Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Favorites


"My favorite poem is the one I've just written," said the Latin American poet Ernesto Cardenale. I listened to Cardenale on the radio yesterday as I walked through a steadily darkening dusk.

This made me wonder: Is my favorite blog post the one I've just written. It's not, of course. I can't call them all to mind anymore now, because there have been hundreds, though some stand out. One or two I've written in New York, some of my European ones from May 2010, book reviews, and odd, random ones, like the paragraphs I wrote August 18, 2010, the day we donated our old car, or one earlier that month, August 2, about sunsets awing us into silence.

The fact is, some days posts come easily and some days they don't. The point is not the ease. The point is the doing.

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Tuesday, August 30, 2011

The Forgiving Season


Last week we were so distracted by an earthquake and a hurricane that we missed the main story, which is that summer is ending. Already the mornings are late and cool, and by 8 o'clock in the evening it's almost dark. Many schools are in session and those that aren't (like ours) will be next week.

The thing about summer is that it leads you on. In the midst of July you think the heat and humidity, the late nights and early mornings, will always be here. Summer is about limitlessness, about burning the candle at both ends. It is a forgiving season, an easy season. My hair looks better in the summer, too.

So even though I may write posts about the fresh beginnings of fall, the cool, energizing air, the first crisp blank page of a new notebook, there will be some bravado there, some feigned cheer. Because underneath, I will be missing summer.

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Monday, August 29, 2011

Post Irene


The rain pounded and the winds roared but our trees remained upright and true. By mid Sunday morning, the sun was shining and the wind had blown in blue skies and puffy clouds. I took my camera for a walk and snapped photos of grasses blowing in the wind, late summer flowers nodding on their stalks and this one, of a pond near us.

It is an ordinary view made extraordinary by the quality of the air yesterday, pellucid and scrubbed clean. It was as if the true nature of the place was shining through.

I pass this pond several times a week, but now I will see, layered over its everyday clothes, this view — the pond decked out in its Sunday best.

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Saturday, August 27, 2011

Tropical Storm


Out early for a walk before Irene, I push myself through puddles of air. There is little rain, only sporadic mist. But the sky is gray and heavy, as if tired of its burden, ready to shift it down to earth, to rest its shoulders for a while. And my steps are leaden, too, earthbound.

In the meadow there is barely any movement, just the faintest stirring of the goldenrod and grass. It is a welcome stillness; I pass only one cyclist and two dog-walkers. People are inside, sleeping or waiting for the storm. The quiet suburban paths are free for the taking.

It is a quiet late-summer morning. The "tropical" has reached us before the "storm."

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Friday, August 26, 2011

"A Native Hill"


I have been reading Wendell Berry and thinking about home. In his essay "A Native Hill," Berry describes a conversation he had with a New Yorker who tried to convince him to stay in that fair city for the sake of his literary career after Berry announced he was moving home to Kentucky.

Berry admits that the literary world mattered to him then (and I suppose it still does), "but the world was more important to me than the literary world; and the world would always be most fully and clearly present to me in the place I was fated by birth to know better than any other."

The man persisted, politely, that Berry, like Thomas Wolfe, "could not go home again." The man's argument, Berry says, "was based on the belief that once one had attained the metropolis, the literary capital, the worth of one's origins was canceled out; there simply could be nothing worth going back to. What lay behind one had ceased to be a part of life, and had become 'subject matter.'"

Berry's point, which he makes so fully and beautifully in this patient, expansive essay, is that he has been more fully alive and conscious in his home place, in Port Henry, Kentucky, than he could have been elsewhere. He knows the people and the place, has walked every square mile of its hollows and ridges, understands and accepts its less than perfect history. And because he has been more fully human living in Port Henry, he has (I extrapolate) been truer to himself as a writer, too.

I could not be Wendell Berry — I am neither as smart nor as stern as he (and I am not a man) — but I admire his thinking and his writing, his economy of word and thought. And I imagine I will be writing about him again.

In the meantime, I illustrate this post with a picture of a hill I have come to love. It is not a "native hill" — it is neither in my home state of Kentucky nor my adopted state of Virginia. It is in between. It is a hill I pass on the long drives through West Virginia that keep me tethered to the land I love.

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Thursday, August 25, 2011

A Correction


After the earthquake struck Tuesday, all I wanted to do was go home. Home would be its usual chaotic, cozy self. Things would be right where I left them.

Of course, the earthquake shook our suburb, too, and apparently shook harder here than it did downtown, shattering one of our nicest pieces of wedding china (a covered vegetable dish used more for storing receipts than serving mashed potatoes--that will teach us to use the good stuff instead of the everyday) and shaking down the closet where I store magazines, photographs, the girls' school work and other memorabilia.

I snapped a photo before I tidied up, took it to remind myself what a pack rat I am and how much cleaning and organizing I need to do — but also to certify the power of nature. An earthquake, as we are all too aware after the tragedy in Japan, can rip apart an entire society. But even a 5.8 quake like ours exposes fault lines and weaknesses. An earthquake reverses order.

After the last big tremblor in Virginia in 1897, I read, the water swirled the opposite way out of the springs. And if my closet holds any lesson, it is this one: After an earthquake, what was once on the bottom is now on the top, and what was once on the top is now on the bottom. It is a reversal, a correction.

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Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Shaken


It was shortly before 2 p.m. and I was finishing lunch at my desk when I heard what sounded like a bunch of people running and jumping above my ground-floor office in D.C. This didn't make sense, though, because I had never heard footfall before from the upper levels. Before I could process that fact, the entire building began swaying, and I realized that as unbelievable as it was, we were most likely having an earthquake.

By the time I got outside I realized I had left my purse, my phone and all my work inside. All I brought with me was a Diet Coke — not the most practical item for bail out but (apparently) what I had in my hand.

There are cracks in the Washington Monument, damage to the National Cathedral and fallen masonry all over town. It is not what you expect when you go to work on a perfect late summer day. It is, therefore, a good reminder of the preciousness of life.

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Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Depth



Some books start strong and peter out as they go forward. Others pick up steam in the middle and race you to the finish. The Social Animal, by David Brooks, is neither of these. It's a strange hybrid of a book, an attempt to explain the latest research on learning and emotion through the stories of two fortunate, happy (fictional) people, Harold and Erica.

Harold and Erica for the most part make their own good fortune, and they are likeable people, or at least Brooks makes you like them. My problem was, I wanted to know them better. The fiction part of the book kept getting in the way of the nonfiction part, at least for me.

But as the book progressed, I got used to its split personality and was uplifted by Harold's final revelations:

"Harold tried and failed to see into the tangle of connections, the unconscious region, which he came to think of as the Big Shaggy. The only proper attitude toward this region was wonder, gratitude, awe, and humility. Some people think they are the dictators of their own life. Some believe the self is an inert wooden ship to be steered by a captain at the helm. But Harold had come to see that his conscious self — the voice in his head — was more a servant than a master. It emerged from the hidden kingdom and existed to nourish, edit, restrain, attend, refine and deepen the soul within."

This is a book about depth — and the depth makes all the difference.

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Monday, August 22, 2011

Vista


What does the eye appreciate, the eye that evolved to spot antelope across a distant horizon, the eye that often looks no farther now than the tiny screen of a smart phone?

It likes the greensward, the open expanse of turf, like the swelling savannahs of our evolutionary past. And there, where earth meets sky, if not an animal of prey then an emblem of our ambition: a city to conquer and admire.

I once spent time in this place, the Sheep Meadow of Central Park. In fact, I once lost a set of keys somewhere on this vast lawn. I walked by the meadow daily and mediated on this vista. It is a uniquely American view, embracing our love of cities and of countryside, promising both peace and prosperity. It is a sigh of relief, a gasp of delight.

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Saturday, August 20, 2011

Dreams of Space


When I lived in New York, I once sublet a studio apartment in this building. The arrangements were sketchy, as sublets so often were, and in less than six months time the original renter told me she would have to return.

It was not a hard decision. I had been existing in a space the size of a large walk-in closet. It was so small that when I gave a wedding shower for a friend I realized once all seven had arrived that there was literally no place to put their presents. Every other surface was being used.

It was during my time in this place (and earlier, when I lived in a studio in Chicago) that I began dreaming that there was an annex to my apartment, another room or cubbyhole that I had somehow overlooked. How splendid, my dreaming self would think, all this space, and I hadn't realized it before. Now I can spread out. Now I can breathe. And then, I would wake up.

Dreams of space. When the body is deprived, the mind compensates.


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Friday, August 19, 2011

Sun Slant


I was out early this morning and when I drove back into our neighborhood the sun was slanting through the trees and filling our street with light. I wonder why I find this so fetching. Is it because the sunshine is heaven-sent? Because it is grandiose, like a Bierstadt painting?

I have an amateurish meterological explanation for this phenomenon. The air is filled with moisture from last night's downpour and the sunlight bounces off the water molecules in the air. Or something like that.

But what to make, then, of how it strikes my soul, of the philosophical explanation? Seeing our landscape all lit with light comforts me. It fills me with awe at the beauty of nature, and it reminds me that it is still summer — insect-humming, humidity-stoked, green-leafed summer. And I am glad of it.

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Thursday, August 18, 2011

The Fleet


Because it is summer and because we have almost five drivers (our youngest will soon have her license), there are a fleet of cars outside our house.

Ah, driving! It's what I do when I'm not walking. It's what I used to do far more often than I do it now, when the children were younger, when my days were dictated by carpools. But it's what I still do far too much. It is the flip-side of walking in the suburbs — driving in the suburbs.


What kind of mind is engendered by driving? It is not the calm mind that I described yesterday, a mind on a walk, a mind attuned to its environment, a mind living in the moment.

The driving mind must live in the future, must think several steps ahead. Perhaps that's why (and I’m making a leap here), the suburbs have a reputation as lacking in ambiance. Because they are creatures of the automobile, they must live forever in the future. They have no time to be present.



photo: Planetforward

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Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Perfect Air


Walking home from Metro last night, the air temperature so perfect it felt like there wasn't any air there at all. I tried to pass through each stage of the walk as fully conscious as I could be: the trees that lace over the path before the tunnel; the joyful racket of cicadas; the houses busy with after-dinner errands, one man pulling out of a garage, another idling in one.


I crossed the street quickly. Other folks were taking the night air, too, a family of five, two young sons (twins?) and an even smaller girl in a bright pink dress. The mother stops to help the youngest tie her shoe. The father turns to see what’s keeping them. Meanwhile, the boys make it to the next corner. Wait, their parents say. Stop there.


And there are others out for the evening air, joggers and dog walkers. Everyone strides quickly; it is easy to do this evening. There is neither warmth nor humidity to stop you.


And so I make my way to the car. I know I've missed dinner, and it's too early for bed. I'm glad to be moving through space, toward home.


Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Stream Valley


A few days ago I walked a small section of the Cross County Trail, from Miller Heights to a rock bridge across Difficult Run. I was pretty close to Vale, I think, and I paused to read a sign about stream valleys and their value to indigenous people: rich soil, nuts and berries to forage, animals there for the same purpose and ripe for the hunting. Obviously water there, too. These green secluded places were early hunting and fishing grounds. They were home.


Now these same places are helping save the area as it once was; it is through the stream valleys that the Cross County Trail (which runs from one end of the county to the other) is threaded.


We walk the paths our ancestors walked. But we walk for different reasons. We walk our dogs; we walk for health. Our livings are made elsewhere. We work for money. We work for prestige. We come to the trail to work out.


But the shaded packed dirt of the Cross County Trail may yet give us back our lives. Or at least it may give me back mine — by helping me learn to love the place I’ve landed.

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Monday, August 15, 2011

Mossy Hill


You would think that out here in the congested Northern Virginia suburbs it would be next to impossible to lose a hill. But that is exactly what happened. At least for a while.

My children found the rise, named it the mossy hill, and took us there for the first time nine or ten years ago. I was impressed. It was high enough to give a good view of the stream valley below. It made me feel like I was somewhere else entirely, in the foothills of the Blue Ridge or Ozarks, somewhere with more sudden elevations, those squiggly lined places on the topographical maps. But instead I was only half a mile from our house, roaming through a suburban woods.

And then the kids got older, left for track or band or music lessons; the mossy hill was forgotten. I tried to find it many times but the path there had disappeared, vanished under the ferns and sticky vines.

But last winter, Tom and used a topo map to find the place again. We looked for those squiggly lines. We approached the matter scientifically. And now I can find the place by heart.

Yesterday Copper and I walked there. We sat on top of the rise and looked into the woods below. The sun struck the ferned forest floor in patches of golden light. Cicadas provided the soundtrack. It was a humid, still, late summer afternoon. The mossy hill was ours again.

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Sunday, August 14, 2011

Books Before Breakfast


Sometimes when the house is very quiet I can sneak in a few hours of reading early in the morning. I'm sharper after a night's sleep, not dropping off on every page, and what I run my eyes over stays with me longer.

What stays and what doesn't is the subject of the book I just finished, Moonwalking with Einstein, by Joshua Foer. It's a book about memory and memorizing, how a journalist covering the U.S. Memory Championship spent a year developing his memory — and became the U.S. Memory Champion himself.

Basically, anyone can improve his or her memory, Foer says. Or anyone with reasonable intelligence willing to spend hours a day practicing. The mnemonic techniques Foer uses were well known hundreds of years ago, before printed books made memorizing less important.

In my favorite chapter, "The End of Remembering," Foer provides an intellectual history of memory's steady assault by scroll, codex, silent reading, indexes, the printing press — and more recently by computers, cell phones, Google and Post-It notes. Why bother to hold information in our heads when there are so many other places to put it?

"Our memories make us who we are," Foer writes. "They are the seat of our values and source of our character. ... Memory training is not just for the sake of performing party tricks; it's about nurturing something profoundly and essentially human."

I couldn't agree more. But just to be sure, I will now write "Joshua Foer, Moonwalking with Einstein" in the back of my journal. It's where I inscribe the names of all the books I read. If I didn't, I'd forget I had read them.


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Friday, August 12, 2011

First Things


A welcome blast of cool air has revived our mornings, and I wake up ready to run. It's interesting how habit dictates one's timing and route. I always used to walk in the morning, but that was before I started writing in the morning. Now my mornings are like the lead paragraph in a complicated article. There is so much I want to put in them that they sometimes collapse from their own weight.

And my walks, I might postpone them till noon or later. But of course, you only get so many newborn hours in a day. I miss the silken start of a day that begins on foot. But not today. Today I'm out the door and on my way.

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Thursday, August 11, 2011

Nature's Way


Sometimes I think the Perseid Meteor Showers are nature's way of getting us house-dwellers outside at least one night a year. The annual event is not a particularly good way to see shooting stars, at least not in our light-polluted corner of the world.

But this morning I woke early, threw on a white hooded sweatshirt and padded outside. First I walked to one end of the block but house lights and flood lights took away what little darkness there was. Then I ventured the other direction, to the meadow.

There's an old baseball diamond there and I sat down on home plate, then reclined on the grass, hands laced under my head, eyes scanning the heavens. I looked and looked and looked. A couple of times I thought I saw a flash of light, but I decided it was just a twinkling star or a lightning bug.

It didn't really matter, though. It was enough to gaze at the stars, to bask momentarily in the immensity of space.

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Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Out is Up


A climb to the top of the Vienna Metro parking garage yesterday gave me pause. And not only because I was winded from the steps. It was because of what I saw from that perch. The long-planned retail and housing development beside the Vienna station is finally underway. Urban density is coming.

I have mixed feelings about urban density. I appreciate the efforts of Robert E. Simon (founder of the planned community, Reston) and other urban pioneers who have envisioned new ways of living in the suburbs. (In Simon's case, it was to create European-style "new towns" in the middle of Virginia hunt country; his experiment has been only marginally successful.) And yes, it is true that our long driveways and wide lawns, our streets without sidewalks, do not foster walking or biking. They keep the automobile king.

But from my vantage point yesterday all I could see were bulldozers and barren soil stripped of grass and trees. The price of urban density is suburban leafiness, the openness and beauty that drew us here in the first place. But up there on the fifth level of the Metro Parking Garage, the future was clear: The way out is to build up.


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Tuesday, August 9, 2011

The Bloom of the Present


A nod to the "Writer's Almanac," which informed me that today is the anniversary of Walden's publication. When it was published on August 9, 1854, Thoreau wrote in his journal: "To Boston. Walden published. Elder-berries. Waxwork yellowing." After the book sold out its initial 2,000 print run in 1859, it went out of print (encouraging news for us mid-list authors).

Here are the lines that caught my attention this morning when I heard them on the radio: "There were times when I could not afford to sacrifice the bloom of the present moment to any work, whether of the head or hands. I love a broad margin to my life."

I have felt that way often this summer — that it is enough simply to be. To walk or run, to swim or bicycle. To stand still and listen to a mockingbird.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Walking Hot


Yesterday we went to Arlington Cemetery, arguably the hottest place on the eastern seaboard. We crunched across the grass, skirting gravestones, asking directions, finding what we thought was the quickest way to President Kennedy's grave site but learning that we had taken the long road.

Once we found the site, I found my eyes darting away from the eternal flame; surely it was redundant on a day with a heat index of 100. The warmth was everywhere, shimmering off the pavement, slipping a veil between us and the landscape. A guard stopped people from bringing snacks up to the site. The guard had several bottles of ice water in a cooler bag and she chewed on ice in between barking orders to the crowd. We asked her directions, we shared her pain, we told her to stay cool.

But no one stayed cool yesterday, at least no one outside. The fitful showers that showed up about 4 only served to re-humidify the atmosphere so that by the time we got home the windows were fogged and the air conditioner chugging. We were walking, but walking slow. Walking hot.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Conversation


Quick on the heels of my New York trip comes a visit from my dear friend Kay and her son, Emile. Kay lives in Paris so visits from her are rare and treasured. We have been chatting about one thing or the other almost nonstop since she arrived Thursday.

Instead of walking, then, I've been talking. And the talking has sparked ideas and freedoms that have been buried lately. Nothing liberates the soul like a good conversation. Afterward one feels supple and limber — ready to take on the world. Conversation is a bridge to a better place.


Friday, August 5, 2011

Comparisons


I am searching for a wireless network in the suburbs. I wind up at Starbucks. It's tough not to compare this one with the one I just frequented in Manhattan. This one is cool and calm and you can hear the music.

The one on 7th Avenue was loud and crazy and hopelessly behind. Lines formed at all times of the day. There were no seats. Outside, human beings of every size and description formed an endless parade on the thoroughfare.

I live in the suburbs now. I write about the suburbs. I wouldn't want to live in a small apartment in a huge city anymore.

But I notice the differences, and I miss the place. And most of all, I miss the person I am when I'm there.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

The Feet


I forgot the cardinal rule of walking in Manhattan — always wear tennis shoes, no matter how dorky you look. But I was lured by the heat and by my comfortable sandals to think I could walk 10 miles in them. And I couldn't. Now I am a limper in the suburbs. Wounded but unbowed.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

A Moving Post


Today I write from the New Jersey turnpike, a rider on the highway instead of a walker in the suburbs. That I can do such a thing amazes me. So I write with a grateful heart on a bouncy laptop.

Yesterday I visited Central Park, and when I started strolling uptown I felt both wired and slow; I wanted to move more quickly. I wanted to ride a bike. There's quite a brisk bicycle-rental business now at the 59th Street entrance and soon I was pedaling around the big park loop: zooming past the boat basin and the Met on the east side, up a small hill to Harlem at the north end, then past a noisy blue swimming pool.

I dismounted at the reservoir, which was my running track when I lived on the Upper West Side many years ago. There were the familiar curves in the path, the lapping water, the St. Remo Towers looming above it all. Coming back on the bridle path under an ornate metal bridge, I thought about the many times I'd walked around that large pond, how much my life had changed since then, but how the pond was still there, more or less the same.

It was early afternoon on a fine hot summer day, and I was back in Manhattan. Right then, that was enough for me.

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Tuesday, August 2, 2011

The High Line


On the High Line in Manhattan, I'm thinking of space. How this space was created literally out of thin air — well, that, and an old trunk line and the prodigious dreams of its founders. And how because of this space, a ribbon of elevated parkland in a city desperately in need of a air and greenery, so many other spaces have been created. Chic buildings in what used to be a western wasteland. A skate park at the northern terminus. Viewpoints and wading walks and art installations, soon a gallery at the southern end.

And it's all built around walking. Moving through space. Creating, with our movement, a space both public and private.

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Monday, August 1, 2011

City Steps


I became a runner when I lived in Chicago, but I became a walker when I lived in New York. I ran here, too, looped the reservoir a couple of times in the morning when I lived off Central Park and, when I lived downtown, made the World Trade Center my turnaround point.

But when I think of locomotion in New York City, I think of walking most of all. Because it is so crowded here, walking can feel like navigating, looking down at the feet coming toward you, figuring out how to sidestep them. It's a choreography, a dance. But when you hit an open stretch of pavement you can rev into high gear.

Then the short blocks fly by and the bridges, too. And all the faces coming toward you seem full of good will, though you know it's the endorphins making you feel that way. But you don't care because you're walking, no flying, down the streets of New York, and you feel like you're home again.

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