Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Leap Day

It comes only once every four years, this bonus day, this leap day, this tag-along. What can I do with its extra minutes and hours?

I don't need to ask myself this question. I know what I'll do. The same thing I do with all the others. Work, family, reading through the long commute, a walk if I can work one in.

The key is not to make this day special. It's to make this day make all the others so.


Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Daffodils in February

Someone I know is about to travel to a faraway country. It will be cold there, she said, so she's taking lots of warm clothes.

For a minute this confused me. Warm clothes? Winter? I had almost forgotten them.

Yesterday our daffodils finally bloomed. Finally is a funny word to use about spring at the end of February. But the buds have been full to bursting for a couple of weeks now. So "finally" is what it feels like.

I want to protect these early flowers, the frost-nipped tulip tree, the shy, early-blooming cherry. But all I can do is watch and hope. The daffodils are sturdy, though, so I have more confidence in them. Which also means more joy.

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Monday, February 27, 2012

The Face

Less than 36 hours before it won "Best picture" I caught "The Artist" at a local cinema. It was, as promised, a paen to old Hollywood and the golden age of film. But more than that it was a testament to the power of the human face.

That I could sit for two hours and hear only two spoken words — yet still be caught up in the drama and pathos of the characters' lives — speaks to the enormity of emotions that can be conveyed by two eyes, a nose, mouth and a whole lot of facial muscles.

So here's to twinkles, frowns, smiles and arched eyebrows. No matter how sensitive our instruments and how sophisticated our technology, their power is never lost.

Photo: Wikipedia


Saturday, February 25, 2012

Decluttering Mantras

Yesterday's presentation was for wordsmiths, so the organizer tailored it to her audience. "Think of it as editing your stuff," she said. You're creating white space. Less is more. She didn't actually say "kill your darlings," but that's what she meant. "You want white space," she said. "You don't want to walk into a study that's like a bad article."

Clearing clutter is a mental game, of course, so what I appreciated most were the pep talks, the encouraging language, the mantras. "Think of it as breaking up with your stuff," she said. Sort your materials into past, present and future. "If 99 percent of it is from the past then you are keeping the future out. You don't want to turn your home office into a museum."

Or this decluttering mantra: "You are not your stuff." You're not your books or your file folders or your hard-won interview notes. "Learn to detach."

For longtime pack rats like me, these are hard words to assimilate. But the organizer also had this practical, benign tactic. Cull your files. Put the refuse in a bin and move it from the office to the hall, from the hall to the garage. If you can live without those papers for a few weeks, then out they go.

Deep breaths. I'm going in ...

Photo of a cluttered garage will have to do. I have no photos of a cluttered file cabinet.


Friday, February 24, 2012

No Longer Noticing

On a walk to my car from Metro the other day I noticed how I was no longer noticing the early spring. As if it were normal to see buttercups and dandelions in February. As if the balmy air was to be expected.

Winter has no time for us this year, and I'm glad of it. We're not emerging from a dark tunnel of cold and snow.

In the past, a mild winter has felt like cheating. Not this year. I'm glad of the warmth and greenery — even though I know we will pay for it with a hot summer.

But for now the year is a circle, not a spiral. We are walking the high road.



Thursday, February 23, 2012

February Madness

Until a few days ago, I hadn't seen a movie in a theater for months, but it's time now for my yearly binge. Monday was "Descendants" and last night "War Horse." If I'm lucky I'll work "The Artist" and "Hugo" into the next few days.

Thanks to Netflix, I watched "Midnight in Paris" and "Moneyball" at home. I caught "The Help" when it was out earlier this year. And the rest of the nominated films (I'll never get used to having more than five in the top category) I can live without seeing. Unlike last year with "The King's Speech," this year I have no clear favorite. Which makes it more fun.

A film binge is a nice way to see out what is usually (though not this year) the winter doldrums: sitting in a darkened theater, losing myself in the sounds and lights. It's too early for March Madness. I'll call it February Madness instead.

Photo: Wikipedia

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Sacred Walking

Because today is Ash Wednesday I'm thinking about sacred walking, the pilgrimage. Walking with purpose to a shrine or holy place.

Here the walk is for both the journey and the destination: the destination because it holds spiritual riches; the journey because it holds hardship and the opportunity for enlightenment.

To think of daily life as a pilgrimage, that is the challenge. To infuse the ordinary strolls with meaning.


Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Book Nook

On the same weekend that I finally dipped my toes into the Kindle, I also bought two new bookcases. Tall, skinny ones that slip nicely into an oddly shaped alcove that we've been trying to make the best of — design-wise — since we bought the house.

So while I'm willing to try the electronic book, I'm making room for more of the real articles. Today I'll read a library book on Metro. I'm racing to finish it so that I can dig into the latest Ann Patchett novel that Suzanne is lending me (and which someone else has lent her).

And so goes the community of book readers — trading, discussing, and yes, even hording. I imagine that soon my Kindle will be as full to bursting as our book shelves.

Meanwhile, we've created a little book nook in our bedroom: a rocking chair, a pouf (soft ottoman), a reading light and lots and lots of the the real things, just waiting to be plucked from the shelves onto our laps.

Not exactly this but something like it...


Monday, February 20, 2012

The Dark Side

Today I went over to the dark side — the electronic e-reader, the Kindle. A generous Christmas gift from my brother Phillip, it has been sitting unopened on my bookshelf (interesting place for it to wind up), taunting me with possibility and with dread.

What of all the posts I've written about "real books"? What of my English major stand in favor of ink on paper and the codex? Are these scruples gone?

Of course not. The e-reader will always be a supplement, one more way to read a book. It will be interesting to see if I can navigate it, of course. Already I've had to enlist help from Tom (how to scroll) and Celia (how to return to my home page). They have rallied bravely to the cause of this technophobe. And now I have several free books in my queue (including Aristotle's Ethics and the entire Bible!) and a couple sample chapters to peruse.

I've read four times more books since I got my Kindle, a friend told me a couple days ago. That's what made me do it. Four times more books! I'm in.

Above: a more old fashioned way of retrieving books.


Saturday, February 18, 2012

Stegner and Place

Today is the birthday of Wallace Stegner, writer, teacher and celebrator of place. The American West was his place and he described it well, its aridity and openness, the loneliness of its grain elevators and grasslands, the way it has shaped our character.

The New World transient is a person in motion, Stegner says. "Acquainted with many places, he is rooted in none." Because he moved frequently himself, Stegner knows "the dissatisfaction and hunger that result from placelessness." Which leads him to this conclusion:

"A place is not a place until people have been born in it, have grown up in it, lived in it, known it, died in it — have both experienced and shaped it, as individuals, families, neighborhoods and communities, over more than one generation."

I have thought about these words often since reading them this fall, have considered their truth as I try to feel at home in the suburbs. Thinking about them has led me to the library, to books about the people who lived here before us, to local historians who've discovered lost roads. I'm trying my best to feel at home here. But the "dissatisfaction and hunger" remain.

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Friday, February 17, 2012

Walking Meditation

Yesterday, for a few minutes, I practiced walking meditation. I took off my shoes and closed my eyes and moved slowly through space while breathing deeply and letting thoughts come and go.

I've been four times now to these Thursday lunchtime meditation sessions, and yesterday's was revealing. I noticed that I had to place myself as I walked. Was I at the beach, in the mountains, on a woodland path? I finally settled on a cathedral, Chartres, maybe, or Saint John the Divine. Somewhere vast and cavernous and still.

It was only after I placed myself that I could stop thinking and empty my mind. Then I could feel the carpet pattern beneath my feet, could recognize the worries and let them go.


Thursday, February 16, 2012

Curved and Straight

A walk yesterday along the mall was a study in shapes. The National Museum of the American Indian loomed before me, its curved stone walls a link to the mesas and pueblos of our native past.

Beside it was a straight sidewalk, the stricture into which the native past was placed. We, the inhabitants of the 21st century, we live with them both.

Closest to the surface is the straight line, the crossroads, the grid. But underneath its order are the curved paths of our past. The deer trails and the wagon train trails, the old roads that wound among hills and ridges.

I walked yesterday along the straight path, but I kept my eyes trained on the curves.



Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Run, Don't Walk

Before I was a walker I was a runner, and there are times when I still think of myself as one. My knees won't let me jog far, but when I'm cold or bored or running late, I still break into a trot.

I did this today on the way to the office. It's not very dignified, but it provides a moment of release, similar to the feel of a horse as it moves from a trot to a canter. The motion then becomes silken and sleek, horizontal rather than vertical and, yes, more fun.

So while I told myself today that I should walk not run, I did just the opposite. I moved through space as quickly as I could. Sometimes it's the only way.


Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Happy Valentine's Day

On Saturday, I sat in a small church and listened to 1 Corinthians 13. This bible verse was read not at a wedding but at a funeral. Perhaps because of this context — or because it had been a while since I heard these words — they surprised me with their depth and power. In honor of Valentine's Day, I reprint them here:

If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing.

Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

Love never ends. As for prophecies, they will pass away; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will pass away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when the perfect comes, the partial will pass away. When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I gave up childish ways. For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known.

So now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love.

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Monday, February 13, 2012


It may come as no surprise that I take parenting advice with a grain of salt. But I do think about one bit of wisdom I once heard — that to raise children these days you have to walk against the wind. I've been doing a lot of wind-walking lately, both literally and metaphorically. Which is perhaps why it was strangely satisfying to pound the pavement this cold morning.

Yesterday the bitter cold took me by surprise. I was out early, had only one tissue in my pocket, and I sniffled and snuffled and tiptoed over icy patches all along my route. My hands were so cold I had to ball them up inside my thin gloves. I never hit my stride.

Today I was better prepared. More layers. Ears covered. Thicker gloves. Still only one tissue but hey, life isn't perfect. It felt good to walk against the wind today. A shivering dose of reality. Always better when faced.

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Sunday, February 12, 2012

Old Part of Town

Yesterday I drove to the old part of town, to a D.C. I seldom visit, where the houses are stately and imposing and the yards settled and calm. I was struck, as I often am, by how various neighborhoods and landscapes create different moods.

How wide open and exposed is the world of the outer suburbs, how on the edge of things. I think about the medieval town, walled and protected, houses clinging together for survival. And I see in our wide yards a sort of bravado.

Openness has its appeal, but so does the fenced yard, the closed gate, the hedged garden. There is something in here precious enough to protect — to make you long to be inside.


Friday, February 10, 2012

A College Place

Last night I went to a gathering of old college friends. We asked the inevitable questions (where do you live? what do you do? and — the clincher — when did you graduate?) and then we told stories. I heard about some great pranks and learned that two paintings in the reception area of my freshman dorm were recently found to be worth millions of dollars.

At some point our conversation turned to why we chose Hanover in the first place. And for most of us it was the physical beauty of the place. Hanover College sits on a bluff overlooking a double bend of the Ohio River. A winding forest road leads to the classical campus with old brick buildings in the Georgian style. To unwind, students stroll to the Point to look at the river.

I transferred from Hanover after my sophomore year, decided I wanted a campus near a big city. But when I think of college it's Hanover I remember most. The low, mournful call of the barges passing, the broad Ohio curving; it's a view that, every time I return, seems too perfect to be true.

Photo Trip Advisor


Thursday, February 9, 2012

Moonlight Invitation

Moonlight woke me this morning. It poured through our back windows at 4 a.m. A pool of white light, a bright beacon.

I had no intention of walking in it, but still, it posed an invitation, perhaps even a summons. Get up, savor the moment, look at the faraway, inscrutable, silent, brilliant moon.

And so I did. The orb bathed our backyard in a strange glow, neither night nor day. It made me think of places where moonlight lights the way for travelers and smugglers and lost souls. It was like a dream, except it wasn't.

When I drove to work this morning, the moon was still up, a tamer version of its earlier wild self. I could almost pretend it wasn't there.


Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Dickens the Walker

Too busy writing about the anniversary here yesterday to mention Dickens' 200th birthday. David Copperfield is one of my favorite books — in fact, it's about time to re-read it — and I revere most of author's classics. (I'll admit, Bleak House was a bit tedious in parts.)

What I didn't know until yesterday (or perhaps once heard but had forgotten) is that Dickens was a walker. The "Morning Edition" story I heard about him yesterday said he liked to walk "far and fast."

"He did these great walks — he would walk every day for miles and miles, and sometimes I think he was sort of stoking up his imagination as he walked, and thinking of his characters," said Claire Tomalin, author of the new biography Charles Dickens: A Life.

Imagine going for a stroll and coming back with Mr. Macawber. Or Bob Cratchit. Or any number of the other real, human, flawed, funny, rich and revealing characters that people Dickens' novels.

Learning of the great man's walking habits makes me appreciate my ambles all the more. A walk may not yield a masterpiece. But it almost always produces a thought or two that I wouldn't have had if I hadn't moved my legs and jiggled my old brain a bit.

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Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Second Anniversary

As any parent knows, a child’s second birthday is not quite as big a deal as her first. And so we come to February 7, 2012, the second anniversary of A Walker in the Suburbs. It’s a more low-key event than last year’s celebration, but I can’t let it go unsung.

There are 612 posts here — that ‘s about 600 more than I thought I’d write when I began this blog during “Snowmageddon,” the great blizzard of 2010.

As it begins year three, A Walker in the Suburbs continues to ripple ever so slowly into cyberspace. I know I should gussy up the old template, add some bells and whistles to attract more followers to the site. (And speaking of followers, I accidentally erased that feature last year and haven’t found a way to add it again.) But adding followers (though delightful when it happens) is not my only aim.

I started the blog as an exercise in daily writing, a way to look beneath the surface of the suburban world I live in to the channels and eddies and springs underneath. Sometimes I do this by walking and reflecting upon what I see. Sometimes I do it by writing about what I’ve read or noticed in the course of daily living. Sometimes I get to the place I’m seeking; other times, I miss it by a mile.

It still seems an act of extreme hubris to post my thoughts in a forum for everyone to see. That I do so is either proof that I’m learning to embrace technology — or the opposite, that I can’t imagine my words going beyond the screen of my laptop.

Whatever the case, they do, and you’re here. I’m glad we found each other.


Monday, February 6, 2012

Old Trees, Young Trees

A winter reading binge this weekend: Two by Conrad Richter, The Trees and The Town. The latter won the Pulitzer Prize in 1951, doubtless in part because of sentences like this:

"She reckoned she knew how one of those old butts [trees] in the deep woods felt when all its fellows were cut down and it was left standing lone and gaunt against the sky, with only whips and brush and those not worth the axe pushing up around it."

The "she" is Sayward, the woods woman heroine of Richter's "Awakening Land" trilogy. (I wrote about the middle volume, "The Fields," a couple weeks ago.) And in this passage she's at the end of her life, remembering the kind of people she knew in her youth. "In her time in the woods, everybody she knew was egged on to be his own special self. He could live and think like he wanted to and no two humans you met up with were alike."

If she could feel this way in a 19th-century frontier town along the banks of the Ohio, then no wonder I fret about the unanimity of personality in 2012 suburbia.

A few pages later, Sayward ruminates on the new trees she planted in the side yard of her grand city house. "No, she couldn't blame these young trees of hers. They did uncommon well since they were planted. Sometimes at night, especially when there was no moon, she thought they changed into wild trees. Then they looked mighty tall. They stood like Indian chiefs, letting the dark come over them, like this was still their land and they were the masters of it, like they hadn't lost heart. Oh, she had to admire their spunk and feel for them, three young forest trees against a whole city. Sometimes she wishes she could give them back their land, for it was she who had taken it from them."

Today I'll look kindly upon saplings and other young living things. I'll hold out hope for them.


Sunday, February 5, 2012

Betting on Pansies

When we first moved to the Washington, D.C. area from New England, I was surprised at the fall planting of pansies. Won't they just be clobbered by snow and ice? Isn't it tempting fate to assume the winter will be warm?

One year I planted ornamental cabbage, the white kind with a sweet lavender center. That was as close as I've come to winter plantings.

But this year pansies have flourished. In fact, they're in danger of being overrun by the early blooming of daffodils and witch hazel. Winter is taking a nap this year.

Friday, February 3, 2012

McKibben on Place

I just finished Bill McKibben's short book Wandering Home, his thoughts on environment and place as he walked through Vermont's Champlain Valley and New York's Adirondacks.

Here's one passage, about how it feels to arrive somewhere on foot: "It's not like arriving in the car for a dinner party. On foot you arrive late or early, without excuse, and settle into whatever conversation is under way. It took you a while to get there, so you're obviously going to stay awhile. It feels like visiting in an older sense of the word..."

And here's McKibben on the loss of old codgers: "It's as if someone came and knocked down a thousand-acre stand of mature timber, as far as I'm concerned." When these people were alive, McKibben says, "there was a quality of memory that I believe informed the place. It was tangible. It was in the air, it made the place what it was for me."

In the suburbs, old codgers, or even young ones, are in short supply. Perhaps that is one reason why there's no "there" here.

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Thursday, February 2, 2012

Boundary Issues

Our neighbors found a property marker the other day. At first, they didn't know what it was. Surely it couldn't have remained hidden almost 23 years. But that is exactly what it was — and exactly what it had done. We looked at our original plats and deeds — and we are now the proud owners of a few feet more prime Virginia clay soil, another 70-foot oak tree. And every fall (the best part), we now must rake and bag hundreds more bushels of leaves.

In other words, we didn't welcome our new acquisition. And we've joked about how long it will take us to turn the lush, well groomed strip of land into a bumpy, grass-bare parcel.

I'm reading a history of Fairfax County and learning how often the same land was deeded twice. Deciding boundaries kept surveyors and courts busy for decades. Sometimes property lines were intentionally ignored, but other times the confusion came from surveyor error. Trees or rocks were used for landmarks — and then the trees or rocks would disappear.

Makes me feel better about our little suburban boundary confusion. And just to think, we settled it without a surveyor or court.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012


Today is the birthday of the writers Muriel Spark, Langston Hughes and Galway Kinnell. It is also the birthday of my mom, a writer who is less well known, whose pad and paper were often put aside to tend to a child or pay a bill or wait until the world was calmer before picking them up again.

But she read Shakespeare to us and talked to us of worlds beyond the one we knew. And now we are out in those worlds and she is encouraging us still.

We encourage her, too. It's calm enough to write now, Mom. You can pick up that pad and pen. The coast is clear.
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