Friday, December 31, 2010

A Resolution Realized

December 31 usually finds me taking stock of the old year and making resolutions for the new. This year is no exception. But there is a big difference. This year I actually kept one of my resolutions — I started a blog.

I'd thought about blogging for years, but last New Year's was the first time I resolved to start one — and without the back-to-back blizzards we had in February, A Walker in the Suburbs might be just another "worry less" or "exercise more" — one of those good intentions I carry quietly into the next year.

But it wasn't. And it has given me more than I could have hoped. After a career of writing for editors — and being an editor — this blog is blissfully editor-free. Well, almost. There's still the little devil who sits on my shoulder and whispers in my ear: "Do you want to reveal so much?" or "How could you leave that out?" But even that bothersome editor, self doubt, is less intrusive than she used to be.

I started A Walker in the Suburbs not knowing where it would lead or even how often I would post. And it has surprised and encouraged me. Thanks to all of you who stop by this little corner of the blogosphere. May your resolutions come true, too.


Thursday, December 30, 2010


Yesterday I traveled to Maryland to see my parents, who are visiting from Kentucky. My mother is starting a museum; my father is planning his next Eighth Air Force reunion. They are proof that getting older is not just about loss; it may also be about gain.

Mom and Dad are children of the Depression — but they are not depressed. They come from an era where people largely stayed in their hometowns, where most interaction was face-to-face. They are old enough to tell it like it is. After I'm with them I feel clear-headed and strong. I feel optimistic.


Wednesday, December 29, 2010

The Acoustics of Walking

The winter walk is full of sounds: the cawing of crows, the whir of a distant chainsaw, the crunch of frozen ground underfoot. Along the woods path are pockets of crunchiness, where leaves have splintered and crumbled, become packed and moistened and are now brittle and fun to pop.

I think of winter as a silent season — and it is. But try as hard as I might, the fall of foot on land is never noiseless.


Tuesday, December 28, 2010

A Memoir of Friendship

My office is closed, the year is winding down. I wake up and realize: There is no place I have to be, nothing I have to do. And so, I read.

I just finished Let's Take the Long Way Home by Gail Caldwell. Subtitled "A Memoir of Friendship," it chronicles the author's relationship with the late Caroline Knapp. I read Knapp's book Drinking: A Love Story a while ago and enjoyed it so much I immediately searched for other books she'd written. I was sad to learn of her death of lung cancer at age 42. Especially sad because Knapp had beaten anorexia and alcoholism — only to be beaten by cancer.

I approached Caldwell's book warily at first, since she covers ground Knapp covered in her writing — addiction to alcohol, love of dogs. But I warmed to the author and to the friendship she shared with Knapp and by the end of the book was completely hooked. By sharing her fears and her inside jokes and even her occasional spats with Knapp, Caldwell brings her friend to life, the slant of Knapp's back as she rowed on the Charles River, her habit of playing computer solitaire during a boring phone conversation.

Like all good memoirs, though, the book is about much more than the subjects at hand. It is ultimately a lens through which we view ourselves and those we love.

"Every story in life worth holding on to has to have a spirit line. You can call this hope or tomorrow or the 'and then' of narrative itself, but without it — without that bright, dissonant fact of the unknown, of what we cannot control — consciousness and everything with it would tumble inward and implode. The universe insists that what is fixed is also finite."


Monday, December 27, 2010


We rushed home from Maryland to beat the snow, six to eight inches predicted and the flurries already flying as we raced around the Beltway. But by western Fairfax they had died down, and though it snowed off and on the rest of the day nothing much stuck. Instead the wind raged in from the west, blowing the few flakes sideways. I felt strangely disappointed; I was looking forward to the excitement of a big snow. But this morning comes the payback: no shoveling, a full house, a full pantry.


Friday, December 24, 2010

Merry Christmas!

Watch a movie every year and soon you will be able to predict each comment long before it's made. All of us marvel at Bing's mellifluous voice and Danny Kaye's smooth dancing. There will be a disparaging word or two about Rosemary Clooney, despite my reminders that she was George Clooney's aunt. And it's true, this film is probably not her finest.

Her sister, played by a dancer named Vera-Ellen, earns the most comments for her impossibly long legs and tiny waist. It's not easy to pig out on Christmas cookies while watching this movie.

Every year I get the giggles when the housekeeper, played by the great character actress Mary Wickes, just happens to be reading Variety while tending the phones. "What housekeeper reads Variety?" I shriek. "Mom, you say that every year!"

But we all do. That's the joy of watching this movie together. The ritual of repetition, of small family traditions that come around each year — part of the joy of Christmas.


Thursday, December 23, 2010

A Belief in the Unseen

Celia and I were talking in the car the other day about the meaning of Christmas. I was distracted, negotiating the traffic, thinking about what I had to do after I dropped her off. I mentioned the word "family."

"I thought Thanksgiving was about family. It seems like every holiday is about family," she said. And of course to me every holiday is about family, but in varying degrees.

What I should have said, what I wish I'd said, is that Christmas is about hope. It celebrates the birth of a baby king. Not a full-grown king but a king-in-making, and as such is more about the potential than the actual. It celebrates our turn back to the sun and days of warmth and light we can only dream of at this time of year.

It is, then, a day to celebrate something often in short supply in government, in families and in daily human lives — a belief in the unseen.


Wednesday, December 22, 2010

On the Street Where We Live

Cold weather keeps a walker close to home. This means I'm once again a student of minute differences, noticing small changes to the landscape around me, a tree down in the forest, a garland on a mailbox, a new gathering spot for crows.

It is good to focus on what is in front of me; it doesn't seem limiting in the least. The familiar can be full of surprises.


Tuesday, December 21, 2010


I wasn't going to get up for it, but I'm glad I did. At around 3 a.m. I put on clogs and coat and walked into the backyard. Suzanne and Tom were already up, their heads tilted back, binoculars in hand. Copper was running circles in the snow. And up in the sky, the pale moon wore a red veil, a smudge of unearthly color against the white.

It was the lunar eclipse — on the same day as the winter solstice. The last time these two events overlapped was 1638. It made for a cold, eerie, magical night. I half expected to see a sleigh and reindeer in the sky. I'll have to wait a few days for those, I guess.

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Monday, December 20, 2010

Tree Farm

Every year for the past half dozen we've driven west into the rolling hills of Loudoun County to cut down our Christmas tree. It started as a lark and has become a tradition, one we uphold even when cries of "it's too far" or "I have homework" almost rule it out.

Yesterday we took two dear friends, so there were seven of us in the car, and it was an occasion. It didn't take long to find the Douglas fir of our dreams, hack away at the trunk and topple the tree. We drug it down the mountainside, paid for it and lashed it to the top of the car.

This morning I learned that the Snickers Gap Christmas Tree Farm is closed for the season. We just made it.


Saturday, December 18, 2010

A Push Toward the Pause

As the year ends I feel a need to tie up loose ends, finalize projects, complete research. Often I have no choice. I have a freelance article due. This year I'm off the hook. But I still feel pressure.

After a while, meeting deadlines becomes a habit and the urge to complete tasks is there whether the tasks are or not. It's part of what makes me get up every morning. It's a switch permanently stuck in the "on" position. I push myself before the holidays because they present a chunk of time during which nothing must be done. It's the open window framing an expansive view — the pause I've been waiting for all year long. I'm not there yet, but I'm getting close.


Friday, December 17, 2010

Summoning Cheer

On the subject of holiday cheer: It is hard to summon sometimes. This year we are missing Tom's Aunt Mary Ann and dealing with other sadness. Our tree isn't up yet because we're waiting for the girls to come home from college. Bad weather and postponed finals may delay their arrival. It's easy to find the shopping, cards, baking and wrapping more demanding than other chores because they require false gaiety. How to lighten the heavy heart?

Here is today's plan: I exercised early; it helps clears the cobwebs. I scoured the counter and threw out three days worth of old newspapers. I'll work; intellectual effort takes me out of myself. I'll make our favorite cookies today, the ones that melt in your mouth. I'll pray; that goes without saying. Most of all I will be grateful for all we have, which is much, so much.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

At Home in the World

It is office party season. We had one yesterday and will have a smaller one, with just my immediate colleagues, today. The office party, like the meeting, is something I didn't have for many years, the years I was freelancing full time. It's at parties and meetings that I most have to shake my head and pinch myself. After more than six years it still seems slightly unreal to be working with people again.

Today I write to celebrate this occupation. Not that it doesn't have its moments, but there are days when I am immeasurably grateful to walk out the door, to leave behind the house and clutter, to go out into the world.


Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Ghostly White

The ghostly white on suburban streets is the residue of salt from a snow storm that wasn’t, a phantom blizzard. Rock salt crunches underfoot as I walk. The wind blows into my face, makes my eyes tear and my nose run. Other than that, all is frozen hard.

It's a bleak landscape, unadorned by snow, wind-gouged and silent. Just being outside is an accomplishment, and walking through the cold reminds me that we have to keep going or freeze. Extreme temperatures are a great motivator. Besides, in my ears is a most unusual version of "The Four Seasons" by Vivaldi, full of strumming and thumping and trills. I could hear the birds singing, the streams gurgling. I listened, I lowered my head, I walked as fast as I could till I got home.

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Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Last Leaf

As we rush toward the solstice, as fall gives way to winter, consider for a moment the nearly bare tree. Dark trunk, tangle of limbs and — like so many prayer flags flying — the last autumn leaves, slender salutes to a fading season.

After months of having more leaves than we can count (or rake), the scene is as much about the absence as the presence, as much about the silence as the music. It is as if these last few leaves, so sparse, so perfect, so wan and lonely, are saying, here we are — look longingly on us world. You will not see us again for many months.

They are the last curtain call, the single painting on an expansive wall.


Monday, December 13, 2010

Mindful Shopping

The path to serenity lies in living in the moment. But the moment is hard to find when Christmas shopping. So this year, I'm trying to shop mindfully, to enjoy the process a little more, to choose special gifts for the people I love but not obsess about finding the perfect item.

It's an attitude shift. It's about serendipity, stumbling across a scarf with texture and dash or a cunning little teapot. But it requires stores with odd jumbles of merchandise (which I've found by steering clear of the mall) and that the shopper (me) browse with open eyes and calm spirit.

Here's where mindfulness comes in. I've noticed that it's only when I leave behind any notion of finding the perfect gift that all the perfectly good gifts appear.


Saturday, December 11, 2010

Colored-Lights People

It is time for the annual Christmas lights show across America, when we put candles in windows, outline our houses, spotlight our doors — and in general thumb our noses at the darkness.

There are specific houses and entire streets I look forward to every year. One dripping in white icicle bulbs that looks like a winter wonderland, another crowded with mismatched Santas, Rudolfs and snowmen.

We have always decorated with colored lights rather than white, with no particular agenda in mind, just a choice. But I remembered as I began to write this post that the late Michael Kelly had written a column about white lights vs. colored lights, and so I found it online and read it.

White lights, Kelly said, "make the statement that one is a refined sort who appreciates that less is more," and colored lights say that Christmas isn't Christmas "without an electric sled and reindeer on the lawn, an electric Santa on the roof, an electric Frosty by the front gate and an electric Very Special Person in a manger on the porch" (that last phrase refers to the pageant at his Unitarian church).

While we have no inflatable Santas on our lawn, we are most definitely colored-lights people, a little mismatched and scruffy, never the first to put up our display and often the last to take it down. White lights would be false advertising.


Friday, December 10, 2010

The Beginning of Time

In these final days of 2010, I find myself meditating on time itself. Time-keeping began in the monastery, writes Lewis Mumford. There, inside the walls of the cloister, was regularity and discipline and order — the Rule of St. Benedict, with its strict adherence to seven devotions during the day.

Regularity requires time-keeping, and by 1370 there was a well-designed modern clock. And so, says Mumford, "one is not straining the facts when one suggests that the monasteries — at one time there were forty thousand under the Benedictine rule — helped to give human enterprise the regular collective beat and rhythm of the machine; for the clock is not merely a means of keeping track of the hours, but of synchronizing the actions of men."

As bells tolled the hours not just in monasteries but in towns and villages, time-keeping jumped the fence of the cloister and moved out into the world at large. "Time-keeping passed into time-serving and time-accounting and time-rationing," Mumford writes. "As this took place, Eternity ceased gradually to serve as the measure and focus of human actions."

So as I dash from home to the office, as I parcel the hours of my day into discrete intervals — often wishing for nothing more than time without time — I am heir to this big invention, this new way of organizing daily life. Somehow, that makes the rushing around feel a bit more noble.


Thursday, December 9, 2010

Double Bell Euphonium

Last night we sat on the floor of the Kennedy Center lobby and heard 300 tubas, sousaphones and other lower brass play "Deck the Halls," "Angels We Have Heard on High" and "Jingle Bells." But the tune I can't get out of my head this morning is "76 Trombones."

That's because we were introduced to some unusual members of the lower brass family, including a Russian bassoon (a gawky looking mix of wood and metal) and the double bell euphonium (pictured above), as in these lyrics from "The Music Man"'s signature tune : "Double bell euphoniums and big bassoons/each bassoon having his big fat say."

TubaChristmas concerts, the international phenomenon which began in New York City's Rockefeller Plaza in 1974, were created by the late Harvey Phillips as a tribute to his teacher William J. Bell. The appropriately named Bell was born on Christmas Day 1902, and among other highlights of his illustrious career, played with John Philip Sousa. So Christmas and the 4th of July come together in the heritage of this fine musician — just as holiday carols and summer music came together in my head this morning. And why not? It's the season to seek joy in unexpected places.


Wednesday, December 8, 2010

24-Hour House

I can remember a time when sleep lasted eight hours, when nighttime was a clear barrier between one day and the next. But for many years now I can count on patchwork sleep at least a couple nights a week.

Sometimes I pop up, ready for the day — only the day is still night. I take full responsibility for this restiveness and have all sorts of strategies (occasionally successful) to counteract it.

But other times I wake up due to -- ahem -- environmental factors -- the primary of which is having a teenager in the house. This teenager may not go to bed until 2 a.m. if she has a lot of homework. And sometimes she gets hungry after midnight so she cooks. During the summer, when we have two or three daughters at home the shower is as likely to be running at midnight as it is at noon.

In other words, for the last few years our house has come to resemble a 24-hour hotel, a full-service establishment with round-the-clock service. I love our house, I love our kids. But I'm exhausted.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

A Walker in the Wind

Head bowed, hands stuffed in sleeves, I pushed my way yesterday through the strong west wind. After the balmy strolls of a lingering autumn, the power of this "arctic air" (as the weather people like to call it) took my breath away.

I've never minded exercising in still cold. You start off shivering but heat yourself up quickly. The body is a furnace.

But cold windy days are another matter entirely. Every bit of exertion-stoked warmth flies away in the breeze. You are at the mercy of the elements. A part of the landscape, bent but not broken.


Monday, December 6, 2010

The Appeal of Advent

More than a week into Advent and I am finally slowing to the measured pace of this liturgical season. It is my favorite. A time of reflection, hope and anticipation.

Perhaps it is the carol "O come, o come Emmanuel," its plaintive chant, and early memories of singing it in my parochial school hallway, the waxy smell of the Advent candles. But for some reason Advent always makes me think of old stones and heavy draperies, the silence of the cloister. Because it is less trumpeted than Christmas, Advent has kept its ancient, monastic overtones. It is as barren as the earth scoured clean by winter winds. It is a preparation for the celebrations to come.


Saturday, December 4, 2010

Good Boy

This morning our dog, Copper, was especially rambunctious. We don't know what got into him exactly, but he came inside after his morning romp and skittered all over the living room and kitchen. He chased his tail. He ran loops in our house. He looked for all the world like a canine comedian, milking us for every laugh he could.

I let him back into the yard where he ran big loops with a red ball in his mouth. More laughs. It's impossible to watch that little guy rocket across a space, his long, low body (one of our friends says he seems to be put together out of spare, mismatched dog parts) blurred by motion. He's the life force itself. The very essence of joy.

When he's done he runs up to us with a funny grin on his face, as if to say, aren't you proud of me.

And at that moment I forget about the loud barking, the accidents on the carpet, the ruined back door, the times he's run away and left us with our heart in our throats. I reach down and pat the little guy.

"Good boy," I say. "Good boy, Copper."


Friday, December 3, 2010

Behind the Times

While most people watched the HBO miniseries "John Adams" four years ago -- or read the book by David McCullough on which it is based -- I'm just now catching the show. While I marvel at Paul Giamatti's portrayal of Adams, "the forgotten founder," and at the philosophical conversations between Adams, Jefferson and Franklin, what strikes me most about the series is how difficult life was 200-plus years ago.

Fire, pestilence, perilous travel -- these people were not coddled. To what extent did the circumstances of our ancestors' lives forge in them the character and ardor to build a nation? Life then was shorter, harder, more intense. I feel fat and shallow in comparison.


Thursday, December 2, 2010

First Frost

When I was a child longing for snow, I would pretend that frost was a thin dusting of the white stuff. Now I see frost for what it is — a frozen exhalation, a definitive end to fall. But I am still amazed by the transformation of water into ice, still dazzled by its ordinary beauty.


Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Staying Warm

It may be December, but November weather is upon us. Not too late to think about these lines from Maurice Sendak's charming poem "Chicken Soup with Rice":

"In November's gusty gale, I will flop my flippy tale.
I'll spout hot soup, I'll be a whale.
Spouting once, spouting twice, spouting chicken soup with rice."

Today I hear the wind chimes clattering; they are the treble notes above the bass roar that is the wind. There is such commotion outside that it's hard to think about leaving the house.

I would rather think about reading "Chicken Soup with Rice" to the girls when they were young, their scent warm from the bath, their footed p.j.s on, each of them clamoring for "their month."

That's what will keep me warm when I head outside.


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