Saturday, July 30, 2011

Both Sides

On a
walk down the West Ox path today, one stretch was lined with wild chickory, the blue flowers nodding over the path, almost crowding me out. I felt like I was strolling along a flower-strewn walk in an English country garden. The wild plants will do that to you, will mimic, with their colors and arrangement, the artlessness of the planned landscape.

But then again, some designed landscapes, Central Park, for example, are a controlled version of nature with stream, foliage and vista. Makes me think we need a little of both — wild and free; prim and controlled — in our gardens and in our lives.


Friday, July 29, 2011

Checking My Email

The significance of the title is not the meaning of the word email. It's the lack of hyphen. Until recently, according to the editor's bible — or one of them, the AP Stylebook — email was e-mail. Then e-mail went the way of Web site, and things haven't been the same since.

The magazine I edit bases its style on AP's, and so I dutifully changed Web site to website when that alteration was announced last year. But I missed the memo on email. This morning's newspaper tells me why. The Washington Post has kept the hyphen, so I remained oblivious to the change.

Why do these things matter so much? The fine article in today's Post explains that, too, quoting David Minthorn, deputy standards editor of the Associated Press. "We're not a bunch of old fogies sitting around in our ivory tower. We're alive to changes and new ideas. We have a real sense that new words and changes in language reflect the culture and give us an inkling to where society is headed."

Think of editors as warriors, standing guard over a culture where standards don't matter, insisting — with their sharpened pencils — that they do.


Thursday, July 28, 2011

Safe Haven

For many years now we've had more than one teenager in our family. Today, as Claire celebrates her 20th birthday, we only have one.

I've been thinking a lot about adolescence lately, its pains and its challenges mostly, its crabwise path — often sideways rather than straight up or down. The circuitous road to freedom and responsibility.

I've read enough history to know that Western adolescence is a relatively new creation. Kids used to grow up a lot faster behind a plow or on a factory floor. A common metaphor for young adulthood now, of course, is a launching pad. A place where our young ones perch lightly on their way out of the nest.

Look closely at this photo and you'll see the egret on the deer's back. An unlikely pair — as unlikely perhaps as middle-aged parents and their teenage offspring. But the deer offers her back as solace, as resting place, as safe haven. Stay here a bit until you're ready to fly farther. You know you're safe here. We have your back — and you have ours.


Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Pony Swim

Today is the last Wednesday of July — the annual Pony Swim in Chincoteague. It's the day when "saltwater cowboys" herd wild ponies across Assateague Channel at low tide for an auction held the next day. Proceeds from pony auctions through the years have helped finance the Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Company. And auctioning off some ponies each year keeps the herd to a manageable 150.

The day I drove home from Chincoteague earlier this month there was an article in the paper about wild horses biting campers, stealing their food and otherwise being canny and uncooperative. I pointed out to folks that the article was about the wild ponies of Maryland; they were the ones who were acting up. The wild ponies of Virginia are probably too busy fending off mosquitoes to get into any further mischief.

I've never seen the Pony Swim, but I know the place well enough now that I can imagine it. The sun will shine flat upon the water, the lighthouse will loom picturesquely in the background and the charm of an old custom will unfold in a town that most days, except this day, time seems to have forgotten.

Photo from Chincoteague Facebook page


Tuesday, July 26, 2011


I've never considered myself a color expert, a landscape designer or, heaven forbid, an interior decorator. But I know what I like about color. It's the contrast, the way one end of the wheel brings out the other.

It's the profusion of complementary shades in the summer garden. Our neighbor's, for instance (not pictured here; this is ours), with tall zinnias of yellow, orange and pink all mixed in with the sturdy dusky rose coneflowers.

As for us, we've had orange day lilies, yellow black-eyed susans and pink coneflowers all together, and, if you look at them from the right angle, you can see a purple hydrangea in the foreground, too. These bright mingling hues are enough for now. They are meant to go together; they are pleasant on the eyes.


Monday, July 25, 2011


It was not the night I would have chosen to watch home movies of the girls. But Suzanne is here, and she is in a cataloging state of mind. So I found an excuse to go downstairs, to walk by the TV, and once I started watching I couldn't stop. For there they were again — our grown-up girls as babies and toddlers, dancing and playing and learning to walk.

Here you are, you three, I wanted to say. Where have you been hiding? This is the way you're supposed to be, giggling and singing and stirring soap suds in the sink. It's not time for you to graduate from college, to drive to the beach, to have your first job.

It was all I could do to sit still and watch their chubby arms reaching out as they took their first steps into the world. I want to be there all over again for them, be there in a way that was so much easier than the way I must be there for them now.


Sunday, July 24, 2011


The hottest days of the summer drive us indoors, where a winter mentality is lurking. Clean the basement, organize a closet. This is what I should be doing today.

Instead, I want to lie in the hammock with a good book and let torpor overtake me. It's not yet 3. There is enough day left to do both.


Friday, July 22, 2011

Hot Days

The hydrangea wilts, the hammock waits, the cicadas hum. It is midsummer in Virginia, a sizzling hot day on tap, 101 before it's all over, they say.

I remember other scalding summers, cooling off on the Staten Island ferry in Manhattan, the feeble breeze of a single fan in a shotgun apartment in Lexington, the blistering pavement of Chicago in July (which seemed unfair given how frigid it had been the previous winter), our long honeymoon summer on Petit Jean Mountain in Arkansas. It was so humid all the envelopes sealed themselves.

When I think back on the hot days, the misery does not translate. What remains is a sense of life fully lived.


Thursday, July 21, 2011

Water Therapy

A 12-hour day leaves my right (mouse) hand tingly and numb. This has happened before and usually goes away. I vow to change positions more during long writing sessions. I also decide to go swimming last night.

There were still plenty of kids in the pool at 8:15, and the one courteous Japanese man I've met in the lap lane before, who bows his head and stays to the right. A funny lifeguard yells animal names at little divers as they spring off the board. "Tiger!" "Cow!" "Snake!" In the split second between the command and the water they are supposed to pounce, graze and slither.

I watch them, treading water as close to the deep end as I can, side-stroking carefully to keep my hair dry. Their giggles make me smile. As I trail my hands slowly through the water, I feel the long day slipping away.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Three Doors

This morning before work I look down the second-floor hallway. All three doors are closed. All three girls are home and sleeping in their rooms rather than the basement, the couch in the office or on the deck.

I pause for a moment at the top of the stairs, savoring the rightness of this, knowing, even as a I savor, how rare and precious it is.

The hall in this half light is cropped and close; in it, we seem more together than apart.


Tuesday, July 19, 2011

As and Ps

Once a month or so, Celia and I work at a food bank. We sort cans, shelve food, or make up boxes called "As and Ps." "A" boxes contain cereal, peanut butter and jelly plus the usual complement of dried pasta, canned meats, vegetables and soups. "B" boxes hold more fruit and fruit juice, more meat and tuna, and, if possible, canned milk. I have a new appreciation for canned milk since we've worked there, will always give it to food banks if I have a chance.

Coming home after one of our expeditions I debate what to make for dinner. It shouldn't be steak or lamb chops, not that we have those much anyway. And it shouldn't be based on fresh fruits or vegetables. Something simple, whipped up from a can or a jar. Spaghetti with sauce. A simple salad from a bag. French bread. We eat well. We eat in solidarity.

Photo: Free-Extras


Monday, July 18, 2011

Outside In

The heat is building. It will be 95 today. But the last three days have been a reprieve: cool nights and thinly warm days. No blanket of humidity. Just clean heat and when the sun goes down a hint of chill.

Which means we turned off the air-conditioning, opened the windows and kept the door to the deck ajar these last few days.

Summer is at its peak when this boundary is broken. Copper wanders at will from couch to yard, no scratching to be let in. We have the same freedom. Indoors or out, what does it matter? It is all one. What liberation. This is what summer was made for: to bring the outside in.


Sunday, July 17, 2011

Getting a Letter

Some Harry Potter fans I know were chatting the other day. "Yeah, she'd get a letter," they said of one member of our family. "No, he wouldn't," they said of another.

They were talking about letters of admission to Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. The occasion: the release of the final Hogwarts film.

This got me thinking about whimsy, one of the requirements for admission to Hogwarts, according to my sources.

When I was walking the shore in Chincoteague last week I spied a few highly whimsical pieces of beach art that made me smile. Whimsy. Got to keep it alive.

Friday, July 15, 2011


Before the blog is written, before the essay, too, the floor must be swept, dishes stowed, smudges wiped. The grime that's hidden, that can stay, but surface dirt is doomed.

Still, surface dirt takes time.

So words are choked, ideas evaporate — sometimes. Other times they come back, richer than before. On days I work at home I laugh at myself. To clear my mind I run around with vacuum and rag. It is the price I pay to write without guilt.


Thursday, July 14, 2011

Hot Town

Repaving time in Folkstone: Large trucks fill our quiet streets. The old surface is scraped off, ground down. Our road is corrugated and bumpy, uneven and unsettling. It is 95 degrees but feels 10 degrees hotter in the paving zone.

On evening walks I see the big machines hushed to stillness, parked at corners, hunks of metal, nothing else. I keep to the crushed gravel path. I don't yet trust the smooth surface that covers only half the road. Is it too new to walk on? Does it need seasoning? And more importantly: Does it give us a fresh start?

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Bird Listener

I'm not sure, but I think I have what it takes to become a birdwatcher. A few years ago I would not have admitted this. But lately I've been drawn to birds, and I spent a lot of time watching them last week.

Chincoteague is a birders' paradise, especially in spring and fall when migrating shore birds and song birds — warblers, vireos and indigo buntings — stop in for a day or two on the way to their final bough or branch.

Last night as I was coming home from work I heard the most beautiful bird song. It was a mockingbird, I think, perched on the upper level of the Metro parking garage, and the little creature was unspooling such a ribbon of song that I thought more commuters would lift their eyes to find the source.

Making it through another day often requires that we keep our heads down, and bird listening (if not watching) is a good antidote to that habit. If I don't become a bird watcher, at least I will become a bird listener. Guess I already am.


Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Getting Out

I hadn't ridden Metro in 10 days and my first day back brought a delay. "This train is being off-loaded. Everyone out," the conductor shouted. So we grabbed our bags and backpacks and joined the crush of other commuters on the platform.

It was dark and steamy. Passengers were not happy. It's one thing to end your day with an off-load; starting it that way, when you're morning crisp, is especially trying.

Then it dawned on me. Yes, it was already 80 at 7 a.m., but I was close enough to walk to the office. So I maneuvered my way down the platform and up the escalator to the outside world. The sidewalks were wide and the morning was bright. There was a faint breeze. I was out of the tunnel and could see far ahead.

Vacations, even short ones, show me the edges of things, reveal ways around obstacles. They help me see that I am not trapped.



Monday, July 11, 2011

Return, Remember

A new ritual of return: Cleaning out the email inbox. I tried to be diligent this time. I curbed that index finger. It wanted to hit delete far too often. Instead, I took my time and gave every email the time it deserved. From a week's worth of general announcements, spam and cc's, I ended up with a handful of genuine must-attend-to's. Now, the real work begins...

When I feel overwhelmed, I'll remember scenes like this.


Sunday, July 10, 2011

ISO Cake

My sister, Ellen, joined me in Chincoteague at the end of the week and we spent a lazy day together talking, walking the beach, riding our bikes and sitting in the hot tub. After dinner Friday night we started talking about Smith Island cakes. Ellen had tasted a couple and as she described the many light layers, the delectable frosting, the overall wonder of the thing, we decided we had to taste one.

So we went by a place that advertised the cakes. They were out. The town bakery was closed. As we looked through menus in our motel lobby, the ladies at the desk overheard our conversation. We would be driving home the next day through Salisbury. Did they know of anyplace?

Salisbury, asked one, with a faint smile and a faintly arched brow. Yes, she did. Which is how Ellen and I found ourselves in a little strip shopping center off Milford Drive in downtown Salisbury, Maryland, buying ourselves each a slice of a fresh strawberry Smith Island cake.

Yes, the layers were lighter the air. And there were seven of 'em. The strawberries were ripe and full-bodied. The frosting was divine. No wonder the cake is Maryland's official state dessert. It was a sweet way to end a vacation.

Photo from


Friday, July 8, 2011

Making Friends

On a solo walk the other day, I found myself at the far end of the beach with a thunderstorm crackling and snapping around me. What had been a leisurely stroll became a full-tilt run back to the inhabited end of the strand.

So yesterday I perched closer to civilization, found myself falling into conversation with a woman as we walked the same way.

A long time ago, I co-authored a book called Single File. It was about the upside of singleness and how women need to maintain their independence even when they are married. The last few days have been a good lesson in this for me.

Meanwhile, I found myself with a new friend. I know what he was after (part of my lunch), but I savored his companionship just the same.


Thursday, July 7, 2011

Letting Go

One of many reasons I like the beach: It is made for restless people. Waves crash, gulls dive, tides move. Even the barrier island itself is shifting, sand grain by sand grain, imperceptible to us but movement just the same.

For those of us whose thoughts race and careen — who start with a prayer and end with a shopping list — the beach is both balm and inspiration.

I read in the paper the other day about the Dalai Lama's visit to D.C., and how in honor of the Kalachakra Festival monks would be sculpting intricate designs from both sand and butter. All is transient: beauty, worship, the work of our hands.

The beach blares the same message: If things seem bad, wait a minute. They will get better. Effort is good, effort is expected. But we must also learn to let go. The beach is an excellent teacher.


Wednesday, July 6, 2011


Yesterday I did whatever I felt like, went wherever my whims took me. I rode hours on my bike, bounced along gravel roads past midday-still inlets, walked to the other end of the beach and back. I watched the waves, splashed through sea foam and breathed the salt air.

At the end of the day yesterday I rode the woodland trail home. Late-day sun slanted through the trees. I spotted cottontail bunnies and a bird bluer even than our sweet Hermes. A flash of color in a green world. I breathed a long exhale and pedaled home.


Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Independence Day

Here on Chincoteague, the Firemen's Carnival ushers in a month of activity leading up to the annual wild pony swim and auction at the end of the month. We went last night to see the fireworks, a brief but brilliant display that seemed to have ended but then — when everyone had their heads down walking away — surprised us with another burst of color and light.

As I sit on the motel balcony this morning, the parking lot is a scene of mass exodus. Beach chairs and umbrellas go into the trunks of cars, bicycles are lashed to the backs. I'm packed and ready to leave for my new place, one that's closer to the beach. The rest of the family just left for home; I'll stay for a few days on my own.

I check the girls' room to be sure they haven't left anything. All I see is a cicada exoskeleton they found and set on top of the TV. I brought it outside with me. It's cute, in a fierce little way. I'm staring at it now, willing myself not to be sad. It's strange to be staying behind. Strange but good. It may be July 5, but today is my Independence Day.

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Monday, July 4, 2011


Chincoteague is what you call a one-horse town. The one horse is Misty, from the book Misty of Chincoteague by Marguerite Henry. The story of a family determined to raise a filly born to a wild horse, the book won the Newbery prize and was made into a movie. I remember seeing the movie as a child, and I read the book to our girls when they were young.

The book put Chincoteague on the map. It popularized the herds of wild ponies that roam the island. It lent its name to dozens of shops, restaurants and tours. The Chincoteague High School team is — you guessed it — the Ponies. Hardly a fearsome name but, as Claire pointed out when we passed the high school yesterday, an artist has tried to make the ponies look fearsome. There is steam coming from their nostrils and they have a tough, no-nonsense gaze.

Tom and Celia chanced upon Misty herself the other day; she is stuffed and on display at a local museum. Ghoulish and over the top, to be sure. (Even in Kentucky, where horses are king, we bury our famous ones.)

But the hype is gentle as hype goes. It makes me feel tender about this place and, above all, glad to know that a book still has the power to change a place.


Saturday, July 2, 2011


It is the elemental other, where land and ocean meet, and since arriving here yesterday I have pondered the wonder of it all. When you have been often to the shore and you arrive again, you think, ah, here it is, the smell of the sea and the roar of the surf and you forget about the fundamental difference of this landscape, its churning activity, the drama of two worlds coming together. It takes a long walk to absorb it all. I've had two of those now. Let the absorption begin.


Friday, July 1, 2011


Vacation: A respite, an intermission, a period spend away from home or business, an act of vacating.

We begin today, a crazy rag-tag of a beach trip, with people coming and going, as people are apt to do when they are older and have jobs.

I remain, at heart, an optimist. I pack the Scrabble game, a deck of cards, a big puzzle — and a bag of books.
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