Friday, September 30, 2011

Mall Walk

Walking down the mall in D.C. yesterday at lunch time (and asking myself why I don't do this at least once a week, it is so uplifting) I pass a woman who spots the steep, imposing steps of the National Gallery and starts to sing the "Rocky" theme song. Her husband quickly picks up the melody while their children stare in confusion. They don't know how lucky they are.

I follow a mother and her toddler. She lets the little guy run a few steps ahead of her then "races" to catch up to him. He cackles with laughter. Later, I fall into step with a group of kids and their staff, hurrying through an intersection. They count down with the "Walk" sign as they cross the street.

The sun is out, even though it (inexplicably) sprinkles for a few minutes. But not enough to open an umbrella (good because I didn't bring one) and never enough to impede the big show, the spectacle that awaits me at the end of the mall, something I had forgotten about but remembered as I closed in on the Washington Monument. It was the rappelling engineers, inspecting the monument for structural damage from the earthquake and looking at first, from afar, like large ants crawling on the side of the structure. They had tethered their ropes to the top and were bouncing off the sides.

It was the biggest show in town. All around me people whipped out cameras and binoculars. I had none of these, but I won't forget the sight of human beings dangling from that obelisk. They looked impossibly daring, impossibly free.


Thursday, September 29, 2011


Yesterday was busy. I had my class and plenty of work and an errand to run at lunchtime. It wasn't until this morning that I noticed yesterday's post, about how we're in no hurry for the cool, sharp weather of "all."

Ah, the typo. Bane of our existence. There are the funny ones, like the time our magazine, Bluegrass, misspelled the name of an advertiser, Mrs. Farthing. (I'll let you figure out which letter was missing.) That one was legendary. Even the local radio announcer gave us a hard time on that one.

The thing about typos now, though, is how easily they can be corrected. If I notice a misspelling or an inelegance in the blog, I just slip in and fix it. Online publishing, then, softens the rigidity of the written word. But removing the permanence also removes the power.


Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Early Showers

Consider the flowers of late summer. They are both delicate and strong. They bloom as if there is no end to summer. And their friends, the mushrooms, mimic their bravado. Look at us, they say. We're pretty too.

It is another cloudy, humid morning, only this time with a rumble of thunder and a patter of rain. We are damp and clammy here. We have our windows open and our minds, too. We are in no hurry for the cool sharp weather of fall. We are in a lull, a gracious interlude, and I for one am glad of it.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Right Turn

Yesterday I drove down a street I'd never driven before. I turned right instead of going straight, and I was in ... the country.

In many parts of Fairfax County there are vestiges of the old mixed in with the new. My first view to the left was a green field and a barn, a scene I pass every day but from another angle and therefore completely altered. It made me think about the scale of times past, houses closer together and right on the road, as if leaning in to tell secrets.

The lane narrowed as I drove until, at the end, I could scarcely turn the car around. With each leg of the passage, I felt myself being drawn further back into Oakton's past. It wasn't a bad trip.


Monday, September 26, 2011

Late Light

There is a special quality to the day that has been cloudy and ends with a last-minute parting of the clouds. The sun, of course, is low in the sky, and so those first rays are a bit disorienting.

Is it just selective memory, or does the sun set more grandly, more expansively on those days? It makes sense that it might. Banks of just-parted clouds pile in heaps on the horizon and add drama to the sun's steady slipping.

And on the ground, people who have been inside all day rush out to walk before darkness falls. The streets that were clammy and silent are suddenly peopled again. There is an unusual briskness at day's end. And a hopefulness for the morrow.


Sunday, September 25, 2011

Haying Time in Franklin Farm

On Friday's walk I spied two monster tractors motoring back and forth across what remained of a meadow quadrant, cutting down everything within reach. It was a brisk, efficient business, abolishing in minutes what it took months to build: the waving golden rod, the spindly stalks of Queen Anne's lace, the nettles, the Virginia creeper and the chicory.

It is haying time in Franklin Farm, which means not the cutting, drying and bundling of grass to nourish animals through the lean months, but rather a tidying up of the suburban landscape. Franklin Farm is a subdivision, after all, and this is not the mowing of a lawn but of the common land, a place set aside for recreation and beauty, a tip of the hat to the dairy farm that was here before, and as such, a place I like to walk because (despite the paved paths and center-hall colonials), it has some sense of the genuine about it.

I'm almost afraid to walk past the meadow today. Will the entire swath of grass-carpeted land have fallen to the blade? If it has, we will all be the poorer for it. We will miss the beauties of first frost on tangled briars, a seasonal transformation made possible only by negligence, by leaving alone the delightful chaos of nature.

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Friday, September 23, 2011

Still Dawn

This morning I notice the stillness. In the fog of a new day, I hear what has become mere background noise, the fluid chorus of chirping crickets, which passes for silence this time of year.

"By September, the day breaks with little help from birds," writes the conservationist Aldo Leopold in A Sand County Almanac.

Leopold's line makes me notice the truth: The day dawns quietly now, without the raucous morning chorus of cardinals and robins and jays. "The disappointment I feel on these mornings of silence perhaps shows that things hoped for have a higher value than things assured," Leopold writes, explaining how he feels on days he does not hear a covey of quail.

I am not disappointed by the lack of bird call, but I am made pensive by it. There is something in the dawn chorus that does my heart good. Birds are onto something; they sense hazards before we do. When they quiet down, I listen up.

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Thursday, September 22, 2011

The Third Shift

When I was a full-time freelance writer I wrote often for Working Mother magazine and became familiar with the theory that multiple roles are healthy for working women. The theory goes something like this: When work goes well, it inoculates us against the stress of home and family life. And when home is crazy, the office provides another avenue for achievement and satisfaction. Of course, sometimes both work and home are demanding, but that’s another story.

Last night I missed class to go to Celia's back-to-school night. I’m glad I made the choice I did, but I missed the camaraderie of the class, missed the two hours I would have spent thinking and talking about ideas.

So after I came in, I spent a few minutes thinking about choices and the multiple roles equation (or my vastly simplified memory of it). The equation is missing a number, I think. There's a part of me (a part of every person, I imagine) that is not about work and not about family. It is the "third shift," that which we do for ourselves alone. And often that's what gives, what falls behind.

For me it's the thinking self — the reading and writing and pondering self — that has, as the children have grown older, become ever more important. This is the self that has been parched for years. Now that I'm starting to quench it, I don't want to stop.


Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Proust and Fog

There are some spectacular stretches of scenery on Interstate 64 between Beckley, West Virginia, and Lexington, Virginia, but the rain and fog made it difficult to capture them this time.

Looking at the snapshots this morning, I think of the Proust we're reading for class, selections from Swann's Way. I think about how Proust would be able to parse the fog for us, take us into the cloud banks and out again with memories as sleek and silvery and slippery as a fish.

What may seem obscure, remote and impenetrable is, upon reflection, packed with meaning. The difficulty lies not in the absence of material but in the abundance of it.

Proust's meaning is never superimposed, though. It is organic; it grows out of repetition and early familiarity. It accumulates, layer upon layer, as a result of daily living — fully conscious daily living.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Terra Incognita

An element of modern life that we tend to discount is the amount of travel we undertake. I often think of this after one of my quick trips to Kentucky, a quick trip that takes eight hours each way.

But even the distance conquered by each suburban commuter, moving daily from one realm to another, can be 50 miles or more round trip.

Once, when Mom and I were traveling together in Ireland, we asked a shop woman for directions to a manor house that we knew was less than 10 miles away. She pointed us down a stretch of highway. "It's lovely that way, I've heard," she said.

It took us a minute to realize that the woman had never been there. What was for us a short jaunt, just one tiny leg of a many-legged adventure, was for her terra incognita.

And so it goes with traveling. We learn not just from the distances we traverse but from the people we meet along the way. People who show us another way to live, the way of staying put.
Staying put is our terra incognita.


Monday, September 19, 2011

Field Stone

Last night I went for an after-dinner stroll. People were entertaining at a house nearby. White twinkle lights glittered in the trees and a red carpet covered the walkway. There was a football game going on and Kentucky had not yet lost.

Earlier in the day Ellen and I had walked around the neighborhood admiring the knock-out roses and the loamy soil that produces them. This is our hometown but not our home neighborhood, so there is much to learn.

But there are also the familiar sights, the field stone, for instance. Many old walls around here are made of it, and I grew up hearing these stone fences were built by slaves. I later learned it's more likely they were built by Irish immigrants who had come here with the railroad and stayed for the horses.

This lamppost gives a hint of the artistry required to build a stone wall. I like the rough weathered look of the thing, how it seems both solid and light at the same time. It is free of manufactured precision; it is forgiving and free.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Family Stories

Betty Leet Bell is my Dad's first cousin, which makes her my second cousin, or my first cousin once removed. One thing she is without question is a genealogist. She has spent years researching the births, deaths, marriages and deeds of those who can no longer tell their own stories.

Yesterday we went to visit Betty and she told us about a cousin who danced in the dream sequence of the movie "Carousel," a great-grandmother (above) who died of the measles after giving birth to her tenth child, and another relative whose pet was a talking crow.

One of Betty's stories concerned two store-front lots in Lexington. When she was researching the ancestors on her mother's side, she learned that in the 1790s her great-great grandfather bought these two parcels of land for a hatter's shop.

A couple years later, when Betty was researching her father's side of the family, she learned that these were the exact same lots that her dad purchased in the 1930s when he was looking for a place to build his furniture store. One hundred and forty years (and several intervening owners) separated these purchases. It was one of those historical coincidences that Betty says is not that uncommon when she's digging into the past.

Maybe it was just the commercial potential of these lots that spoke — generations apart — to these two very different men. Or maybe there was something about that spot, the way it looked in the morning light, or smelled after a good, hard rain; maybe there was something about that place that spoke to each of them.

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Friday, September 16, 2011

A House, A Photograph, A Story

Today I'm in Lexington, about to go for a walk in a neighborhood that is not my own but which has meaning for me because my parents live here. In class the other night we talked about whether you can know a place without knowing its history. The consensus, if there was one, was that a place is shaped by its history, but you don't necessarily have to know that history in order to be shaped by that place.

This house was where my Great Aunt Sally died more than 80 years ago. We drove by the house the last time I was in Lexington and Dad told the story of going with his father to his Aunt Sally's wake in this house when he was a little boy. Dad also spoke about a racetrack across the street from the house, a track that preceded Keeneland, Lexington's current track. I couldn't resist taking a few photos of the house. It is quite different from all the other houses on the block. It looks like a castle.

A few weeks after my last visit to Kentucky there was an article in the Lexington Herald-Leader about this very house. It was home to Courtney Mathews, an African-American horse trainer who probably trained 1902 Kentucky Derby winner Alan-a-Dale. Mathew's funeral was held 13 years later in the same house where my Aunt Sally's took place. It's a house that may soon be named to the National Register of Historic Places. The same house I photographed on a muggy June day 71 years later.

I guess this shows which side I take in a discussion on history and place.

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Thursday, September 15, 2011

Route 66

Our road west begins with Route 66. Not the "Route 66" of "Kingman, Barstow, San Bernadino," lines from the song Nat King Cole made popular, the song we sang as kids when we were heading to California the first time. And not the "Route 66" of the iconic 1960s television show, with its haunting theme song. And not the real Route 66, the road that wound through red rock canyons and high pine forests, a road mostly bypassed now but not forgotten.

Our Route 66 runs from D.C. to Front Royal. It passes through Vienna and Oakton and Fair Oaks and Gainesville and Manassas. From it you can reach Great Meadow or Skyline Drive. And rather than seeing the Rockies at its western horizon you can spot the subtle line of the Blue Ridge. Route 66 is our road west. It is a short interstate, and often clogged with traffic. But from its crowded lanes the road west begins. We will take this direction any way we can.


Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Ghost Flowers

I can't walk far these days without seeing one of late summer's most luscious treats. It is Clematis paniculata, sweet autumn clematis.

Paniculata — what a wonderful word! I say it silently to myself when I'm walking and I swear it speeds me up. It has multisyllabic bounciness. It reminds me, in fact, of another multisyllabic word, Lolita, and of the opening lines of Nabokov's novel by that name: "
Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta."

Only with "paniculata" that would be five steps down the palate — Pa. Nic. U. La. Ta."

Paniculata is a spray of white in a world of tired green. It is a bridal veil, a fountain, a bounty; climbing over fence rows and crowning mailboxes. We had one for many years and then it mysteriously disappeared. A victim of disease or an errant mower? We'll never know.

Every year I vow to plant another. But every year I forget. Clematis paniculata. Ghost flowers.

Photo: White Flower Farm


Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Back to Barriers

I write today, as I often do, with Copper curled beside me. Like many dogs, he likes to lie with his back against a barrier. The barrier might be a couch cushion, a bookcase, a cool metal filing cabinet or, in this case, my lap.

There is probably an entire literature on canine sleeping habits, the desire for warmth and closeness bred in pack animals. But from where I sit, it's simple: I have his back. There is something solid behind him. He will not drop off into the void.

In this context, then, having one's back against the wall does not mean a lack of choices, a last stand. It means backing, support and protection.

I think about my family, house and neighborhood — the bulwarks I've built, the people and places that stand behind me; the people and places I stand behind, too. They are my guard rails, my talisman, my way to fill the void.

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Monday, September 12, 2011

500, and Once Again, Topography

I've written 500 posts since I began A Walker in the Suburbs in February 2010. And many of them have been about the land.

I'm thinking again about last week's flood, because I've had a chance to walk the streets that were rivers on Thursday. Though the waters have receded, they have left behind a moraine of gravel, sticks, acorns, matted grass. This effluvia lines our streets, roads and sidewalks. In the woods, a pedestrian bridge heaved up by the fast-moving water fell back down again in a slightly different place. Subtle signs — but signs just the same.

More than other natural occurrences, a flood makes you aware of topography: whether you live on a ridge or in a hollow; whether you live on high ground or low.

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Sunday, September 11, 2011

In Memoriam

I didn't lose anyone I loved that day — though Tom walked home past a smoldering Pentagon and my brother Phillip glimpsed the first plane flying preternaturally low, saw it moments before it struck the tower.

But I did lose a place that day. We all did. We lost the country that existed up until 8:45 a.m. September 11, 2011. Into its place came another country, less innocent, more anxious, initially united but now fragmented.

To the extent that I can recall any one emotion from that horrible day, that day of clear air and silent skies, it was a sadness and tenderness for my country. It was a feeling I had experienced before only attached to people — a pathos for our achievements, our goodness and even for our mistakes.

On September 12 I went to church. Suzanne, 12 at the time, came with me. The minute we took our seats I was sorry that I had brought her. Everyone was sobbing. None of the lectors could make it through a reading. I vaguely remember hearing the passage about beating swords into ploughshares, but other than that all I recall were the tears.

Suzanne, now 22, said just the other day she was glad she was there. It made her realize the depth of what happened to us. And as I watch the commemorations of this day on television, I see young men and women Suzanne's age who lost fathers and mothers and brothers. They were children then; they are adults now. They grew up in a different world.


Friday, September 9, 2011


Yesterday was an odd day to write about rills. I suppose this week's steady rainfall was the background music to my choice, the steady patter of drops on grass, a calming, soothing noise.

Until you witness what all those steady drops can bring.

Our part of the world was a swollen, soggy mess yesterday — and dangerous, too. I had to turn around when rushing creek water turned parts of my usual route into a river. An hour or so later, on his way home, Tom saw a fire engine towing a boat. And in fact, a commuter parking lot near us was closed, the cars submerged, after six inches of rain fell in a few hours. Children were stranded at their schools. Things were so bad that people made jokes about seeing animals lined up two by two.

And still today it rains. In the last three weeks we've had an earthquake, a hurricane and now torrential rain and flooding. A line from Emily Dickinson comes to mind:

"Nature, like us, is sometimes caught without her diadem."


Thursday, September 8, 2011

Willow Rill

The word "rill" has been on my mind. I thought of it one day when I was walking, savored the quaintness of it, the smallness of it; how it sounds like what it is: a small brook or stream, water running quickly across a bed of rocks, mud or beaten grass. The word is linguistically kin to "rivulet" and is also close to "run," another word for creek in southern places.

We drove past Willow Run in Emmitsburg, Maryland, over the weekend, and I was delighted to see the word in print. Not knowing why I thought about "rill" in the first place, here was a rill in real life. (Sorry, I couldn't resist.)

But all I could glimpse of Willow Rill was the bridge that led across it. So now I see the creek in my mind's eye, a stream of clear water flowing beneath a curtain of green, not as raucous as a brook, slower and more meandering, slight-banked. There is a lilt to its passage through the landscape (the word "rill" is mighty close to "trill"). It sings as it courses down the mountain.

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Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Chauffeur No More

One more post on driving and rites of passage. What ended the other day when Celia got her license was — symbolically at least — my almost 23-year-old job as chauffeur. There is a time in a family's life when it seems like driving is all you do. Our county is large and congested, and our children have been involved in band, orchestra, cross-country, track, cello lessons, clarinet lessons, voice lessons, ballet, tap and hip-hop, video camp, modeling camp, Girl Scouts, swimming, horseback riding, basketball, volleyball, soccer, rugby, religious education, diocesan work camp, tutoring, academic enrichment programs, volunteering at food banks, jobs in places far away from home and much, much more that I have (blissfully) forgotten.

For a time we did all this driving in our small Saab sedan (which I eulogized in a post in August 2010). It was almost like one of those circus cars where an impossibly large number of clowns clamber out. Somehow we could fit three children, a cello and a string bass in this one vehicle.

Then we switched (reluctantly) to the van, and our official carpooling life began. Because I haven't even discussed all the other children we've driven, all the funny conversations I've overheard, the times my heart has been lightened (and yes, the times it has sunk) because of something revealed to me in the car.

The automobile has been an extension of our family kitchen, a part of the house we take with us wherever we go. The girls and I have had serious talks on these drives, have gotten to know each other better during them, and have had a lot of laughs together during them, too.

So even though I won't miss the rush hour traffic, the last minute dashes to school (and I'll probably still make some of those), I will miss all the chaos and the fun and the complete indispensability of my role as chauffeur. It is one time you know — beyond all doubts and second-guesses — that you are needed.


Tuesday, September 6, 2011

The Bus Stop

You can hear them before you see them. The low rumble, the distinctive brakes. A fleet of yellow school buses, coming soon (in less than an hour, in fact) to a corner near us.

This is the first year in 17 that we've not had a child climbing on a big yellow school bus. Celia will drive to high school today.

For many years the bus stop was a carnival on the first day of school. Parents with cameras, kids with new shoes and backpacks bigger than they were. We would take a couple of hours off work, chat with our neighbors, snap pictures, then walk slowly back to a newly empty house.

I worked solely at home in those days and would relish the quiet house after a summer full of kids. Now I ride downtown to an office three days a week, and my primary emotion at the end of summer isn't relief but melancholy. Summers pass too quickly — as do winters, springs and falls.


Monday, September 5, 2011

There She Goes

Our youngest daughter got her driver's license a couple of days ago. It was the goal of her summer and she reached it right before school starts tomorrow. I snapped some pictures of her first solo drive, as I did (I think) of her sisters when they took the wheel by themselves.

Though it's not easy to instruct, to ride shotgun, clamping down on that imaginary brake, grabbing the seat cushions on the sly, so your child doesn't know how terrified you actually are — how much harder it is to let her drive off on her own, into noise and weather and traffic and tricky left turns that she, and only she, will have to navigate.

It is a measure of trust, one of many we give our children as they grow. We believe in them, of course we do. But that doesn't make it any easier.

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Saturday, September 3, 2011

Back to School

The class begins Wednesday. I will write about it often, I'm sure. But it's worth recounting how I came to take it. As readers of this blog are aware, I write often about place and how it shapes and soothes us. In fact, it was in large part to write about place that I started A Walker in the Suburbs.

A few weeks ago I was reading about an author I've come to admire. His name is Forrest Church, and sadly he is no longer with us. I have a blog post in mind about him and his books, too, but more about that later. What happened that morning is that I was reading reviews of his book Love and Death (yes, I go for the cheery titles!) and a line jumped out at me: "This book is about living, or as Rev. Church says, 'To live in such a way that our lives will prove worth dying for.'"

This comment stopped me in my tracks. It made me think. More than that (because I am always thinking) it spurred me to action, to boldness. Am I living my life so it will prove "worth dying for?"

In many ways, yes. But in one important way, no. My writing life, which matters greatly to me, has been flat-lining for years. This blog has helped a bit, but not enough. I am anxious to write more deeply and extensively on this subject of place.

And so, I looked into taking a class. And dear reader, you will have to believe me here, the very first class I saw was A Sense of Place: Values and Identity. I think it was meant to be.

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Friday, September 2, 2011


Yesterday after work I had one of those stray patches of time that appear in a day. Luckily, I had my walking shoes on, so I took to the hills. Sort of.

The hills I took to are part of a gas pipeline easement that runs through our part of the county. Because this land must be kept clear it offers an untrammeled view through the heart of suburbia. With a little imagination it could be a lower slope in the Scottish highlands. It has that sort of lilt and roll to it. For about a quarter mile I pretended, then I ran into a fence.

I finished my walk on a street that seemed wet behind the ears when we first moved here but seems now to have settled into itself. Houses have moss on their roofs and stories to tell. Trees lean into each other, as if to share secrets.

The sun was low in the sky, the air was soft and light. I wasn't in Scotland, but I was transported.


Thursday, September 1, 2011

Lunch in the Morning

It's the first day of September. I had almost forgotten that until I was boarding my second Metro of the morning and something in the set of the shoulders of a departing rider, or some linked thought that came to land on the shoulders of the departing rider, reminded me it's a new month.

And then again, walking the short blocks here, office windows glinting with reflected light, I caught a whiff of what surely is an autumnal smell. Not the acrid aroma of crushed leaves, but the slightly nauseating odor of tomato sauce wafting from a restaurant on the corner.

It reminded me of heading back to school, of a cafeteria lunch already simmering as we filed through the doors, stowed our jackets and sat down at our desks. It is the smell of early anxiety, of lunch boxes and chalk dust and book covers made of brown grocery bags. It is the smell of wondering who you will sit with at lunch.

For a moment I was little again, and scared. Then I walked a block east and the smell was gone. But the slight churn in the stomach, that was still there.
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