Monday, April 30, 2012

The Poetry of Pittsburgh

When I began this blog more than two years ago, I didn't think long about the quotation I would use across the top. I knew it would come from Annie Dillard's book An American Childhood.

"When everything else has gone from my brain — the President's name, the state capitals, the neighborhoods where I lived, and then my own name and what it was on earth I sought, and then at length the faces of my friends, and finally the faces of my family — when all this has dissolved, what will be left, I believe, is topology: the dreaming memory of land as it lay this way and that."

A few years ago, on our way back from visiting Tom's family in Indiana, we stopped in Pittsburgh, where Annie Dillard was born on this day in 1945. It was a literary pilgrimage for me. Our first view of the city (where I had lived as a toddler, pre-memory), came at dusk, as we drove into a tunnel and out and suddenly there were the three rivers and the bridges crossing them all lit up with white lights and it seemed magical to me, this old city of groaning steel and trestles.

Was it the place itself that exerted this magic, or was it because I was primed to love it by Dillard's words? "I will see the city poured rolling down the mountain valleys like slag, and see the city lights sprinkled and curved around the hills' curves, rows of bonfires winding."

It was both, I think. The place of poetry. The poetry of place.

 Photo by Peter Tooker 2010 All Rights Reserved. From the blog Open Windows.

Labels: , ,

Saturday, April 28, 2012

Lee's Place

Today is the birthday of Harper Lee, who was born in 1926 and still lives in her hometown of Monroeville, Alabama. She has written one book,  To Kill a Mockingbird; it won the Pulitzer and has sold more than 300 million copies. 

"I still plod along with books. Instant information is not for me. I prefer to search library stacks because when I work to learn something, I remember it," Lee said in a 2006 issue of Oprah magazine.

The Monroe County Public Library, I wonder, is that the library she searches? Or the library of Alabama Southern Community College, located in Monroeville? I scan the college website and find a notice for the 15th annual Alabama Writer's Symposium, with its topic "Write Out of Place," being held (yes) this weekend.

Here's how the symposium is advertised, first with this quotation from Katherine Mansfield: “How hard it is to escape from places. However carefully one goes they hold you — you leave little bits of yourself fluttering on the fences — like rags and shreds of your very life.”

And then with the following: "When Mansfield wrote those lines, she could have been describing the way that Alabama authors often find themselves in relation to their home. Whether they set stories lovingly in Alabama, loathingly in Alabama, or deliberately not in Alabama, place becomes a part of who they are. ...  The 2012 Alabama Writers Symposium explores the ways in which Alabama writers are affected by their 'placehood,'  the ways in which Alabama as a place informs their literary efforts."

Lee lived in New York for a while, and she spent time away in college and when she was helping her childhood friend, Truman Capote (another native of Monroeville), research In Cold Blood in Kansas. But she has spent most of her life in Monroeville. She has not escaped from her place; she doesn't seem to have wanted to.

Labels: , ,

Friday, April 27, 2012

Morning Memo

On days I work at home I watch the house slowly empty. First Celia, early, so early, for high school. Then Tom with bike and helmet. He'll ride to work today. And next Suzanne, off to her job in Arlington.  A parade of goodbyes and then, finally, silence.

I pour myself another cup of tea. I read a few pages from a favorite book. And then I place my fingers on the keyboard, willing the words to come, hoping they will flow smoothly today.

Copper lounges by my side. Partings are hard for him, too. But he doesn't need to process them.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Third Place

This is Central Park's Sheep Meadow, a place to meet friends, to picnic, to hang out. It is neither home nor work. It is what Ray Oldenburg calls a "third place." But there are few such places in modern cities. "Our urban topography presently favors those who prefer to be alone, to stay in their homes, or to restrict their outings to relatively exclusive settings," Oldenburg says in his book The Great Good Place.

I would say this design flaw applies most of all to suburban topography, to the design of subdivisions without center and without stores and without a pleasant place to congregate for an hour or two.  I know of nowhere in my neighborhood where people can gather with a regular crowd for a beverage and some conversation; and there certainly are no Central Parks. The closest tavern is a sports bar with a dozen or more conversation-killing TV screens on the walls. The one local coffee shop closes at 2 p.m. We buy our goods at anonymous malls and shopping centers.

"The problem of place in America manifests itself in a sorely deficient informal public life," Oldenburg says. "The structure of shared experience beyond that offered by family, job and passive consumerism is small and dwindling. The essential group experience is being replaced by the exaggerated self-consciousness of individuals. American lifestyles ... are plagued by boredom, loneliness, alienation and a high price tag. America can point to many areas where she has made progress, but in the area of informal public life she has lost ground and continues to lose it."

I finished Oldenburg's book with a stunning takeaway point: that what we think are individual and family failings are actually deficits of community and place. That we have only just begun to plumb what placelessness has done to us.

Labels: ,

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

On Broadway

The tune has been in my head the last few days. The tune is there because I was there. On Broadway, that is. Not the part George Benson sings about, not the place where "the neon lights are bright." Not Times Square Broadway.

I'm talking Upper West Side Broadway. Corner grocers, vacuum cleaner stores, coffee shops. There was a time when I lived there that if I ran out of paper and had to run down to the tiny stationary store to buy some, I hesitated. I would have been on deadline then (I was always on deadline that year) and I knew I would run into at least a couple of people I knew on the way there and back. Could I afford the time to buy the paper and chat with the friends?

The answer, always, was yes.  I had lived there for a few months. And when I walked down Broadway I knew people. I didn't need neon lights.

Saturday, during my 21-hour visit to Manhattan, I had time to walk from 114th to 77th Street. The sun was bright, the air was warm, the pedestrians were of every size, shape and color.  I didn't know people to talk to along the way. But I had left one good friend at 113th Street and met another at 77th. My feet flew down the pavement. There was energy and street life. It was good to be back on Broadway.

Labels: , , ,

Tuesday, April 24, 2012


A cross-section of woodland soil laid bare by Little Difficult Run: See how the roots dominate the picture. Is it just here that they are threaded, wedded to the Virginia clay? Or do we walk on a carpet of them? Everywhere we tread, then, connected to a tree, a shrub, a plant. Our feet fall on the tuberous and the gnarled; our paths linked not just to other routes but to the very land itself.


Monday, April 23, 2012


Less than 24 hours in New York City, a quick trip up for my journalism school reunion. I almost didn't go; I didn't know if I wanted to tell people what I was doing. It's not that I'm ashamed of my career; it's a decent one by most standards. But my classmates are an impressive group of journalists. I wasn't sure they would understand that what matters to me now is not the daily chase for plum assignments or the satisfaction of putting a magazine to bed. Instead, it's reading and thinking and working on the ever-elusive next book.

What I discovered is that many of them are in a similar place. They too are switching gears, writing poetry, starting blogs. They are still an impressive bunch — but impressive as human beings, most of all.

This is where we held our party. Symposium: Plato's work on the nature of love, the Greek word for drinking party and a funky little restaurant on 113th Street.

Labels: ,

Saturday, April 21, 2012

New Look

Today I met Blogger's "new look." This is disconcerting for a creature of timid technological habits. I have my tiny little comfort zone. Ask me to move beyond it and I flail about like a new swimmer in the deep end.

Still, I recognize that we either move ahead or fall behind. Treading water only works for a while.

So I plunge in, click on the tutorial and somehow, in the course of figuring out how to write this morning's post, turn on my iTunes account and a song called "To the Morning" by Dan Fogelberg.  I don't know how I did this. It reveals my technological ignorance in all its glory. But it was a strangely satisfying choice.

"There's really no way to say no to the morning," is the song's key lyric.

There's no way to say no to the future, either.

Labels: ,

Friday, April 20, 2012

Sally's Garden

A few days ago our friend Sally invited us to her house to dig up ferns. Her crop was crowded and needed to be thinned, she said. So we ventured over, shovels in tow, on an unseasonably warm April afternoon.

We'd been to Sally's house before but had never spent time in her backyard. It was nice, I knew, from looking out the back window. But I was unprepared for the beauty and calm spirit of the place.

In the native plants garden there are ostrich ferns and wood poppies and bluebells. A path winds along the perimeter with a pond in the middle and a little arched bridge. The yard is shady and cool, a habitat for birds and butterflies. It backs into a woods that stretches for miles along the stream valley of Little Difficult Run. Sally's garden is one of those surprising suburban oases.

It wasn't until we returned home, our car stuffed full of ferns and wood poppies for transplant, that I realized why "Sally's garden" sounded familiar. It was the Yeats' poem "Salley Gardens" it brought to mind, a verse put to song, a tale of regret and time passing and all sorts of emotions that are often hidden in the suburbs. But they are what give a place depth.
Down by the salley gardens my love and I did meet;
She passed the salley gardens with little snow-white feet.
She bid me take love easy, as the leaves grow on the tree;
But I, being young and foolish, with her did not agree.
In a field by the river my love and I did stand,
And on my leaning shoulder she placed her snow-white hand.
She bid me take life easy, as the grass grows on the weirs;
But I was young and foolish, and now am full of tears.
W. B. Yeats

Labels: ,

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Missing Out

I usually write here of things I've seen. Today I write of something I didn't see. As the shuttle Discovery made its graceful curtain call on D.C. the day before yesterday, I was sitting in my office, preoccupied with matters I thought were more important. It wasn't that I couldn't get away. It was that I didn't. I hadn't known how visible the shuttle would be. Some folks even spied it from the roof of the tallest building on campus.

A few minutes before 11 a.m., Suzanne called: "Mom, I see it. It's flying right over me on 66. Cars are pulling off on the shoulder. It looks like a dolphin on top of a whale." We didn't talk long. I kept imagining how she was gazing at the shuttle, driving the car and talking on the phone at the same time.

Yesterday's paper was full of photographs and quotations. People waited hours to see the spacecraft. It's the end of an era, they said. They imagined all the miles the Discovery had logged, the places it had been. They felt privileged to witness its last flight.

After I took myself to task for missing this spectacle, I tried to think positively. There's no way to go back. So how to move forward? Here's what I came up with: The world is rich and full of possibilities. But it will shrink to a pinhole if I let worries and obligations overwhelm me. The next time I have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, I'll take it.

photo courtesy NASA vis Georgetown Law Facebook page


Wednesday, April 18, 2012

A Photo of Phlox

Waking from brief sleep, I make some tea and slowly come alive. We've moved from summer back to spring. The first birds are stirring. It's the hour before dawn, when the day is just a hint on the horizon.

Soon I will drive in the gloaming past the shimmering azaleas, the fading dogwood. I will, in my haste, not have time to look, to really see, what I am passing.

But on an earlier day I have let the camera look for me. Here, on our normally sedate corner, a vivid crop of creeping phlox.

Labels: ,

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Cross Walk

Yesterday I tried something new, something I hadn't seen in the 23 years we've lived in this neighborhood — a crosswalk. It's our corner's first. A touch of the city in the suburbs. A time-out for the traffic. A vote of confidence in walkers everywhere.

I pushed the button, and I waited. And waited. And waited.

I started to run across the street against the light. After all, there were no cars coming. It's what I usually do, wait for a pause in the stream of cars and then thread my way across.

But yesterday, since the cosmos (and the Virginia Department of Transportation) was giving me a break, I gave them one, too. I was a good citizen, a patient pedestrian. I waited my turn. But when the sign said "Walk" — I ran.

Labels: ,

Monday, April 16, 2012


Saturday night I watched the new movie "My Week with Marilyn," and, after it was over, had a hankering to watch a real Marilyn Monroe movie. "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes" was the one I could find in my Netflix instant queue.

It was a good choice. Not the kind of film I usually watch, foreign or independent, deep and ponderous. This was silly and frothy and fun. Marilyn Monroe and Jane Russell strut their stuff, shake their ample bottoms and seem so strikingly different from today's stick-thin beauties as to be another gender entirely.

It made me think about how seriously we take ourselves these days — and how that wasn't always the case. Once you could sing "diamonds are a girl's best friend" and not be taken to task for your retrograde lack of feminism or support of corrupt African warlords. There I go again, romanticizing the past. It's a nasty habit, I know.

Photo: Wikipedia
from "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes" screenshot


Saturday, April 14, 2012

Blue and Gold

A string of cool days and cold nights has put spring into slow-mo. I love it when this happens. It prolongs "nature's first green," which is gold, as Robert Frost said. Precious. Fleeting.

So, in advance of the weekend's warming trend, I celebrate this first green, best as viewed against a blue, blue sky. And again, nature has cooperated, has given us low-humidity azures. So rather than looking down at the parched and powdery soil, I've looked up at the heavens. And the gold.


Friday, April 13, 2012


Of the three houses I lived in growing up, all had woods and fields nearby where I could ramble. These weren't parks but undeveloped land, and about them hung an air of impermanence. The neighborhood I left to go to college was once known as Banana Hollow and had been known locally for its fine sledding hill. But the slope had long since fallen to the bulldozer.

I roamed the edges and bottomlands of this territory — just as I had the Ware farm which backed up to our previous house. That land, a plentiful pasture studded with the occasional giant oak, was home to a herd of grazing cattle. Some mornings I woke to the sound of their tramping and munching on the other side of our fence. But the Ware Farm was gone soon after we left that house, when I was a sophomore in high school.

All this is to say that when I hike through Folkstone Forest and the adjacent stream valley park, I am mindful of the gift, the certainty of this semi-natural land. Sure, in winter you might glimpse houses along its periphery, but plunge deep enough and all that's visible is tree and fern and vine. It is stream valley land, prone to flooding and therefore protected.

I walk in an unendangered suburban wilderness. And I am grateful for that.

Labels: , ,

Thursday, April 12, 2012


Before there was Amazon one-click ordering, there was the serendipitous joy of finding a book that I've been wanting to read for a long time on a dark dusty shelf in the nether regions of the library.

Though it could be any book, this time it's Wallace Stegner's When the Bluebird Sings to the Lemonade Springs. I can already tell that it will be a keeper, that I'll probably end up buying a copy of my own through — yes — Amazon one-click ordering.

But back to serendipity, to the way it feels to look up a book in the library catalog (and in the old days those wooden boxes ), scribble the number on a card and then go in search of it. This might take a while, especially if it's a Dewey Decimal system; those numbers always give me headaches. But soon I have zeroed in on the row, then the shelf and then (miracle of miracles) the book is actually there, where it is supposed to be.

What's captivating about the library find is the book's tangibility, its placedness, it's being there. But what fuels the joy of discovering it? It's the plain simple (but intangible) fact that good books, in some way, become a part of us. More us than our bones and breath.


Wednesday, April 11, 2012

The Birth of a Fern

It emerges not as a shoot but as a tendril. Furry and curved, something prehistoric, of the grave. One does not ooh and aah over the baby fern. One is curious, to be sure. And circumspect. A bit in awe. But not giddy or giggle-prone. Adorable the young fern is not.

But as it grows, it comes into its own. It unfurls, straightens out, becomes the plant it was meant to be. Lacey and delicate. At once contemporary and old-fashioned. Ferns give me faith.

Labels: ,

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Virginia Bluebells

I know where to find them, walked right to them on Friday, crossed Soapstone, turned left onto a springy woods trail and there they were. Early, of course. But then everything is early this year.

Tall, nodding flowers, pink as buds and becoming a heavenly blue in maturity. A blue edging toward periwinkle. A color seen less often this time of year, so dominated are we by yellows, pinks and purples.

The Virginia bluebell thrives in woodland soil, rich, loamy, leaf-strewn. There are few of these wildflowers in our woods. Which makes seeing them each spring all the more essential. I make my way to their home as if visiting a national monument or a famous painting. It's one of my rites of spring.

Photo: Bellewood

Labels: ,

Monday, April 9, 2012

The Aroma of Hyacinth...

Is what remains of Easter. A whiff of a flower that droops upon its stem; that bends, heavy with fragrance and with blossom. This one is lavender, the color of regret.

A brief holiday is over. The world is still light with the new green of spring, but duty makes it feel heavy. The birds are calling and the azaleas flash pink along the walkway. The tulips arch toward the sun. I pick up where I left off. I begin again.

I keep the hyacinth by the kitchen window, where I can savor it often.

Labels: ,

Saturday, April 7, 2012

I Didn't Take Pictures When I Lived There

But I make up for it when I return. It's the years in the wilderness, the suburban wilderness. They have softened me, I suppose, turned me into a tourist. I snap and snap and don't care if people think I'm a tourist. I'm easily impressed. I look up.

Every direction is a photograph. The ripple of water in a lagoon, the play of light on a brownstone, the San Remo glimpsed through a screen of bright willow green.

Maybe we should move back to New York, I say to Tom, knowing, before the words leave my mouth, how foolish they sound, the four-bedroom colonial back in Virginia filled to bursting. Knowing that life has taken me far from the person I was when I made my way in Manhattan years ago.

But that's the point of travel. Possibilities present themselves. Life, in all its fullness, returns.


Friday, April 6, 2012

Walking in the City

A walker in the suburbs strolls the streets or ambles through the woods, but her destination is secondary. She walks for the walking and not for where it takes her.

Compare this to a walker in the city, pounding the concrete day after day. Here is walking with purpose, commuting on foot or by subway (which must also be walked to and from); walking to the corner for a newspaper, to the market for a quart of milk. Walking because it's faster than taking a cab. Walking because, well, it's just the way you get around. It is the air you breathe; it is the environment.

All this is to say, a walker in the suburbs forgets how much she walked when she lived in the big city. And when she goes back there her feet remind her. Her soul too. It soars.

Labels: ,

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

The Same Path

On a walk through the meadow the other day it dawned on me that my path was made possible not only by my treks but also by Tom's. A trail is born of frequent footfall, and the two of us, though separately more often than we'd like, give the Folkstone routes a pounding.

It is a strange sort of togetherness that I celebrate here, then, that of walking the same trail at different times. But that is often the way of marriage, both in a practical sense (you watch the kids now and I'll do the same for you later) and an emotional one. We come to terms with life in our own time, but we share in the great labors of child rearing and home creating. We are stronger because we're together — and because we're together, we don't have to stride in lockstep.

Today, Tom and I celebrate 25 years of walking the same path — and it is still a grand adventure.

Labels: ,

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Rooting for the Overdog

Once a year in March (or, if we're lucky, in April, too) I watch University of Kentucky basketball. I'm not a very good spectator, perhaps because I'm such a fair-weather one, tuning in only when my home team is in the NCAA finals. Last night I was so nervous that Kansas would pull off one of their trademark last-minute wins that I kept switching back to an American Masters program on To Kill a Mockingbird. This is the way an English major watches a sporting event.

To be a Kentucky fan (of which I am only the very mildest sort) means never to root for the underdog. Since I usually pull for the horse with high odds, the Olympic hopeful just shy of glory, this is an unusual position in which to find myself. Over and over again last night I heard commentators expound on how Kansas could still pull this off. Even in the last minute, they talked about the combination of three-point shots and carefully timed free-throw opportunities that could give them a victory.

Usually I like this talk, the come-from-behind excitement that makes life worth living. But last night I was all for sure and steady, for steeling one's nerves and sticking to it. Last night, I was rooting for the overdog, the team that was expected to bring home the trophy. It faces the greater pressure. And when it wins, the victory is sweet.

Photo of Kentucky coach John Calipari, College Hoops Video.


Monday, April 2, 2012

New Leaves

For the last few days the oak leaves have been inching slowly heavenward. The nights have been cool, so they have stayed small and purposeful and brilliant. They are flowers but not flowering, leaves but not leaving.

At this point each one is separate, distinct, on its own skyward pilgrimage. They raise themselves up as if in prayer. They catch the evening light.

Labels: ,

blogger counters