Monday, September 30, 2013

Let's Dance!

Sometimes the empty nest is so quiet it drives you out of the house and into ... the dance studio. Tap dance, in this case. Maybe (in retrospect) because it is so loud. But mostly, I think, because it is so much fun.

"Smile," the instructor says. "Don't forget to smile."

And so I do, even though I feel ridiculous wearing a little straw hat, attempting shuffle ball change and a complicated routine that others seem to be picking up much more quickly. Oh, and without tap shoes. (I'm waiting on those until I'm sure I want to stay with this.)

But it's hard to feel ridiculous for long in a tap-dance studio. After all, everyone else is wearing a little straw hat.

So I loosened my shoulders and let the music flow through me.

That's when the awkwardness went away and the dancing began.



Sunday, September 29, 2013

Ancient Rhythms

A bounty of photos means that Africa is still on my mind.

I imagine the roads at dusk, red soil, the shadows lengthening. A river beside the road, or maybe still water, a small pond.

Ancient rhythms, still alive.

(Photo by Katie Esselburn)


Friday, September 27, 2013

Gifts from Africa

The human heart is a funny thing, what it withstands, what it does not. I've long since accustomed myself to Suzanne's absence. She's been in Africa well over a year now. She's busy, happy, completely at home.

But last night, the worlds collided. Suzanne's friend Katie came to visit "bearing gifts" from her recent trip to see Suzanne in Benin. Things Suzanne had bought and wanted us to have:

There was a leather wallet, a small wall hanging of a woman carrying a jug on her head and a set of hand-cast ladles made of an indeterminate metal (maybe aluminum?).

For some reason now, I can hardly look at these gifts without a tissue nearby. That Suzanne chose them with her own hands, arranged for their passage here — well, it just got to me.

It's always that way, isn't it? The small, thoughtful detail; a glimpse of the eternal within the everyday.

(Photo: Katie Esselburn)

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Thursday, September 26, 2013

World Wide-Webbed

We've had a bumper crop of spiderwebs this year, perhaps brought on by the cooler, damper summer — or perhaps not. Perhaps just brought on by an especially industrious crop of spiders.

Whatever the explanation, the webs have been out in full force. They catch you in the woods, cling to your hair, your clothes, your shoes. Not, of course, to your dog. He's too short to be webbed.

They drive you to carry a stick and walk along the paths swinging it madly from side to side; in other words, webs make you look foolish.

Webs appear overnight, strung across the trampoline or the pergola, nature's bunting. True, they are not good for hikers or unsuspecting insects. But stand aside, glimpse one with the sun behind it, thin threads gleaming, and it's clear that webs are good for the soul.

(Photo: Tom Capehart)


Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Equinox, Equator

So we come to the days of perfectly parceled light. Equal measures of darkness and day. What every young child longs for: the cookie cut into two halves that are absolutely the same. Not one chocolate chip more or less.

Perfect equality; perfectly equal.

I think these days of Suzanne, living nine degrees north of the equator in a land where it's always  equinox. Mornings at 7, evenings, too. Seasons of rain and sun rather than heat and cold. Still the northern hemisphere, but barely.

Summer-lover that I am, northern hemisphere-dweller that I am, it's hard to imagine warm weather without long days. But that's what she has. Heat and wood smoke, too, I bet — another one of those anomalies.

Here at 38 degrees latitude, we are finally balanced. But only because it's September 25. The scale is already tipping. Darkness is winning out. Time to dream of a land where it never does.

(Photo: Katie Esselburn)

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Running and Walking

I can't really explain it, did not set out to do it, but lately I've been running more than I've been walking.  My knees seem up to the task, and there is the mood-elevating aspect of the endeavor, the "runner's high," which encourages the habit.

I can't help but compare the two, though. Running is about the pace, the accomplishment. At least at this point of my re-entry into the activity, I find myself thinking more "hey, I'm running!" than anything else.

Walking, on the other hand, frees the mind for wandering. The pace is natural, conducive to wool-gathering along the way.

All of which is to say: the ideal day would include time to run and walk. Ah, if only I didn't have to earn a living!


Monday, September 23, 2013

The Promise of Leisure

Bad weather was moving in, so I considered taking in the hammock. I scarcely used it this summer, since I had precious little down time. And the fact that we had a bumper crop of mosquitoes in the backyard didn't help.

Still, there were a few sultry afternoons I lazed away an hour or two, staring up at the leaves or swaying to music or reading and dozing.

Besides, the hammock is not just for the body, it's for the mind.  Simply to see it slung there so invitingly makes my shoulders drop a notch or two.

I finally decided that the hammock stands for the promise of leisure more than leisure itself.

And who wants to put that away for the summer?


Saturday, September 21, 2013

Wedding Day

There's something in the air. Last weekend I learned of two engagements. Today I know of two weddings. One, a colleague's, is downtown. The other is across the street. Literally. 

All week long the dust has been flying. The gardeners delivered mulch, the tent people delivered a tent (one something like this), and other rental outfits dropped off chairs and tables and a porta-potty (which I've heard through the grapevine is a deluxe model).

It's the wedding of our neighbor's father — not an event one usually associates with a parent, but delightful when it happens. 

We neighbors have the smallest of supporting roles: We will put up with the parking and the noise. We will medicate our dogs if necessary. And we will send silent cheers their way. 

I may not feel this way tomorrow morning, but right now I can say: It's good to have a wedding in the 'hood.


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Friday, September 20, 2013

Making it Official

This summer, more than any other I can remember, the yard was filled with birds. Lured by new feeders and treats they filled the mornings with song and the afternoons with excited chatter.

Now the birds are going away. Not all of them, of course. But the hummingbirds are scarce to nonexistent and the goldfinches appear in singles rather than flocks. The woodpeckers that hopped each deck pilaster to reach the peanut butter block — I haven't seen them in weeks.

I suppose some of these creatures — most of them — are winging their way south. The last few evenings I've spotted Vs of blackbirds tracking southeast in the cloudless sky.

No secret what it all means. I can read a calendar, can feel the chill in the morning air. But when the birds start to vanish that makes it all terribly official.

Summer is almost over. Fall is almost here.

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Thursday, September 19, 2013

Beating the Clock

I don't know when cross-walks that flash "Walk" or "Don't Walk" turned into cross-walks that give pedestrians a countdown of the seconds they have left for crossing, but I was thinking yesterday how this development has changed my walking style.

Before, I would find my cadence and stride confidently from block to block. My feet were on auto-pilot while my mind was free to wander. I stopped and started when needed.

Now if I spot a flashing "20" halfway down the block, I play beat the clock. The natural gait is gone. Instead, I race to the corner and dash across the street.The flow of thoughts is replaced by strategy. If I keep up the pace another block I can beat that light, too.

Do I get where I'm going any faster?

I doubt it.

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Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Frying Pan Park

As soon as I pulled into the gravel parking lot, I knew it was a mistake. I hadn't been to this farm park since the girls were young. I was missing them enough as it was. What was I thinking of?

Some sort of therapy, I suppose, the kind where anxious folks expose themselves to ever-increasing doses of what they fear. So I hopped out of the car and started my "treatment."

There was the big barn where we'd admire the baby pigs and the field where we'd watch the young goats rut and run. There was the chicken coop, the old tractor, the field where the pardoned Thanksgiving turkeys (given to several American presidents, who chose not to slaughter them) now run free.

Mostly there were the shadows of my three daughters. One running ahead, a second clambering on a fence and the third holding her nose because "this place really stinks, Mom." For a moment the memories overcame me and I had to stop and compose myself.

As I stared at the light on the early fall fields, a young father raced ahead of me, his two children pulling on his arms. He looked harried and hassled — and seeing him helped me remember the high drama of those days, the endlessness of them. My trips to this park were often out of desperation.

But I also recalled the way it felt to pull in the driveway after one of our outings, secure in our togetherness, feeling, as I rushed to start dinner, that everything was exactly as it should be.

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Tuesday, September 17, 2013

"Fists to Knives to Guns"

I looked it up first thing this morning. The Navy Yard is a little over two miles from my office. I could walk there in 40 minutes. That's how close it came this time.

But despite how close it came, despite how horrific it was — the worst loss of life in a single violent incident here since 9/11/2001 — what's most notable about this tragedy is how routine it has become.

At least there were no children killed this time, I caught myself thinking. Yet undoubtedly children were affected. Children and other innocent people. The 12 victims all had loved ones — husbands and wives, kids and parents, brothers and sisters, friends and colleagues — and their lives will never be the same.

There has always been anger and hatred in the world. But anger plus gunfire is a potent combination. As Janet Orlowski of Washington Hospital Center said as she updated reporters on the condition of the wounded: "I grew up at a time when people were mad at each other, they put up their fists and they hit each other. And for some reason people have gone from fists to knives to guns."

(Photo: Wikipedia)

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Monday, September 16, 2013

The Bibliophiles Have Spoken

I'd first heard the news from a friend a few weeks ago, someone who works in the Fairfax County Library system. Books were being tossed and librarians were being let go, she said. A new plan was in the offing, one with fewer librarians and fewer books, a plan later hailed as the transition "from a print environment to a digital environment," according to a Washington Post article that broke the news last week.

When a county supervisor heard the news about the banished books, she rescued scores of good volumes from a dumpster and deposited them on the desk of a county official. The discarded books became a call to arms.

Since the news was made public, the Fairfax County Library has been told to put its new library plan on hold.

The books are safe. For a while, at least.


Saturday, September 14, 2013

Farmer's Market

Warm sun, cool air, full harvest. The Reston Farmer's Market is one of the bigger ones in the area, and even though we arrived at the end of it there were still plenty of tomatoes ... and peaches ... and eggplant ... and grapes. 

Let the salads and stir-fries begin.

(Photos by Claire Capehart)

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Hidden Garden

This is a corner of the yard you can't see from inside, the outer edge of a small grove of trees that softens and shelters half the house.

Ferns, hollies, a crepe myrtle and a knockout rose are gathered here with little thought to their placement except hope that the rose and crepe myrtle would have enough light to bloom.

There is no gate, no wall or key, and it holds no fairy magic. But I like to think of this place as a hidden garden, because though it's visible to neighbors, it is, for the most part, invisible to me.

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Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Burying the Lead

Though it originates in our nation's capital, this blog is decidedly apolitical — with a few exceptions, several of them also occurring, curiously enough, on 9/11. What I have to say today is not a solemn memorial, though — it's an editor's view of President Obama's speech on Syria.

Maybe it's because I'm in the final stages of getting the magazine to the printer and am thinking best with a red pen in my hand, but it struck me last night that the startling new diplomatic developments that began emerging  the day before yesterday were not so much fully incorporated into the president's speech as they were tacked on at the end. This gave the address a confusing inconsistency.

For at least two-thirds of the 17-minute speech Obama told us why we should use force to punish the Assad regime for using chemical weapons against its own people — and then for the next five he told us that the vote to authorize such force was postponed in order to explore a diplomatic solution. We in the journalism biz call this burying the lead.

This didn't just confuse me; it made me feel used. As George Orwell pointed out 67 years ago in his essay "Politics and the English Language, "...[T]he decline of a language must ultimately have political and economic causes: it is not due simply to the bad influence of this or that individual writer. But an effect can become a cause..." As he noted a few paragraphs later, "[I]f thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought."

Perhaps there is no hope for political speech. Orwell didn't think there was. "In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defense of the indefensible," he said.  It's hard to believe that the world has improved much in the last seven decades.

But if last night's explanation had been more honest from the start, it would at least have gotten my attention.  And perhaps even earned my respect.

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Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Waist-High Weeds

I found my neighbor, Teresa, weeding in the woods. "It's Japanese stiltgrass," she said, "and the only way to get rid of it is to pull it up."

Tell me about it. I've been pulling it up all summer, but have never felt sufficiently ahead in my own yard to take on the common land.

But Teresa has. And does. She and her husband, David, often take a bag along on their walks to pick up trash in the neighborhood.

I do not bag and neither do I weed. Instead, I ponder the stiltgrass as I walk, notice the height of it, waist-high in spots, think about this wild vegetation taking over the woods, the fields, the yards.

It's a green wave, a green sea, rolling ever forward. We can try to stem its tide, but we are powerless in its wake.

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Monday, September 9, 2013

Light on Water

I walk when the time is right, when the writing and the chores are done. I don't always consider the quality of the light.

Maybe I should.

Yesterday, Copper and I made our way through the woods as the sun slanted low through the oaks, glanced at their roots and spotlit the creek. The water shimmered in response, gave up its secrets, its depth, its hurry.

The light was a laser pointer teaching the landscape. Look here, it told me, here are sights you should not miss.

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Saturday, September 7, 2013

Big Sky

It is a day of clarity and blue sky, a day that makes me dream of the West with its forever-faraway views. What would it be like to live in the open, to give up the canopy we Easterners hide beneath?

In Wolf Willow, Wallace Stegner has some answers:

Over the segmented circle of earth is domed the biggest sky anywhere, which on days like this sheds down on range and wheat and summer fallow a light to set a painter wild, a light pure, glareless, and transparent. The horizon a dozen miles away is as clean a line as the nearest fence. ...

The drama of this landscape is in the sky, pouring with light and always moving. The earth is passive. And yet the beauty I am struck by, both as present fact and as revived memory, is a fusion: this sky would not be so spectacular without this earth to change and glow and darken under it.

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Friday, September 6, 2013

Books at Hand

They're piled on the bedside table, scattered on the coffee table, wedged two deep on bookshelves.

At least one commutes on Metro with me, often two, fiction and nonfiction. And always, of course, my own little black book, my journal, along for the ride.

Why must I have books around me? More books than I can possibly read?

Same reason I've always loved bookstores and libraries, I guess, which has something to do with the special calm that comes over me when I'm in them.

Here within reach this Friday morning are two memoirs, a novel, a book on mindfulness and another on grace, two books on place and some historical fiction.

Will I read all of these within the next hour? Unlikely. I'm reading page proofs today. But having books at hand, knowing I can dip into them at any moment, is a way of being. Books are as essential as air.


Thursday, September 5, 2013

The Places In Between

It's a pit stop, a place to get gas on I-64, a hilltop station with rocking chairs on a little front porch that provides this view as respite for white-line fever.

Well, almost this view. To snap this shot I walked down the road a few feet while filling up the van. But still, this is more or less what you would see if you had a few minutes to while away.

I paused only long enough to take this picture. An impatient driver, I allow myself no more than 10 minutes at a stop — and I don't spend them sitting!

This photo reminds me of the journey not the destination. It reminds me of all the places in between.

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Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Shopping Alone

It had been two weeks since I'd shopped for groceries. Two weeks of eating the ultimate leftovers, what's left in the freezer after the kids have gone. But having exhausted most staples, I headed for the store.

I begin in the dairy aisle. No gallon of skim, just a pint of whole milk for my tea.

I skip the cold cuts, the Lunchables, the Fruit Rollups.

No candy or cookies or crackers. No goldfish! Kid cereal successfully bypassed, too; I go for the granola instead.

Meat, eh! Fish, double eh! I even pass on pasta. I settle on salad and one of those rotisserie chickens, the kind someone else cooks for you.

Before I leave I move through the produce aisle. The pears, I always bought them for Celia. The apples, those were for Suzanne. Claire has always loved melon.

So I buy all three — pears and apples and melon — just for the memories, you understand.

(Photo: 123RF)

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Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Back to School

They have new tennis shoes and big smiles. Their adventure is about to begin. But "they" aren't mine.

It's the first day of school in Fairfax County. But for the first time in 20 years it doesn't matter. No kid of mine is boarding one of those big yellow buses. Or getting a ride or driving herself to school, either.

And this is fine.

I miss the little people my children once were. But I love the young adults they have become.

As for nostalgia, I'm channeling Alice Cooper:

School's out for summer

School's out forever!

(Celia on her first day of kindergarten in 2000.)


Monday, September 2, 2013

Trucks Behaving Badly

Today millions of Americans are driving home from their Labor Day vacations. They are cruising up on ramps, merging cautiously, leaving a safe following distance and otherwise obeying the rules of the road.

OK, maybe they are speeding a little. But basically, they're out there trying.

At the same time, hundreds of thousands of trucks are also on the road. I don't mean to pick on trucks unnecessarily. They can't help it that they are large and heavy and block the view of signs. I don't expect them to be quiet or dainty. 

They can, however, behave better than they do. After just driving 17 hours this weekend, seven of them on the nightmare that is I-81, I think I've figured out why trucks behave badly. They think they're cars! They whisk in and out of lanes at 75 miles an hour. They merge with gleeful abandon. They give way reluctantly and with a great screech of downshifting gears. Sometimes they travel in tandem, tying up both the travel and the passing lanes while dozens of cars fume behind them.

Trucks should act like trucks. They should plod along at a speed that befits their tonnage. They should give way more generously than they do. And they should let cars ... be cars.


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