Friday, November 30, 2012


Today is Celia’s 18th birthday. Today she reaches the age of majority … as we creak along toward the age of seniority.

Not really, though. A youngest daughter is a marvelous gift, keeping her parents in fighting trim, bringing them face to face with the future (whether they want to see it or not).

I went out before daybreak this morning to pick Celia a rose. I had no trouble finding one; the whole yard was lit up by a full moon ringed in a pinkish halo of mist. Above the moon was a contrail, a single arched eyebrow — a shooting star pointing up instead of down.

It’s a lovely day for a birthday.

Celia at two-and-a-half.

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Thursday, November 29, 2012

Friendship Priming

The newspaper clipping, neatly labeled "International Herald Tribune," came from Kay in France. She had tucked the essay in with a note that said "this has 'Anne' written all over it." 

The topic: structural priming, the unconscious influences on writing, how what we read settles into our brain and sets up shop there and, before we know it, we're penning lines better suited to reports than poems. It's a habit we can break by cleansing our "linguistic palate" — reading widely and "against type."

The author, Michael Erard, has written short stories, essays, reviews and nonfiction books — but his day job is a think tank researcher. In other words, he says, "I'm a dancer who walks for a living."  And he dances better, he says, if he shuts off the Web and dips into a page of Virginia Tufte's Artful Sentences: Syntax as Style before beginning his creative work.

Reading this essay was like turning a kaleidoscope and bringing a new palette into place. It's something I've thought about for years, but couldn't have articulated.

And it's worth noting that although I might have stumbled across the article online, it came to me because someone I love thought I would like it. Which makes it an example not of structural priming but of friendship priming, the uncanny and unconscious connections that exist, that flourish, between friends.

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Wednesday, November 28, 2012

In the Wings

Watching a colleague's fine film about a musician's comeback from MS makes me think about music, how important it was to me growing up, how it has slipped out of my life, how I might bring it back.

Consider the offstage trumpet. Many composers have used it — Mahler, Respighi, Verdi — but the piece I remember it in most is Beethoven's Leonore Overture Number 3. I was buried in the string bass section, still learning to play the instrument, while Jim Reed, first-chair trumpet of the Central Kentucky Youth Symphony Orchestra, stood in the wings of Memorial Hall blaring the call.

But it could be any orchestra anywhere, the trumpet in the distance, like the call to hunt or the approach of a royal entourage. It's the acoustic equivalent of painterly perspective, a tonal shading, extending the orchestra beyond the stage.

Hearing it played (from minutes 9:17 to 10:12 of this recording) makes me think something important is about to happen. Not here, of course, but somewhere else. It is, therefore, a reminder to pay attention to the faraway and forgotten, to what's offstage as well as on.


Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Wintry Mix

They're forecasting rain and snow today. But it's still autumn, I silently protest. It's not even December yet. Let's just say rain and hope for the best.

Weather is neither kind nor vengeful. I know this. Yet I must harbor some ancient belief or prejudice that makes me permeable to the meteorological mood.

One reason I like the climate of Washington, D.C., is that, despite its muggy summers, it's a surprisingly sunshiney place. If a "mix" is predicted (like today), it's more likely to be rain than snow, sunny than cloudy.  That's a mix I can live with.

The Shenandoah Valley, snapped from I-81 on Saturday, when no wintry mix was forecast.


Monday, November 26, 2012


When I bought it, all three girls were living at home, one still in braces. When I bought it, the first iPhone had not yet been released.

Life was simpler then. An email was an email, a text a text. There was no cloud, or at least none accessible by a hand-held device.

I was proud of my flip phone. I could talk on it, text with it and even take photos with it (an innovation my earlier phone had lacked). I kept it in a case, for which the girls teased me mercilessly. They also teased me about my text messages, which I would laboriously type out letter for letter, including "Love, Mom" at the end.

For the last year and a half people could barely hear me when I called them. I stubbornly refused to replace the phone, though (it still texts! I only charge it once a week!), because I didn't want to become a frantic email-checker (texter, tweeter?) who plays Solitaire on Metro instead of reading books.

So the iPhone has stayed in a box for 10 days, taunting me with its clever packaging, its superior camera (what I'm looking forward to most), its elegance, its functional beauty.  Until last night, when I gave in, kissed my flip phone goodbye and entered the 21st century.

But not before snapping a picture of my old phone and making it the wallpaper of my new one. A seamless transition. Kind of like the cloud.


Sunday, November 25, 2012

All Gone

A few days ago we basked in the mellow sun of late autumn, leaves falling slowly, desultorily, to earth. But arriving home on the back edge of the west wind, I find a cold, winter landscape in its place.

The stubborn leaves have finally fallen. Trees are gray and bare. All gone, all gone, the wind sighs. It is easy to feel bereft.

I remember the times of fullness. What is left after the last piece of pie.  All gone then, too. But isn't that the point?

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Friday, November 23, 2012

Missing Words

Half an hour into Wednesday's eight-hour drive I realized that I had left my journal behind.  It wasn't the sort of item one turns around for, this notebook of half-baked ideas, first lines of poems, morning thoughts. But for the last two days I've felt its absence.

What I've missed is not just the potential, the blank pages waiting. I pressed my calendar into service on that errand right away, and now the odd week or two when I had no appointments, nothing in particular to remember, are covered with scrawl.

No, what I miss is the weight I carry with me, the journal as repository. It's as if without the words I've written I'm not exactly me.


Thursday, November 22, 2012


It's a harvest holiday, of course, planned for a time of bounty. But it arrives during a season of stripping down, of bare trees and chastened skies. The hills yesterday on our drive through the mountains, they are purple in the distance, no longer green or orange.

When all else is peeled away there is the essential, gratitude.  Thanksgiving — what one does too often in between times.

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Wednesday, November 21, 2012

When Fog Obscures

Today is winsome and gray.  Our backyard is covered with leaves, and they soften the landscape, too. Early autumn is a time of sharp contrasts as the sun drops lower in the sky. But as the season deepens and the weather changes, I take comfort in a blurring of vision.

I remember a week of warm, foggy days one November when I lived in Chicago. This was before global warming. November was winter in the Windy City (maybe it still is). We’d already had some cold nights that year and the warmth was a gift, a gift that I think Chicagoans appreciate more than most, so steeled are they to shiver five months a year.

In those days I had no car, and I met my ride to work by taking a bus down Clark Street and walking a few blocks to our meeting place. I remember strolling down Deming and Wrightwood and other streets in the neighborhood where I’d eventually (and now could not afford to) live, the fog revealing only tantalizing bits of homes and stores and churches. I imagined I was ambling through some Cotswold village. (What can I say? I was an English major.)

The point is this: When fog obscures, imagination endures. It's a pleasant trade.


Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Worn Smooth

"I loved the place I was losing, the place that years of our lives had worn smooth." 

Wallace Stegner

On a walk yesterday, I imagined how I would feel if we were leaving the suburbs I've railed against for years. Would I slip off the yoke of commuting and slide easily into city life?  Or would I long for what I no longer had, for morning walks through the meadow, afternoon ambles in the woods; for a pond that reflects the heavens back to us.

We have not worn our lives smooth. Suburban living exhausts because it demands daily compromise; it is not easily knowable. It changes enough to thwart routine.

What wears smooth is the woodland path, the trickling stream, the natural world that the suburbs  cannot quite eradicate.


Monday, November 19, 2012

Before the Walk

Before the walk comes the poem, a verse or two to take along the path.

I see more clearly with downcast eyes, pondering a private line.

Words tilt the sky, straighten the trunk, unmask the liquid

line of the horizon.

There is still much more unnoticed than revealed.

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Sunday, November 18, 2012

Autumn Labor

The motion is hypnotic, timeless. An outstretched arm, the curve of a rake's end the arm's extension, reaching forward to gather what has fallen.

As I work my heart stills. There is progress, measured in leaves corraled, bags stuffed, sticks broken and tied.

My eyes look up to a swirl in the sky.

I'm not the only busy one.

A niggling wind has frisked the Kwanzan cherry and now, on the green grass, lies a pile of gold.


Friday, November 16, 2012

Walker Eats Words

I walk daylight paths and share (mostly sunny) thoughts, but I walk because I want to, not because I have to. Most of the time there is a car at my disposal. Most of the time, but not last night.

It was a long day with a complicated automotive choreography involving three people and two cars. I was driving one vehicle in the morning and another in the afternoon. It was dark when I stepped off the commuter bus, and I had car keys in hand, ready to slide into the seat and drive home. But I couldn't find the car; I walked up and down the lot, looking in vain for the distinctive luggage rack of our sedan.

I would have called and asked for guidance but I had no phone and the pay phone was out of order, probably has been for several years. Never mind, I told myself. There must have been some confusion. I'll just walk home.

Walking home from that distance wouldn't be daunting in the daylight, but it was at night. I found myself tripping on cracked pavement and dodging cars, even when I crossed with the lights. It took me 45 cold unpleasant minutes in my dark coat and too-tight work shoes. The only thing I could think about was how much I wanted to be home.

I hadn't been in the house more than five minutes when Tom and Celia walked in. The car was in the lot (sans luggage rack); I had just missed it.

What I hadn't missed was this: It's easy to rhapsodize about walking when you don't have to walk.


Thursday, November 15, 2012

Pushing Send

No longer the search for the envelope, the stamps, to say nothing of the white-out and carbon paper that preceded them. No longer the rush to the post office to make the last pick-up of the evening.

Now, instead, it's the multiple save, the last-minute printer malfunction, the inexplicable garbling of text or omission of "o's" in the preview document.

Now, at the last possible minute of the second-to-last possible day, it's wondering whether the document should have been saved as a PDF after all.

But finally, after the problems are solved, the tempers calmed, the signatures checked and the credit card number encoded, it's time to push "Send."

Miracle of miracles, the Common App is on its way.

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Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Music as Place

I bought the tickets months ago in a fit of concert-going induced by pleasant outdoor evenings at Wolf Trap last summer. But by the time Saturday night rolled around I was wondering why we were going to hear the group Chicago. A concert for me usually means a symphony orchestra. What was I thinking of?

The opening band, Kansas, didn't do much to dispel the fears. Yes, they played "Dust in the Wind," but their other songs were more cacophonous than I remember. By the time I was ready to slip in the ear plugs, though, the opening set was over and Chicago was on stage. The volume went down and the energy level went up. Here was the soaring trumpet in "Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is?" and the driving keyboards in "Saturday in the Park."

And even though I'm a classical music nerd, I still knew every song. More to the point, every song took me back to a me I hadn't been in years; to sweaty high school slow dances and college parties in the top floor "rack rooms" of gritty fraternity houses.

It was enough to make me believe that the past isn't really over after all, that it lives within us and can be sparked to life by a brass chord, a guitar riff, a voice. That music is a place, after all, and a visit there can make us feel young again.

Photo: Wikipedia


Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Graceful Exit

The pin oaks of my youth were all over Lexington, but where I remember them most is along Chinoe Road (that's SHIN O WAY).  They rustled their dry leaves in front of some of the more desirable real estate in town.

Long after the leaves of other trees had flamed up, dropped off and blown away, the pin oaks hung onto their poor brown specimens. Pin oak leaves had not mastered the art of the graceful exit. Even with snow on the ground, they clung to their branches. They reminded me of old women with overly made up faces; like them, they did not know when to quit.

Walking past a grove of pin oaks the other day brought these memories to mind, how I had always disliked the tree, found it ugly and lacking in grace.

But this year the pin oak has company. This year many leaves fell during the hurricane, and some trees are nearly bare, but certainly not all. At least a third are half-leaved. It's as if they've forgotten what to do next.

Pin oaks don't provoke me as they used to.  Perhaps it's because I'm older (though not overly made up!) and see the wisdom of clinging to what nature has given us until nature, in its wisdom, takes it away.


Monday, November 12, 2012

Late Rose

Frost has nipped the begonias, colored the maples, brought a dignified end to the tomato and basil plants. But it has not yet conquered the knockout roses in our front yard.

They have continued to bloom red and pink, their colors out of place with subtle autumn russets and gold, their freshness unexpected and sublime.

To see them still waving in the breeze is to believe that all will be well, that winter will pass and spring will come again.


Saturday, November 10, 2012


A problem with our wireless network has changed my blogging habits. I write quickly, post quickly, before I've timed out.  At least for now, I'm learning to live with intermittency, with stopping and starting, with that which cannot be controlled.

A valuable lessons to be reminded of from time to time.

My pace has been intermittent lately, too, as bursts of running punctuate my usual fast-walk cadence. I try for a steady pace but can't help but respond to the music in my ears and the feel of my joints.

Even the weather has been singing this tune — blustery and cold one weekend, calm and warm the next.

Bedrock is necessary, that which is solid and predictable. But what gets us through the day is the lighter, looser loam on top.


Friday, November 9, 2012

Staying Put

In The Merry Recluse, the late Caroline Knapp writes about finding home. It wasn't a grand "ah-hah" moment, she says. "I figured Boston would be an interim city, a place to set down my bags until I moved on to some bigger, more exotic locale ... I figured I'd be transient, my sense of place fluid, my attachments focused on people and jobs rather than on location. And then, not long ago, I looked up one day and thought: Oh, my God. I have a life here. I'm not moving. I'm home."

Her point is that many of us don't choose our place; our place chooses us. It's not so much a decision as a non-decision. A not-moving rather than a staying put.

What helped Knapp stay put is the Charles River, "one of the longest, best stretches of flat water for rowing anywhere in the U.S." and where Knapp would scull four or five times a week.

If we stay here (and it's always "if"), it will be because of the hollow tree along Little Difficult Run, the one Copper always has to stick his nose in on the days he's lucky enough to get a walk. It will be because of the mossy hill and the view of treetops I can see from there. It will be because of this one ancient knobby tree stump I always look for because more often than not it trips me up. 

It will be the little things that keep us here.

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Thursday, November 8, 2012

Lost and Found

I thought I knew the way, so I headed out with no map, no directions, no GPS and no phone.

The first part was easy. Down Lawyers into Vienna. I knew that much for sure.

But when I turned into the neighborhood it was dark and alien. I recognized the median but not the turnoff. I drove slowly down the suburban lanes, turning every time I thought I'd found the road. But nothing looked familiar.

I realized then that I had never arrived at this house in darkness, only in daylight. In the light, the houses were large, solid, knowable. In the darkness they were too close to discern differences. More cars were parked on the street than I recalled. I drove so slowly I could have been walking, peering into windows with one eye while keeping the other on the road.

At one point I found myself retracing last Saturday's local history tour. And then I laughed out loud. I can't find my friend's house but I can locate the site of an 1862 Civil War encampment.

It was then that I turned toward home. This time I knew the way: right on Lawyers, left on Steeplechase, left on Fox Mill.

When I pulled into our driveway, the porch lights were glowing a warm welcome. My heart leaped at the sight. I parked the car and walked inside.


Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Morning After

Amid yesterday's electoral busyness and drama came word came of a high school classmate's death. He was a wild man and a lover of life who lost his own life far too soon. Hearing this sad news from my hometown put everything else in perspective.

Not just the brevity of it all or even the wonder of it all but the preciousness of each individual person. Each one a world apart, each with aspirations and aggravations that we, on the outside, can never know. As we emerge from the collective that is an election season, when people are numbers, weights on a swing state scale, we return to what really matters — the individual.

This is the morning after, the day we cheer or sigh. But tomorrow is a new day, and like every new day, composed of the individual actions of individual people.

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Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Election Day

I drove to work today, and as I crossed the Potomac the familiar landmarks loomed solid and significant in the wan winter light. Driving past the White House and the Capitol, I thought about the people who aspire to live and work in those places, people I'll vote for today.

It does feel momentous, this election. Perhaps because we live in a battleground state and our phone rings half a dozen times or more a day. Perhaps because positions seem to be ossified — the fact that we had our first hard freeze last night, is that a metaphor?

Or perhaps because these polarized times make clear a truth we sometimes forget: that every vote really does make a difference.


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Monday, November 5, 2012


The first day of winter is still weeks away, but this feels like the real thing: Cold and light earlier than usual, the low temps not part of the night but part of the day. Just so there can be no mistaking.

I notice the silence. The robins and jays have left us; the juncos have not yet arrived.

The shutters are closed, but I spy through cracks the flicker of branch stir outside, as a brisk breeze sets treed leaves a trembling.

Here in this quiet hour, clocks ticking again on standard time, I think, resignation is much like this — to crave long days and fireflies, yet know even in my longing that this is what must be.

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Sunday, November 4, 2012

History Lesson

"Do you want to hold it?" asked Jim Lewis, our tour guide. "You might need both hands."

And with that he passed me a 12-pound cannonball that, yes, was easier to hold with two hands than with one.

Lewis is a member of the Hunter Mill Defense League, which sounds like some sort of retro radical 60s organization but is actually a group of citizens formed to protect and defend the lovely, historic and oft-threatened (by development and widening) Hunter Mill Road.

Lewis and colleagues have bushwacked their way through the rolling hills of western Fairfax County, discovering old road beds, abandoned millraces and confederate earthworks, cannonballs and former camp sites. Now they're sharing their knowledge through lectures, booklets and the occasional tour.

Yesterday's four-hour jaunt delivered more information and ideas than I could possibly capture in a single post.  Like the cannonball, it was a lot to handle. It gave me a plethora of ways to see this land I live in. A place of history and of depth. 

(Jim Lewis and cannonball near the Confederate earthworks he found in the woods behind his backyard.)

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Friday, November 2, 2012


It's still dark at 7 a.m., a cold inky blackness that does not invite exploration.  Leafless trees, downed branches littering the yard, a sky just light enough to promise hope.

It is a season that calls for poetry (as if all seasons didn't). So I return from the library my arms full of Donald Hall, Jane Kenyon, Maxine Kumin.

This morning, Kumin makes me smile:

Bucophilia, I call it —
nostalgia over a pastoral vista —
where for all I know the farmer
who owns it or rents it just told his
wife he'd kill her if she left him, and
she did and he did and now here come
the auctioneers, the serious bidders
and an ant-train of gawking onlookers.

Bucophilia — it's a word I'll take into the day.

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Thursday, November 1, 2012

Under Water

When constructing my fantasy life I often get hung up on location. The suburbs are out, and a pied-a-terre is a given (after all, I still have to earn a living); the confusion comes with the country retreat. A cabin in the mountains? A cottage on the shore?

After Sandy, the answer is clearer. After Sandy, the mountains are starting to look pretty good. After Sandy, I wonder: What happens when the places I love are under water?

There's Venice. But of course with Venice it has always been part of that city's doomed charm.

And there's Chincoteague. As the wind and rain pounded us Monday I thought of my time there this summer, the stillness of the refuge, the beach that goes on forever. Does it still? 

And now there's New York City, too. Sea water coursing through subway tunnels, lapping at the steps of the Stock Exchange. Apocalyptic visions.

People perish; place endures. Or at least it used to. I'm not so sure anymore.

(Lower Manhattan from the Brooklyn Bridge.)

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