Wednesday, October 31, 2012

"Realms of Gold"

Today is Halloween and the birthday of the English poet John Keats, who described autumn as a "season of mist and mellow fruitfulness."

After two stormy days that were much closer to Percy Shelley's depiction of the season —"O wild West Wind, thou breath of Autumn's being" — I slip back into Keats's quiet vision. Autumn as a time of reflection and poetry, of observation and even of revelation.

Here is my favorite Keats poem, "On First Looking into Chapman's Homer":

Much have I traveled in the realms of gold,

And many goodly states and kingdoms seen;
  Round many western islands have I been
Which bards in fealty to Apollo hold.
Oft of one wide expanse had I been told         5
  That deep-brow'd Homer ruled as his demesne:
  Yet did I never breathe its pure serene
Till I heard Chapman speak out loud and bold:
Then felt I like some watcher of the skies
  When a new planet swims into his ken;  10
Or like stout Cortez, when with eagle eyes
  He stared at the Pacific—and all his men
Look'd at each other with a wild surmise—
  Silent, upon a peak in Darien.

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Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Post Sandy

Sandy walloped us yesterday, but far fewer trees came down than expected and with new siding and windows we spent the day in relative silence. The battering and banging we used to hear during storms giving way to a muted roar as 50- to 60-mile-an-hour winds gusted outside.

Inside: a pot of chili, a stack of books and, more to the point, electricity.

Today, as the storm continues to send rain, snow and high winds our way, my thoughts head north, to New York, New Jersey and other Sandy-ravaged areas.

(It's hard to imagine Times Square empty, but last night it was.)

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Monday, October 29, 2012

Time Unbundled

It's still early in our encounter with the monster storm, but so far it's no more than a lot of rain and strengthening wind. I expect it will grow worse with the day. To look at a graph of local wind speeds is to see a mountain we're only just beginning to climb.

But for now it's a silent morning — or as silent a morning as one can have with two parakeets in the kitchen. Of the noises I must attend to there are none. The pantry is stocked; the batteries are charged.

School is out (including the one where I work), and the government is closed. I'm alone with the dog and a good book. I have no place to go, nothing I must do. This is what I've been wanting and needing — time unbundled and unbound.


Saturday, October 27, 2012

Waiting for Sandy

I grew up in the middle of the country, not right in tornado alley but close enough. So hurricanes are not part of my birthright. They are, however, something I've gotten used to living on the East Coast. What sets them apart for me is not the strong winds (those were worse with the derecho we had in June) or the copious rain, but the fact that you know they're coming.

Tornadoes catch you unaware. A sultry spring afternoon, a strange light in the sky, and before you know it you're huddling in a stairwell while your roof is blown off.

Hurricanes are charted and observed. We woke up today to this photograph in the Washington Post. As I write I think of what we still need to do: fill up the cars; charge the phones, laptop and iPod (heck, even the toothbrush); secure the deck furniture.

Time to prepare — and also time to worry.  I remind myself that — all talk of hybrid cyclones aside, headlines that call this the storm of the century — at the end of the day there's often more hype than hurricane.

What will these waves look like a few hours from now?

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Friday, October 26, 2012

Eyes Closed

It's a minor complaint, the doctor said, and the best way to treat it is with warm compresses to the eyes. He told me this a year ago and I didn't listen. This time he had my attention.

My new resolution, then, is to spend 15 minutes a day with my eyes closed, a warm washcloth spread across them, hopping up every five minutes or so to reheat the cloth.  This is my new meditation time.

It's strangely relaxing. The warmth of the compress, the blotting out of the world, my mind wandering, me trying, trying to keep it empty but largely failing. Still, it's a beginning, an earnest attempt to spend a few minutes a day in the mental equivalent of a warm bath.

When the compress cools, I re-enter the world reluctantly. Lights seem too bright, noises too loud. My eyes are still sore;  healing them will take time. But my mind is starting to crave its quiet time.


Thursday, October 25, 2012

Autumn Angles

The last few days, Venus has brightened my dark drive to Metro. It's been there for a while, but I notice it more now.

I notice, too, the low sun as it shines through trees on the mornings I'm here to see its rising, how it separates and illuminates the foliage.

Autumn placements. Angles of refraction.  So much to notice this time of year.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Leaves and Sky

Afternoon quickly turns to evening these days, and if I walk a little later than usual, the moon is my companion. It was so yesterday, a pale half, and beside it in the sky, a tangle of contrails.

The balmy air, the early evening and the usual group of dog walkers and fishermen out in Franklin Farm Meadow. But someone else, too. A woman with a camera stood by the pond and aimed her lens at the sky.

I followed her glance upward, and saw the clouds and contrails mingle in the afterglow. The sky continued to redden as I made my way home. By the time I reached Folkstone, it was a radiant pink. Not unlike the maple leaves that are almost, not quite, at their peak.

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Tuesday, October 23, 2012

A Birthday in Benin

We were on the road to Toura when the phone went dead —  not literally, of course, but in our conversation. Suzanne was telling me about the dust and the mud and the red soil — and I was walking there with her.

She had warned me her phone was low on charge and not to worry if it went dead. We ought to have stopped talking then. But instead we chatted minutes longer, then suddenly she was gone — and the great yawning space between us opened even wider and I willed myself into her small African village, along the red and rutted road, into her walled concession, past the guinea fowl that live there too, through her humble door and into her life.

I couldn't do any of that in real life, of course, but how I wish I could — especially today, her birthday.

Suzanne's present came four months ago when she landed in Africa. My gift is knowing how very happy she is. 

Photo by Suzanne Capehart

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Monday, October 22, 2012

October 22

I write this morning of a boy and girl who met in college. The boy called the girl on a campus phone that served an entire wing of a crowded freshman dorm. Would she like to go a dance that weekend?

The girls' friends who had overheard the call (which wasn't hard to do) said the boy was nice, and so the girl said yes even though she didn't know the boy. (It was that kind of time and that kind of school.)

When the boy came to pick up the girl, she was delighted to find that he owned a car and that before the dance they would be going into town for an orangeade. So they had the drink and they went to the dance and they kissed good night in front of the dorm. (Again, it was that kind of time and that kind of school.)

Now if this was a fairy tale, the next line would be "They started talking that night and never stopped."

But this is not a fairy tale. The girl and boy fell in love, yes, but later they broke up and dated other people and broke up with those people and dated still other people. They moved from the Midwest to the east coast and back again.

They never forgot each other, though, and even before they married, even when they lived hundreds of miles apart, they never forgot the date they went to the dance and sipped the orangeade and learned each others stories. It was October 22.


Sunday, October 21, 2012

EZ Pass?

Our newspaper today was wrapped in a advertisement for Virginia's new 495 Express Lanes. The construction of these lanes has tied up traffic for years, and now it's time to enjoy the benefits. But first we have to figure out how to use them.

So into our already harried suburban lives come new complications. To use the lanes you need an EZ Pass transponder. You can use your old transponder if you don't plan to use the lanes with three or more people in the car. If you do, then you need a new EZ Pass Flex transponder.

To use the lanes you must be able to read, drive and count at the same time. If your truck has two axles, you're in. If it has more, you're out. If your car has three people, you're free; if it has one or two, it's, well, you're not sure how much it is because the price depends upon the time of day and the traffic conditions. Prices are posted on a display board that you must read while driving.

Do I sound pessimistic? You betcha. I'm remembering one of my favorite New Yorker covers. It ran around Thanksgiving, a holiday which is becoming known less for giving thanks and carving turkey than for the sitting in traffic on the way to the feast. The cartoon, titled "To Grandmother's House We Go," showed a bunch of cars proceeding through the EZ Pass toll gates. Then it showed another group of cars flying above them. They were using the EZR Pass lanes.

Until those are installed, I think I'll stick with my crowded old tried-and-true routes.

(This is the cover by Bruce McCall; it ran December 9, 2002.)

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Friday, October 19, 2012

Forest Fire

In summer the forest is dark and cool; ferns stir slightly, like ancient fans, and the ripple of a distant spring promises relief from the sizzling pavement.

In winter and spring the woods are open and bare but still not what you would call bright. The trees are pale sentinels and what greenery there is keeps its head to the ground.

But in autumn —ah, in autumn — the woods are all lit up from the inside, and entering them feels like walking into a party that has been going on for some time. The forest makes its own light this time of year. Each tree is an engine; the leaves are its fire.

Walking in the woods on a bright afternoon, the light is all around me. I don't want to let it go.

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Thursday, October 18, 2012


Midway through October, gold outweighs green, leaves sift slowly earthward through the canopy.

Walnuts drop beside the road, their pungent green shell eroding, revealing the hard black fruit inside.

Leaves are falling but have not yet become the enemy. That will happen soon.

Until then, I see not the perils of fall — but the poetry.


Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Mall Walk

Yesterday's mall walk: Brisk wind, hands stuffed in my sleeves and looking, always looking. The mall belongs to everyone and holds everyone and when you walk through it on a clear fall day, it’s the people you notice first. They stroll, they stare, they move slowly. Sometimes they stop, right in front of you. And then you (or at least I) roll my eyes and stride impatiently around them. But the place is for them and of them and they make it sing, they make it make sense.

Usually they come in groups. Families with toddlers who careen down the broad gravel walkway. Tired mothers with purses worn across their chest to leave their hands free for pushing a stroller or wiping a nose. Groups of school kids with backpacks and more energy than seems possible. Tourists were everywhere yesterday — forming lines at the Capitol, taking a break at the carousel, buying hot dogs and ice cream in front of the Smithsonian Castle. 

And there I was, a reluctant resident of our nation’s capital, someone who  routinely disparages the traffic and the lack of place — until I take a walk on the Mall. Until I see the people. And not just the tourists but people like me, office-dwellers with keys around their necks and tennis shoes on their feet, all of us out for some air on a sunny afternoon. Runners and footballers and Frisbee throwers and people sitting quietly on a park bench munching a sandwich and folks strolling through the Botanical Gardens, learning to recognize the switch grass from the blue stem. 

I know it's probably just the endorphins from the walk, but these people, all of these people, the tourists and the residents, all of them seem glad to be alive on this day and in this place. It's easy to be one of them.

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Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Witch Hazel

Halfway through October, our witch hazel is the most colorful tree in the garden.  I never think of it as an autumn showpiece — it's best in late winter, blooming in the snow. Yet this year I notice that it's mellowing to a muted, green-veined yellow that is the soul of the season — when the season is seen as a gentle winding down rather than a last, flaming hurrah.

Though witch hazel leaves begin as squiggly yellow flowers, they end as bigger, plate-like foliage and then, sometimes, there is a second flowering, an autumn bloom. After reading about this today I tiptoed out into our dark backyard to see if I could find evidence of it.

There is some debate about whether the witch hazel is a shrub or a tree, but our specimen is most definitely the latter. Tall, straight-limbed, arching, generous. Even in the dark I felt its presence. And reaching up to touch the limbs I felt along the stem and found the beginnings of those same squiggly flowers that are the harbingers of spring. Perhaps to bloom soon, perhaps in a few months. Or perhaps, it doesn't matter.

The point is: the flowers will come again.

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Monday, October 15, 2012

Up and Out

The colors drew me outside earlier than I'd planned to go. Oranges and reds on the horizon, or what I could see of the horizon through our trees. The sky was firing up, and it was time to walk.

I moved eastward as if by instinct, following the sun. By the time I'd made it to the corner, though, the sky was already draining into blue, so brief was this morning's brilliance.

But still, it was enough to drag me from the house into a stiff and uncertain wind, to begin the outside part of the day before I was entirely ready for it. Not altogether a bad idea.

There is something to be said for spontaneity, for lack of hesitation, for being moved by beauty. Not moved as in touched, but literally moved. Propelled to lace up the shoes, open the door, step outside.

Not every time, but often enough, the day is changed just by entering it.

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Sunday, October 14, 2012

The Sentinel

As Copper has (ahem) matured, his inner shepherd, the genetic tendencies of his border collie genes, have emerged. When he was a puppy, he couldn't do anything for more than a few minutes. Now, he spends hours on the slight rise in our backyard, using the humble altitude to better survey his domain.

He sits still, but he isn't idle. His eyes dart to the left and to the right. He scans the fence for sudden movements in the brush. His ears prick at any tiny rustle in the leaves. I have to imagine he is doing all this to protect his pack.

Watching him watch for us, I see a model of vigilance, of doggie loyalty — of what it means to protect and defend.


Friday, October 12, 2012


On October 12, 2004, I went to work as a writer/editor for a university alumni magazine, ending a 17-year freelance-only career. I can still recall the strangeness of that day, the sound of high heels on the hard floor as a designer dropped off page proofs for me to read, the lunch I shared with two new colleagues. I even remember the outfit I wore, which included sandals because I hadn't yet gotten around to buying "work shoes."

Though I've long since grown used to the routine, some days it still seems slightly surreal to trade sweatpants and slipper socks for a skirt and flats, to travel elsewhere to do what I do at home all the time anyway.  But the routine has enlarged me, has given me plenty to think and write about, has helped me feel closer to the place I live.

Writing will never be just a job to me. But for many of my waking hours these days, that's exactly what it is.

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Thursday, October 11, 2012

Giving Up on Gloria

For the last few weeks I've been hiding, taking the long way to the office, pretending I needed a change of scene — when really I was just avoiding Gloria.

Have I written about her before? She's the homeless woman who first annoyed me (never asking for change — only for dollars), then won me over one day in the rain. I had given her a few bucks by then, and she was writing the names of her benefactors on a piece of paper that she kept in a waterproof container she wore around her neck.  She was, I suppose, creating a family of donors, people she could count on, a flock of supporters.

For more than a year I've been a faithful contributor to the Gloria cause. "You look beautiful today," she'd say as I slipped a dollar into her hand. "Stay warm," I'd reply. "Take care of yourself."

But one morning when I didn't have a dollar to give, she was angry, menacing. I learned of other colleagues who were harassed when they held on to their money. One even asked me to walk with her past Gloria's corner.

It all came back to me then, the way I originally felt about Gloria, the persistence in her panhandling, the requests that were almost demands. I'd been giving out of fear and not out of a genuine desire to help. There's a fine line between charity and extortion, and Gloria had crossed it.

I'm not proud of myself for giving up on Gloria. I know I'm not the first to have done so. But now I walk free.


Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Autumn Consolations

The rains have come and the clouds too, and together they have taken us to a new season. We wake to chill and enter the day in darkness.

In the evening, errands once run in warm dusks are now undertaken in cold nights.

The signs have all been there, I tell myself, but I've ignored them. I have chosen to believe (as hot seasons always make me do) that summer is eternal.

And nothing, not the bluest autumn sky or the crispest scarlet leaf, can make it right again.

What consoles me: lamplit evenings, bowls of chili, no yard work, fires on the hearth, low sunlight slanting through tall windows, the knowledge that months pass quickly and soon it will be spring again.


Tuesday, October 9, 2012

College Tour

It's been four years since we did this the last time.

Four years since we sat in a darkened auditorium and listened to an admissions director discuss interdisciplinary learning.

Four years since we were last told how to submit a FAFSA.

Four years (or almost that; we did one brief tour this spring and another this summer) since we sauntered through a college campus following a student ambassador who has mastered the art of  walking backward.

Four years, which seems like no time at all — except that a wispy 13-year-old has become a willowy 17-year-old. And we are embarking on our last few college tours.

Now we're the ones who understand the difference between early decision and early action. We're the application veterans, with the battle scars to prove it.

But there's one thing we haven't mastered yet — and that is saying goodbye. 

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Sunday, October 7, 2012

Half Marathon

The rain started early this morning, right when Claire was beginning her first half marathon. The sprinkles turned to drops and the temperature hovered in the upper 40s. Runners passed us wearing only shorts and singlets, their flesh reddened by cold. Some ran in jackets, others in spandex tights.

We found a viewing spot at Mile 11, right before a hill, and listened as one enthusiastic spectator cheered the racers with "You're waaaay past half way." 

"I heard you before," some of them said, smiling and laughing and ever so slightly picking up their pace.

Finally, we saw Claire, Number 658. Though she's only been running for a few months, she was in fine form, bouncing along as if the rain and the run weren't fazing her. We cheered, she gave us a quick hug and ran off to tackle the last two miles.

Funny thing, she said later — the spot we picked to stand was right where she needed us most. 


Friday, October 5, 2012

One State

As I drive east today I'll be thinking how if I were making this trek 221 years ago I would not be traveling through three states, but through one. Kentucky was part of Virginia until 1792.

Now these states are separate. But once they were part of the same large region that stretched from the ocean to the "first west." One were their hills and valleys, one their rivers and streams. The mountain range that divides them was shared.

Yesterday I drove the back roads of the Bluegrass, hopping out of the car often to stick my camera between gate bars, snap photographs and, sometimes, just to sigh.

Once these two places, these two important places, these two poles of my heart — once they were one.

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Thursday, October 4, 2012

Old School

I live nowhere near the scenes of my childhood, haven't grown into middle age in the land of my youth and young adulthood, so returning there can make me dizzy.

Yesterday we stopped at Magee's Bakery for cheese danish and sat across from my old high school, now defanged, serving as a county education building. I found the windows of my algebra 2 classroom, remembered Baldy Gelb, football coach and math teacher, could almost see the chalk dust motes floating in the air.

It was a long time ago, of course, but looking at that brick building (how can it sit there so placidly? what happened to all the adolescent angst?),  I felt that I could have reached out and opened the door to that classroom, found my seat and struggled with a quadratic equation. 


Wednesday, October 3, 2012

After the Rain

I could tell the difference before I reached the first dip in the road. A day earlier I had misjudged, found myself trudging through rain, my socks damp, my hair wet. But yesterday, I stepped into a drenched clean world.

On my way, an empty mail truck. An early lunch for the carrier? We on his leeward side were still waiting, but those whose letters had arrived were slowly shuffling to their mailboxes, sweaters pulled tight, suspicious glances at the sky.

In the new section of the neighborhood a worker swept the wet street in front of a construction site. He seemed only to be moving mud, but he greeted me cheerily.

Down at the corner the cars zoomed by, as they always do, and the dying sycamore dropped its leaves. The rain came too late for that poor tree. And the big white house that was abandoned for so long, it still looked abandoned, even though someone seems to be living in the place. So a good soaking doesn't solve everything, but it did put a spring in my step.

On the way home, I waved at the cars I passed. People do that here.

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Tuesday, October 2, 2012


On my drive west Saturday I followed the moon as it slid slowly toward the horizon. It was a beacon for the early hours of my trip, the ones I struggle with most because it's dark and I'm tired and the steaming mug of tea has cooled and there are hours to go before I enter the Bluegrass state.

But the moon was dramatic in its slantwise trip, thanks to its full state and to the banks of clouds that colored in its wake. It seemed even larger as it reached the horizon. Big and glorious and sun-like in its setting. A full moon can mimic the sun much better than a half or a crescent.

I realized, though, as I admired the moonset, how sun-centric I am, how I compare the satellite unfairly with the star.  The moon has its own motions and missions and poetry.

I missed the moonset's final moments, because by then I was driving south through the Shenandoah Valley and the western sky was hidden from view.  But it was there when I needed it most.

(A partial-moon moonset viewed from our house.)

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Monday, October 1, 2012

The Concert

The tickets were a gift, generous and unbidden, and so the concert was, too. It had been a while since I sat in a hall while music poured over me, and I had forgotten how exciting it can be. Even the preliminaries: A rush to find parking in the limpid early evening, a parade of evening-dressed concertgoers entering the hall, taking a seat quickly before the lights dimmed.

The featured performer was Itzhak Perlman, and Lexington audiences are not used to having him around. The applause was loud and sustained -- even before he began to play. But then -- ahh -- he did, and there was that familiar, charged concert stillness, and the violin singing out over it, taking us along.

 Perlman hunched over this violin, seemingly at one with it, and when he finished the opening section of the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto, he used the fingers of his right hand, slightly cupped, to gesture "come here, come here," to the first violin section, asking them for more, for a swell of sound to answer his lone voice. And they responded, this student orchestra that was most definitely not the New York or Vienna Philharmonic but which, last night, must have felt, just for a moment, like it was.

When the last notes sounded, the audience jumped to its feet.

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