Saturday, November 30, 2013

The Great Pause

It's almost December, trees are bare. Paths that seemed endless in summer green are exposed when winter comes. The community forest is not the leading edge of a wilderness; it is a parcel of land that didn't perk.

But that's not all. It is also is a landscape stripped to its essence. I take out my earphones and listen. I can almost hear the silence. The great pause. A momentary intake of breath before the hard exhale.

The fields are empty; the nights are long. Early winter is peaceful, muted. It asks nothing of us now.

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Friday, November 29, 2013

Humble Sides

Yesterday's feast, like every other Thanksgiving meal I've ever cooked, was proof that though the turkey gets all the glory it's the side dishes, the humble sides, that deserve it. They are where the real finesse comes in, the true effort; they are more difficult to prepare and, arguably, more scrumptious to consume.

Here it was fairly light as holiday cooking goes. The yams were baked, the potatoes were boiled — and I wasn't responsible for the green bean casserole.

But the stuffing involved dicing and stirring, ditto the cranberry salad. And the pies (though a dessert and not a side dish) are always labor-intensive, though I wouldn't have them any other way.

On the other hand, the turkey is easy to baste and roast — and it sits regally atop the table, the centerpiece, the champ.

The humble sides don't seem to mind, though. They have long since accepted their relegated roles. In exchange, they avoid the slow, protracted, death march of the leftover — no sad progression from sandwich to salad to hash for them. The turkey, they know, gets its comeuppance in the end.

(What to eat the day after.)

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Thursday, November 28, 2013

The Parade

The Macy's Thanksgiving Parade just ended — with all its balloons, bands, commercialism and faux cheer. Still, I had it on in the background as I baked the pies, made the stuffing and popped the bird into the oven.

As I heard the familiar tunes, salutes to the latest toys and cartoons (all of which I'm blessedly oblivious to now!) and, of course the obligatory salute to the Big Apple ("It's up to you, New York, New York"), I couldn't help but think about the part the parade played in my childhood.

Was it the parade that made me fall in love with Manhattan long before I had a chance to live there? Was it the parade that filled me full of Big City dreams?

It certainly played a part.

Today I'm thankful for family and friends, for health and warmth and work. I'm also thankful for dreams. They may never quite measure up to reality. But that's not what they're for.

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Wednesday, November 27, 2013

32 Degrees Fahrenheit

Once an English major, always an English major. And as an English major, I've always appreciated imprecision. The characters are motivated by greed — or maybe it's ambition. The landscape mirrors the late 19-century love of technology — or maybe it's the late 19-century fear of technology.

It's the principle that's important — and the principle is often imprecise, something to ponder or debate. It's not black or white but something in between.

Which is all to say that I'm fascinated by the unerring precision of the natural world. Water freezes at 32 degrees Fahrenheit. Not at 34 or 36.

I was tremendously grateful for this fact yesterday, as I crept up the Baltimore-Washington Parkway to collect my college student. It took three hours to drive 54 miles. But if it had been three degrees chillier, it might have taken me six hours.

There I go again — thinking like an English major.

(This picture has very little to do with 32 degrees Fahrenheit. It's an English major kind of photograph.)

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Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Over the River ...

And through the woods ... traveling to the Thanksgiving feast has never been easy. But here in the megalopolis it's taken on a new degree of craziness.

A nor'easter is expected to dump anywhere from two to four inches of rain in the next 24 hours. Snow and ice have not been ruled out. Flooding is a possibility. Traffic jams are guaranteed.

To gather at grandma's all you needed was a sleigh and a team of willing horses. To reach family and friends at the modern table requires strategic thinking (should I leave at 2 or 1:30?), nerves of steel (which route through the mountains promises the least chance of snow accumulation?) and a go-for-it attitude.

But go-for-it we will. People are important. Whether they're over the river and through the woods — or up I-95.

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Monday, November 25, 2013

Color, Still

Most of the time, nature is kind. It gives us something to hang onto. In this case, fall color. Not all of it goes at once. Even yesterday's wind gusts left a few tenacious leaves on the trees.

This gives the eye something horizontal on which to gaze, a relief from the unremitting verticality of winter's bare trunks.

Is it just my imagination, or are the final colors more vivid, more alive?


Saturday, November 23, 2013

Bouncing with Britten

Almost lost among the Kennedy anniversary hoopla was that yesterday was also the 100th anniversary of the birth of Benjamin Britten.

For some reason I've been on a "Britten kick" lately anyway, having taken one of the British composer's CDs along with me (totally randomly) on my most recent drive to Kentucky. I'm no Britten aficionado — no "Peter Grimes" for me, thank you very much. But the more accessible stuff, like the "Simple Symphony" or "The Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra" are highly hummable and provide hours of listening pleasure.

Last night, long after dark, I went outside and jumped up and down on the trampoline with Benjamin Britten's music in my ears. I do some variation of this all the time — bounce while listening to the music of dead white guys. But for some reason last night the miraculousness of it all hit me with extra force.

Benjamin Britten was born 100 years ago. He wrote this piece in 1946. And here I am, 67 years later, his music piped into my ears with a device he could not have imagined, bouncing on a trampoline to its rhythms. Bouncing with goosebumps, I might add.

(Last night's Benjamin Britten portal.)

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Friday, November 22, 2013

What Died with Him

It's hard to say anything about President John F. Kennedy that hasn't already been said. There was even a newspaper article about the pink suit and pill box hat Jacqueline Kennedy wore in Dallas that day. (They have been preserved, complete with blood stains, not to be displayed for another 50 years.)

What struck me last week, when I watched the two-part PBS special about JFK, is how young he was, how young we were.

Young and innocent.

This was before Watergate, Columbine, 9/11, Newtown. This is before we lost face, lost hope.

It's as if he embodied all the promise of a younger nation — and all that died with him on November 22, 1963.

(Tourists visit Kennedy's grave in Arlington Cemetery.)


Thursday, November 21, 2013

November in the City

Walking up the Metro escalator into the gray light of a D.C. morning, I see a woman with a turban, perched regally atop a folded box. Another woman, less regal, warms herself on a grate, hood over her head and, on her feet, impossibly high platform shoes.

I see the gray felt blankets from the homeless shelter abandoned on street corners. Chicken bones and cigarette butts blown up against the walls.

Around the trees are pansies the color of dark blood. In the distance, a car alarm sounds. And closer by, an ambulance.

Commuters walk quickly. Their shoes click briskly on the pavement. They don't want to linger here. 

"It's so much better than it used to be," say old-timers of the neighborhood.  And I believe them; really, I do.


Wednesday, November 20, 2013

150 Years and One Day Ago Today...

... President Lincoln delivered the Gettysburg Address. Yesterday's coverage of the event noted that the speech was 272 words and it took Lincoln only two minutes to deliver it. It was preceded by Edward Everett's two-hour oration, which is remembered now only because of what followed it: 10 perfectly crafted sentences that conveyed a nation's aspirations and ideals.

One score and three years ago, I wrote about the Gettysburg Address. About how I memorized it in school, promptly forgot it and wished I had remembered it (among many other things).

Memorization seems even quainter now than it did in 1990. Why remember words when you can look them up on your smart phone? 

Perhaps the reason I gave so long ago is still true today. Learning a passage or a poem "by heart" liberates us, I said. "Once we know the words we carry their wisdom around with us; we are freed from the printed page."

Lincoln's words liberated us — in more ways than one. 

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Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Talk About Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving's late date has merchants worried. There is almost a full week less to shop this year than there was last!

But for those who aren't eager for the Buying Season to begin, we have a welcome pause.

Time to catch the breath between one season and another. Time to work and write. Time to savor what we have before plunging into what we don't. Talk about Thanksgiving!

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Monday, November 18, 2013

All Lit Up

Days grow short. Light grows scarce. It's as good a time as any to add a lamp to a once-dark corner.

This arrangement won't work when the kitchen table is fully occupied. But of course, it seldom is anymore.

With the lamp the table seems inhabited again. Warm, calm, illuminated and fully present. I've stopped being surprised by what light can do.


Saturday, November 16, 2013

Morning Fog

After several days that started as cold and hard as a stone, brittle light at morning, we begin today with soft fog and crow-call.

It reminds me of a Thomas Hardy poem:

This is the weather the cuckoo likes,
And so do I;

Although reading the poem more closely, I realize that today's weather is what Hardy doesn't like, as  he says in his second stanza:

This is the weather the shepherd shuns,
And so do I;
When beeches drip in browns and duns,
And thresh and ply;

I've not been out in this weather yet, but for for atmospheric backdrop while sitting inside with a cup of tea, it can't be beat.

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Friday, November 15, 2013

Old Dogs, New Tricks

A genetic study of ancient canine bones shows that dogs became domesticated in Europe anywhere from 18,800 to 32,100 years ago. Most likely this transition happened when wolves started hanging around humans in hopes of scoring leftovers from a mammoth (in both senses of the word) kill.

Why does this not surprise me? 

Listening to a radio report of this study  — and then reading about it in the morning newspaper — I'm struck once again by this point: that dogs are still the only large carnivore to be domesticated.

I think about Copper, so loving, so cute. Able to sit on his haunches and beg for food. Clever enough to know that if he sits there long enough he may get a treat.

The human-canine bond is a profound and mysterious one, but at times it is a fragile one. I've seen Copper snap when he feels cornered, challenged. I've seen the wolf inside him. But still I hug him, pet him, treat him increasingly more like a child.

It's comforting to know that this has been going on for tens of thousands of years.

(Photo: Claire Cassidy Capehart)


Thursday, November 14, 2013

The Other Side of the Moon

The first cold of the season blew in yesterday. I'm not talking about frost on the pumpkin or a nip in the air. This cold meant business. Low 20s with the meteorologists already mentioning wind chill. There was even snow in the forecast for Tuesday.

I'm never ready for this, always find it an affront. What happened to balmy nights, crickets chirping, bats flitting high up, above the tree line? What happened to heat?

Truth be told, it may be with us again by next week! That's the way our weather goes these days. But even if it warms up tomorrow, it's too late now. The cold has happened. The gloves are on.

Cold weather is the other side of the moon. Every year a mystery; every year a drag.

(No snow yet, but it's only a matter of time!)

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Wednesday, November 13, 2013

The Hedge in Autumn

I have a thing for hedges. Don't know why. Maybe it's the Anglophile in me dreaming of British hedgerows. Or maybe it's the hospitality of hedges, the way they open themselves to sparrows and other small creatures.

Whatever the reason, I pay close attention to hedges, their colors and seasons. The hedge I pass each workday, the one I've written about in spring — the equipoise of pink and green as it buds — is now in brilliant autumn leaf. 

I like to think the pink-red part of the spectrum has asserted itself at last. After wearing green all summer the hedge is finally letting its true colors show.

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Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Bouncing in the Dark

When it's too dark to run I make my way slowly to the far edge of the backyard. I trudge through the leaves, hop on the trampoline and bounce.

Bouncing in the dark is more fun than it sounds. I can't see the bushes that need trimming or the deck that needs power washing. I have music in my ears, a canzon by Gabrieli or a symphony by Mozart. I may be chilled at the start, but after a few minutes the cold no longer bothers me.

It's a little bit like a sensory deprivation tank. Distractions are minimized; all that remains is the movement and the music.

The light may be fading, but bouncing makes it better.

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Monday, November 11, 2013

Drive Time

From time to time a walker has to drive. To move from point A to point B when points A and B are hundreds of miles apart. To tote groceries or kids or large stringed instruments. To accommodate those who seldom stroll.

Walk enough, though, and it colors the drive, makes it less efficient. At a certain point the car becomes the body with wheels for legs.

That's when a drive becomes a meditative amble. A time to think, daydream and while away the hours.

Saturday, November 9, 2013

Mind and Body

Recent events have once again brought to my attention the mind's power over the body. This is not a new story — or even a novel idea for a post. After all, walking in the suburbs ( the activity, not the blog!) is as good for the mood as it is for the heart and lungs.

But seeing it in action, the undeniable power of this mind-body connection, fills me with wonder and gratitude.

We are a collection of chemicals, of muscle, bone and sinew. But we are also so much more.

Friday, November 8, 2013

Sunrise over Metro

The built world intrudes but can't diminish. Sometimes, in fact, it frames and beautifies.

A sunrise ringed by palm fronds would be postcard pretty, but this one is lovely, too.

An ordinary morning, walking through the Metro parking garage, and this is what I see.


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Wednesday, November 6, 2013

A Community of Voters

I voted after work, entered the almost empty gym of Fox Mill Elementary School as the new, earlier darkness was settling over the suburbs.

It brings back memories, this polling place: all the trips I've taken there, many with one or several kids in tow, introducing them to the mysteries of the voting machine, giving them a sense of civic responsibility.

Today, as for the last many years, I voted alone. But not really.

When I gave the clerk my name and address, she smiled: "I think everyone on Fort Lee Street has voted today."

Really? I said, with a grin I didn't think I could muster. I felt a sense of silent community with my neighbors. Pride of place? Not exactly, but close.

Yes, I voted. And I wasn't the only one.

(What I saw on the way to the polling place.)


Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Late Fall

The colors of late fall are mature, subtle ones. The flamers, the few we had, have flamed out. What's left are russets, dark oranges, pale golds.

When I wander in the woods, I slide through piles of dried leaves. This is where all the color has gone. Shriveled, crisped, beaten by rake and foot.

But this, I remind myself, is how new leaves begin. The soil for saplings is being crushed and created all around us. And though the brave colors are fading,  new colors are waiting in bud and stem.

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Monday, November 4, 2013

Mental Map

What wakes the mind before the body is ready? Does sleep’s string snag on a jagged dream?  Whatever the cause, suddenly thoughts are spinning again.

There is only so much one can do when unconscious. Best to seek its return as quickly as possible. Shift from back to side, flip the pillow to find its cool undercoat. Seek the trail of breadcrumbs back to oblivion.

As Hansel and Gretel discovered, though, breadcrumbs are not reliable. Pebbles work better. They gleam in the dark; they light the way home. 

Best of all, though, is to memorize the way. To have a mental map and follow it.

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Saturday, November 2, 2013

The Rest of Us

Yesterday was All Saints Day; today is All Souls Day.

This is the day for good intentions and ragged realities: prayers not said and penances not completed. Gratitude glossed over in the crush of living.

This is the day for apologies and starting over and resolving to do better next time.

This is not a day for the practically perfect in every way.

This is a day for the rest of us.


Friday, November 1, 2013

Google Gripe

To write this blog I must sign in to my account. And starting a couple of days ago, I was told I must sign in via a fancy new one-account Google sign-in.

At work I must sign in to Google to view the calendar and learn when my colleagues will be taking vacation. I must also sign in to Google to learn the analytics of the magazine I edit. To do the latter two, I've been using Google Chrome (the only way I can get to the calendar).

This goes under the category of "biting the hand that feeds you," but ... I'm starting to get enough of Google. The thought of moving my blog is headache-inducing for sure. But still, a girl's gotta dream.

(A seasonal photo that has absolutely nothing to do with Google!)


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