Wednesday, November 30, 2011

For Celia

Today is Celia's birthday, my brother Drew's too. They are in good company. Winston Churchill was born on this day, as was Mark Twain, Jonathan Swift and Lucy Maud Montgomery, who wrote Anne of Green Gables.

Reading up on Twain a bit this morning, I learn that he loved cats. Celia is an animal lover in general and a cat lover in particular. So in her honor, here are some of Twain's thoughts on cats:

When a man loves cats, I am his friend and comrade, without further introduction.
-"An Incident," Who Is Mark Twain?

A cat is more intelligent than people believe, and can be taught any crime.
-Notebook, 1895

Ignorant people think it's the noise which fighting cats make that is so aggravating, but it ain't so; it's the sickening grammar they use.
- A Tramp Abroad

Of all God's creatures there is only one that cannot be made the slave of the lash. That one is the cat. If man could be crossed with the cat it would improve man, but it would deteriorate the cat.
- Notebook, 1894

Mark Twain's cats
photo by Elmira photographer
Elisha M. VanAken, 1887

[Photo from the Dave Thomson collection]

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Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Summer in Fall

Wet windy weather is moving in today, weather more in keeping with the season. So in honor of balmy blue November skies, of leaf-scented raking days, of shorts in winter, here is photo of skating in short sleeves, a celebration of summer in fall.


Monday, November 28, 2011

A Season of Change

Yes, we are creatures of habit. This was on remarkable display at yesterday's mass, the first Sunday of Advent, the beginning of a new liturgical year and the introduction of the first changes to the Catholic liturgy in four decades. Even after all the hoopla and publicity surrounding the change, even holding the laminated text of the new language in my hands, I still said, "And also with you" instead of "And with your spirit."

I wasn't alone. The community of the faithful sounded more like the community of the confused. I'll admit that many of us sometimes say the words without thinking. And while counteracting rote recitation isn't the point (the point is to pray the mass in a way closer to the original Latin), it's what I thought about as we hesitated and fumbled our way through the ancient prayers.

Change isn't fun. Even if change is for the better (and many think these changes are not), habit pulls us back to the way things have always been.

The liturgical changes are proof that little things matter, that words are important — and that most of us must be drug kicking and screaming into the future.


Sunday, November 27, 2011


On a walk in Lexington, I spotted these pink plastic flamingos looking for all the world like turkey wannabes. So I tiptoed up to the front door and snapped a photo. I don't know the birds' owners, but I thanked them silently for making me smile.

As we drove home yesterday, east over the mountains, I thought of many things, but from time to time I would remember these "turkeys" and laugh to myself. Such can a single sight loosen the mood, set the mind to spinning happily.

It's a good way to enter the holiday season. With a bit of levity.


Friday, November 25, 2011

Eastern Light

Here on the outer edge of Eastern Standard Time the sun is late to rise. But when it does, it floods the backroom with morning light. That's what it's doing right now.

A riot of rays spills in from the east, silhouetting the lamp and globe, which turn into out-size back-lit shadows.

It dawns on me that I can make hand puppets in this light, and I do, a long gangly goose that laughs and quacks his way into the morning.

The light promises a good day, a freshening season. No Black Friday for us. We are after sunshine and ice-skating, the three-mile trip downtown (yes, we can handle that, we suburbanites), and a little more family time.

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Thursday, November 24, 2011


An e-mail arrives, an e-mail about gratitude. So does inspiration travel in these wireless days. It reminds me of specifics: not just the feast but the pumpkin praline pie at the end of it.

And it reminds me to take inventory. To look up, pay attention, notice the trees outlined against a blue sky, the mountains that rise behind them.

Sometimes gratitude wells up unbidden. A glance, an aroma, and it floods the being. Other times it must be coaxed as a flame is coaxed, first the spark, then the kindling, finally the log and the blaze. It will roar again, this fire. All it needs is time and fuel.

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Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Template and Canvas

Today is the birthday of the British writer George Eliot, author of Middlemarch and The Mill on the Floss, who was sent away to boarding school at age 5 but who was still able to write these words: "We could never have loved the earth so well if we had had no childhood in it."

It's an observation no one else I've read has made in quite the same poetic and pithy way, that the sights and sounds of growing up become the template and the canvas upon which our love of the natural world is painted.

I think of it often, remembering the awe of my early years in the world, the way an empty lot could become a fairy meadow, or a scraggly woods the forest primeval. It's an awe that lives in me still and surprises me from time to time, the rallying cry of beauty.

Here's Eliot again. I'll end with her because she says it best: "Our delight in the sunshine on the deep bladed grass today might be no more than the faint perception of wearied souls, if it were not for the sunshine and the grass in the far-off years, which still live in us and transform our perception into love."

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Monday, November 21, 2011

Below the Noise

In the library this weekend I picked up a book called Listening Below the Noise by Anne LeClaire. I've almost finished it, would have already had I not decided to savor the final chapter. The book grew from the author's decision some years ago to spend a day in silence. The day brought her such peace and creative energy that she decided to spend every other Monday without speaking.

LeClaire has since become a prophet of silence, giving workshops, writing the book. The compromises she proposes — making time for a quiet morning, shutting off e-mail, slowly eating a juicy apple — graft a monastic habit onto a hectic modern life. They seem realistic enough that most any of us could finagle them.

For me they reaffirm the connection between silence and creativity, the need to withdraw in order to produce, to quiet one's self in order to speak.


Saturday, November 19, 2011

Brevity at Gettysburg

I had another blog post simmering in my mind when I read on this morning's Writer's Almanac that on today's date in 1863 Abraham Lincoln delivered the Gettysburg Address.

Since my visit to the Lincoln Cottage a few weeks ago I've had a deepening appreciation of our 16th president, of his greatness and humility. The cottage on the ground of the Old Soldier's Home in northwest D.C. is where Lincoln wrote much of the Emancipation Proclamation. I don't have time this morning to research his writing of the address. Though reports of his dashing it off on the back of an envelope on the way to Gettysburg have, I believe, been discredited, he didn't have much time to write the speech.

The verifiable information I did learn today was that Lincoln's two-minute speech followed a two-hour oration by Edward Everett, that many in the audience were not aware that the president had spoken because it happened so quickly, and that afterward Everett said to Lincoln: "I wish that I could flatter myself that I had come as near to the central idea of the occasion in two hours as you did in two minutes."

Brevity is always the harder path to take. I'd like to imagine that Lincoln got to the heart of the matter because he was living with the war, living with it at the White House and living with it at his summer retreat at the Soldier's Home, where as many as 30 fresh graves a day appeared in the president's back yard.

Twenty years ago we visited Gettysburg and I lamented that I had forgotten the words of the address I had to memorize when I was a kid. I could probably recite less of the speech these days than I could even then. But I appreciate it more now.


Friday, November 18, 2011

Welcome Signs

Driving home from Kentucky last Sunday I was touched, as I always am, to see the "Virginia Welcomes You" sign. There was the cardinal, the dogwood, the almost childish renditions of our state bird and state flower. It's almost as if — dare I say it, might it be? — that I feel like I belong whenever I see it?

A few months ago, in a subway-induced fog, I noticed a "Virginia Welcomes You" sign on the dark subterranean wall at the Rosslyn Metro stop, the first in the commonwealth when traveling west on Metro's Orange Line. Was I imagining this? I checked the next day. It was definitely there. Now I look for it often on my way home from work. It's proof of belonging, a whimsical touch.

This morning I ponder these two signs of welcome, these two welcome signs.

Photo: Wikipedia


Thursday, November 17, 2011

Post Offices and Place

Today I almost missed my Metro stop because I was engrossed in a newspaper article about a young man chronicling endangered post offices. Evan Kalish has visited 2,745 post offices in 43 states since 2008. Yesterday he wrote about the closure of a post office in St. James, Maryland. It was tucked away in a general store and featured an imported (from Pennsylvania!) postal facade that looks like something out of a movie set.

When we lived in Groton, Massachusetts, we mailed our letters and packages from a dignified old brick post office with friendly New England clerks. It was the sort of place where people lingered, chatting about when the first snowflakes might fall. It was part of the magic of that village, a component of its character.

When we first moved to Virginia, our post office was a corner of the local hardware store. I'd wait in line there, one baby or the other on my hip, to mail an article to one of my editors in New York. Though far less picturesque than Groton, it had its own madcap charm.

Years passed, the Internet arrived, and I sent my articles by email, my letters too. And that, multiplied and magnified hundreds of thousands of times over, is why post offices are closing.

But understanding the reason isn't the same as agreeing with it. As the post offices shut down, the small towns and hamlets lose their postmark, their centerpiece, their community center. And the world becomes a little more homogenized, a little more boring, a lot less placed.

Photo, Gosselin Group Realtors

Wednesday, November 16, 2011


On days when there's no time to walk, only time to drive, the radio sustains me. The last 24 hours have been like that.

Yesterday I heard an interview with filmmaker Shekhar Kapur, who explained why, after stints in Britain and the United States, he is once again living in his native India:

"You can stand in one place and look to your right, and you see a funeral. Look to your left, and you see a marriage. Look in front of you, and you see little children that are born and are starving in the streets. And look behind you, and somebody's driving a Bentley," he says. "You're suddenly faced with the contradictions of just living, and you realize just how mortal you are. And in that mortality, you're pushed into the idea that life is not under your control — it's completely chaotic." This chaos keeps him on edge, Kapur says, keeps "more creatively alive."

And then, on this morning's "Writer's Almanac," these words from the novelist Andrea Barrett: "I've never known a writer who didn't feel ill at ease in the world. ... We all feel unhoused in some sense. That's part of why we write. We feel we don't fit in, that this world is not our world, that though we may move in it, we're not of it. ... You don't need to write a novel if you feel at home in the world."

The radio provides aural sustenance; this photo of Hallstatt, Austria provides visual sustenance.


Tuesday, November 15, 2011

A Glimpse of Home

"Here before me now is my picture, my map, of a place and therefore of myself, and much that can never be said adds to its reality for me, just as much of its reality is based on my own shadows, my inventions."

from Map of Another Town: A Memoir of Provence by M.F.K. Fisher

On my way home from the funeral Saturday, I stopped for a moment to snap this shot. It is a view of downtown Lexington from the parking lot of St. Paul's Church, where Tom and I were married. I turned my head and there it was, this vision of old Lexington with the bright sun overexposing the steeple and the red brick rectory shining by its side and the late autumn foliage adding a spot of color on the left.

Seeing my town from this unconventional angle I see also the old towns of Europe, their cobbled streets and ancient airs, all the living that went on within their walls, the stones somehow absorbing this life and reflecting it back to us centuries later.

Surely when we talk about place we talk about all the living that goes on within the cities and the towns and buildings, and our noble — and ultimately futile — struggle to hold onto what passes too quickly through our hands.

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Monday, November 14, 2011

Resting Place

A death in my extended family has me thinking about final resting places, their importance and value. On Saturday, my aunt was laid to rest next to her husband in Kentucky. She was born in the state, but lived much of her life in Ohio and Michigan. My cousins are scattered from Saginaw to Katonah to Cleveland to Washington, D.C. But now they are doubly bound to this plot of soil on the west side of Lexington.

What helps us decide where to end up? It is a complicated and intensely personal decision, of course, and it brings into high relief questions of place and belonging. Because even if we're scattered to the four winds or kept in a vase on the mantel, we still have to end up somewhere. It is our final decision, where we stop when we can roam no more.

This is Mozart's grave in Vienna, though there's a good chance the composer was interred elsewhere in this cemetery.


Friday, November 11, 2011


One of the features I've observed through the years about the suburban landscape is the great number of cul-de-sacs. Everyone wants to live on one, I suppose. So I included them in my poem.

No longer “dead ends.”

Now they are cul-de-sacs.

“Bottom of bag,” a Catalan phrase, I learn, via French to English.

Their modern use: to calm traffic.

But what happens to traffic calmed? It bursts loose on the straightaway.

Meanwhile, the lone woman rides her bike to the circle,

round and round she goes.

She has lost count of the years.

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Thursday, November 10, 2011

Old House

Write about a neighborhood, the assignment said. At first I didn't want to write about ours. It's the suburbs, after all, that which confounds and conflicts me. So I considered Idle Hour in Lexington, where I lived from age 3 to 10. Or the High Line in Manhattan, neighborhood of the air.

After several false starts, I decided to go small, became a miniaturist, to look at our house, street and subdivision from a number of different angles.

Something like this:

We want an older home, we told the realtor,
who showed us spanking new split-levels
instead of colonials with history and creaky stairs.
It was newish when we bought it,
but we’ve owned this place 22 years.
The windows leak,
the basement is full.
We found our old house.


Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Community of Voters

Virginia was only one of four states to hold legislative elections yesterday, and when I reached the elementary school that serves as a polling place, an ethereal pale moon was rising in the sky.

Because there were no national races, experts predicted a low turnout. It was anything but the case in our precinct; I had to wait in line even to use a paper ballot. (For the first time ever, I wrote in a candidate's name — for the soil and water conservation board!) And polling officials said it was a steady stream of voters all day.

From a glance at this morning's paper, it's not clear whether our candidates won. What matters more is seeing how many people vote. I said hello to neighbors I hadn't seen in months.

I don't want to romanticize this too much. But sometimes on election day our precinct feels like a village, with small-town manners and courtesies and generosities. I wonder if, in different circumstances, on a different scale, we might be like this every day — a true community.


Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Autumn Walk

It was late coming, but the last few days of autumn have fulfilled their promise with splashes of last-minute color, with that trademark smell of crushed leaves and with the sound of motors — leaf blowers, chainsaws, lawn mowers.

From its shivery beginning to its balmy conclusion, yesterday was designed to show off what's left of the reds and yellows and those translucent pinky oranges that always stand out in the woods.

I took my camera out for a walk and it got more exercise than I did. Every few paces I was snapping shots again.

I'm glad to have this record of my stroll. And glad, too, to have these brilliant days of fall before winter makes us monochrome once more.


Monday, November 7, 2011


Full disclosure here: My daughter Claire suggested this post. I emailed her Saturday night to remind her to "fall back." She's a busy college student; I thought she might forget.

Here's what she wrote back: "I think all my clocks turned themselves back. You should blog about that. Now clocks turn themselves back. Computers, phones, you know."

She's onto something, I think. Not just that the ritual of "falling back," that satisfying stoppage of time, is more often accomplished by a distant satellite these days. But also about the digital divide. Look at the wrists of young people; you won't see many watches. I wonder, too, how many clocks they're buying. My guess is precious few. When time is always in the palm of your hand, why display it on a wall?

The very concept of a timepiece, of a device whose only purpose is to tell time, is going the way of the slide rule. As a watch-wearer, cuckoo-clock owner and occasional Luddite, I find something to lament about that.


Sunday, November 6, 2011

One Hour

Today, thanks to our springtime sacrifice, we receive an extra hour — the gift of time. It's still early enough in the day that I can contemplate how to spend it:

Sixty more minutes to read the Sunday paper? Two walks today instead of one? An extra-long phone call with friend or family? Cleaning the fridge? Snapping photos of autumn gold? Reading and writing? Putting the garden to bed? Making beef stew? Practicing "Sheep May Safely Graze" on the piano?

Or, how the day is starting to shape up: Letting the dog out, letting the dog in; letting the dog out, letting the dog in.

Has a certain mantraesque quality to it, no?

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Friday, November 4, 2011


A cloudy morning grants permission. Not that one needs it, of course. We are all grownups here (well, almost). We go out or stay in as we are moved to do.

Still, a cloudy morning says, no need to venture out just yet. You will miss nothing by sitting here just a moment longer with the laptop, tapping a few more words onto the screen, reading another passage, closing the book and pondering a phrase.

A cloudy morning diffuses the light. No rays blare from the east. No shadows fall. The clouds are democratic; they spread light evenly across the land.

There is something in the work-worn soul that craves a cloudy Friday morning. It is a long sigh, a pause, a resting place.


Thursday, November 3, 2011

Place under Assault

Last night in class we talked about how place is being challenged by globalization, population growth, global warming and other challenges. When places must compete for resources they have to sell themselves. They are essentially in competition with each other.

On the surface that would seem beneficial to places, because it would prompt them to sharpen their competitive edges and make them more attractive. But what makes places more attractive, the marketplace says, are jobs, commerce and convenience. The marketplace is not very good at recognizing, creating and delivering the ineffable something that makes, say, San Francisco, San Francisco. And why should it be? What makes certain places sing out to us is far more than the sum of their parts.

So when places have to compete for jobs or big box stores, they sell an image of themselves. I've seen this happen with Lexington, which pushes itself as the "horse capital" even as racetracks are dying and horse farms struggling to make it. Once the real place is gone, it resurrects itself as a carriacture.

The real placeness of a place can only bubble up from below. It can't be superficially imposed from above. End of sermon!

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Water and the Bridge

As I learn more about the land around me, I find myself gawking out car windows, craning my neck as I cross bridges, counting houses after I pass a hidden lane.

Is that where the old road veers off into the woods? Is this where, as late as 1970, cars forged the creek?

I'm testing the waters here, seeing if history can stand in for that bone-deep knowledge of a place that comes from growing up there. My hunch is that it won't; my hope is that it will.

For doesn't this, like so many conundrums (conundra?) depend upon whether you listen to head or heart? You can make a list of pros and cons, but in the end your rational self is taking orders from that fast-moving water down below.

Our thoughts are the bridge; our feelings are the water.

I put my money on the water.

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Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Quick Change Artist

It took a glimpse of winter to scare us into fall. Oh, I know the chemical explanation. Or the lay version of it. Leaves need a shock of cold air in order to change color.

But look at it another way: The trees still clothed in summer green, shivering in the snow, telling themselves, this isn't working. We need to strip down, and fast.

Overnight, we have autumn. The trees I know, the dependably flashy ones, have burst into yellow and orange. The air smells both acrid and sweet. And on a hurried walk, I spot an artful arrangement of crimson maple leaves snagged in a net of spent clematis. I relax my shoulders and move on.
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