Thursday, May 31, 2012

Day Off

The weather forecast looked good. And there is the birthday thing. So today seemed as good a day as any to play hookey.

Not that I've done much so far. Written. Talked. Opened email to find greetings from friends and family. A walk still to come.

A catbird is singing.  The day lilies starting to bloom. The new climbing rose surging skyward.

There is a sense of pleasant rightness in the air.


Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Independence Day

Even when I'm not looking for them, I find exhortations and excoriations about place. I picked up Richard Ford's Independence Day, for example, because I read a review of his new novel, Canada, which raved also about his earlier works. I had no idea that Independence Day would be laced with thoughts on houses and towns and their promises and deceptions, nor that the narrator, writer-turned-realtor Frank Bascombe, would muse often about real estate and belonging.

Here Frank compares his current residence in suburban Haddam, New Jersey, to his southern birthplace. "(Of course, having come first to life in a true place, and one as monotonously, lankly itself as the Mississippi Gulf Coast, I couldn't be truly surprised that a simple setting such as Haddam — willing to be so little itself — would seem, on second look, a great relief and damned easy to cozy up to.)"

Later in the novel Frank totes up what he's learned about belonging from "a patent lesson of the realty profession, to cease sanctifying places — houses, beaches, hometowns, a street corner where you once kissed a girl, a parade ground where you marched in line, a courthouse where you secured a divorce on a cloudy day in July but where there is now no sign of you, no mention in the air's breath that you were there or that you were ever, importantly you, or that you even were. We may feel they ought to, should confer something— sanction, again — because of events that transpired there once; light a warming fire to animate us when we're well nigh inanimate and sunk. But they don't. Places never cooperate by revering you back when you need it. In fact, they almost always let you down. ... Place means nothing."

Frank doesn't waver in his opinion at the end of the novel, either. No sentimental backtracking for him: "It's worth asking again: is there any cause to think a place — any place — within its plaster and joists, its trees and plantings, in its putative essence ever shelters some spirit ghost of us as proof of its significance and ours? No! Not one bit! Only other humans do that, and then only under special circumstances..."

I don't completely agree with Ford, but he makes a persuasive case.

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Tuesday, May 29, 2012

A Change of Screen

A change of scene is not always possible, so in its place, a change of screen. I choose a photo of a hike we took in the Czech Republic, high above the town of Czesky Krumlov. The Vltava River flows below, out of view in this photograph. And the hills that rise in blue infinity, those are the Sumava Mountains of Bohemia, in the heart of Europe.

When I stare at my computer's desktop screen now, I remember the breathlessness of that walk, the little shrines we stopped at along the way, the snails that clung to the dew-wet grass, the view that awaited us at the top. Limitless. 

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Monday, May 28, 2012

Decoration Day

We have no flagpole holder, no siding on our house to hold one, and the front of our house is obscured by large trucks. Still, I walked to the mailbox a minute ago to stick a small flag in its arm.  It's Decoration Day, Memorial Day's first name, what it was called when it was established in 1868 for the purpose of decorating the graves of fallen soldiers.

No longer May 30, Memorial Day is the last Monday of the month — a day for cookouts, pool openings and ushering in the summer. But long ago (and in some places still) it was a day for a solemn parade and a trip to the cemetery.

Here is a Decoration Day parade from Brownsville, Texas, in 1916, photographed by Robert Runyon and downloaded from the Library of Congress' American Memory project.

(Photo: The Robert Runyon Photograph Collection, [image number, e.g., 00199], courtesy of The Center for American History, The University of Texas at Austin.)

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Saturday, May 26, 2012

New House, Part 1

They are stripping our house, skinning it, peeling off panel after panel of dented aluminum siding. How inconsequential it all seems now, this pile of discarded metal.

But this shell is what has protected us from wind and rain and snow. It has been our barrier, our boundary with the outside world. It has held in the giggles and the screams and the slamming of doors. It has kept out the snow and the wind and the withering heat.

Seeing it now in piles upon the ground it hardly seems possible it has done all of these things. But I've been here. I know it has.

To be continued.

(Photo by neighbor John DeVoe of an earlier phase of reconstruction: the new roof we got Tuesday. Due to current camera glitches, I'm one day behind in photo retrieval.)


Friday, May 25, 2012

Sleight of Hand

A month from today Suzanne flies to Benin, West Africa, to begin her Peace Corps assignment. We've known about this for months, but now that we're down to the final weeks it's becoming more and more a reality. The map of Africa isn't the only thing swinging into high relief these days. So is the map of parenthood, the map of life even, if that isn't too melodramatic.

Children are supposed to leave their parents, start lives of their own. This is the natural order of things. I always believed this when I was the child, and I believed it as a parent, too — when my kids were young.  Now I'm having to put my money where my mouth is.

To stave off nervousness I'm concentrating not on how I'll feel when Suzanne takes off and am trying to imagine how she'll feel. It's a parental sleight-of-hand that many of us do unconsciously all the time. It's why we can smile through our tears.

I remember exactly the way I felt when I walked on the tarmac toward the plane that would fly me to Europe for two months backpacking with friends. I had just turned 20 and my whole life — and Europe! — were ahead of me. I felt like I was bouncing off the pavement. I was floating. That's the feeling I'll be trying to conjure up as Suzanne strides toward her future.

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Thursday, May 24, 2012

Happy Anniversary!

What started 60 years ago was not just a marriage; it was a family, a way of life. It was jumping in an old Chevy and driving across the country. Finally running away to California to start all over again — then realizing that Kentucky was where they wanted to be all along.

Mom and Dad married on May 24, 1952. Another of countless post-war weddings. A few years after the war, of course, but the soldier had to get his degree and start his career. And so the marriage began, and it has endured.

The family that flowed from that union has never felt like any other family. (Does any family, ever?) There were the businesses, the magazines, the museum, the houses with garages full of boxes that would become family rooms (but never did). There were the four children and the trips across the country in station wagons. Look at this country, they told us kids, see how big it is. There has always been a certain jauntiness, a sense that you didn't have to be what circumstances dictated. Dreaming was encouraged. Escape was required.

So today we celebrate this union, these people, still here, still dreaming and planning. How lucky I am to have them as parents.  Happy anniversary, Mom and Dad!

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Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Question and Answer

"What do you want for your birthday?" my daughters ask me.

"Family harmony," I say, "world peace."

I don't say "what we have right now." What we have sitting around this table, eating dinner at 10 o'clock. (Sometimes it takes that long to get everyone together.)

Give me a month of these conversations, of talking about what color to paint the kitchen and how much our floors creak. Of how much we love San Francisco and what our neighbors will think of our new siding. Of gun control and abortion. Of where we want to live when we grow up ... or retire.

And, just to be really greedy, bottle these voices for me. These voices I could pick out of a billion, they are so clear to me, and so dear.

That's what I'd like for my birthday.

And you say I'm hard to shop for.

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Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Honeysuckle Season

It isn't just the flowers and new leaves that make May my favorite month, the azealas and the iris. It's the perfumed air. Take a walk in our neighborhood now and you would have to be suffering from a severe head cold or sinus infection to miss the olfactory assault.

The air is literally perfumed. Stroll past the honeysuckle. Deconstruct that scent. For me, it is cool mornings along a Fayette County Lane, out early to pick strawberries. It is a roll-on perfume by Avon that I wore in high school, came in a little tube like Chap-Stick. I thought it marked me as a "natural girl." No Shalimar for me!

Honeysuckle drapes itself over hedges and fence rows. It is an elegant, lithesome plant, willing to grow just about anywhere.  Which is good news for us. Because that means we can smell it on walks through woods or along suburban lanes.

Last night I picked a sprig and bought it home. Now it sits beside the kitchen window. Bringing the outside in.


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Monday, May 21, 2012

Birds Take Flight

"Every day,  I walked. It was not a meditation, but survival, one foot in front of the other, with my eyes focused down, trying to stay steady."

This is from Terry Tempest Williams' new book When Women Were Birds. A few pages later, Williams writes: "I am a writer about place who is never home."

I link these two passages. The walking and the writing about place.  Each essential to the other. One to prime the pump, the other to fill the jug with cold, clean water.

So where do the birds come in? Williams meets her husband at a bookstore, as he's buying a bird guide. Williams finds her voice through a special teacher who reads to her about the winter owl. A peregrine falcon once slit the corner of Williams' eye. Another time, Williams sees a painted bunting that arrived in a wintry Maine on the cusp of a fierce winter storm.

"When dawn struck his tiny feathered back, he ignited like a flame: red, blue and green. ... I have not dreamed of white birds since."

When I finished Williams' book I flipped through the pages with my thumb — and saw the birds that illustrate the outer edge of each page fly back and forth as if alive.

Birds take flight. So do words.

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Saturday, May 19, 2012

48 Hours

To return home is to find your way back when you didn't know you were gone. To return home is to see what happens when you weren't looking.

What happens when you don't know where home is?

That's why I pay attention to the feelings that accompany arrival.

I'm in Kentucky for 48 hours. It isn't long enough.

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Friday, May 18, 2012

Long Evenings

After dinner, almost dark -- I work in a quick walk around the neighborhood. The sounds of the day mingle with those of the night. I hear a catbird settling in a maple tree, and, at the same moment, a chorus of crickets from a hedge beside the road.

The peepers are gone now but tree frogs are already serenading us. Wind chimes and soft music waft across the street from our neighbors with a front porch.

In a few weeks the pool will be open and the sun setting even later. Long evenings soothe and invigorate. We can live without them -- don't we prove it every winter? -- but it was hard last night to imagine how we do.

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Thursday, May 17, 2012

Unfamiliar Route

Sometimes I take the long way to the office. I go straight after leaving Metro instead of turning left. I walk alongside one of the largest homeless shelters in the city and past a wall of cars exiting a tunnel. There's a building under renovation, and I have to scamper across the street to avoid the construction.

This route takes a little longer. I can't do it on auto-pilot. But there is a bustle and an energy to it that isn't present on my regular path.

Does the allure of this walk come from its unfamiliarity? Or is it the nature of the scenery itself -- closer to the train station than the sunken highway -- that's responsible? I'm not sure. But it's worth the extra steps to ponder the answer.


Wednesday, May 16, 2012

May Showers

We woke to a green world this morning. Days of rain have freshened our lawn and trees, have sprouted weeds, have scrubbed the air clean of pollen and delivered back to us a pristine place we have to look twice to recognize.

What to make of this sodden, soggy terrain? It is no trouble for us, with our paved roads and our close-and-lock windows. With our non-leaking roofs. We are free to muse on the weather rather than fight it. Though there have been torrents in the past, flooded roads and parking lots, wet basements and water damage — these were not our fate this time around.

It was hard not to appreciate this rain, even the thunderstorm last evening that topped it off.  I can hear the flip of wings as birds bathe in green springs that will be gone by noon.

April was short on showers. May is making up for them.


Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Heeeere's Johnny!

I stayed up late last night watching Johnny Carson. Tom and I laughed in front of the set as my parents had so many years ago. I remember hearing them from my little bedroom upstairs. Dad would pop popcorn and open a Pepsi; the Tonight Show was a grownup party I wasn't invited to.

But there would be plenty of time to watch Carson — when I was in high school; during college summers, when I came in from my 3-11 p.m. waitress shift; when I was single and living on my own; and (less so) after I married and had kids. Johnny's last show was in 1992. Our middle daughter was not quite one; our oldest was three. I slept whenever I had a chance — including through the last Tonight Show. This is something I've been sorry about through the years, so when I heard there would be a documentary about Carson on last night, I made a point to tune in.

There they all were — Ed McMahon, Doc Severensin, Johnny in his natty suits  — all of them young, so young. There was Johnny bursting through the curtain, fiddling with his tie, swinging his imaginary golf club. There he was running from a baby cheetah and jumping into Ed's arms, wearing a turban as Carmak, deadpanning after a guest's wacky comment, saying things he would surely be called sexist for now. Johnny worked a flubbed joke better than anyone in the business.

It seemed like most everyone watched Carson, liberal and conservative, gay and straight.  Carson has been off the air for 20 years — and the world has become a more brittle, more divided and less funny  place. Don't you wish we could all stay up late again watching Johnny?


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Monday, May 14, 2012

Rain in Isolation

One aspect of living here that I've never minded is our sunny climate.  I don't know the statistics, but the D.C. area is the brightest place I've ever lived. Which means I appreciate the rainy days when they come.

Today's patter sounds like the rain in white noise machines. It has the same rhythm and pitch, the same levels of splatter. It is, then, a model spring shower. Made to order for the annuals I just settled in the ground yesterday.

I enjoy today's rain only because it is the exception not the rule, though. There are places in this world I could never live because rain is the rule, not the exception. I'm thinking of Ireland.

Here is Heinrich Boll in his slender 1967 volume "Irish Journal," writing about the weather of the country to which he says he is "too attached":

"The rain here is absolute, magnificent, and frightening. To call this rain bad weather is as inappropriate as to call scorching sunshine fine weather. You can call this rain bad weather, but it is not. It is simply weather. ..."

Rain in isolation does not drain the spirit. It excuses one from outside labors. It opens up the book, turns the page, settles the pen in the hand. Sometimes it even inspires.

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Saturday, May 12, 2012

Through a Glass

If eyes are windows to the soul, then windows are eyes to the world. It is through them that we see what goes on beyond the house and family.  If they are old, scratched, unable to open smoothly; if their vapor lock is broken — what will we then make of the world?

Probably much the same as if they were crystal clear, in all truth. After all, we aren't hermits hibernating in this house. We leave and return to it every day. Our view of the outside isn't limited by what we see from the inside.

And yet, as I look out a pair of brand new windows, the world is new born. The recent arrivals slide up and down in their casements. They are so clear and unsullied that they are invisible.  May's green grass and leaves explode outside them.

For years we have been silting up and clouding over, but the transformation has been so subtle and gradual that we haven't noticed. Now that the old windows are out and the news ones in the scales are off. We no longer see through a glass darkly.

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Friday, May 11, 2012

Street Life

A few hours in Annapolis last Sunday. A day of clouds and sun and midshipmen and women in their dress whites. Checking out the boats in Ego Alley, browsing for prints at Creative Impressions, having dinner at Chick and Ruth's Delly, stopping for scoops at the Annapolis Ice Cream Company.

On the way home, I peer in the window of a real estate office. It's a stretch, I know, but it's fun to fantasize. A morning like this one: cool and brisk, a walk along the water, picking up the paper in a coffee shop, strolling home past people and places we would come to know. A touristy town, I know. But underneath it all still a hometown, a small town where all sorts of people jostle together.

Most of all: not the suburbs.


Thursday, May 10, 2012

Eye Candy

I chose the walk because of what I would see. Not the usual scenery. So I turned left on Third Street, cut across through the courts complex, past the Canadian Embassy and on to a series of plazas. It was the flip side of the Mall, the downtown side of the National Archives, heading toward the White House but never actually there.

There were fountains and chairs and people. Many had just picked up their lunch. They carried fast food bags or pizza boxes or salad containers. (Is there a hierarchy here, I wondered.)

Rain was in the forecast, and people scurried as if at any moment they would have to run. All around me was bustle and commerce and, most of all, new sights to see. I moved through it all quickly, wanting to look and not to think.

It was eye candy, I told myself.  When the landscape grows predictable, vary the route.

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Wednesday, May 9, 2012

What Passes for Darkness

Sometimes a path presents itself, opens as if by magic. It was almost 7:30 when I started walking. A cloudy night, the light fading fast. As I entered the dark passage, my eyes picked up the brighter green of a nearby field. A fox ran toward it, auburn and plump. It posed in a green corner, then skulked into a bordering thicket.

I followed the curved walkway, my feet moving fast on the downward slope. I asked the woods to hold me up, the path to carry me. I asked only movement, and in that movement absorption. If that is all I ask, I reason, the walk will give it to me.

And that is what happened. The path, so close yet unfamiliar, the day almost over, the slight sense of danger as I walk in the woods in what passes for darkness in this well-lit suburban place.

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Tuesday, May 8, 2012

After Dinner

An evening walk. A neighbor and her granddaughter. The girl's mother was a girl herself when we moved in. We've lived here long enough for the child to become the parent. The little girl wore pink, and she whirled herself around in a circle as she swung a stick over her head. The days they are long for her, and the years, they stretch ahead endlessly.

Meanwhile, the grandmother plants annuals around a tree. She talks softly to the little girl. I couldn't hear what they were saying, only see their heads bowed together in conversation. I inhale a faint whiff of cigar smoke, whether from the girl's grandfather or from recalling my own, I couldn't tell you.

It was that kind of evening, a brilliant sunset in the making, a bank of clouds that looked like a wave eddying around a breakwater, the air still and heavy. The past and present packed together in an after-dinner walk, the most portentous kind of stroll, spilling over with the motions of the day and the dying of the light. The fullness that passes for joy, that is deeper than joy.

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Monday, May 7, 2012


The iris are blooming. We have just a few, only these small Siberian ones, slender, weighted with their own blossoms, bending slightly with the fullness of the season. We bought these from a local lady whose garden was once the envy of the neighborhood but who has since passed away and whose yard is but a shadow of its former self.

But bulbs from the "Iris Lady" are planted all over the mid-Atlantic and even farther afield. Her garden grows not just in Oak Hill, Virginia, but in countless climes and soils. It has done what flowers and people are supposed to do, has given itself to others, has held its head high.


Saturday, May 5, 2012

Out of the Nest

This little guy and his (her?) brother (sister?) were clinging to the inside of our garage door yesterday. I knew there was a nest in the rafters, had seen the busy mother flying in and out the window, had heard occasional chirps and peeps, but had no idea it was time for the little ones to leave the nest. Why does this surprise me?  By now I know how quickly youngsters grow up.

I tiptoed into the garage with my camera, poised for the perfect shot, and ... the camera was out of charge. The mama bird was extremely unhappy, too. She chirped an alarm and bounced toward me to do battle. So I came back inside, plugged in the camera and waited.

A couple hours later,  this baby was still out and his mama was away. I inched closer, talking softly. The birdie opened one eye and looked at me without fear. I'm not much of a birder, but I think he's a wee robin. A delicate mess of feathers and beak, he's like a human baby with a head much bigger than the rest of him. Soon he will leave the garage, as he's already left the nest. His body and tail will lengthen, his plumage will smooth out. He will be able to fly 36 miles an hour and up to 200 miles a day. He will sing and he will mate. He will take his place in the world.

I was privileged to see him in the beginning.


Friday, May 4, 2012

Morning in the Garden

Morning in the garden. Holly blossoms in the air. I move some ferns and plant some impatiens. As I plunge my hands into the worked soil, I feel connected to the day. Birds sing from their green perches.

I measure the warmth, the freedom of being outside in shirt sleeves before 8 a.m. It's a good way to live.

My neighbor, Nancy, reads my mind: "I love mornings in the garden, don't you?" She's on her daily  walk. I will soon be on mine, too.

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Thursday, May 3, 2012

The Library Place

The book group met at my house last night. Two people sat on our sagging blue couch, the other two in the faded wing chairs, the ones that belonged to Tom's parents so many years ago. I pulled the rocking chair over to the far end of the coffee table, which gave me an unaccustomed vantage point — staring straight at the built-in bookshelves, our pride and joy.

I think about the part books have played in the life of our home, the schoolbooks and novels, the histories and poetry, our old college books and now our children's, too.

And then there's the "library place," the shelf of a hutch so named because it's where we put library books that need to be returned. In the enchanting shorthand of family conversation, the library place has become a repository for anything that needs to be protected or preserved: retainers, driver's licenses, a pile of  downy parakeet feathers.

It still serves as family safe — a spot once meant for books that now holds other precious cargo.

I can't find a picture of the library place. This shot of my bedside table will have to do. There's always danger of an avalanche.

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Wednesday, May 2, 2012

For Ellen

We grew up nine years apart with two brothers in between, and — we like to joke — in two separate families, our memories, mindsets and approaches to life are so different from one another's.

But we are no more divergent than many siblings are. And in many ways, the important ways, we are alike.  When I need her, she's there. She is like a best friend, only so much more.

Today is Ellen's birthday, and as good a time as any to tell her how much she means to me.

Ellen and her three beautiful daughters.


Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Eight or Later

I heard yesterday on the weather report that the sun will not set before eight p.m. from now until August 18. It's a good way to celebrate May Day and the start of a new month, with the promise of light.

Hot autumn days with an unshakeable air of melancholy are proof that it's not lack of warmth that makes me mourn the end of summer. It's the early darkness.

Extra daylight means early mornings and late nights. It means tomatoes and zinnias and basil. It means after-dinner strolls,  evening swims and long suppers on the deck. And of course, it's the perfect excuse for insomnia. Summer is often thought an indolent time, but when you consider the extra daylight it gives us, it's better thought of as an active season, a heroic season.

Knowing we have three and a half months of late sunsets ahead of us gives me a sense of calm — even after solstice comes, we will still have light on our side.

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