

The most poetic of weathers has visited us this morning, the kiss of cloud on earth, that which comes in on little cat feet (as in the short, oft-anthologized poem by Carl Sandburg) — I'm talking fog, of course.

No fun to drive in but so nice to wake up to, fog makes the real world go away. It softens the edges of landscapes, blurs them, smudges them deftly into each other. It's funny how I can remember foggy weather that happened decades ago: an entire week of mild misty early winter days in Chicago. A hike in the Rockies when I thought we'd lost our way. The glorious summer on a mountaintop in Arkansas, when we were often unable to "come down the mountain" because we were totally socked in by the stuff.

A light fog is fine walking weather. Not so thick as to obscure the path ahead, but soft enough to embrace it.


Saturday, November 20, 2010

Let Us Entertain You

The dust is flying. The drinks are chilling. The food is "being prepared" (I say, to keep the parallel structure of the sentence). The food preparer, of course, is me -- so this post will be brief.
We are, in short, entertaining, something we used to do more often but something that has taken a back seat to raising children the last decade or two. But it's something I hope we do more of in the years ahead.
I think of the great parties of our past, the ones we attended as well as gave, and in them there's a certain alchemy of people and place and libation that I hope we can achieve tonight. Our wine cellar is not quite as ample as the one above, but I hope it does the trick.


Friday, November 19, 2010

Our Films, Our Selves

Today "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows" opens in theaters, the first half of the seventh and final Potter book to hit the silver screen. When the first Potter film came out the girls were in first, fifth and seventh grades. Now two are in college and the youngest is in high school. You need only look at Daniel Radcliffe's jawline, no trace of boyishness left, to know 10 years have passed. But through the magic of cinema his 11-year-old face will always be with us and will remind me, at least, of those relatively (and in retrospect!) serene elementary school years.

Actors are pegged not only to the ages of their debut (think Shirley Temple) but also to their strongest performances. I learned the other day that Jill Clayburgh passed away in early November. For me she will always be the devastated wife and mother of "An Unmarried Woman." I must have seen that film half a dozen times in its heyday and was always inspired by the New York setting and by Clayburgh's journey to selfhood (which sounds very transactional and 1970s but, hey, that's when the movie came out).

The last scene is a classic, as Clayburgh attempts to carry a huge painting that her lover (Alan Bates playing an artist) has given her. Bates is dreamy and Clayburgh loves him, but he's leaving town and she has worked too hard at independence to follow him. So he hands her the large canvas as if to say, here, you want to be a self-sufficient woman, try this on for size. Or at least that's the message I took from it at the time. I was much younger then.

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Thursday, November 18, 2010

How Can I Keep From Singing?

Last night I watched the film "Young at Heart." It’s about a chorus of senior citizens who find in communal singing a joyous antidote to growing old. The singers started out crooning vaudeville tunes, but their director keeps pushing them artistically until they can belt out rock and punk and Motown – everything from “Schizophrenia” to “I Feel Good.”

As the movie progresses its tone becomes more serious; mortality bears down hard. Two of the singers die a week before a big concert. They leave a huge hole in the chorus. But the others decide to go on. Their absent friends would want it that way. The last scene is the group on stage, singing their hearts out. Because of the music, they are "forever young."

Watching this movie brought to mind a hymn, one that Pete Seeger made famous:

My life flows on in endless song:
Above earth's lamentation,
I catch the sweet, tho' far-off hymn
That hails a new creation.
Through all the tumult and the strife
I hear the music ringing;
It finds an echo in my soul--
How can I keep from singing?

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Color's Last Stand

Rain wasn't the only thing that was falling yesterday. Leaves were twirling and swirling and landing lightly on hedges, yards and streets. They were mixing with the raindrops, they were dancing to the ground.

The reds, yellows and oranges that had so impressed me last week — in fact, I was marveling at how many trees seemed struck in mid-October rather than mid-November — were fading to brown and gray. Soon we will have monochrome. But before the color is all gone, a picture in its honor (photo by Suzanne).


Tuesday, November 16, 2010

A Walkway in the Sky

One of the world's greatest walks is the pedestrian path of the Brooklyn Bridge. Stroll across it at sunset on a balmy late fall afternoon and see the city at its finest.

If you're walking toward Brooklyn, on your right is South Street Seaport, lower Manhattan and, once you're out far enough, the Statue of Liberty. On your left is midtown, with the Empire State Building and the Chrysler Building. Ahead of you is this view, the towers and cables of the bridge itself, built six times stronger than it needed to be, built for the ages, and now 127 years old. A bridge that has inspired poets and madmen and ordinary citizens who need to believe in beauty.

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Monday, November 15, 2010

New York, N.Y.

Sometimes a place you used to live reaches out to you from the distant past. It is an old lover from whom you once parted with great sadness (you adored each other but were incompatible). You had learned to live apart but then you ran into each other. There's that old familiar catch in the throat. You had forgotten how you felt in that old life.

Here is a place that made you feel more alive than you'd ever felt before. You can't go back to it — you are a different person now — but you are forever grateful — and yes, more alive again, too — just for having been reminded.


Saturday, November 13, 2010

A Day in the City

My sister, Ellen, was the pioneer. She moved to New York City first. I was next. Then my brother Phillip. Within two years, three of the four kids in my family were living in the Big Apple. Now none of us do.

But we haven’t gotten it out of our systems (does anyone ever?), so today Ellen and I take our daughters to the big city to celebrate their birthdays. We'll walk through Times Square, the Village, Chinatown. We’ll shop, snap photos and take in a show. We will have more money in our pockets than we did in the old days. (That isn’t hard to do.) And we won’t walk as fast. But we will be more or less the same. And that’s something to celebrate.


Friday, November 12, 2010

Mood Lighting

One of the most important housekeeping tricks I've taught my daughters is to keep the lights low. Makes up for a multitude of sins. But I don't do this just to hide the dirt. I feel more relaxed and comfortable when I'm not sitting in a pool of harsh light. At home I run around snapping off the overheads and turning on small lamps. At the office I shun institutional florescence for incandescent alternatives.

I was thinking of all this the other day while riding Metro. The platforms are so dim that it's difficult to read small print when I'm waiting for the train. But I'm grateful for the perpetual twilight. How much worse it would be to stand shoulder to shoulder in a harsh glare. How much calmer and more inconspicuous I feel waiting in the darkness.


Thursday, November 11, 2010


You know you are removed from a war when literature is what it brings to mind. But such is the case with World War I, which ended 92 years ago today.

I think first of All Quiet on the Western Front, a book I read so long ago but which saddens me still: "He fell in October, 1918, on a day that was so quiet and still on the whole front, that the army report confined itself to the single sentence: All quiet on the Western Front.

He had fallen forward and lay on the earth as though sleeping. Turning him over one saw that he could not have suffered long; his face had an expression of calm, as though almost glad the end had come."

And I think of the poets, their modern disillusionment stuffed to overflowing into the restrained stanzas of formal rhymed verse:

"If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues, --
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori

This poem is by Wilfred Owen. He died in France -- a week before the Armistice was signed.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Shoulder Season

Listen hard and you can almost hear it. The silence. The great pause. A momentary intake of breath before the hard exhale. It is shoulder season. Summer is over and the holidays have not begun. The fields are empty; the nights are long. November is peaceful, muted. It asks nothing of us now.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Surviving High School

For some reason I have ended up on an email list for people planning my high school reunion next summer. This is funny to me because I was not one of the popular people then. But somehow now I've slipped through the ropes and gotten into the club. It's enough to make me believe in democracy after all.

Last night I went to an obligatory driver's ed meeting at Celia's high school. As we stood in line to enter the auditorium, memories came rushing back. I thought about the cliques, the snubs, the constant measuring of one's self against an ideal that probably does not and never will exist. Maybe democracy is a myth. Maybe I haven't gotten over high school after all.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Solvitur Ambulando

The phrase jumped out at me from the page, in this case a review of Tony Hiss's new book In Motion in yesterday's New York Times Book Review. I was reading the paper in the car, and the sunlight fell over my shoulder and onto the words. The letters seemed to glow:

Solvitur Ambulando. "It is solved by walking." An adage beloved by pilgrims and monks and wandering scholars. The belief that there is wisdom in stepping out the door, putting one foot in front of the other, leaving the world as we know it behind.

Had I heard it sooner, I might have named my blog Solvitur Ambulando. Too late now. There is already a blog called Solvitur Ambulando.

But I move forward in the spirit of this phrase: that when the mind spins, when the spirit sags, it never hurts to lace up the old shoes, grab the Walkman (ancient technology though it is) and take to the road. "It is solved by walking."


Saturday, November 6, 2010

Channeling Mrs. T

One of our favorite books to read aloud when the children were young was The Tale of Mrs. Tittlemouse by Beatrix Potter. Mrs. Tittlemouse is a very tidy little mouse and she lives in a small house full of passageways tucked into the roots of a hedge.

Mrs. T. has her hands full in the story. Ladybugs, spiders, bees and a large untidy toad named Mr. Jackson all come to call — without invitations — and Mrs. Tittlemouse shoos them out of her house, wipes up their footprints and undertakes a spring cleaning that lasts a fortnight.

It's about this time of year, every year, that I began to feel like Mrs. Tittlemouse. My attention turns from outside to in. I suddenly notice the piles of junk in the basement, the dust on the tables, the stains in the carpet. I make people take off their shoes when they enter the house.

This attitude won't last long. Soon my eyes will grow accustomed to the dim light; I'll no longer notice what needs to be done. But today, at least, I'm channeling Mrs. Tittlemouse.

(Illustration by Beatrix Potter)

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Friday, November 5, 2010

Once Upon a Meadow

Sometimes when I'm walking through the suburbs I ponder street names. Our neighborhood has a faux English theme: Folkstone, Treadwell. You half expect to be strolling through the Cotswolds — but of course you are not.

Close by are roads with names like Flat Meadow, Hay Meadow, Cross Creek and Still Pond. These belong to the neighborhood called Franklin Farm. The farm is gone, the creek is but a shadow of its former self and the meadow is a narrow strip of land hemmed by houses. The ponds are so still (that is, stagnant) that this summer they were renovated, if that's something you can do to a pond. The trees around them were felled so daylight could freshen them up.

The small dairy farms that still dotted our landscape half a century ago are gone now. We grow families here now. But in my walks through the woods and fields, I like to pretend. The place names make it easier.

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Thursday, November 4, 2010

Rainy Day

The rain began earlier than we thought it would, and I wasn't ready. I had an umbrella, it wasn't that. I'm just not prepared for the cold pelting, for the gloom. But who ever is, I ask myself?

The optimistic word for this weather is "cozy." It is for making soup and cleaning the basement. But that's only if you're inside. If you have to trudge out into the world, as I do, this weather is for wearing big comfy sweaters and curling up at your desk with a mug of hot tea.

But whether inside or out, it is a time for turning inward.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

The Morning After

In Lexington, Kentucky, the new mayor-elect, Jim Gray, took my father out to McDonald's a couple weeks ago. Until Dad fell last month, he had been working on Gray's campaign, and he felt bad that he wasn't able to squire the candidate around to some retired-guy coffee groups as he promised he would.

But no problem, about a week ago (and more importantly, a week before the election), Candidate Gray stops by the house, picks up my dad and drives him to the coffee groups. How many votes did Gray snag that morning? Maybe half a dozen. Frankly, I haven't heard of such a neighborly act from a politician in a long time. Maybe ever.

I couldn't vote for Jim Gray, of course. And in our corner of the world the election wasn't as dramatic as it was for much of the country. But I like to think that there are hundreds more Jim Grays out there today — I'd like to think that at least in a few places, the good guys won.


Tuesday, November 2, 2010

For All Souls

Yesterday was All Saints Day; today is All Souls Day. Of the two, I've always been partial to the latter. For one thing, it never required a visit to church, not being a "holy day of obligation." (There's a phrase and a practice that's on the way out!) For another, I figure that I know more souls than saints. Today is democratic: we pray for all those who have died.

But, expanding the meaning a bit, today can be a day of contemplation for the souls of all of us, the living, too, for the part of us that ripples beneath conscious thought, for our essence. "The soul is often hungrier than the body, and no shops can sell it food," said the abolitionist and clergyman Henry Ward Beecher. Today, for me, will be about feeding the soul.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Judgment Day

Evenings are chilly, there are frost warnings at night. For the plants on our deck, the moment of judgment is at hand. Will they make the cut? Will they be allowed inside where it's warm — or be left outside in the cold?

The choice is not as clear-cut as it sounds. Sometimes I think bringing them in is the crueler alternative. Inside they languish by the hearth, where there isn't enough light, or in the basement, where I forget to water them. By comparison, sudden death in a killing freeze may be the more merciful choice.

Human nature is weak, though, and I have a soft spot for the large fern. It will definitely make the cut. If only I can keep it alive until next spring. Ah, next spring! It already sounds good.


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