Sunday, September 30, 2012

30 Days

And so we come to the end of September. Evenings are chilly; birds are still. The equinox has come and gone. Warmth is no longer something to be feared but something to be coaxed and welcomed. We start at brisk and work our way to warm. Only at the end of a golden, blue-sky afternoon are we there: a perfect, spun-gold, fall day.

Thirty days hath September.

Is there no way to wrangle a few more?


Friday, September 28, 2012

Vote of Confidence

It's no secret that the printed book is under siege, that newspapers and magazines are ceasing publication or becoming online only, that information delivery is being revolutionized before our (increasingly blurry) eyes. Any doubts the Kindle may have left behind, the iPad is dispelling.

Which made reading the following all the more delightful: "The book is like the wheel. Once invented, it cannot be bettered," according to author Umberto Eco in a new book about the book called (appropriately and straightforwardly) This is Not the End of the Book.

The book, which was reviewed today by Michael Dirda in the Washington Post, is essentially a conversation between Eco and French screenwriter and bibliophile Jean-Claude Carriere. The Internet gives us "gross information, with almost no sense of order or hierarchy," Carriere says. "As soon as you click on the next page you forget what you've just read," Eco says.

And I thought it was just me. I flipped through Julian Barnes' The Sense of an Ending the other day and could summon almost no memory of reading it, despite the fact that I definitely did read it earlier this year — though, it must be noted, on a Kindle.

I've written about this before, and probably will again (and again and again). But reading this review (and, I hope soon, the book itself) made me feel less alone in my Luddite ways. Maybe the codex isn't really in danger. Maybe the book really will survive. Wouldn't that be nice?


Thursday, September 27, 2012

Slow Start

Sometimes the day starts slow and and will not move faster. Time to enjoy the many small steps that take me down a city block, the rising sun that reddens office windows, the man who walks ahead of me, a picture of the bureaucrat, black pants, blue long-sleeved shirt, the closure of a lanyard peaking out from his back collar.

On a slow day I savor details I might otherwise miss. The freedom of the lone cyclist pedaling one of the new red bikes you can rent and ride. The swagger of a young woman who has mastered the art of scarf wearing. The caffeinated chatter of a couple leaving Starbucks. The quiet diligence of the man hosing the sidewalk in front of the building next to mine.

The pavement smells fresh after this cleaning.

It's a new day.

What I did not see on my walk this morning.

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Wednesday, September 26, 2012

On the Beaten Path

It's my second post in as many days with cliches (or slight alterations of them) for titles, as I pause for a moment to praise the beaten path. Not being off it — being on it. This year, this dry summer, the paths in our woods are especially beaten. Tough, cracked; not dusty but springy and elastic (thanks, I suppose, to the clay in our soil).

Since I've lately been exploring unfamiliar trails with my head down to look for the errant root that could send me flying, I've become familiar with the beaten path, have even reached down to touch it. The surface is smooth and clammy and imperturbable, like marble in its coolness. But unlike marble, it is a living, breathing thing. It shrinks, expands and cracks. When the weather is dry it becomes a dusty brown powder.

Traipsing these beaten paths makes me wonder what it was like when they (or slightly wider versions of them) were roads. Of course, they would have lacked the layered toughness and impermeability of a paved surface, would have been a mire of mud on rainy days and a cloud of dust on dry ones, but one can see that, at least part of the time, they would hold up their end of the bargain. That one would want to be on them. That to be off them was to be lost in the wilderness.

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Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Glaring Error

A momentary meditation on glare, on slanting sun and how it blinds us not with darkness but with light. Too much of a good thing, then, or a good thing misdirected. Put this light behind us and we have tall shadows, a crisp sense of possibility.

Shine it in our face, though, and everything else fades away, the colors in the sky, the outlines of the buildings; even the stoplights hide their true colors. Ironic and telling, this inability to see what's right in front of us. It's easy to draw parallels.

Most of my walk is due east, but finally, at the end, I turn north. I'm relieved. It's colder without the sun, but now I can see.


Monday, September 24, 2012

Valedictory Frame of Mind

I hadn't meant to wind up at the girls' elementary school, but that's where our walk took us. Copper and I had crossed Fox Mill Road, taken a dirt path down to the creek, tiptoed over the spillway (thanks to the low water), trotted down what seems to be an old road along the stream and then trudged up a steep path along a ridge line and (pant, pant — that would be both Copper and me) arrived at the school grounds.

Even though we live less than two miles from the place, it's tucked away on county parkland and I hadn't been there in months, maybe years. Only a few days earlier I had gone to my last back-to-school night ever, what was probably my 36th, give or take a few (three children times 12 years), so seeing the old school so soon after that event put me in a valedictory frame of mind.

I kept seeing ghosts of the girls' former selves, the field days and plant sales in the big field to the east of the school; the playground on that side, too, where we used to come on still summer afternoons (before most of the equipment was deemed unsafe and replaced with boring, innocuous stuff), the mornings when we'd walk to school or I'd drop the girls off at the kiss-and-ride lane.

How big the place once seemed, how imposing. It was a first foray into the real world for them, and such a gentle, loving entry into that world. Almost a decade of dealing with the high school (with its thousands of students and a sign-in process that seems modeled on that of a maximum-security prison) have made me forget what school was like when it was close and comfortable and small-scale.

I miss those years. But I wouldn't want to live them again.

A much older, smaller (one-room) schoolhouse in our neighborhood.

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Saturday, September 22, 2012

Autumnal Equinox

I checked my email and learned from the Writers Almanac that the autumnal equinox occurs today at 10:49 a.m.  — only to glance at my computer clock and see ... 10:49 a.m.

We are perfectly poised now between sunlight and shadow, between darkness and light, our days and nights equal halves of the same whole, like the beginning and end of a beloved book, each part integral to what we love, ultimately, for its completeness.

I write outside, a brisk wind blowing. As I type, a single leaf floats down and lands on my keyboard.

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Friday, September 21, 2012

Gift from the Sea

I spent the early morning hours (the fruits of insomnia) copying out passages from a book that must go back to the library today. It's a posthumous collection of the letters and diaries of Anne Morrow Lindbergh called Against Wind and Tide.

I read the book before I went to the beach, and I was delighted to find in it the seeds of her Gift from the Sea, a favorite of mine that Against Wind and Tide prompted me to re-read. How illuminating to come across her original thoughts — thoughts she would later hone into the book that sold three million copies — on solitude, relationships and what it means to be a woman and a writer.

On that topic,  Lindbergh quotes a nineteenth-century writer who says that a woman writer is "rowing against wind and tide" — hence the title of this collection.

As I push against a steady current of my own, I'm happy to row for a few moments with Lindbergh's words, words like these: "I feel a hunger now — a real hunger  — for letting the pool still itself and seeing the reflections. I feel a hunger for the kind of writing that I feel is truly mine: observation plus reflection."

There were many passages like this one. My fingers are sore from typing them. But my mind is dancing with thoughts and images.

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Thursday, September 20, 2012

Tiny Hopeful Garden

I pass it on the way to work sometime. A dingy little corner at 2nd and D. It's on the northeast side, next to the homeless shelter and across the street from the tunnel. There's no more than five or six feet of soil between the sidewalk and the building.

Earlier this season I noticed a few green shoots. Not weeds exactly.  They were more intentional.

As the weeks wore on, I watched the plants grow up and out, the stems thicken , small yellow flowers form. Throughout the hot, dusty summer, they stayed alive. Not flourishing exactly, but not dying, either.

Today I walked past them. The flowers are turning to fruit, curved and healthy. I'm no master gardener, but I think we have a pumpkin patch here. A spot of color in a block of gray. A tiny hopeful garden.

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Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Weighty Toil

It's harvest time — in more ways than one. In the last few weeks the magazine, brochures and booklets I worked on this summer have been delivered to the office.  I've been busy with what we used to call "fulfillment." Which is another way of saying I've been schlepping boxes around.

As print publications are replaced by electronic ones, I assemble evidence to defend the hard copy. But I have to laugh. Even as I tally the numbers and build my case, nothing on paper tells the story as well as handing someone a box of magazines and asking him to hold it for a minute. A box of magazines weighs 30 pounds. It is real. It is tangible. There is no way to overlook it.

Once our lives were filled with real tasks. Toting water, splitting wood, wringing clothes.  For many of us now, a day's work consists of tapping a keyboard or touching a screen. We're active only from the wrist down. I liked carrying those 30-pound magazine boxes. It was the least I could do for them.  My mind's labor had helped to produce them. Now it was time for my arms and legs to take charge.

Would I want to do this all day long? Absolutely not. When the arms are carrying 30 pounds the mind can think of little else. Still, I enjoyed this weighty toil. It made me tired in the evening, and it gave me something to think about.



Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Fair Weather Crossing

There are several of these along the length of the Cross County Trail, raised concrete cylinders across the width of a stream. The bold strider takes them easily, one foot to a step. The timid one (that would be me) navigates the creek with a mincing two-step.  

I think of these pillars as fabricated steppingstones. No hollow log or moss-slicked surface to send one sliding. The suburban safety net is in place here. Nothing really difficult or bold will be asked of us. We will be killed with — if not kindness (because “kind” is not an adjective that comes to mind when describing this part of the world) — then with inordinate padding.

The irony is that I successfully crossed the creek only to stumble half a mile later. It was nothing but a root that tripped the tip of my toe as I fast-walked the packed-dirt trail. But it was enough to send me careening in what I can only imagine was a cartoon-like near-fall. Somehow, I caught myself, my arms flapping beside me like the wings of an errant glider. 

Fair weather crosssings are a good start; what we need next are cushioned paths.

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Monday, September 17, 2012

150 Years Ago

I went there once, a hurried pilgrim on my way home. Time to stop but not reflect. I vow to go there again, to walk the fields in silence, to meditate upon this number — 23,000 — the tally of soldiers killed or missing during the Battle of Antietam on September 17, 1862.

It was the single greatest one-day loss of American life. It happened less than two hours from here.

The landscape now is serene. It's up to us to imagine the horror.

Burnside Bridge on September 1862 (photo by Alexander Gardner, courtesy Library of Congress) and in 2008.

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Sunday, September 16, 2012

Three Continents

Yesterday, I went to a neighborhood party where I gratefully picked out familiar faces from a sea of new, mostly young, ones. Kids were everywhere, on the swings, the slide and right beside the birthday girl, as she blew out the candles on her cake.

What struck me most is how alike these young people looked. They were all so, well, little.

How quickly we forget. How quickly the days of naps and tantrums give way to graduations and goodbyes. How quickly the tangible family, the family right here in the same house bickering and hugging and being mightily present to each other, gives way to what one might call a family of the air, one connected by texts and phone calls; a family spread around the country and — in our case right now — the globe. (With Tom in Serbia on a business trip, we are on three continents.)

But here's the amazing part — it only makes us closer.  Three continents, one family. It's a funny equation, but it adds up.


Friday, September 14, 2012


"Do we have a shell I could take to school for my photography class?" Celia asked this morning.

Shells? Do we have shells?

We have them from Topsail in 1996, Oregon in 1999, Clearwater in 2004, Chincoteague in 1997, 2003, 2008, 2011 and, from this year, shells still in the plastic bag I hurriedly stuffed them in two weeks ago. I stuck the bag in the garage and forgot about it until this morning.

I opened the bag, and there they were again: shark eyes, whelks, jingles, clams, cockles and half an angel shell.

I remember the long walk on the beach the afternoon I found most of them, the ridges and hills where the sand wasn't graded, trudging and trudging until I couldn't see another soul and finally, finally coming to the end.

The vacation has been over for two weeks. The shells — and the memory of that walk — remain.


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Thursday, September 13, 2012

Foreign Soil

Tomorrow, Suzanne will be sworn in as a Peace Corps volunteer. Her two-and-a-half-month training program is over. She has improved her French and begun Bariba. She's taught students at a model school and learned that when Beninese children want to get their teacher's attention, they snap their fingers and say, "Madame! Madame!" The day after tomorrow she begins the two-day trip to the village in the northern part of the country where she'll spend much of the next two years.

As she leaves behind the seacoast, the airport and other easy forms of egress, I worry about her more. But I trust that her training has been true and useful — and that she will temper her kindness with common sense.

I think of these things even more after the killing of four Americans, including Ambassador Chris Stevens, at the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi. Although there have certainly been enough world events to convince me otherwise (especially the Iran hostage crisis), I persist in thinking of embassies and consulates as safe havens, as foreign soil, our soil, in the host countries.

Now that feeling of safety and ease has been violated. That doesn't mean I'm going to let these feelings get the better of me. Ambassador Stevens was a former Peace Corps volunteer. He wasn't afraid of "rough" travel, of arriving in Libya (then still in the throes of revolution) on a cargo ship. I still believe in the "peace" in Peace Corps.

But world events are making that harder to do.


Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Pink Cloud

Sunsets are earlier these days. What would have been a late-afternoon amble a few weeks ago is now an early-evening stroll.

Yesterday was like that. The air thinning and without the moisture that has become a second skin. The sun already down though still plenty of light for walking.

I found a beacon for my trek, a solitary pink cloud. I followed it from one end of the neighborhood to the other. It was a cheerful presence, a spot of color in a darkening world.

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Tuesday, September 11, 2012

That Other Tuesday

It's not just the date that's the same; it's the weather. Just a bit cooler, but with all the promise of a warm, low-humidity day.

And it's the day of the week, too.  September 11, 2011, was also a Tuesday.

If each day of the week has a unique flavor, a character of its own, Tuesday is when the weekly routine has begun to buoy us up again.  We've made it through Monday. We can do another day; yes, we can. And if so, then we can even make it through the week.

And so we plunge ahead with renewed dedication. (Or at least that's the ideal.)

Tuesday, September 11, 2001, was not such a day.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012, will not be, either.


Monday, September 10, 2012

City or Suburb?

An article in yesterday's Washington Post headlined "Is a city still a city if it's in the suburbs?" discusses Reston Town Center, the Village at Leesburg and other "downtowns" that mimic the real thing.

The idea is to export urban density and excitement to the outlying 'burbs. "[People] want to be in an environment, in a context, where they can experience life as fully as possible. They like to be around people, and they like to be around interesting things, and they like to be around energy. And that's what the suburbs have historically lacked," said Robert Kettler, who planned and developed the Village at Leesburg based on the model of Reston Town Center.

I have a complicated relationship with Reston Town Center, our closest "downtown." When it was first built, I disparaged it for its fakery. It was a movie set of a city. Walk through the set doors and you would be in a mall. But as the years have passed; as restaurants, stores and plazas have been added; as festivals, concerts and wine tastings have lured me to its center, I have developed a reluctant fondness for the place.

As the article points out, many city neighborhoods now admired for their hip urbanity —think Capitol Hill and Georgetown — were once planned. And besides, how can I fault developers for paying attention to how people live, to adding town squares and storefront windows, to isolating and replicating the ingredients of urban charm?

Kettler has heard all the criticisms of these faux downtowns, the Post article says. "But he sees a naturally evolving plot: Driving through the Village at Leesburg, he is happy to see that the young trees he planted a few years ago are a little taller, that there are more people hitting treadmills at L.A. Fitness, that there are more people on the street. 'When you put the camera on and you put the actors on the stage, it looks like a real place.'"

The article doesn't answer the question, "Is a city still a city if it's in the suburbs," but it does plead for more time. Cities are a work in progress. It may just be that we're pioneering something new here a few miles from my house. That what began as an experiment of urban density in the suburbs is giving us something we all want and need.

It may be. But when we decide whether and when to leave our suburban home, one thing is for sure: Reston Town Center will not make us stay. 

The original Reston downtown: Lake Anne.

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Sunday, September 9, 2012

The Kindness of Strangers

My new assignment (which I gave myself): Walk the Cross-County Trail in earnest. Cover the sections I haven't covered (which are most of them). Chart the great green heart of this populous county.

The timing of the assignment: regrettable. I left later than I'd intended and was little more than halfway on my route when the low clouds and heavy air gave way to the severe storms that had been predicted (and which I had ignored). Forced from the trail at a detour, I picked my way through the wind and rain to a nearby street. I huddled for a while under trees that were short enough not to kill me if they fell but full enough to shelter me from the brunt of the storm.

Ten minutes into the deluge the wind picked up, the rain fell slantwise and I decided to make a run for it, to find an intersection where I could call for help. It was then, as I tried to make a phone call, that there emerged from the storm a kind soul with a large umbrella.

He motioned me over, I ran toward him, and together we dashed to the shelter of his garage. He disappeared for a minute and returned with two towels. For the next 20 minutes we talked about the storm, the fearsome way it blew up and (typical suburbanites) the siding we had on our houses. I never learned his name.  This morning I read in the paper that a tornado touched down less than two miles from where I hiked.

I went to the woods for wilderness and solitude; what I found instead was the kindness of strangers.

I wasn't far from here when the storm struck.

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Friday, September 7, 2012

Team Sport

I was out earlier than usual this morning and stumbled upon some bustling pavement in the neighborhood next to ours. There were runners and bikers and dog-walkers. A couple of joggers looked familiar, like people I knew vaguely from church or the kids' school. One man I recognized from the pool; he arrives after 8 p.m. and does an exquisitely slow breast stroke.

Seeing these walkers put some pep in my step. They reminded me that, while walking is for the most part an individual activity, it can also be a team sport. Not that we're keeping score. But in some palpable way these fellow travelers cheered me on.

We're all in this together, they seemed to say, as they looked up from the pavement with a wry grin or a raised hand or a good morning. Our strides may be slow, our breathing labored, but we know there's something golden in these still mornings.

Fellow walkers in Lower Manhattan.

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Thursday, September 6, 2012

Weekend Walk, Weekday Afternoon

A short sleep, a long day — these are good reasons to take a weekend walk on a weekday afternoon.

Such a stroll takes me out of the neighborhood, for one thing. So it automatically gives perspective. It's long enough to break through the torpor and tightness. And it reminds me of sunny mornings and long evenings.

I walked through through a meadow and a woods, past a pond and a pool. I picked some miniature Queen Anne's lace to press and send to Suzanne in Africa. I snipped some knockout roses from our bush out front, placed them in the tiny vase and set them on our kitchen table. They won't last long, but that's okay.

In the beginning of the walk, I was tense and tired. At the end, I was loose and awake.


Wednesday, September 5, 2012

A Walk in the Dark

By the time I took my after-dinner walk it was almost 9 p.m. The light had faded from the sky, and clouds obscured the moon and stars. A head lamp turned me into a roving Cyclops; I was alone in a bright, clammy tunnel. No music, no sunshine, the air heavy with the moisture of an impending shower.

 Don't look at the cars or you'll blind the drivers, Tom said, instructing me on the headlamp as I walked out the garage door. So I turned my head demurely whenever a car passed. This had the additional benefit of obscuring my identity. I didn't need my teenager to tell me how dorky I looked (though she was glad to point it out). I knew that a headlamp and a day-glow safety vest would not  win me any beauty prizes.

But the outfit — and the effort — were worth it. They made it possible to walk in the dark, to prolong the day, to pretend, just for a moment, that it was a sultry June evening — instead of a stifling September one.

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Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Blank Slate

As I walked the strand last week I noticed how swiftly each wave receded to make way for the next, how quickly the foam blew away and the sand dried out in between breakers.

If you're looking for a blank slate, there is no better place than the beach.

And today, the day after Labor Day, we also have a blank slate. A new year of school for Celia, a return to work for me.

Resolutions? I'm taking my long-distance beach vision to the office. It will help me see what's important and what's not. When a deadline looms or an email goes unanswered, I'll remember the scene above. I'll take a deep breath, lift my eyes up from the screen and stare out the window. This is what I'll see.

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Monday, September 3, 2012


Labor Day is a bittersweet holiday. While other nations celebrate their workers on the first day of May, we do it on the first Monday of September.  So instead of welcoming the warm weather, we are saying goodbye to it (or good riddance, depending upon your point of view and tolerance level).

The fact is, if you love summer, as I do, you may not be a big fan of Labor Day. It always makes me think of the last jump in the pool when I was a kid, my parents saying, "OK. But this is absolutely the last one. We have to go home. You have school in the morning."

School in the morning. A line guaranteed to chill the soul of any child, a phrase that still, decades later, makes my stomach do a little somersault.

As the years pass more quickly, though, and as each Labor Day (and Memorial Day, 4th of July and other holiday) leads more surely to the next fete in the lineup, I've come to see the first Monday in September as a bellwether in reverse. If summer is good, Labor Day is not so bad. If summer has been summer — hot, sticky, filled with enough swimming and biking and eating of ice cream bars — then I reluctantly, but without reservation, say farewell.

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Sunday, September 2, 2012


In the movie “Castaway,” Tom Hanks is so lonesome that he befriends a Wilson basketball,  invests it with thoughts and emotions, talks to it as he would a pal and is bereft when he loses it. This time last week I was worrying that in my five days at the shore I would start babbling away to my laptop or my bicycle or myself. That I would find a "Wilson" of my own.

As it turns out, I was quite happy alone. A calm feeling took over once I had driven through the worst of the rain on the way to the beach, and it stayed with me during the five precious days I had to myself. Were I to have weeks of solo time, I'm sure I would have gotten lonely, and I was certainly glad to see my family yesterday. But a week or two of solitude is not only manageable, it is essential. I vow to remember this truth in the future.

Meanwhile, I am enjoying the fruits of solitude. The well that was dry is starting to fill again. The muse is not exactly beside me, but she's closer than she was before. And Wilson, well, he's just a basketball.

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