Thursday, March 31, 2011

Further Thoughts on Humility

Re-reading yesterday's post (yes, I do this sometimes!), I realized it might sound as if the only error in the magazine is the one I intentionally left in. I wish that were true! The problem is, I know there are errors, but I can't always find them. Proofreading is an art, not a science. It has clear rules and expectations, but also a bit of the mysterious. How else to explain my ability to look right at a mistake and not see it — until it's in print.

What I was trying to get at yesterday (and which deserves longer treatment later) is the process of letting go that accompanies creative work. At some point you must come to terms with the fact that the essay/painting/song/magazine will not be perfect. Otherwise you will never finish. Humility can be of some help in this endeavor.


Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Humility Block

For the last week I’ve been in “crunch mode,” editing and proofing the magazine, reading pages over and over and over again looking for misplaced commas, extra spaces and other minutiae. There comes a point with every issue when I must let something go, when the cost to fix the error is too high or too risky, because it could result in a mistake more grievous than the one it hopes to repair.

It is at this point that I think about the humility block. This is the practice of making an intentional error in a quilt — turning a block the wrong way, for instance — to avoid perfection. Only God is perfect, the theory goes, so it's presumptuous to create something that rivals the divine. Rug weavers do the same thing, slip in a odd thread or two to mar their creations and avoid the "evil eye."

Sounds good, but from what I've been able to learn, it's not true. It's a lovely story, a myth; the mistakes in antique quilts are just that — mistakes. But I like knowing that deep in the class notes section of the magazine is a boldface comma that should be Roman. It's my humility block.

Photo: Courtesy of


Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Red Buds

In the first stirrings of spring, reminders of autumn. Not only from the chill air we've had these last few days (and Sunday's dusting of snow), but also from the auburn halo of our budding trees, which shimmer like fall when viewed from a distance. I'm not sure of this, but I strongly suspect the buds are making my eyes water, too.

But all is forgiven because it is spring. And the red buds that stand out against the blue sky, that scatter themselves across the greening grass, they are just part of the bounty and the beauty of the season. A season that tips its hat to the work of nature that made it possible.


Monday, March 28, 2011

I.S. Monday

Today my thoughts lie across the frosty Allegheny Mountains, hundreds of miles north and west of here to a small town in Ohio where a silly parade will step off at 5 p.m. Students in costumes and face paint, at least one mannequin head on a stick and several kilt-wearers with near frostbitten knees will be led by a bagpiper and an administrator dressed as a Tootsie Roll. The pipes will drone "Scotland the Brave" and the jolly band will weave its way through the College of Wooster campus.

The celebration is all part of I.S. Monday, the day Wooster students turn in the independent studies they're worked on for months (in some cases years) and receive in exchange a Tootsie Roll and a parade. It seems like only a few months ago that Suzanne was writing us about all the excitement when she witnessed the festivities her first year in college; now it's her fourth and final year — and she and her fellow '11 classmates are the stars of the show.

A parade to honor academic achievement, what's been described as "an academic Mardi Gras" — that's an idea that appeals to me. To say nothing of the Tootsie Roll!

Photo Credit: The College of Wooster


Saturday, March 26, 2011

Taking to the Pavement

Among the many advantages of walking in the suburbs is this one: It is difficult to read a newspaper while doing it. Am I the only one who feels that there is almost too much bad news to absorb these days? Chaos in the Mideast. Nuclear peril in Japan. A humanitarian crisis in Darfur.

Today's only good news (Kentucky's two-point win over Ohio State in the final seconds of the NCAA "Sweet Sixteen") happened too late to make it into the Washington Post. And so, I close the newspaper, lace up my walking shoes and take to the pavement. It's my way to make things make sense.


Friday, March 25, 2011

Walking in Darkness

I walked this morning before the sun rose. It was cold, and the flashlight in my hand was heavy enough to double as a weight. The moon was bright but waning. I heard an owl in the woods.

To walk in darkness diminishes landscape but broadens possibility. I could be a walker in the city or the country instead of the suburbs. I could be almost anywhere.

But because the traveler takes herself wherever she goes (Montaigne?), I was most of all in my own thoughts. I was pondering the freedom of darkness, how not knowing what lies ahead can liberate us from the here and now.


Thursday, March 24, 2011

A Seed to Water

Our parish Lenten mission has me thinking about hope. Not the dusty old hope I remember from parochial school. This is a green ribbon, a shoot, a new leaf. It is born of letting go, and it is fed by reading, prayer and quiet meditation. It is not the answer to everything, but already it has loosened the shoulders, smoothed the brow. It is a seed. I plan to water it.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

The Willow

Every year at this time I think about the order of spring colors. The yellows come first — forsythia and daffodil — followed by the pink of the flowering cherries and the blooming oaks. If we're lucky and it doesn't warm up too quickly, spring in these mid-Atlantic climes will last six to eight weeks. The light hues will give way to vivid purple and fuschia from the tulips and azaleas. Spring is a three-act play of color. And one of its opening scenes is the willow tree. It is the billowy curtain that sways in the March sun. Push it aside, hear the hum of summer in its bended branch.


Tuesday, March 22, 2011

A Pond

In a passage about landscape and writing in her book American Bloomsbury, Susan Cheever describes Walden Pond in Concord, Massachusetts. It was one of many ponds in that area created by the uneven melting of glacial ice centuries ago, she writes. It was surrounded by thick forests, and went from being a few feet deep at the shore line to 100 feet deep in the middle. It was beside this pond that Henry David Thoreau built his tiny house.

Thoreau was 28 years old. His brother had died, and the woman he loved had married another. He had also lost the prospect of both a teaching and a writing career. " Now his work could begin," writes Cheever.

"I went to the woods to live deliberately, so that I might front the essential facts of things, and might not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived," Thoreau wrote.

More than 150 years later, we still count those lines as among the finest written by an American author. "Although no one in Concord ... would realize it for decades," Cheever wrote. "The shimmering surface of the kettle pond named Walden would be the mirror of Thoreau's genius for generations to come."

Monday, March 21, 2011

Closed Wounds

Spring may be here, the trees may be budding, but branches are still gaping open-mouthed from their winter wounds. Split, shorn and lightened by a snow storm that happened almost two months ago now, the trees are ready for new life. Ready for their camouflage of green. In a few weeks the damage will be obscured. But I will remember the broken places. I will feel tenderly toward those trees.


Saturday, March 19, 2011

Shoulders Back

The correction came when I walked into exercise class Thursday, and the instructor, the jolly British Maureen, said she noticed my posture as I walked toward the gym. "You're leaning forward, " she said. Of course I am, I think to myself. This is how I barrel through life.

"Pull your shoulders back, tilt your hips forward," Maureen said. "Walk as if you have a pillow on your head." So yesterday, as I did my three miles, I righted my shoulders, felt a plumb line stretch from my head to the sky. My chest filled with air. I felt taller and a little uneasy, as if I was on stilts. As if I was pretending.


Friday, March 18, 2011

The Driving Lesson

I bite my lip. I still my heart. I fight the urge to press the ball of my right foot firmly onto the floor mat, my phantom brake. But my hands, they are not easy to hide. They flutter. They grasp. They reach for the side of the car.

Try as hard as I might, I will never be a calm driving instructor. When we're skimming along one of our area's "picturesque" two-lane roads — the ones that look so lovely on a sweet summer morning but are so terrifying for the novice driver with their twists and turns and nonexistent shoulders — I imagine the worst.

I've done this twice before now; I should be calmer. But this is one skill that doesn't improve with age. And so, my hands remain. I clasp them in my lap. I dig them into the seat cushions. I try not to grab the side of the car; that looks desperate.

Instead, I practice my yogic breathing. I keep my eyes straight ahead and my voice as calm as can be: "That's good. Now straighten out. Check your mirrors. Lower your speed. Great. You're doing great."

I wish I could say the same about myself.


Thursday, March 17, 2011


The pale yellow-green of the witch hazel flower. The dark waxy green of the magnolia leaf. The slight green cast of the March lawn as it stirs to life — these are the greens I see here today.

But in my mind are other greens: the Cliffs of Moher, their ancient, mossy backs emerging from the fog on the west coast of Ireland. The furze that carpets the barren ground. The fields emerald in the sunlight. The many greens of the old sod. It is a day when sentimentality is allowed, singing is encouraged — and green is celebrated.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Great Gate

When I work at home I walk in the suburbs; when I work downtown I walk in the city. Or, if I'm too busy for that (usually the case), I dash from one building on campus to the other. Even a few minutes away from my desk lightens my mood.

Take yesterday, for example. It was about 10 when I went for my mid-morning stroll to the cafe for a cup of tea and heard piano music coming from the small chapel in the middle of the ground floor. It was the "Great Gate of Kiev" from "Pictures at an Exhibition" by Modest Mussorgsky. A noble, stately and expansive piece. A bit grand for a coffee break, but I wasn't complaining. I slowed my pace, I listened as long as I could. I was all tingly from the swell of sound.

The Great Gate of Kiev Mussorgsky celebrated wasn't ever a real gate, but the artist Victor Hartmann's design for it (pictured in the copyrighted image above; pardon the "watermark"). The gate was never built. It is the art and the music that remain.


Tuesday, March 15, 2011


Yesterday: a walk at lunchtime. A still morning with just enough warmth in the air that I only wear a sweatshirt — but just enough chill in the air that I wish I had worn more. In my ears, Vivaldi, "The Four Seasons." In my head: thoughts of the tragedy in Japan, "thoughts that lie too deep for words." The multiple catastrophes, the layered ironies — they are almost too much to comprehend.

Some offers of help
have come with a statement saying that this is not Japan's disaster alone; that it belongs to the world community, that we will all help however we can. With the worsening news of nuclear explosions and meltdowns the disaster may yet belong to all of us. But it belongs first of all to the Japanese people, and what I find most heartbreaking is their stoicism and dignity. To say that we pray for them is a given. Would it help to say we can't stop thinking about them, that those of us on safe, dry ground (if there is such a thing) are crying for them?

Monday, March 14, 2011


A long walk this weekend made me catch my breath. Everywhere I looked were green shoots, tremulous buds. High up in the woods, a pinkish haze of near-budding boughs. Every year I notice this: that for trees, spring starts at the top. Reckoned by calendar and temperature it is still winter, but the lengthening days, the bold plants reasserting themselves, the warmth in the air — all these speak to a shoulder season of green promise and yellow possibility. A season in its own right, a season of potential — almost-spring.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

From Sticks to Flowers

Lately all we've been harvesting are twigs and branches from our brittle aging trees. The winds have blown and the sticks have fallen. But yesterday I noticed in the half-light of morning a tiny yellow flower, an anemone ( I think). I don't recall planting it but I do remember seeing flowers like it in Sweden. Could a seed have slipped in on our shoes somehow? Are we planting in our sleep? I decide to take it for what it is: a mystery of spring.


Friday, March 11, 2011

Caught on Tape

News of the earthquake in Japan and the tsunami racing across the Pacific Ocean makes it hard to think of much else this morning. But a Washington Post review of the movie "The Kids Grow Up" raises questions about our highly observed younger generation and the ethics of posting cute kid videos on You Tube. At one point the mother of the girl profiled in "The Kids Grow Up" said to her husband, the girl's father and a documentary filmmaker, "Just think, when she works through all this in therapy, she can bring the footage with her."

I don't write much about kids anymore; writing articles for parenting magazines and an anti-parenting-book parenting book cured me of that tendency. But this article brings it all back, the self-absorption, the child-absorption, the difficulty of raising kids these days. I'm glad I'm at the end of my child-rearing years, not the beginning.


Thursday, March 10, 2011

The View

Sometimes we talk about what's next. Where will we live when our youngest graduates? Will it be city or country or (once again) somewhere in between? We never finish these discussions.

More than 20 years in the suburbs have narrowed my vision and worn me out. I don't know where I want to end up. But I do know this: I want a view.


Wednesday, March 9, 2011


Today is Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent. I heard a few years ago — and have since confirmed — that the word "lent" comes from the old English for "lengthen." Lent happens in spring when days grow longer and light grows stronger, when we leave winter darkness behind. In this way, then, Lent is more hopeful than often portrayed. It is about moving ahead not just leaving behind.

I am never ready for the penitential parts of this season, for Lent's fasting and denials. I usually give up chocolate, which isn't easy but seems increasingly beside the point. Surely more is asked of us. So I seek an ally in etymology. When I think of Lent as Lengthen I concentrate on spiritual stretching, on growth.

I imagine the trees about to leaf, the seeds about to sprout, the grass about to green. All around me is the restraint of nature, a restraint that makes profusion possible.

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Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Writing in Bed

Astute readers of these posts will notice that they're as often about books and writing as they are about walking. No walking today; I'm not feeling well enough to get out of bed. So into the bed come books, journal, newspaper, laptop and notes for the article I have to write whether I'm sick or not.

Writing in bed makes me remember something I'd heard about Winston Churchill, that he spent most of his mornings in bed, reading all the daily newspapers, dictating to his secretary, writing. I also learned from a book called The Writer's Desk that Edith Wharton, Colette, Proust, James Joyce and Walker Percy all wrote in bed. I have to laugh about Walker Percy. For a while it seemed that every novel my book group chose had been blurbed by Walker Percy. Perhaps Percy did his blurbing in bed, too.


Monday, March 7, 2011

Alone In a Room

I just finished reading Antonia Fraser's memoir of her life with Harold Pinter, Must You Go? I marvel at the honesty and the tenderness of Antonia's portrayal of her husband — and also at how they seemed to know everyone in the literary and political establishments. It reminds me of something I know but seldom think about: how small the world is at the top.

But my favorite line has nothing to do with literary lions or radical politics. It is instead this almost off-the-cuff observation Antonia made April 4, 1979: "My idea of happiness is to be alone in a room in a house full of people."

I've never heard it put quite that way, but I understand and agree. We must be alone in order to create; we must be with loved ones in order to live.


Saturday, March 5, 2011

In Need of Stile

One of my walking routes requires that I hop a fence. I'm not trespassing (though I've been known to in search of a good path). But I am saving myself a few steps by clambering across the fence rather than looping around it. I climb over as quickly as possible, since I can only guess how a middle-aged woman in such an ungainly position must look. What I need, I was thinking today, is a stile, "a wooden device used to cross a wall or a fence on a walking path." (I found that definition and a lovely blog post on stiles here: )

The absence of stiles — in fact, the very absurdity of even imagining them here
— is proof of how the suburban world, despite its paved trails and paths, is not designed for walking. It is built for the automobile. The roads are wide and car-scaled, and many neighborhoods (ours included) have no sidewalks. It is not the English countryside, with narrow lanes, paths from village to village and stiles across the hedgerows. It is fenced and paved, every walker for herself.

Still, you can't keep a walker from dreaming. I may be strolling down a suburban street, but in my heart I'm ambling from Upper to Lower Slaughter in a fine English mist.


Friday, March 4, 2011

Still House

Our youngest is visiting our oldest in college, so we are alone: Tom and I and the dog. Downstairs we busy ourselves paying bills, filing insurance claims (the children may be gone but the paperwork of parenting goes on).

Upstairs, though, upstairs — three empty bedrooms stretch like a long sigh down the hallway. The shower is still, the hairdryer, too. I catch myself talking softly. Amputation is too strong a word, but this is more than missing. I'm glad I have a couple years to ponder the imagery here. It will take at least that long.


Thursday, March 3, 2011

Against the Odds

This morning a line from the newspaper caught my eye. Reporting on the crisis in Libya and the improbable victory of "a ragtag team of thousands" that repelled government forces, the Washington Post quotes Suleiman Abdel, a surgeon and now a rebel, as saying this about Libyan leader Gaddafi: "He has the force, but we have the heart."

I let that one sink in for a moment. I copied it down in my journal. Of all the story lines in all the novels, memoirs, movies, this is the most compelling. It is the story of the underdog, the one who succeeds against all odds. And sometimes it is a sad story, a tale of one who tries but fails. But it is always inspiring.

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Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Living History

He was born by lantern light in 1901 and lived to see television, computers, airplanes and rockets to the moon. He endured two world wars, the Depression and, in the end, a certain celebrity. Frank W. Buckles died Sunday on his West Virginia farm. Of the almost five million Americans who served in World War I, he was the last to go. When he died Sunday at age 110, only two survivors of the Great War were left, one in Australia and one in England.

Buckles lied his way into the Army at age 16, and after the war was over, he took typing and short hand and became a purser for a steamship line, traveling the world. World War II was harder on Buckles than World War I — he was a civilian working for a Manila shipping company when the Japanese took him prisoner. He spent three years and two months in captivity.

By 1953 Buckles and his wife had settled down on Gap View farm. The former doughboy drove a tractor past his 100th birthday, had a Facebook page and championed a refurbished World War I monument. He took seriously his responsibility as guardian of the past, but he liked to have fun, too. The secret to longevity, he once said, is, "When you think you're dying — don't."

Reading about Buckles reminds me that the past is all around us. It is in the stories told by our parents and grandparents; it is in quiet roadside monuments and the pages of books. Most of all it is alive within each of us. We may walk through a flat, featureless world, but our minds are full of mountains and valleys, the intricate passageways of all we have been and known. "The past is never dead," William Faulkner wrote. "It's not even past."


Tuesday, March 1, 2011

A Wink and a Smile

They were with me all the way to Metro this morning, the moon and Venus. The moon a thin paring, a baby's fingernail; Venus an emphatic dot above and to the right. Star Date magazine calls them "the most beautiful of all astronomical duos," and I agree. Clean and simple in the dawn sky, they are twin beacons.

The way they looked this morning reminded me of a wink and a smile. The moon's lopsided grin rakish and debonair; Venus with its pure eye twinkling. Don't take the day too seriously, they told me. I'm trying to listen.


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