Friday, December 30, 2011

Robin's Return

I saw them the day before yesterday, a flock of robins in our front yard. I haven't been organized enough to notice if they were here earlier, or to note their first appearance in years past. But there they were on a cold blustery winter day, pecking in our winter-wan grass, nibbling the holly berries and flitting about the leaves and wood pile.

There were more than a dozen of them, with their red breasts and trim beaks. I wondered where they had come from and if they would stay.

It's too early to think about spring. I know that. But seeing those robins, hearing their call, feeling the warmth in the air this morning as I walked — it all has done my spirit good.


Wednesday, December 28, 2011

A Start

I was out early this morning, early enough that my breath still made clouds in the air, out with the earliest of moseying dog walkers. Lately I've been too busy to venture much farther than the loop walk in our neighborhood. But today I turned down West Ox.

It's a road that was widened a few years ago -- with a bonus for walkers, a paved path alongside it. You can walk this path for miles if you want — all the way to the shopping mall. Not that I'd want to.

Today I took it past several neighborhoods and a garden shop, a church and an old barn. As I strode, the sky pinked and the clouds fluffed and beams of light made it difficult to look up. (I had forgotten my sunglasses.) My eyes teared from the fresh air and the wind and the morning sun.

It didn't look at all like this picture, but it was a good way to start the day.


Tuesday, December 27, 2011

The Day After

The recycling bin is overflowing, the wrapping paper stowed away. You can see the living floor again. Which is to say that the hurricane that is Christmas has roared through our house. In its place is a sudden calm that I try to interpret as peace.

Outside a gentle rain is falling. I just walked through it. I didn't mind that the drops were dripping down my face. I welcomed the cool air, the sodden smell.

Christmas Day is over. Now comes the hard part.


Saturday, December 24, 2011

An Appreciation

Our old house has seen better days. The siding is dented, the walkway is cracked, the yard is muddy and tracked with Copper's paw prints. Inside is one of the fullest and most aromatic trees we've ever chopped down. Cards line the mantel, the fridge is so full it takes ten minutes to find the cream cheese. Which is to say we are as ready as we will ever be. The family is gathering. I need to make one more trip to the grocery store.

This morning I thought about a scene from one of my favorite Christmas movies, one I hope we'll have time to watch in the next few days. In "It's a Wonderful Life," Jimmy Stewart has just learned he faces bank fraud and prison, and as he comes home beside himself with worry, he grabs the knob of the bannister in his old house — and it comes off in his hand. He is exasperated at this; it seems to represent his failures and shortcomings.

By the end of the movie, after he's been visited by an angel, after his family and friends have rallied around him in an unprecedented way, after he's had a chance to see what the world would have been like without him — he grabs the bannister knob again. And once again, it comes off in his hand. But this time, he kisses it. The house is still cold and drafty and in need of repair. But it has been sanctified by friendship and love and solidarity.

Christmas doesn't take away our problems. But it counters them with joy. It reminds us to appreciate the humble, familiar things that surround us every day, and to draw strength from the people we love. And surely there is a bit of the miraculous in that.

Photo: Flow TV

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Friday, December 23, 2011

The Old Route

Yesterday I left the house early, and as the sun rose I was walking an old route I hadn't been on in years. Some of the houses had additions, but other than that the scenery was just as I remembered it. The yards were just as deep and forgiving, the trees as lofty.

And the route itself: There was the same rise to the straightaway, the expansive section in the middle, the one that was such welcome shade in the summer, it made me happy in the winter, too.

I didn't walk long, but I felt as if I had been on a brief vacation. Such is the power of landscape to reset the mood.

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Wednesday, December 21, 2011


As our tree now sits all glittery and ornamented in a place of honor in our house, I think back to where it comes from. It's nice to have a tree whose family you know, whose environs you remember. A placed tree, I guess you'd say.

I wonder if our tree carries within it any memory of that north-facing slope, or the faraway view of the Blue Ridge it had once — and lost. Now it looks serenely over our living room, and, if it turns its head a bit, the kitchen, too. It can also look out the windows and French doors, see other trees still rooted and attached to the ground that gave them life.

Well, if the tree can't remember, I can. When I look at it I see a place where the land rolls and houses are tucked into the folds of it. I see a place where beauty is not forgotten.


Tuesday, December 20, 2011

A Ritual

"Here, Celia, you usually like to hang this one, right?" said Claire last night, handing her sister a bright pink high heel slipper ornament with glitter and feathers.

"I remember when I got this ornament," Celia said. "It was one of those parties where you exchange gifts and people can take them from you and I wanted this one so bad." And she got it.

Meanwhile, Suzanne found her cello ornament and attached it to a heavy branch while Claire hunted for her "Baby's First Christmas" ornament.

Decorating the tree is a holiday ritual with little courtesies and observances I didn't even realize we had until we did them all over again last night. Each one is precious.

At points last evening I found myself floating at the edge of the hubub, as Tom, the girls and their friends laughed and talked and decked out our full, fragrant fir tree (which, we all agree, is one of the most beautiful trees ever). I wanted to be enough on the edge of things to be aware that I was part of them. But I also wanted to be in the moment because such moments are rare. So I busied myself stuffing tissue back into the ornament boxes and carrying them downstairs. Even from our storage room I could hear the laughter — it was as clear and silvery as a Christmas bell.


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Monday, December 19, 2011

Waiting Time

One of my favorite Christmas carols is actually an Advent hymn, "O Come O Come Emmanuel." Every time I hear it this season I wonder (even as I sing along) why I like it. Certainly not because of its sunny key and tone. It's slow, solemn and in a minor key.

But there is something noble and ancient and timeless about it. The very essence of Advent, of waiting. In it I hear the echo of the human voice through the centuries, processing down the stone aisle of a medieval cathedral. In it I hear the sighs of longing and of patience.

Advent is often overlooked in the pre-Christmas rush to buy, wrap, mail and decorate. But I've always found it a soothing season, one of hopeful waiting and pleasant anticipation. In a way, I don't want it to end.

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Friday, December 16, 2011

Christmas in Miniature

Yesterday at lunch I walked to the Botanical Gardens to see the garden train display. The trains were cute — and the children there to see them were even cuter — but what captivated me most were the replicas of the Capitol, Supreme Court and other monuments and presidential homes made of acorns, pine cone scales, mosses, lichen and grapevine tendrils.

It was a magical, miniature world, full of "fairy flats," "critter condos" and other whimsical structures. It made me want to drink a shrinking potion and clamber right in. It made me want to be a kid again.

But the beauty and wit of these tiny structures also reminded me that there are worlds we cannot fathom — and that in itself is something to celebrate.

Photo by Paul Jean. Captured from Roaming the Planet blog.

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Thursday, December 15, 2011

The Paper

It has been a while since I had to write a paper. Even though I write all the time and deadlines are my constant companion, there's something about an academic deadline that's different. Is it because a grade rests on the performance? Undoubtedly that has something to do with it.

Most probably, though, it harkens back to some deep primordial fear of failure. The way my stomach would somersault when the teacher (often a nun) began collecting the assignments — and I realized that I Had Left Mine At Home. It was pure terror, to be rehashed in dreams for decades to come.

And then there were those loopy all-nighters of college and late high school, typing (yes, typing — on a typewriter with White Out and correcting strips) the bibliography as the sun rose. Those nights had a rhythm and a pattern all their own: the despair of 2 a.m., the rejuvenation at 3, the near crash at 4 and the triumphant completion at 7:30, just in time for an 8 a.m. class.

I've learned to pace myself a bit since then. I'm mailing my paper today (fingers crossed) and it isn't even due till tomorrow.

photo: IBM


Wednesday, December 14, 2011

December Meeting

We gathered last night as members of a vanishing tribe. As usual we found a table then raced to pull books off the shelves. Every December my book group meets in a book store — a real, brick-and-mortar bookstore — to pick our readings for the coming year. The idea is that we are right there with the books; we can quickly learn whether a title has been published in paperback.

Last night was different. We changed our location, for one thing. Our old Borders is no more. And the Barnes and Noble we chose didn't have a lot of the books we were after. There were calendars and toys and journals and Nook displays but of books themselves there was a definite lack.

I can't say I'm surprised. Many of us read on Kindles or iPads. And even I, Luddite that I am, order books online. This revolution is much bigger than us, and I can't say we didn't see it coming. But as we said farewell last night I wondered where we'll meet next year. I hope there will be a bookstore left to host us.

Photo: Renton (WA) Library News


Tuesday, December 13, 2011


Yesterday I was driving west when I came upon a flyway. It's a left exit that swings over two other roads on its way back to earth. Looking at such a monstrosity from below fills me with dread and anxiety. Is it safe, well built? Will I go too fast and fall off?

But these are the worries of the land lubber. Once I'm on the flyway I am in awe of the view. I can see the front line of the Blue Ridge as it extends from north to south. I am escaping the quotidian. I am, for a moment, flying.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Full Circle

Christmas is coming whether we like it or not, so once again we drove west into the rolling foothills of the Blue Ridge. Last year we were some of the last customers of the year to cut our tree. Yesterday we were not. It was a sunny noontime when we arrived, more than two full weeks before the big day.

We walked up and down the slope, savoring the view, the scent of the pine and fir, the sound of dogs barking. (Our own dog barks too much to come!)

It was notable, I think, that the lovely tree we finally found was one we'd overlooked in the very beginning. So we had come full circle in our search.


Saturday, December 10, 2011

The Nemesis

For the last few weeks I've been getting to know an old nemesis. If you had to name this entity it would diminish its power, so I will leave the name out for now. Let me just say that it sits on my shoulder and mumbles in my ear. Don't use that word; it won't work. Where is the transition here? No, that isn't it at all. When my nemesis has the upper hand I am wordless and unhappy.

Through the years I have assembled some ammunition. This blog, for instance; it flies beneath the radar screen. The nemesis lets it go. And sometimes in the morning I can work happily before the nemesis awakes. But long about midday it will set in with all its niggling, nagging power. Often I push through it. Sometimes I give up and do something else.

Looking in some writing books the other day I came across a passage that helps. It's from The Forest for the Trees by writer, editor and agent Betsy Lerner. "I won't say there's no such thing as a natural talent, but after working with many authors over the years, I can offer a few observations: having natural ability doesn't seem to make writing any easier (and sometimes makes it more difficult); having all the feeling in the world will not ensure the effective communication of feeling on the page; and finally, the degree of one's perseverance is the best predictor of success."

It's that last point that I cling to most. The nemesis doesn't like to hear it. The nemesis counts on my giving up. And so, just to spite it, I won't.

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Friday, December 9, 2011

Bringing the Outside In

A friend at work is retiring and yesterday she gave me her plants, a small begonia and a Christmas cactus. These join my anemic spider plants and seen-better-days African violet on a table (another bequeath) in front of the alley-view window.

My office now has cleaner air and slightly softer outlines. It has a bit of the jungle about it. It will be nice next week to be greeted not just by a spot of green but by a veritable wall of it. There's something about bringing the outside in that does a heart good.

And speaking of that, I am in search of a cyclamen for the holidays. If it is even half as profuse and lovely as last year's, we will be in good shape.


Thursday, December 8, 2011

Last Class

We gathered for the last time last night. Eighteen people more different than alike, drawn together to explore the special places in our lives, whether real or metaphorical. Whatever lead me to the class — call it grace, serendipity or dumb luck — I am grateful for it. And I will miss these folks; we have come to know each other well these last few months.

I haven't quite figured out how to tackle the big subject that intrigues and bedevils me. I'm still "in process." But I've had a few epiphanies along the way and the class readings, discussions and blog posts have dug deep furrows, turned soil that will produce something in the future (at the very least the required paper due next week!).

As I made my way home last night, though, it wasn't place that was on my mind; it was people.

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Wednesday, December 7, 2011

70 Years Ago..

Japanese planes bombed our fleet at Pearl Harbor and the United States entered World War II.

Today, my favorite veteran hosts a showing of Twelve O'Clock High at the Kentucky Theater in Lexington.

Here's what the newspaper (and my dad) had to say about the event:

Meanwhile, the Kentucky Theater, 214 East Main Street, will mark the anniversary with a free screening of Twelve O'Clock High, the Academy Award-winning 1949 movie about the U.S. 8th Air Force fliers who bombed Germany in 1942-45.

It will begin at 11:30 a.m. Wednesday with the introduction of several 8th Air Force veterans. The movie, which will follow, was arranged by Lexington's Frank Cassidy, who flew 35 missions as an 8th Air Force tail gunner.

Cassidy said he hopes the Twelve O'Clock High screening will help today's Lexingtonians understand what World War II fliers went through.

"This date, Dec. 7, 1941, changed the lives of many young men, me included," he said. "I was still in high school when Pearl Harbor happened, and the next thing I knew, I was headed into the Air Force. Everything was different after that."

Unlike many war films, Twelve O'Clock High explores not just the heroism of the fliers, but the psychological scars that many suffered in facing death day after day.

The 8th Air Force veterans will meet the public and answer questions after the movie.

(My father will be one of them.)

Photo: Genealogy Trails History Group


Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Morning After

A house rises and falls on waves of conversation. When the words are flowing, as they were last night, all creation seems borne forth on a mighty tide. Together we can figure out what's wrong with the economy (hah!), the school system (double hah!) or (the most complicated problem) when we can find time to get the Christmas tree.

The morning after a good conversation is peaceful and calm. Hopeful, too. As I write I hear the sound of a tiny bird chirping. Maybe a chickadee or a nuthatch or one of our other winter residents. Maybe it had a good conversation yesterday, too.

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Monday, December 5, 2011

The Glade

Yesterday the sun rose blood red between the dark trees, and swirls of frozen fog lingered in the low parts of the land. It was a good day to leave the neighborhood and walk the Glade trail.

The Glade. I've always loved that name. It sounds like something out of Thomas Hardy's Wessex. And I have great affection for this path since it's one I've walked off and on for years.

But the Glade is not the place it used to be. A stream restoration project has elevated and opened up the creek bed, and what I noticed most was the gurgling of the water. Whereas before the creek was overgrown, muddy and still, now it is broad, open and brisk.

It was a lively place to be on a cold Sunday morning.

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Saturday, December 3, 2011


Last night I went to our neighbor Jeanine's house for an in-home shopping show. The clothes were beautiful, finely cut and tailored, the fabrics a pleasure to touch. At the end you get to try them on. The point of the party is to buy stuff, of course, but I went for neighborliness. For connections.

We chose our neighborhood because of its friendliness, and in large part we have stayed here for the people. In the suburbs you don't rely on folks the way you do in the country. When we lived in Arkansas we never went "down the mountain" without asking friends what they needed from the store. That happens here only when there's a snow storm or other natural disaster.

Buying clothes from a shopping consultant isn't exactly like building a barn or harvesting hay, but it's what passes for pitching in around here. It doesn't banish the anonymity of suburban living, but it tries.

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Friday, December 2, 2011

A Place Apart

I've been re-reading the memoirs of Niall Williams and Christine Breen, who in 1985 moved from Manhattan to Kiltumper, County Clare, Ireland to write, paint and live a simple life. Their first two summers were some of the rainiest on record and tested their resolve. But in 1987 the sun shone and the turf dried and the hay was made before the rains came again.

It was then that they wrote, "Days and nights in Kiltumper are perfect countryside settings for the quiet contemplation of a career, a love, a life. In this green isolation, whole chunks of life can suddenly seem unimportant. A walk across fields in the evening light can change philosophies forever."

Like many writers they found that a change of scene created a change of heart. "Kiltumper had come to seem a sort of relief post, quite literally a place apart, a place to come to in which to draw breath and look outwards over the fields, to find the direction of your life."

Reading this, losing myself in their fantasy, I wonder: Can I ever do the same thing by staying put in the suburbs? Can I walk my way into an epiphany? I must admit, when I'm reading about the west of Ireland, I think not.

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Thursday, December 1, 2011

December 1 and Counting

A cold start to the new month. I drive to Metro in darkness, only the faintest lightening of the sky. I think about parking on the street and walking to the subway, as I have the last two days, but I decide on the garage instead. A train is waiting, I hop on only minutes before it leaves the station.

The day begins, as it often does, with a rattle down the tracks, the descent underground to Ballston, the switch to the Red Line at Metro Center, the quick walk to the office from Judiciary Square.

On the way I count blessings: The smooth logistics of the morning. Our celebration last night, the balm and joy that is family. How good it felt to laugh together over a book of silly pet photos. Work that busies me and pays the bills, and other work that inspires me and doesn't pay the bills. The view from my office window: the alley, the buildings, the reflections in blue glass across the street. The view from our back deck as it looks on a winter morning.
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