Friday, April 29, 2011

Royal Wedding

As I write this morning my eye is trained on a ceremony happening thousands of miles away. I listen to the men and boy's choir sing a hymn. I marvel at the vivid reds of the robes and of the carpet that extends down the length of Westminster Abbey (different red carpet above but the best I can muster).

I remember visiting the place, the sacred ground, the poets and the leaders who are buried there, the ceremonies that sanctified the walls and windows and every inch of the air.

In the front of the altar stand a woman in a long white dress with tapering lace sleeves, and a man in a smart red jacket. They are special, these people, but their marriage, like any other, will rise and fall on their own efforts, on how much they can give, on how much they can receive. "Every wedding is a royal wedding," they are told.

As the ceremony ends the congregation inside the Abbey and everyone outside it sing "Jerusalem," a favorite of mine since I first saw the movie "Chariots of Fire" many years ago. I take that as a good omen!

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Fear and Comfort

In the last few months our dog, Copper, has become afraid of thunderstorms. He is a plucky little guy with strong shoulders and haunches and otherwise unfazed by the world around him. But now he trembles and races for the lowest, most protected ground when he hears a rumble of thunder.

Copper makes me think about fear, the irrationality of it, how it comes unbidden and unbound; how it makes us its own. When I see him like this I want to sit and hold him all day. But even if I could he would have none of it. Fear makes him restless, too.

These twin impulses, to fear and to comfort, they are buried deep down in all of us. So deep that they are often obscured. They dress up in other clothes, they parade around as silliness or ambition or pride or addiction. But they are there. I'm sure of it.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011


Passing through the woods last evening on a quick walk before dinner, I crossed a bridge that Tom built. It's a very humble plank bridge (not the one above) that took him no time to throw together.

He did it to help us (and other ramblers) over a slippery crossing near Little Difficult Run. Other neighbors have mapped the paths, cleaned the creek and taken chain saws to downed trees, leaving the logs neatly stacked along the trail.

I think of a line from Frost: "Whose woods these are I think I know." The forest paths we traipse are either neighborhood common land or Fairfax County stream valley park. They belong to all of us. But they belong more when we care for them. The bridge wasn't about craftsmanship; it was about stewardship.

Labels: ,

Tuesday, April 26, 2011


The other day I cleared a three-foot square patch of ground to plant a crepe myrtle we bought over the weekend. I've wanted crepe myrtle for years, admired the pluck and the late summer color of the tree. We may not have enough sunlight for the plant but we decided to take the plunge anyway. All we have to lose is a few dollars and the time we spend planting and watering.

The plot where we planted the crepe myrtle is a three-foot square in front of our deck, a spot once inhabited by bamboo. I didn't know just how inhabited until I started to dig and found root after root after root — although to call them roots does not do them justice. They are actually runners with roots attached, and they claim the soil with a vengeance.

I shoveled and yanked, pried and sliced; I struggled an hour and a half with a job I thought would take me 15 minutes. And the whole time I was thinking: So this is what rooted means. Not just planted or anchored, but bound to the earth with every fiber.


Monday, April 25, 2011

Easter Monday

In much of the world, the day after Easter is a holiday. In the Washington, D.C., area, it's the day of the White House Easter Egg Roll, which was one of those things I always meant to do when the children were little but never quite had the energy to pull off.

I wondered this morning, is Easter Monday known for anything other than being the day after Easter?

Turns out, it is. In Poland and elsewhere in Eastern Europe, Easter Monday is Dyngus Day or "Wet Monday," a day when boys wake girls by pouring water over the heads. There's a large Dyngus Day celebration in Buffalo, New York, too, involving polkas and squirt guns.

This reminds me of another holiday. The festival of Songkran in Thailand is when people pour water on your shoulders or head (or sometimes blast it at you from a fast-moving truck) to wish you a happy new year. Tom and I spent our honeymoon in Thailand and for seven days were dowsed every time we walked outside.

I'll spend Easter Monday as I spend most Mondays — writing, editing, reading, walking and doing laundry, which is about as close to ritual purification as I'll get today.


Saturday, April 23, 2011

Earth and Heaven

Yesterday was Earth Day; tomorrow is Easter. Today we are nicely tucked between earth and heaven. Which is where we are most comfortable, anyway.

"[It is a] a shabby genteel sentiment," wrote the 19th-century British historian William Winwood Reade, "which makes men prefer to believe that they are degenerated angels rather than elevated apes."

I disagree. It is not a "shabby sentiment" that makes us feel uncomfortable in our human skin, that makes us believe there is something for us after this life is done. We may be wrong, of course. But hope is a choice. An informed choice.

Friday, April 22, 2011


Last night's Holy Thursday service brought back an old friend — incense. I grew up with the stuff, but it's pretty scarce these days, at least in my church. Last night they pulled out all the stops, though, and by the end of the evening, incense was wafting all over the sanctuary. It matched the solemnity of the mass, the Pange Lingua, the stately procession at the end.

Some people coughed and sneezed when the incense came our way. It was too much for them. But I took deep breaths. The incense was more than just an odor, more than particles in the air. It reminded me of ritual and childhood piety. I didn't mind it at all.


Thursday, April 21, 2011

The Pedometer Made Me Do It

It was my first time so I wanted to make a good impression. I parked the car at the high school and hiked to Metro. At the office I made more trips to the water cooler, mailbox and colleagues' offices. At lunchtime came the big kahuna — a fast walk to the mall and back. At the end of the day I was well over the 10,000 recommended steps. But come on, I'm a walker in the suburbs. What else could I do? Which is why I must wear the gizmo again. Wear it and forget about it.

I push aside questions of motivation and ambition — what kind of person shows off for a tiny gadget attached to her waist, something that no one else can see? I give myself a break. It was my first time. The pedometer made me do it.

Photo of Sportline ThinQ pedometers from Slippery Brick


Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Sheep May Safely Graze

My piano is an old love, a dusty, overlooked and abandoned love. But reading Leon Fleisher's book (see April 14 post) made me seek out the piano again, the rent-to-purchase spinet that my parents bought for me to learn on and then gave me when I had a house of my own.

I had watched Fleisher play "Sheep May Safely Graze" on YouTube last week. It was sublime — and even more moving because you could see his little finger curl up after striking the high notes. You could see the effort it took him to play this piece.

I did something impulsive. I ordered the sheet music. And when it arrived yesterday I took it right to the piano. I've always loved this Bach cantata, even had a string quartet play it at our wedding. It is sweet and simple, with a melody that wanders off a bit, like a lost lamb. The piece starts off easily enough, but by the second page there are intricate fingerings. You must bring out an inner melody amidst scores of other notes — not easy for someone who's been doing a lot more typing than playing the last few decades.

Still, I vow (and I vow it here, in a semi-public place!) to learn "Sheep May Safely Graze." To prepare each part separately. To take it slowly enough that the notes enter my hands and my head. To increase speed only when I've mastered the voicing. To bring that lamb home. To play again.


Tuesday, April 19, 2011

One Story

At the writing contest awards ceremony Friday night, and again this morning as I finished reading Out Stealing Horses, a lovely novel by the Norwegian author Per Petterson, I think about fiction and nonfiction, how close they can lie, how they are the same bones with different skin.

In this novel an old man recalls a summer that altered his life, that took his 15-year-old self and changed it forever. So fully does he live in his own thoughts, this man, that at one point he wonders if "the difference between talking and not talking is slowly wiped out, that the unending, inner conversation we carry on with ourselves merges with the one we have with the few people we still see, and when you live alone for too long the line which divides the one from the other becomes vague, and you do not notice when you cross that line..."

There is one conversation in our heads, one story. Maybe it doesn't matter whether it emerges as fiction or memoir, essay or poem. All that matters is letting it out.


Monday, April 18, 2011

A Creek

The ground is saturated. Rain water trickles through the soil and into drainage ditches that divide the meadow. Yesterday I spotted a young boy squatting down beside one of those ditches. His bike laid carelessly on its side, as if he couldn't wait to plunge into the water, to see what he might find there.

I remembered the park a street behind us when I was this boy's age. There was a creek that wound around the park, and the playground smelled of fresh mud. I imagine the creek flooded in the spring of the year. But I wouldn't have noticed that at the time.

All I knew then was the smell of the run in the dank days of spring, standing on the bank, immersed as this boy was immersed, catching crawdads or, later, bottling creek water to look at under my microscope. Every day had the same catch in its breath as these days do.

Labels: ,

Saturday, April 16, 2011

The Results

Last night I went to an awards ceremony for a writing contest I'd helped to judge. I wanted to see the people who'd written the essays, to match face with voice. The winners were younger than I imagined they would be. One of them I'd thought was female (our entries were identified only with numbers) was actually male. Two of the three honorable mentions were married to each other.

As the evening progressed, back stories emerged. Enough of them that I knew we had picked the right winners. Enough of them that I knew we, the judges, were the real winners after all.


Friday, April 15, 2011

Two Springs

There are springs that flow smoothly from gray deadwood, sodden March soil to greening Aprils and ebullient Mays.

And then there are springs like this one. Several days of dreary clouds and then a jewel (yesterday) or, if you're lucky, two jewels (today is promising). Rather than spoiling us with a steady pulse, spring teases us, stalls, then overwhelms. It is the mid-game reprieve, the comeback, the career that seemed to be over but somehow springs to life.

It is the dogwood, just flowering. The red buds — where have they been these weeks, how could I have missed their shimmer? The pink tulips I forgot I planted — they are blooming.

When the sun appears, the new grass quivers with green. The oaks are just past budding; each leaf opens heavenward, like a small prayer. And the air, pellucid, perfect.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Nine Lives

In My Nine Lives, the pianist Leon Fleisher describes the despair he faced when the fourth and fifth fingers of his right hand curled up and stopped working. He was in his prime, playing with the world’s great orchestras, when the mysterious ailment derailed his career. Fleisher had been playing since he was four — for as long as he could remember — and by age 9 was studying with the great Artur Schnabel. Music was Fleisher’s life.

Fleisher admits that he thought about suicide. But he loved life and he loved music, so he turned to teaching and conducting. He mastered repertoire for the left hand and gave recitals. He never stopped looking for a cure for his right hand, either, and more than 30 years later, he found one: botox injections for what was finally diagnosed as focal dystonia, a neurological condition that makes muscles contract.

The life he lived was not the one he planned; it was a richer one. “Time and again, I would look at my life and marvel that so many wonderful things had happened that never would have happened if my hand had not been struck down. I couldn’t imagine my life without conducting. I couldn’t imagine life without teaching so intensely. I couldn’t imagine my life without [my wife] Kathy.”

This is the door-closing-window-opening philosophy writ large. As I write these words I listen to Fleisher play the Schubert Piano Sonata in B-flat Major, Opus 960. It’s a piece that Fleisher (with co-author Anne Midgette) describes as “sublime,” “aching,” “like a memory from far away.” The music Fleisher makes now is transcendent. The desert years carved out a place in him, and the music that gurgles up from that place is both delicate and unflinching. His playing has a depth that comes from struggle.


Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Yesterday's Post

A day after the 57th anniversary of the least eventful day since 1900 (see Monday's entry) came a day that was anything but boring. Yesterday was the 50th anniversary of human spaceflight — Yuri Gagarin’s 109-minute flight into the heavens and back again. It was the 66th anniversary of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s passing. His sudden death from a cerebral hemorrhage at the age of 63 shocked Americans; he was the only president many of them, including my parents, had ever known. And it was the 150th anniversary of the first shots fired at Fort Sumter — the opening salvo of the Civil War.

By the time I post this entry, however, this will be yesterday’s news. And I will be wondering why we have become so fond of anniversary stories. Certainly we don’t lack news of our own. I think it may be a way to control the complexity of our lives. And we do honor history by bringing its highlights to our attention. But when the present is littered with the past, it’s hard not to feel encumbered.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

White Trees at Sunset

It was almost dark by the time I drove down Franklin Farm Drive with its magical, top-heavy Bradford pear trees. I had been meaning to make this pilgrimage for a week and am glad I made it before the blossoms blew away.

I counted 40 trees just on one side. Spring is extravagant here; it sends forth far more beauty than we need. Honestly, it’s hard to criticize the suburbs too much this time of year. The flowering cherries, phlox, redbud and forsythia see to that. They remind me that these outlying neighborhoods are designed to be beautiful.

I often forget this. I rail about the crazy highways and the ugly strip malls— but the suburbs happened when people left the dusty, dangerous, crowded city for a calm, green, airy substitute. The movement from city to suburb is as certain as the American push westward toward the frontier — and perhaps springs from the same place, a need to step out of the fray, to find a place we can call our own.

Labels: ,

Monday, April 11, 2011

Another Day in Paradise

Today I heard on the radio that a Cambridge University scientist has declared April 11, 1954 the most boring day since 1900. This is based on a computer analysis of 300 million facts, according to an NPR interview with William Tunstall-Pedoe, the scientist who invented the search engine that sifted through the facts and arrived at this oddly compelling conclusion.

Listeners who've commented on the story have mostly offered personal evidence to refute it — usually their own birthdays or those of their loved ones. None of the comments convinced me that this day shouldn't be one of those most boring in history.

If April 11, 1954 was so ho-hum and ordinary, then wasn't it also the most wonderful day, too? No great people were born, but neither were there explosions, battles or mass murders. And aren't the simple, uneventful days the most special?

In Abraham Vergehese's book Cutting for Stone, the character Ghosh tells his son, Marion, "You know what's given me the greatest pleasure in my life? It's been our bungalow, the normalcy of it, the ordinariness of my waking, Almaz rattling in the kitchen, my work. My classes, my rounds with the senior students. Seeing you and Shiva at dinner, then going to sleep with my wife." Ghosh, the overworked doctor at a poor hospital in Ethiopia, falls asleep every night with these words on his lips: "Another day in paradise."

I hope that April 11, 2011 — like April 11, 1954 — is just another day in paradise.

Labels: ,

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Low Clouds

A chill air has arrived; a few minutes ago it was sleeting. I try to look at the bright side. The warmth, when it gets here, will be that much more welcome. And cool temperatures make the blossoms last longer.

Still, it's hard to be patient. The winter has been long. The clouds have been low. The carefree days of summer seem far, far away.


Friday, April 8, 2011

People Power

Yesterday the air had a softness and a fragrance that practically begged me to come outside. And once out, I ran into friends and neighbors. In the city, at work, I met someone new in the courtyard; at home, in the suburbs, I chatted with a neighbor I've known for years but hadn't seen in months.

As I was walking back to the house after that second conversation, it dawned on me that one of the things that puts a spring in my step are these random conversations. Research shows (ah, I love writing "research shows" — I've spent so much of my career writing those words!) that interaction with friends and acquaintances bolsters mood.

Yesterday at least I would have to agree with those researchers: Maybe it's not just the warm weather that makes us feel like we're coming alive again after the long winter; maybe it's the people we see when we finally emerge from our cocoons.

A note on the photo: Unable to find a picture of my neighbors, I can only come up with a photo I snapped last November during a walk through Chinatown in New York City. Now there's a place where people get out and enjoy their friends!


Thursday, April 7, 2011

The Kindness of Strangers

During the last few months I've gotten to know a man named Pat, who is blind. I met him on the Metro. Our schedules are similar; we get on at the same stop and get off two stops apart. More to the point, we both change trains at Metro Center. This is no big deal for me, but quite a big deal for Pat, who must navigate the walk along the narrow platform, find and ascend the escalator (if it's working), then get to the right spot on the platform to catch the Red Line train to his final destination.

While he can do this on his own with a cane, it's much easier if someone helps him. And often someone does. More than most of us, Pat is dependent on the kindness of strangers. "I've met some wonderful people," he told me this morning. "And some who aren't so nice."

Perhaps because he can't see, he's closely attuned to sounds. "Twenty years ago people used to talk on Metro," he said. "They laughed and told stories and exchanged business cards. Now it's quiet." We talked about the reasons for this: Blackberries and iPhones, iPods and laptops.

The lack of chatter makes it harder for Pat to know where he's going, but the lack of camaraderie isn't good for any of us. It's a still and stilted world we travel in — and I'm as much to blame as anyone, my nose in a book or my journal. But sometimes, when I'm lucky, I run into Pat. When I ride with him and we chat, the Metro seems a warmer, friendlier place.

Don't we all depend on the kindness of strangers?


Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Park Bench in Spring

Yesterday I went to see the cherry blossoms at the tidal basin. It was a fresh, just-drenched morning with a bar rainbow (looking like a colorful UPC code) in the sky above National Airport. There were low clouds and intermittent rain.

The blossoms were past peak, so I had them (almost) to myself. Pink petals piled on the pavement, clung to tree bark, dotted park benches. It was a pointillistic paradise. The beauty was still there; it was just broken and scattered.


Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Perfect Timing

Now that my blog is in its second year I sometimes worry that I will repeat myself, write the same post on the same day. After all, many of my posts are about the seasons and the cyclical nature of life. Or, maybe I only have 350 thoughts, give or take one or two, and it's inevitable that I recycle them.

I say this as a preface to writing about violets, because I wrote about them last year. But this year I want to single out their punctuality, how I can always count on seeing them as soon as April arrives. I saw the first violets of the season on Saturday, when I lifted up the screen that had been protecting young lettuce and saw instead the first violet. Such a sweet, unassuming flower — but nevertheless a product of complex forces and drives. How else to explain the punctuality?

The timing of blossoms is big business around here; predicting the cherry trees' peak bloom is both an art and a science. But what strikes me when I look at the violet is that its timing and placement is always perfect. Less heralded, but always on time.


Monday, April 4, 2011

The Unexpected

Twenty-four years ago, in Lexington, Kentucky, it was snowing on this day. It had been an unseasonably warm March, but the weather changed when the new month blew in. And by April 4, our wedding day, it wasn't just flurrying, it was snowing hard, drifting and accumulating, slowing traffic and obliterating spring.

We drove behind the plow on the way to the church, tiptoed through slush on our way to the reception. The snow left a delicate filigree on car windows, buried the daffodils and bent near to breaking the just-blooming dogwood trees. Friends from up north, expecting balmy breezes, braved the weather in light floral prints and big-brimmed hats. The day was a joyful blur of blossoms and snow flakes.

It was not what we'd planned or expected, and was therefore a good way to begin married life. More than two decades later, no one has ever forgotten our wedding day. We certainly haven't!


Saturday, April 2, 2011

A Compass

It is a day of clouds and sun, of wind and flower. I have yet to walk; I'm about to now. But I can tell from the weather that the wind will challenge, the sun will warm and maybe the rain will fall, too. It will be a walk that is not unlike life.

I found in my photos a snapshot of a small windmill, a decorative one, I think, but suitable enough for illustration. It makes me think about how much a day can buffet us and how important it is to have a compass, something that helps point the way, that keeps us on track. Something that keeps us heading down our own truth path, steady to our own true north.


Friday, April 1, 2011


To live in the suburbs is to orbit rather than to center, for our very existence is built on proximity to the city. You could say that all towns exist in complement to others, their services and spaciousness reflecting how close or far they are from the next best place. But we who live on the periphery, we were never intended for anything but the vast outer ring. Our place has no point but to serve another.

Still, what begins accidentally can proceed with purpose, and so I walk and listen and search for what lies beneath the subdivisions and shopping centers. Because what is true is deep, and what is deep is hard to find no matter where you look for it.

"Let us settle ourselves, and work and wedge our feet downward through the mud and slush of opinion and prejudice and tradition and delusion and appearance, that alluvion which covers the globe, through Paris and London, through Boston and New York and Concord, through church and state, through poetry and philosophy and religion, till we come to a hard bottom and rocks in place, which we call reality ... " Thoreau wrote in Walden. "Be it life or death, we crave only reality."


blogger counters