Thursday, October 31, 2013

Haunted House

The stairs creak, the floor groans — night sounds of the empty nest.

When the house was full of children I used to joke that we didn't need those fake cobwebs, we had the real thing. Our house was messy because we were too busy to clean it.

The house is tidier now, but trick-or-treaters will be the only kids I see. No one to carve the pumpkin (though Celia helped with that last week when she was here for fall break). No one to watch "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" and laugh at Bram Bones. No one to borrow my eyeliner for drawing a fake mustache.

Luckily, the house is haunted. Not with evil spirits, but with good ones. All the years, tears, giggles — all the drama — it's here somewhere; I'm convinced of it. And on this day of spirits, it doesn't take much imagination to find it. 

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Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Rhythm of the Amble

Lately I've been running as much as walking. This may be good for my physical well-being but I'm missing the measured thought that comes with slower foot fall.

I've written about this before, but it's worth more rumination. My theory has been that running requires enough effort that there is little left for anything else.

But the other day, on an especially soothing woods walk, another possibility presented itself: It's the rhythm of the amble — left, right, left, right — allowing each step its own percussive moment. It's trance-inducing after a while. And very conducive to cogitation.

Then again, it may have been the autumn color and the deepening dusk that worked its magic.

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Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Walkable City

"Walking is a simple and a useful thing, and such a pleasure, too. It is what brings planeloads of Americans to Europe on holiday, including even some of the traffic engineers who make our own cities so inhospitable."  — Jeff Speck, Walkable City

 It would take far more than a single post to describe all the ideas in this book, thoughts about walkability from one of the nation's foremost experts on it, the city planner Jeff Speck. For now here are Speck's "Ten Steps of Walkability":
 Put cars in their place
Mix uses
Get parking right
Let transit work
Protect the pedestrian
Welcome bikes
Shape the spaces
Plant trees
Make friendly and unique spaces
Pick your winners

Speck mentions European cities throughout the book. Here are places where pedestrians rule, where public transit safely transports people to and from their destinations, where bikes are welcome and buildings create human-scaled places.

What all these features combine to create is a walkable environment, one people want to stroll through and be part of.  We need to value "moving under one’s own power at a relaxed pace through a public sphere that continually rewards the senses," Speck says. "We need a new normal in America, one that rewards walking."

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Monday, October 28, 2013

Marathon Girl

Her first achievement was signing up, a marathon of its own, requiring hours online and the drive to submit her name ahead of tens of thousands of others.

And then there was the training, which began in March and involved a byzantine schedule of long runs and short runs building up to yesterday's 26.2 miles (excuse me, 26.6 miles, according to her Garmin).

For some reason, she decided that the training should also include a triathlon, a swim-bike-run event that left her with a sprained ankle less than two months before the big race. But she pushed through that, too, with an air boot and lots of determination.

And finally, yesterday, all the hard work and determination paid off.  Not much more than a year and a half since she started running, Claire successfully completed the Marine Corps Marathon.

There were many moments I'll remember, ones I didn't photograph because I was too busy hugging her, but this is one that will stick with me.

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Saturday, October 26, 2013

Cleaning Up

As one who routinely gives short shrift to sleep, cutting corners whenever possible, I read the newspaper article with great interest. Reporting on a study published in the journal Science, the article said that new imaging techniques have allowed researchers to better understand how the brain cleans cells during sleep.

Apparently, the space between cells expands while we're snoozing — which gives a network that drains cellular waste from the brain more space to flush out the toxins.When we sleep less, the brain can't go about this housekeeping function as efficiently — and toxins build up. No wonder my head feels foggy the morning after I've slept five hours or less.

This finding explains the restorative nature of sleep and may also help scientists better understand Alzheimer's and Parkinson's diseases.

All I know is, I've gone to bed earlier and slept later ever since I read the article. And that's a good thing.

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Friday, October 25, 2013

Priming the Pump

I sit here as I do on many work-at-home mornings. The top half of the plantation shutters are open to the new day. It’s still early. There are no colors yet, just dark shapes silhouetted against the light. Soon I will leave the keyboard and venture out. It used to be my morning habit, up and out before the day had any cobwebs on it. But now I write first. It’s the only way sometimes. 

And sometimes it works, the words pour out in a torrent. From the feel of the keys beneath my fingers, this will not be one of those days. But no matter. I write in all internal weathers; I prime the pump. And, on this day, which feels so much like a first day, a new year, I will prime it some more. 


Thursday, October 24, 2013

Summer Sun

Light slants low from heaven this time of year. Yesterday it made rainbows on my office walls, pouring through a prism in the window — winter's consolation.

But today the summer sun is on my mind: full-bodied, inescapable, soul-stirring and strong. 

From its rising to its setting, a benediction, a hymn of love upon the land.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013


I'm up early, but her birthday has already been underway for nine hours. Her 25th birthday. It's happening in Greenwich Mean Time in the northern reaches of a tall, skinny country in West Africa, and in many ways I'm feeling very far away from Suzanne today.

But in other ways I'm not. I heard her voice less than 48 hours ago and, God willing (a phrase she's begun to use with alarming frequency), I will again later today. I've had two emails recently and, within the past month, a rare and precious letter.

These, for now, will have to do. And I'm left where many parents of 25-year-olds are — to my own devices. Suzanne, after all, is her own person. They all are. And I am mine. Or at least I'm beginning to be again.

So what I think about today is not just that she is a quarter-century old, but that I'm 25 years a parent. Long enough to get the hang of it, you'd think. Not really, though.

(Photo: Katie Esselburn)

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Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Standing Still

A post postponed. A post about sleep. Too long to get into today. Instead, a meditation on standing still, its importance in our lives.

Standing still to watch the grass waving in the wind; to ponder a fenced pasture.

Standing still to hear each leaf hit the ground, to feel a breeze I wouldn't notice if I were moving quickly.

A walk moves you through space. But standing still lets space move through you.


Monday, October 21, 2013

Sunday Visits

Old-fashioned Sunday afternoons were for visiting. First there was church, then Sunday dinner — a heavy, midday repast (not brunch) — then chatting in the living room or parlor.

Even in memory, these childhood Sundays are interminable. Now I realize what they were for.

Yesterday I spent four hours on the phone. I talked with my mother, my sister, my daughter and my friend. The Sunday phone call is the modern equivalent of the Sunday visit. Because family and friends are far flung, the receiver (and now the smart phone) is the portal of togetherness. It is not ideal, but it is essential.

"A culture wise in love's ways would understand a relationship's demand for time," says Thomas Lewis, M.D., and coauthors in A General Theory of Love. "Americans have grown used to the efficiencies of modern life ... why should relationships be any different? Shouldn't we be able to compress them into less time than they took in the old days? ... The unequivocal limbic no takes our culture by surprise."

So even though I "didn't get much done" yesterday, I remind myself that there are no shortcuts to closeness. False starts, conversations that go nowhere, simply being available in case a conversation might happen — these are the currency of intimacy.

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Sunday, October 20, 2013

Alive and Well

I heard the piano before I walked into the room. A dozen folks were already there, handing out music, warming up voices, renewing friendships. It was an anniversary gathering of the Georgetown Gilbert and Sullivan Society — and it was my reunion "duty."

But for once it wasn't a duty. To hang out for an hour or two with people who found time to practice songs from "HMS Pinafore" while also studying torts and contracts is not a hardship.

So I listened, took notes and photos. I thought about the plays I was in as a kid, how in love I once was with that world. I thought about theater people, how alive they are. Breathing all that music in and out.

The last number was "He Is an Englishman."

I couldn't stop myself. I had to sing.


Friday, October 18, 2013

Light through Leaves

All morning long I've watched the leaves wag in the cool breeze, the light filter through the canopy to the deck and the French doors into the living room, where I work.

All morning long I've wanted to capture that light in word and image. Now that I've snapped the photo, I can't think of anything to add.

It's autumn, the rains have ended.

Light through leaves.

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Thursday, October 17, 2013

Best Time for Leaving

I usually try to get away before the sun rises, when the house is still and the road still cool beneath the tires. I leave behind the natural savannah of the Bluegrass, the farms and the fences, the green fields stretching out across the horizon.

I point my car east. It pretty much knows the way.

Over the mountains and up the valley.

I'm home.


Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Pisgah Pike

Here is a place that deserves a book not just a post, but for now, see the trees lacing over the road, the fences running beside it, the hills rising gently beyond the berm. Farther on, there are stone walls and gnarled osage orange trees dropping plump green hedge apples. There are cattle and horses and crisped corn stalks swaying.

Pisgah Pike is not just a road; it is a national historic district. Its twists and turns are protected, its houses and outbuildings, too.

Knowing this brings a certain comfort, that beauty is worth keeping —and is being kept here.


Tuesday, October 15, 2013


There were two of them, composite photographs of my fourth and sixth grade classes. At first the faces were familiar but nameless. But the longer I looked, the more the names returned: Teresa, Diane, Melissa, Amelia, Jody, Joan, Carol, Julia, Peggy, Debbie. And from the earlier one, Dickie, Jay and Charles. (We were the one outlier class still "mixed" at that age. The nuns preferred same-sex education after third grade.)

Fourth grade. Nine years old. Before I worried about my hair. Before I cared about boys. We played four square (the ball game not the social media app) across the divided playground — two boys on one side, two girls on the other. (Yes, the playground was "same sex," as well, divided down the middle.)

What do I remember most about that year? That we had a lay teacher, Mrs. Hollis, a bit of an outlier herself. And that at the end of day, when she had crammed us with all the religion, math, science, reading, writing and social studies we could hold, she played recordings of Broadway musicals on the stereo.

I've loved them ever since.

(This is the "welcome" mat for Christ the King School.)

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Monday, October 14, 2013

Scenes of the Season

Yesterday we drove out into the country to what my father had remembered as a rustic fruit stand that sold pumpkins this time of year. Signs led the way down the winding two-lane road.

But when we arrived it didn't long to realize that the corner orchard had become an autumn carnival. Hundreds of cars were parked in rows across the grassy fields. Employees with flags directed traffic. We were waved into a handicapped spot (yes!) and made our way slowly out of the car and up to the packed pumpkin patch.

There were many varieties of apples — Granny Smith, Delicious and McIntosh — and Asian pears. There was cider, spiced and regular. There were gourds of various shapes and sizes. And because this is Kentucky, there was a reedy sculpture of ... a horse.

Most of all, there was the autumn sun, out again after a brief shower, shining on the pumpkins.


Saturday, October 12, 2013

The Stowaway

Here's a stowaway from yesterday's deluge. It hitched a ride on the bottom of my shoe.

I was going to toss it outside, then looked more closely, saw the delicate veins exposed, their toughness implied, still there after sun and rain and footfall eroded the rest.

So I thought about this leaf skeleton, its fragile beauty, how easy it is to overlook what is cast our way. But how essential it is to stop, search and claim it for our own.


Friday, October 11, 2013

The Backup Plan

A few days of rain have sent us into panic mode. Traffic crawls, as it does after even a few drops hit the pavement. Metro seems slower, too.

I try out the new umbrella that I bought when my old one gave out a few weeks ago. The perky, polka-dotted one. The one that felt so lightweight when I held it in the store. No problem to schlep it around in my bag every day.

But when I opened it up I quickly learned why it was so lightweight. It's teeny! It barely keeps my head dry, let alone my sleeves or pants legs. Maybe I should have paid more attention to the diameter measurement listed on the label.

New plan: this will be the backup umbrella, the one I always have. On truly rainy days (like today), I'll carry a full-size model. Heavier, true, but eminently more practical.


Thursday, October 10, 2013

The Encounter

I saw him on the path to the Franklin Farm Meadow, a placid paved trail adjoining a napkin-sized playground. Fat and sleek, he sat munching grass, completely oblivious of the human two feet away.

His jaws worked each mouthful as he hungrily tore into each new tuft. This was one hungry guy — though from the looks of him he hadn't missed too many meals.

Groundhogs are always bigger than I think they're going to be. Good-sized and galumphing. But this one wasn't budging. He had found a tasty patch of fescue and was going to eat it all or else.

After a few minutes I delicately eased by the guy — and that's when he sprang into action. He snapped around and assumed an attack position, crouched, teeth bared. I spoke to him quietly, told him I wasn't after his grass, just on a run.

When I turned back to look at him, he had gone back to his dinner.

A wild thing, observed.

(I'm fresh out of groundhog photos, but this is near where I saw him.)

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Wednesday, October 9, 2013

A Month of Sundays?

Furloughed Pentagon employees may have gone back to work, but plenty of federal workers have not, so the commute and the walk are still very much like Sunday.

Instead of parking on the back ramp or the front ramp in the Metro garage, I park on the lower deck. Yesterday afternoon it took me a few minutes to find my car; I'd started looking for it too far back.

In one way, of course, this makes living easy, like I've suddenly been upgraded to first class. On the other hand (and I can't believe I'm saying this), it makes me feel lonely. Where is the jostling, the great burst of pedestrian power? Where are my compatriots?

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Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Changing Purses

My mother, I recall, used to do it quite often — sometimes once or twice a week, to match her shoes. I do it once or twice a year, if I'm lucky.

I'm talking about changing purses, that great seasonal, female ritual (maybe male, too, I don't want to discriminate!) in which the contents of one bag goes into another.

Sounds simple, right? But it's not.

Because a purse has a soul, you see, a way of being carried or worn, and the Metro card spot in my woven straw-colored summer bag is completely different from the one in the my multi-pocketed black leather winter bag.

To complicate the process this year I've purloined a bag of Celia's, one she loves but is not carrying  right now, college girl that she is. (A backpack or a pocket is all she needs.)

So I've tried to cram everything from a roomy "Mom"-type purse into a sleek younger model.

We'll see how long it will be until I'm changing purses again!


Monday, October 7, 2013

Still Summer

Rain in the morning, a high wind stirs the oaks. Leaves fall fast as drops.

For two weeks summer has been a birthright I've pretended will never end. Each day balmy and placid, each night a symphony of katydid and cricket chirps.

Today, maybe more of the same, if the rain behaves itself, stays tropical and warm, doesn't veer into a chill autumn drizzle.

I know it's only a matter of time before the illusion ends. But I'll take it as long as I can.

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Saturday, October 5, 2013

Family Day

A year ago we hadn't even visited Celia's college for the first time. Now it's her new home.

And today we drive up to see her. It's Family Day, a convention I don't remember from my own college years.

Though it was less than two months ago that we helped move her in, now it's her school. She'll give us her own tour, the kind you always want your children to give, the kind that comes from knowing and loving a place and wanting to share it as your own.


Friday, October 4, 2013

A Walk and a Chase

Day before yesterday, as often happens on Wednesdays, I was a walker in the city. And because it was the first full day of shutdown (many federal employees having come in on Tuesday to sign papers before being furloughed), I strolled through an eerily quiet D.C.

I angled down New Jersey to the Capitol and walked around it to First Street, N.E. The police were in full force and I remember thinking, this is probably not a good place to be today.

But the blue sky and mild air drew me along, down the hill to the Botanical Gardens (closed), past the American Indian Museum (closed), the Air and Space (closed) and across the Mall itself. Even the grass was closed.

Finally, crossing Constitution and Pennsylvania, angling up Indiana to E Street and the courts (not yet closed), I found people again, and some of the liveliness of a typical weekday afternoon.

Yesterday, as I heard police sirens racing down Constitution from my office (on lockdown), searching for news of the shooting at the Capitol (also on lockdown) I thought about Wednesday's route.

Twenty-four hours later and I would have been crouching behind a tree.

(Yesterday's car chase along Constitution Avenue passed a shuttered National Archives, pictured here on a more typical afternoon.)


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Thursday, October 3, 2013


I left my desk for a cup of tea. When I came back 10 minutes later I had 30 or more returns from an email I didn't send.

I'm not the most computer-savvy person in the world, but it didn't take long to figure out what had happened. Someone (some people? something?) had hacked into my email account and sent everyone in my address book a link to some crazy product, a bunch of German words — or in some cases just my email signature, which includes a link to this blog.

It was inconvenient and embarrassing and took time to resolve. But strange to say it had an unexpected silver lining. It reconnected me with folks I hadn't been in touch with in years. 

So what was triggered by the anonymity of the modern world became a powerful connector to real human beings.

Yes, I was hacked. But then I was healed.

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Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Lying Still

At first it seemed like any other morning. The drowsy drive to Metro, sipping tea along the way. Parking, walking, boarding a car, pulling out my journal and scribbling some thoughts.

But then I looked up, considered the time, noticed the difference.

It was the busiest hour of the busiest day of the week. And it was quiet. There were seats on train cars, places to stand on the platform, an unimpeded walk up the escalator.

These words come to mind:
The river glideth at his own sweet will:
Dear God! the very houses seem asleep;
And all that mighty heart is lying still! 
William Wordsworth, "Upon Westminster Bridge"


Tuesday, October 1, 2013


It's the first day of October — and the first day of government shutdown.  I'm imagining what the Metro will look like tomorrow (today, employees must still report to work, only to fill out some papers and then go home).

I imagine the trains and buses will be emptier but the roads busier. Home improvement stores will be bustling as the furloughed ones use this time to catch up on projects.

One doesn't have to live here long to realize what a company town this is. A company town the business of which is government. A business that has shut down.

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