Monday, December 31, 2012


This year none of us will be together as the clock strikes midnight. We are scattered from California to Arizona to Virginia to Africa. And the two of us still at home will be at different places tonight (as is only to be expected when one of us is a teenager).

Another stage. Another adventure. A backward look, surely one won't matter. A photo that captures the spirit of this year, a spirit of departure and of what many parents see of their children as they leave home. Their backs, their luggage — their faces toward a future we can scarcely imagine.

But a new year dawns for all of us, the young, the old, the somewhere in between. And surely this is good. Just the fact that it's happening for us, for all of us, is good.

Photo by Claire Capehart


Saturday, December 29, 2012

Snowy Morning

The snow was late, as snow often is in the mid-Atlantic. When it shows up at all. Let's just say we're accustomed to disappointment, to sprinkles instead of flurries, to sleet that "holds down the total."

Snowmaggedon and Snowpocalypse, those were aberrations. A dusting on the grass, that's our fate.

So when I woke this morning to dry pavement, I didn't think much of it. Another false alarm. 

Twenty minutes later it began. Not flurries, nothing tentative about it.

Snow falling as straight as rain.


Friday, December 28, 2012

Week Without Days

What day is it, anyway?

Feels like a Wednesday,  third day after the "Sunday" that was Christmas.

Or a Saturday, with the same open spaces and relaxed demeanor of that end-of-week day.

It's certainly not Monday or Tuesday. No back-to-workness about his day. None at all.

Ah yes, it's Friday. With Saturday and Sunday still to look forward to.

There's nothing automatic about this realization. Which means we're living through a week without days.

It couldn't have come at a better time.


Thursday, December 27, 2012

Lighting the Way

The luminaries were our neighbor's idea, and I'm afraid we weren't very happy about them at first. Saving plastic milk jugs, sawing their tops off, adding a layer of kitty litter and a candle — just more items on an endless to-do list. 

But we saved a few containers, our neighbor filled in with paper bags, and on Christmas Eve our suburban street was transformed.

It wasn't just the way the lighted path shone in the dark. Or how the candles stayed lit through the drizzle and fog. It was how neighbors poured out of their houses, strolled along with hot toddies, chatted as if in a long June twilight. Someone played carols through outside speakers. Kids ran  around.

It was unexpected. It was magical.


Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Post Holiday Post

Distance, illness and weather kept us from gathering this holiday as we usually do. But eventually, the east coast contingent of my family came together for presents, food, conversation and controlled chaos. We solved a few world problems — though gun violence and climate change continue to elude us — and had some laughs, too.

Now we're back home watching the snow fall. No walking in the suburbs today.

It's time to stay inside, read and make soup.


Monday, December 24, 2012

Another Appreciation

Our old house has seen better days. The siding is dented, the walkway is cracked, the yard is muddy and tracked with Copper's paw prints. Inside is one of the fullest and most aromatic trees we've ever chopped down. Cards line the mantel, the fridge is so full it takes ten minutes to find the cream cheese. Which is to say we are as ready as we will ever be. The family is gathering. I need to make one more trip to the grocery store.

This morning I thought about a scene from one of my favorite Christmas movies, one I hope we'll have time to watch in the next few days. In "It's a Wonderful Life," Jimmy Stewart has just learned he faces bank fraud and prison, and as he comes home beside himself with worry, he grabs the knob of the bannister in his old house — and it comes off in his hand. He is exasperated at this; it seems to represent his failures and shortcomings.

By the end of the movie, after he's been visited by an angel, after his family and friends have rallied around him in an unprecedented way, after he's had a chance to see what the world would have been like without him — he grabs the bannister knob again. And once again, it comes off in his hand. But this time, he kisses it. The house is still cold and drafty and in need of repair. But it has been sanctified by friendship and love and solidarity.

Christmas doesn't take away our problems. But it counters them with joy. It reminds us to appreciate the humble, familiar things that surround us every day, and to draw strength from the people we love. And surely there is a bit of the miraculous in that.

Photo: Flow TV
This is a re-post from December 24, 2011. Merry Christmas!


Saturday, December 22, 2012

Overlay of Cheer

Strong gusts bend the bamboo beside our deck, riffle the hollies, berry-less this year. The sky is an angry purple except for a white strip along the horizon. Christmas is riding in on the west wind.

Yesterday's last-minute shopping meant parking at the far end of town and backtracking to the bookstore. No gloves for some reason, so I crammed one hand into a pocket, used the other to hold the bags. It was almost dark by the time I got home;  Reston Town Center was all decked out for the season.

Now I sit in warmth, willing myself to stand, walk upstairs and dress warmly enough for a windy walk. But first I notice how our tree lights are reflected in the window. They're an overlay of cheer on a gray and unforgiving world.

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Friday, December 21, 2012

End of Fear

Work, Christmas shopping, decorating — with all the distractions of the season I've been too busy to think about the end of the world, which will happen in a few hours according to the Mayan calendar.

As I began to write this post, I remembered writing about the end of the world before. Thirty minutes later I found the entry (so much for my filing system). It was May 21, 2011, a day when some Christians expected the Rapture.

Today, the shortest day of the year in the northern hemisphere, it's easy to understand these apocalyptic predictions. The days grow shorter and darker. Who's to say they won't go away entirely?

We can make all the jokes we want about the end of time (no need to finish your holiday shopping!), but ultimately, isn't it all about fear? 

So here's to an end of our end-of-the-world worries. And to the end of fear, too.


Thursday, December 20, 2012

Tree Time

Last night we put up the tree. We've inherited two blue chairs since last year, so we had to move those to make room. The plug we usually use for lights hasn't worked in months, so we jerry-rigged extension cords for illumination.

And then there's the tree itself, which looks like someone took a big bite out of the top. There isn't enough corner to hide its deficiencies.

In other words, it wasn't our typical tree. And it wasn't our typical tree-decorating fest. We weren't all present, and afterwards we sat outside around the fire pit and looked at the stars.

But there was plenty of talking and laughing. Families change; traditions can, too.

This year's tree doesn't look like this!


Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Heaven and Nature Sing

Heaven and nature aren't the only ones singing this time of year. There are carolers like the neighbors above, who serenaded us last year.

There are scads of sing-along "Messiah's," where rusty altos can rent scores and attempt, once more (and just as unsuccessfully), "For Unto Us a Child is Born."

And then there are people driving around in their cars belting out "Angels We Have Heard on High" at 6 a.m.

This morning, after a particularly rousing carol-fest, the announcer said he knew everyone had joined in on that last number. And just to make it official, he played "Awake and Join the Cheerful Choir" by Anonymous Four.

He might as well have said, "I hear you all out there; I hear you singing."

How did he know? Was I that loud?

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Tuesday, December 18, 2012


As our part of earth tilts farther from the sun, as days shorten and gray, as night swallows our lives  — there's a good chance we won't notice.

We're too distracted standing in line at the post office, searching for ornaments in the dank storage area of the basement, finding if not the perfect tree then at least one with flaws that can be successfully hidden by strategic placement in the corner.

Did the ancients have this idea when they celebrated solstice or whatever holiday we purloined for Christmas? Were these feasts only to appease the gods or shout hooray? Or were our ancestors saying to themselves, yeah, looks like the world's gonna end any day now, but I have this goat to slaughter and these wild herbs, they might freshen it up a bit, and it seems a shame to let it go to waste...

Because distraction, I think, is one of the surest bets of all. Distraction itself is worth celebrating.


Monday, December 17, 2012


Six years ago we surprised Claire with a dog from the pound. He was a funny looking animal, advertised as a border collie basset hound mix — but there must be at least half a dozen (unadvertised!) breeds in his pedigree.

Claire had been begging for a dog for months and we had held off, but two days after we learned she'd have to wear a back brace for scoliosis, we adopted Copper.

Early signs were not auspicious.  He ate underwear, socks and eye medicine. He bit people. He ran away on numerous occasions, including the first time we tried to get him out of the car.

But there was always something about him, something ragged and rambunctious and loving, that gave us hope. He was — and still is — the embodiment of joy. A reminder that happiness doesn't always fall into our laps; that we have to search for it, allow ourselves to be disrupted for it, even sometimes pretend we have it when we don't.  Pretend long enough, though, and it begins to feel like we do.

Photo: Claire Capehart

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Saturday, December 15, 2012


I don't usually write postscripts, but today calls for one. I wrote yesterday's entry hours before the tragic school shooting in Connecticut. It was a post about guns — not a topic I usually cover.

And now this.

There is everything to say, and there is nothing to say.

Could the tears shed over mass shootings fill an ocean?

I think maybe they could.

Friday, December 14, 2012

Shopping After Dark

I do most of my shopping in a two- to three-week period in December — not a perfect system, but it works. In order to buy lots of gifts in such a short time, however, I've had to head out after dinner — when I'd typically be curling up with a book or a movie — onto the cold, dark highways of suburbia, pulling in and out of massive parking lots, threading my way past holiday displays and shelves of sweaters in search of the right gift for each person on the list.

The other night, looking in vain for help in a large sporting goods store (what is a lure? and how do you tell one from the other?) I found myself in the one section of the establishment that was bustling, the one section where you could find clerks. That would be the gun department.

Don't think I've ever seen so many guns in one place before. There were camo models and long sleek menacing ones and short, stubby almost cute ones. People were milling around cases, speaking animatedly to staff, pawing through boxes of ammunition.

I told myself that guns must be a big seller around the holidays, that these guns are for hunters. Put out of my mind the frightening alternatives.

Still, it was hard to forget that in this entire cavernous store the only place where there was life and activity and conversation, the only place that was lively ... was where the guns were sold.


Thursday, December 13, 2012

Hawks in Flight

It's a matter of perspective, I tell myself. Of angle and scale. I see the birds, their outline against the  sky, their large size and hulking shape not robin or jay-like. Their stillness predatory, dangerous. Must be hawks. Hawks in trees.

Three times in the last week I've seen them — twice in the suburbs, once in the city. Are there more of them or am I simply spotting them more often? Are they desperate for food this time of year?

I read a little about them, their exceptional vision, their annual migration patterns, their behavior — more peaceful than you would think (when you rule out what they must do to eat!).  Though I'm seeing them in trees, I'm imagining them in flight, seeking, soaring, alone among the clouds.


Wednesday, December 12, 2012


Yesterday on Metro, uncharacteristically bookless, I stare at the scenery passing by. The clouds were winter ones, thin, remote. So different from the fat summer cumulus. They reminded me of whitened  animal bones.

The light almost gone, me half asleep, wishing myself home in time to catch a walk in the brief dusk.

But before Vienna, a bonus — the sun, sinking fast, lights up the clouds, turns dross into gold.


Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Candles in the Darkness

Some houses have candles in their windows. Others, tasteful white twinkle lights around trees limbs and branches. There are spotlit doors with wreaths. And there are icicle lights, easiest to install if you have a slight overhang, which we do not.

A few years ago people started putting not just one large wreath on the front door, but smaller wreaths on every front-facing window, a holiday-decorating escalation that seems like it would be overkill but can look surprisingly nice when glimpsed from afar.

The house behind us drips in icicle lights and spotlit trees, and the house behind that features a snowman and reindeer and strings of lights shining from tree to tree, giving the place a fiesta feel.

Our own house has colored lights along the roof line, around the door, across the shrubbery and up the lamp post. The window candles are missing in action but should be up soon.

We are, in short, decked out for the season. At least we are until I plug in my hair dryer and blow the fuses (which has been happening far too often lately). But except for these black-outs, our house and the others in Folkstone have become what we need most right now: candles in the darkness.  

Photo of Bull Run Lights Festival:


Monday, December 10, 2012

Eggnog and Other Matters

Discussing seasonality with a Millennial:

"Why can't you buy eggnog year round?"

"Because it's a holiday thing."

"But if you like it so much, why not drink it all year?"

Because life is not about the words but the space around them. Because music is not about the sound but the silence, too. Because eggnog tastes better when you sip it only a few weeks a year.

The lesson is lost, though. This is a generation raised on winter strawberries and music you download instantly and sometimes for free from the Internet. They do not save dimes and quarters and trudge up to Wheeler's Drugstore to buy a single.

For them, there is no time between action and reaction. They don't yet realize that can be the sweetest time of all.

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Sunday, December 9, 2012

Night Sky

I try to keep luddite posts to a minimum, but the new phone is making this difficult. To begin with, I'm intimidated by the thing. When I do slide it out of its special pocket in my purse, I hold it like a Ming dynasty vase. This is making it difficult to familiarize myself with its amazing features.

My children are horrified that I continue to use it like a 2005 flip phone: "Have you tried the GPS yet?" ... "Have you bought any apps?" ... "You don't have any contacts, Mom."

Well, that's not entirely true. For some reason I have the email address of a high school counselor from 2009 but no numbers for people I actually need to reach.

And then there's the way that the phone completes my words and sentences. I'm a writer; I'd rather do this myself.

But there is hope. Last night a satisfied user I met at a party told me what made him buy his iPhone — an app called Night Sky. "The phone knows where you are and it shows you all the constellations and their names," he said.

Then he whipped out his iPhone — and the roof flew away and the people, too. And it reminded me of once when Tom and I were driving in Wyoming late at night and stopped to put oil in the car and looked up, almost accidentally, and could not believe our eyes.

A phone that brings the heavens into view. I'll buy that.

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Friday, December 7, 2012

Blue Marble

It's the fortieth anniversary of the Apollo 17 astronauts' famous photo of earth from space, the  Writer's Almanac tells me. It was the first time our planet was photographed whole and entire, its mountains and deserts and oceans in clear relief. Clouds like tufts of baby's hair after a bath, when you comb it, still wet, into ridges and whorls.

It is a snapshot in time — a cyclone forms over the Indian Ocean — but so much more. It is our own precious, fragile earth. And it was the last time humans would be in a position to photograph it. (Robots were in charge of subsequent lunar missions.)

Just coincidentally, the Writer's Almanac informs me that today is also the birthday of writer Willa Cather, who said, "We come and go but the land is always here. And the people who love it and understand it are the people who own it — for a little while."

When we see our planet from space, how can we not love it more?  Not just our own corner of it, but all of it. How can we not want to do everything we can to protect it?

Photo: NASA

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Thursday, December 6, 2012

People and Places and Things

In his book The Hare with Amber Eyes: A Family's Century of Art and Loss, Edmund de Waal tells the story of 264 small Japanese figurines called netsuke that generations of his family collected, displayed, lost and found. Made of ivory or wood, these tiny carvings of people or animals are delicate but strong. A cooper making his wheel. A rat with a curved tail. A hare with amber eyes. If you carry one around in your pocket, it "migrates and almost disappears amongst your keys and change. You simply forget it is there."

The netsuke are by no means the most valuable artifacts the Ephrussi family possesses, and when the Nazis storm their Vienna home in April of 1938, a loyal maid with an ample apron manages to smuggle the statues out of the house. Everything else — the paintings, silver, porcelain, jewelry, an entire library of cherished incunabula — "the accumulation of all the diligence of the family, a hundred years of possessions" — was taken.

I've read other accounts of the Holocaust. This one moved me more than almost any other. The objects people touch and cherish are the keenest and saddest reminders of their absence.

After the war, the maid, Anna, gives the netsuke back to the family, and de Waal eventually inherits them. He treasures the figurines, but he also finds them an affront. "Why should they have got through this war in a hiding place, when so many hidden people did not? I can't make people and places and things fit together any more."

This book is not only about people and places and things; it's also about love and loss and endurance.

(I cherish our old cuckoo clock, and — even though my family disparages me for it —the worn wallpaper, too.)

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Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Roses in December

It was almost 70 degrees yesterday as I made my way along New Jersey Avenue to the Capitol. A small wind was whiffling the pansies, stirring the purples and yellows and the dark green leaves.  I moseyed down a section of tree-lined street that reminds me of Paris, with the U.S. Capitol winking through what's left of the leaves.

The broad plaza of the East Front entrance was filled with shirt-sleeved tourists snapping photos, but noon light drained color from the scene. I turned left down East Capitol, passing the Library and the Folger and a bookstore I always intend to visit but never do. Roses were still blooming, tumbling along fence posts and garden gates. In the air, the smell of new-mown grass.

Everyone was out in the warm weather — dog-walkers and nannies pushing prams and office workers on a lunchtime jog.  There's a park where I usually turn around, and today I strode right through the middle of it. I never knew what it was called until I checked a map after my stroll. It's Lincoln Park — and not at all like its Chicago counterpart — but now I'll never forget the name.

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Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Up Close

There were fewer people then, but they huddled together. Eleven souls once lived in this tiny house, which consisted of one room downstairs (a bed, a hearth, a table) and a cramped stairway to the second floor. There, scads of islanders were born — including the mother of an old woman I met the day I visited this place, the oldest house in Chincoteague, Virginia (circa 1795).

Meanwhile, there are only three of us now in a once cramped center-hall colonial that is ever more roomy as the children move out. And we are one of the smallest houses around. Nearby neighborhoods are filled with McMansions, their two-story foyers and three-car garages of a different heft and scale than the houses here.

What sort of people does crowding create? And what sort of people emptiness? I re-charge in solitude and would probably have been driven crazy by the cheek-to-jowl existence of my ancestors. But still, there are times when I feel a deep-boned loneliness that's not so much personal as evolutionary. Maybe it's the crowded rooms of the past that I miss, the intensely shared life that never let us forget that we're in this together.

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Monday, December 3, 2012

Something to Say

"People like to ask me if writing can be taught, and I say yes. I can teach you how to write a better sentence, how to write dialogue, maybe even how to construct a plot. But I can't teach you how to have something to say," says writer Ann Patchett, quoted in yesterday's "Writer's Almanac."

Ahh, the ever elusive something to say. Seems self-evident, but of course is not.

Maybe the something to say is buried and must be excavated, shovel by shovel, until you hit pay dirt. Or hiding and must be tamed like a shy bird. Or blocked by a gate to which there is no key.

How many times have I sat with  fingers poised above a keyboard — or even with fingers flying only to realize 500 words later that these words are going nowhere.

"What do you want to say?" is the question.

Too often, I don't have an answer.


Saturday, December 1, 2012

The Measurement of Awe

Finally! An article from the Washington Post that is not about the fiscal cliff but about a real geological marvel.

A story headlined "Huge Gap for Geologists: How Old is Grand Canyon?"  explains that until recently, most scientists believed the canyon to be six million years old. But new techniques (and new scientists, one of whom is 36 years old) say the canyon could be 70 million years old. This would put its formation back to a time when dinosaurs roamed the earth.

The article (true to fiscal cliff style journalism) discusses how the new canyon theorists and the old canyon theorists are sparring."It is simply ludicrous," sniffs one professor of geology. Adds another: "We can't put a canyon where they want to put it at the time they want to put it."

All of this hardly matters when you stand on the lip of the south rim and look into what seems like time itself. Is it six million or 70 million years old?  This question may some day be answered. Will I ever see a scenic vista that moves me more? I was 13 when I first saw the canyon —and I haven't yet.

(Photo: Grand Canyon National Park Service Flickr site.)


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