Monday, October 31, 2011

Morning Commute

Until the Viking warrior sat down across from me on Metro, I was planning to write about how there are now 7 billion people alive in this world. I had my head down in the Express, my mind riffing on population growth, limited resources, oil shale and other frightful topics when I looked up and saw someone who looked like this.

The Viking made a self-conscious entrance into the Orange Line train. The horns of his helmet tangled with the Metro railing and his seat mate looked a bit askance. The Viking's friendly nod and greeting did nothing to brighten the day of his dour fellow commuter. But some of us were chuckling behind our newspapers.

I took the time out from my scary computations ( the world population has doubled in my lifetime and is projected to be 9 billion by 2050) to revel in the fun of the season.

A Viking on Metro. Happy Halloween!


Saturday, October 29, 2011


The name isn't mine but I can't think of a better one for a snowy October day, one of the few we've ever had in northern Virginia this early in the, well, we can't really call it winter, can we? This early in the season — that's better.

In honor of our snowy day, here's a photo from the vault. With fond hopes that this is not the beginning of a hard winter to come.


Friday, October 28, 2011


Warm weather has kept our leaves from turning, but it hasn't kept them from falling. On my walk this morning I skittered across frost-slicked bridges dotted with clumps of wet leaves. The woods are shimmering in some places, but denuded in others.

The overall impression is of a gradual thinning and winnowing — as if the year, winding steadily to a close — is ferreting out the truly important from the superfluous. Trees can do without this foliage, so let it go.

Our summer annuals, they too are winding down. The begonias and impatiens are stalky and pinched. They may be gone entirely tomorrow if temperatures plunge as low as predicted.

What will be left? The essentials: trunk and limb and stone and house. Only the strong survive.

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Thursday, October 27, 2011

Possession and Gratitude

Last night in class we talked about what it means to possess the land, about feelings of stewardship that have grown out of the environmental movement and other more modern sensibilities, but also about an earlier mindset that was abroad in our nation, pushing westward, felling trees, ruining the soil, taking and taking and not giving back.

This morning, I read about how pride assumes possession — and its opposite, humility, assumes gratitude. It is a shift of mindset, then. Something to mull over on my suburban walks, how thankfulness changes things, sets us free to receive what comes and be glad. We cannot possess what we never have in the first place.


Wednesday, October 26, 2011

The Purpose of Walking

Yesterday's walks were mad dashes to and fro. That I was striding through liquid gold, that the air around me was as soft and inviting as any all autumn — I was vaguely aware of that. But I was so preoccupied in reaching my goal — a lunchtime errand, an after-work errand — that I didn't slow down as I should.

Makes me think about how people used to walk. It was not for their health, it was not for their emotional enrichment. It was, simply, to get somewhere. And then to get back. There was a monotony and a sameness to it that must have worked against wisdom.

But still, walking has always had a purpose in our country. It has often meant freedom. "Being footloose has always exhilarated us," said Wallace Stegner. "It is associated in our minds with escape from history and oppression ... "

And later in this essay, Stegner quotes Gertrude Stein, who defines America in this way: "Conceive a space that is filled with moving."

Movement through space is our heritage and our birthright. On my walk yesterday I was not alone in my oblivious striding. All around me, people were doing the same thing.


Tuesday, October 25, 2011

The Place Called Morning

When I can't sleep, sometimes Emily Dickinson comes to mind:

"Will there really be a morning? Is there such a thing as day?

And then, at the end, "Please to tell a little pilgrim/Where the place called morning lies."

A place called morning: I imagine it gray and windswept, the land still scoured by night, a new day awakening from slumber, pulling itself together, splashing water on its face.

Or, I see it riding in on clouds of light, the most important guest at the ball. A bit overdressed, perhaps.

Or, I hear it first. Not this time of year, but in spring, when the early robin, that upstart, belts out his pre-dawn tune.

This time of year, mornings are black and still, a kingdom of stars and frost in the lamplight.


Monday, October 24, 2011


Behind my back, the girls say, "Someone should tell Mom she doesn't have to do all the reading." But no one does. And it wouldn't work anyway. I do all the reading gladly. And I take my time writing papers. I have fallen back into the old routine.

The last two times I was a student, I earned professional masters degrees. For 10 years, the classes I've been in have been ones I'm teaching.

So the class I'm taking now is just for fun. For intellectual re-engagement with the world. There is no need for excuses. The process is the point.

I had forgotten the ease of letting someone else do the work. Of sitting and listening, and not leading, the discussion. Of being all lit up by the ideas bouncing around my head. It's good for a walker to have something to chew on while she treads the suburban paths. And I have more than my share these days.

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Sunday, October 23, 2011

The Heart of It All

This is a weekend of anniversaries for us. Tom and I have always celebrated the anniversary of our first date, October 22, as well as our wedding anniversary, and yesterday was a big one for us.

Today is Suzanne's birthday. She came within two hours of being born on "our day." And while back then I was rooting for this to happen, now I'm glad she waited. It's good that October 22 is just for us.

It's easy to forget — yet wonderful to remember — that our romance, friendship and love are the heart of it all.


Friday, October 21, 2011

Artist's Date, Redux

My walk day before yesterday was what Julia Cameron would call an "artist's date," a break in the routine, something that you do for yourself once a week to shake yourself out of lethargy.

I do it once a month if I'm lucky. And I've written about it in this blog before. But it was a year ago, so it bears repeating.

It is humbling to notice how much we become creatures of our own habits. My interest in the history of our area, the rolling hills and crossroads of what is now called Oakton, stems in part from a random decision I made about 14 months ago to drive home from work a new way, along some of the roads I now want to comb and investigate.

From such small acts come benefits beyond measure.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Cady's Alley

Yesterday I took a new route to my class in old White-Gravenor Hall on Georgetown's main campus. I meandered my way from Foggy Bottom up the Potomac. On my left was the river, full and flowing, the trees just starting to change color on the opposite bank. On my right were restaurants, a plaza, fountains. Directly ahead of me were the grand stone arches of the Key Bridge. Sculls skimmed the river like large insects, gliding down it impossibly fast.

As I walked upstream the gray day turned to mist, then rain. I ignored it for a while, then gave up and opened my umbrella. Crossing under the elevated highway a few blocks down, I meandered eastward to the C&O Canal then up and over a bridge to Cady's Alley.

Here was a cobblestone street lined with small shops. It was narrow and intimate with an attractive, manageable, pedestrian scale (ah, the scale of roads and buildings, that's a topic I could never tire of). It reminded me of old towns in Europe.

To celebrate I stopped in a cafe, ordered tea and cookies. I found this place by accident. Who knows what lies around the next bend?

It's not exactly the Innere Stadt of Vienna, pictured above, but Cady's Alley is still quaint.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Rain Inside and Out

As I listen to the rain outside this morning I think about those white-noise machines of rain sounds, how soothing they are. Perhaps nothing is as relaxing as the sound of rain — unless it is rain you soon have to go out and brave.

It is the vicarious rain, then, the rain we listen to and watch, that makes us feel calm. It is the contrast between what we hear happening outside and what we know to be true inside — the comfortable, dry room; the tea just brewed, a good book at the ready. No need for boots, an umbrella or raincoat.

I'm almost convincing myself. Before it's too late, I must finish this post, gulp down my tea, put down the book. It's morning. It's raining. It's time to leave.

Not quite enough rain to need a canoe. But these days you never know.


Tuesday, October 18, 2011


Autumn moves slowly, which is fine with me. In the woods, the poison ivy flames red against the tree trunks. In our yard, leaves flail and fall and lodge themselves against the fence posts. For some reason, long-dormant potted pepper seeds finally sprout and flower. I may bring the plant in, see if it will bear fruit in January.

As the light fades, we seek body heat, the closeness of each other. (As I write, Copper curls up beside me.) I think, as I walk, about those who once lived more openly on the land, how busy they would be this season, chopping wood, canning fruit, patching cracks.

Here in our suburban haven, I muse about the coming of the cold. So far, so good. Our windows are still open; they don't yet rattle in the wind. We are suspended in a mellow transition.


Monday, October 17, 2011

A Palpable Past

In thinking about place, and what binds people to it, I ponder the beauty of the landscape, the scale of roads and buildings, and the people, of course, always the people.

And then there is history. Not one's own family history, but a learned body of knowledge, something you can pick up from books and conversations, from paying close attention to the woods you walk through.

On Saturday I met two men who have mapped the forgotten roads of our area. They started with two places, an old house in Vienna and the site of a mill a few miles away, and they charted the road that ran between the two. This is only one of their projects. They have also helped to move an old school, protect an old road and add historical markers to our neighborhood.

For them, the past is palpable. And because of them, it is more real for all of us.


Saturday, October 15, 2011

Walk. Eat. Paint.

When I was a little kid I wanted to be an archaeologist. I read books on the discovery of Troy and other landmark finds. It was the first and last time I showed much aptitude in science.

Yesterday, I fell in love with archaeology all over again. An article published yesterday in Science (and reported also in the Washington Post) described a "tool kit" found deep in a South African cave. The kit contained everything our ancient ancestors needed to paint a face or a wall and shows evidence of planned behavior and an artistic drive that emerged much earlier than previously thought. Humans used the cave 130,000 years ago!

The Washington Post headline for the story was what caught my eye. "Dawn of humanity: Walk upright. Paint."

I like this story because it reinforces something I hope is true: That we are, and have been from the beginning, not just eating, sleeping, thinking creatures. We are also creative creatures. The artistic impulse is part of our DNA.


Friday, October 14, 2011

Rhythm of Life

Sometimes when I'm feeling worn out, idea-less (is that a word?), in need of a long vacation on a broad beach, a song pops into my head. Often the song will be perfectly apt to the situation at hand. With the canny precision of a dream, the lyrics or melody will match the mood I'm feeling — even before I'm feeling it.

This morning I've been thinking how life requires us to keep going. Our steps don't have to be elegant or persuasive. We just have to put one foot in front of the other. Over and over again.

And the song that popped into my head was this one, "The Rhythm of Life." When I was a teacher and accompanied the school chorus, we performed this piece. It was in my head for years and the magic of the Internet and YouTube brought it alive again.

Originally from "Sweet Charity" (I think), it's beloved of grade school choruses and is best sung by amateurs. We are the ones who capture the reaching, reaching, reaching for the high notes in the middle and rushing through the flustered accelerando near the end. It is a song about living, about keeping going. I'm going to be listening to it today.


Thursday, October 13, 2011

Truth Telling

Last night in class we talked about truth in writing, how literal detail might give way to deeper observations. I made the point (and this is amazing in itself because I'm usually quiet in class discussions) that it wouldn't matter whether E.B. White talked about three ruts or two in the path to his house in "Once More to the Lake," what mattered were the larger points he was making about generations, the passage of time and mortality.

It would matter if White had no son, though, the professor said. And I agree. White's essay is nonfiction. We expect most of it to be true. If there were no son, then we would doubt White's veracity in other matters, too, and all of his observations — including his amazing, punch-in-the-gut last line — would be suspect.

Truth, then, can be a slippery thing. Until it's not.


Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Smooth Stone

I become attuned to the Proustian moments of life. Not only the ones I read about — how the sound of a shovel hitting rock changed a man's life; how the steam from a hissing iron takes a friend back into her mother's kitchen — but also the ones I experience firsthand.

I had one this morning. It wasn't so much a link to the past as it was an instant when time stopped and the eternal rushed in. I was driving Celia and her friend to school. We were running late (as usual) and the traffic was bumper to bumper (as usual) and the obnoxious people who take a shortcut and expect to be let in (also as usual — grumble, grumble) were making it anything but a pleasant drive.

But all of a sudden it didn't matter. The car was purring slowly toward school. I was the only one awake. The 15-minute drive had lulled both teenagers to sleep. Their heads were nodding. In 20 minutes they would be taking the PSAT. In 20 minutes I would be crammed onto the Orange Line. But right then, we were as one. A moment of enforced togetherness not unlike the entire experience of raising teenagers, trying to treasure the moments, even when the moments are tense, silent and filled with strife.

I know this experience won't banish the discord. But it can become a talisman, a smooth stone to keep in my pocket and hold when the hard times come.


Tuesday, October 11, 2011

A Patch with a View

Yesterday Suzanne and I drove to a pumpkin patch in Delaplane, Virginia. We drove past wineries and groomed estates with high stone walls, then turned left and climbed up a gravel road to a steep-pitched farm. There were pumpkins, gourds, apples, greens and flowers for sale. A moon bounce and corn maze for the kids.

The whole outfit was thrown together; there were no permanent structures on that hilltop. You could easily imagine the way it will look a few weeks from now, windswept and golden, picked out and past peak — but still lovely. It is the view that makes the place, and that's not going away. Mountain after mountain as far as you can see. And, at least yesterday, still-flowering cosmos softening the foreground.

I wound up with more pictures than pumpkins.


Monday, October 10, 2011

Open Air

The cool nights and warm days of the equinox mean we need neither heating nor air-conditioning, and the air flows freely in and out of the house. The windows are open (or as open as the stink bugs will allow) and what is inside the house is also outside.

I sit now beside an open window, listening to the acorns fall, thinking about the walls that separate us from the outdoors.

This is the time of year I turn my attention to neglected household chores. (If my family reads they will think, really? hmmm...) But even if I don't complete the task — even if the old curtains and the cluttered basement remain — that doesn't mean I'm not thinking about sweeping the house clean, freshening up the place, even painting.

At least the windows are open. If nothing else our house is being invisibly scoured by the low-humidity air of fall. It is a time of equilibrium; we are open to the air around us.


Sunday, October 9, 2011

A Glint of Gold

It has been a busy weekend, and preparing for a lunch guest today shortened my morning walk. I made up for it with a stroll later on.

This evening's amble was full of cricket chirps, the teasing outline of a faint, almost-full moon and the slight scent of wood smoke. It has been warm but the thin air and the turning leaves are clear signs of the season.

As I neared home I passed an abandoned horse pasture. Some fence panels are broken and the grass is high. My eye flickered over the scene, looking for something, I'm not sure what. It was as I looked again at the path that I caught from a corner of my eye a glint of gold. Was it a butterfly come to visit us once more? Nothing of the kind. It was a yellow leaf fluttering slowly to the ground.


Friday, October 7, 2011

Call to Home

Yesterday I had lunch with two researchers whose work I've been following for several years. They are looking at what the social science community calls "return migration" and what poets call "going home again."

In the course of our conversation, I learned about a book, Call to Home: African-Americans Reclaim the Rural South, by Carol Stack. This morning, I looked up that book, and I found these words:

"Many millions of Americans lack a place to go home to. Their families are no longer rooted in a particular piece of American ground, or never did put down such roots. Generations of migration have taken their toll."

Needless to say, I will be reading this book.

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Thursday, October 6, 2011

We Weren't Always This Way

This morning I turned on my Macbook at home, sent a quick email. Then I came into work, turned on my Mac with its big wide screen and its shiny silver base. And then there's my sleek little iPod and the iPhone that I'm planning to get soon. I thought back to the first Mac I used, a MacPlus was it? It was the computer Tom bought before we were married. I had used a computer very little before. The Mac was my first computer and for most of my computing life it is been the only kind of computer I've used.

Which is all to say that Steve Jobs is in my life, as he is in so many lives, and that when I heard the news last night that he had died of cancer, I felt like something big had shifted in our world.

I also noticed, when reading Jobs' obituary this morning in the Washington Post, how many of his inventions — items that now seem like they've been around forever — are very new. The iPod in 2001, the iPhone in 2007 and the iPad in 2010.

We have not been digitized and Mac-ified forever. Only in the last few years have we been buying our gadgets in stores without counters and walls. Like any good idea, Jobs' ideas have been so elegant and significant that they've erased the memory of what came before.


Wednesday, October 5, 2011


Most of the time we commuters behave ourselves. We move orderly from one conveyance to the other. But every so often something rials us up. It might be the sound of an oncoming train as we alight from our connecting line. We need to make this next train. We will be late otherwise. So what begins as a brisk walk becomes a trot and then finally a full-tilt run.

We dash down the stairs at Metro Center (the escalator is usually under construction), racing for what we think is the Orange Line to Vienna. Turns out, it's the Orange Line to New Carrolton, the wrong direction. But at least we're down here waiting, standing at our appointed spots. We are ready.

The funny thing about this behavior is how contagious it is. All it takes is one eager commuter to set us all off. It reminds me of a herd of cattle I once saw outside of Cody, Wyoming. We were driving back from our big trip west with the girls, and on the way out of this wonderful town we were caught up in a swirl of cattle, cowboys and dust. It was like being part of a great roundup -- even though we were driving a minivan. But it gave me the feeling of being caught up in a great sweep of animal energy, moving forward just for the sake of moving forward.

Pity the suburban commuter, dashing from car to car, startling at the sound of an approaching train, all to save a minute or two. We are creatures of habit, members of the commuting herd. Our great brains are idling; we operate on instinct only.

W.H.D. Koerner, Cattle Stampede


Tuesday, October 4, 2011


The Lincoln Cottage sits on the grounds of the Soldiers’ and Airmen’s Home in a quiet section of northwest D.C. It is one of the highest spots in the area and three miles north of the White House. The summer home of President Abraham Lincoln and his family, it was the “Camp David” of its day. Lincoln spent 13 months, a quarter of his presidency, here.

While his wife and children spent most of their summers at the cottage, Lincoln commuted to the White House by carriage or on horseback almost every day. The ride was dangerous; he survived at least one assassination attempt en route and often refused a military escort. But he craved the quiet that the cottage (and the commute) provided, so in this, as in so many things, he persevered.

Here the president would wrestle with battle strategies, conscription questions and other issues. And, most importantly, here he would draft much of the Emancipation Proclamation. Not with pomp and circumstance but quietly and piecemeal, on scraps of paper that his valet William Slade collected and placed in a large wooden desk.

Was there something in the nature of this house and land that gave Lincoln the perspective and courage to change the course of American history?

Historians cannot answer this question definitively, but to visit the site now is to feel a strength and stillness that wells up from within. It is not hard to imagine that the cottage and grounds stirred Lincoln in ways that places sometimes can. Above all, the home was a retreat, a secondary landscape where Lincoln could ponder problems from a different perspective.

Place and creativity are bound together in ways we are just beginning to understand.


Monday, October 3, 2011

Then and Now

Yesterday I braved the rain long enough to dash out to an art exhibit at an old schoolhouse in our neighborhood. While I was looking at collages and watercolors and oils, I was imagining what it was like to learn the three Rs in a two-room schoolhouse (first through fourth in one room; fifth through seventh in the other); a pot-bellied stove for warmth, big tall windows to let in the light. The building hasn't been a school since 1931, but it became a clubhouse for the Vale Home Demonstration Club. A modern version of that organization, the Vale Club, still holds fairs and bazaars and other events in the building.

A woman working at the exhibit told me that several years ago a former student had come by. "He told us all about the place," she said. "But he just passed away."

The school still stands, though, in large part due to the dedication of those who loved it enough to find other uses for it. In March, the Vale Schoolhouse earned a place on the Virginia Landmarks Register.

The buildings that link us to the past are a precious and limited commodity, but often we are too busy to learn their stories.

photos appeared in Oakton Patch 3/29/11


Saturday, October 1, 2011

Acquainted with the Rain

Waking up to another rainy day this morning, these lines of Robert Frost's come to mind:

I have been one acquainted with the night.
I have walked out in rain — and back in rain.
I have outrun the furthest city light.

It's a dark poem for a gray day.

Wondering if I've overlooked the sun or if we really have had an especially rainy, gloomy September, I consulted the Capital Weather Gang. One of their articles tells me that it's been one of the soggiest, cloudiest Septembers on record — only four days with more than 50-percent sun. And that article was written September 21.

It reminds me of weather forecasts for England and Ireland when I've visited there. "It will be cloudy, with sunny intervals." An interval lasting, oh, about ten minutes or so.

This weather is a test of our mettle, of our ability to keep a sunny state of mind while daily being deluged with the opposite.


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