Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Fast Away

As the old year passes, I take to the road. No time yet to mull over 2013. That will happen today, when I'm driving.

Meanwhile, a photo I snapped yesterday — sleeping vines, dried tendrils. Not unlike the palm of a hand or the expanse of a road map. Crinkled, worn, main arteries obvious now that leaves have gone.

Here at the cusp of a new year, it's not hard to see where I'm going, where I've been.

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Monday, December 30, 2013

One Hour Late

Morning comes late out here on the western edge of the eastern time zone. It's 8 a.m. and the day is still groggy and gray.

If I lived here full-time, I might be less a morning person, more a creature of the night. In summer it's light here till 10 p.m. and even in winter it's long past 5 before the day goes away.

I think how far the light has to travel, what it passes on the way. The hills and hollows, cities and towns, birds and trees. Daylight sweeping east to west, bringing us morning ...  one hour late.

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Sunday, December 29, 2013

Tree with a Story

Still thinking trees from yesterday, I snapped a few shots of them on my run. This one has a story.

As I was lining up the picture, I noticed a man making his way to the curb with a small bag of trash. He paused, waited for me to finish before moving forward. It was like we were at the Washington Monument or something.

When I thanked him, he smiled and said: "Do you know what kind of tree that is?"

I admitted that I did not.

"It's a pumpkin ash. Way out of its range but somehow it survives. It's called pumpkin ash because of its shape. Probably several hundred years old. Lost a big branch in the ice storm but it's still here."

A tree with a story. How many trees have them? More than we think, I bet.


Saturday, December 28, 2013

Old Guard

The Bluegrass region of Kentucky is a natural savannah land, and trees here are in short supply. The old oaks, the ones that have been here 100 years or more, are gnarled and magnificent.

They stand sentinel in fields. They rise handily above young maples or pines. 

Because trees are scarce here, I notice them more. To come upon one now is to see what a tree can be.

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Friday, December 27, 2013


Packages are unwrapped. Christmas leftovers are dwindling. Must be time for New Year's resolutions.

One of mine is stretching.

I usually carve just enough time out of the day to walk or run. No extra minutes for cooling down. 

I'm trying to change that. To come inside, keep the music in my ears and give my muscles time to soften and pull back into place.

There's only one problem. I walk to think, too, and if the ideas have been bubbling, I need to jot them down before they slip away. So the other day I came up with a solution: writing and stretching at the same time. Sounds crazy, but it works.

Stretching the body, stretching the mind.


Thursday, December 26, 2013

Deep Currents

Temperature extremes of the last week have us reeling. I walk in shorts and t-shirt one day, in sweat shirt and jacket the next.

A few days ago, in a t-shirt, I walked through air as changeable as water, as strange to the touch as those warm and cool spots you swim through in a spring-fed lake.

It occurred to me then that not only was the air like the water, but the weather was, too. Alternating puddles of days, as mysterious in their origins as those deep currents.

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Tuesday, December 24, 2013


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!


Monday, December 23, 2013

Cards on the Mantel

As snail mail becomes extinct, the handwritten, hand-addressed Christmas card becomes evermore precious.

For years, maybe since we've lived in this house, I've displayed them on the mantel. They are a crucial part of my holiday decor.

Every year different, every year the same. Reds and greens. Birds and trees. Stables and stars. Snowmen and wise men. They warm up the hearth and dress up the house.

What they do best is remind me of the people who sent them — family and friends near and far.

Saturday, December 21, 2013

It's a Wrap!

Gift wrapping can be a meditative experience. Last night as I was cutting and taping and smoothing edges, I thought about my system, that it’s a little like painting. I spend as much time prepping as I do actually wrapping.

Prepping means finding the items, removing their price tags, matching them with their gift receipts, swaddling them in tissue paper and arranging them in a box. Only then can the wrapping begin. Of course there are items that need no boxes. Books are good for this. Or other things (can't be too specific here or I would spoil some surprises) that come already boxed. God bless 'em.

And then there are gift bags. I’ve been late to jump aboard the gift bag train. Seems like cheating to me. But when it’s 11 p.m. and the back is hurting from bending over the bed (which is how I always wrap gifts and probably always will), the gift bags and the perky colored tissue paper start to look pretty good.

I finished a lot of wrap-prep and even some wrapping last night. Enough to tell me how much more buying I have to do. So now – yes, I know, I know – I will have even more wrapping to do tonight. What can I say? 'Tis the season.


Friday, December 20, 2013

Checking It Twice

This year, for the first time, my Christmas list is electronic. I'm using the "notes" feature of my smart phone.

It has worked surprisingly well — with one exception. There's no easy way to "check off" the purchased items. I'm making do by typing an asterisk beside each one.

How I wish I could draw a thick black line or make a decisive "X" through the gifts I've bought. I suppose I could just delete them, but that's no fun.

Makes me realize that a list is not just about what I have to do; it's about what I've already done. Checking off the finished tasks makes me feel competent and efficient — which at this time of year I most decidedly am not! All the more reason to crave the illusion.

It's a pathetic little revelation, but a revelation just the same!

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Thursday, December 19, 2013

Where We Are

Lights strung along rooftops, wound around tree trunks and lampposts. Nets of lights on shrubs and hedges. Spotlights on wreathed front doors.

At the far end of my neighborhood is a house with a backyard that dips down into the woods. I never know where the yard ends and the woods begin. Except this time of year.

We light our lives to taunt the darkness. But along the way we outline them too.

The lights tell us where we are.

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Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Christmas Itself

A week till the big day, and there is still much to do. Gifts that need buying. Cookies that need baking. Cards that need mailing. Packages that need wrapping.

It's easy to get caught up in seasonal hysteria.

But then I look at our tree and remember how pleasant it was to trim it this year. I think of dear ones here and far away. I see the dog biscuit the UPS man has left on top of the packages by our door, a funny peace offering to the canine who drives him crazy.

I take my time on the cookies, the notes, the ribbons and bows.

These aren't way stations on the road to Christmas. They are Christmas itself.

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Tuesday, December 17, 2013

For Beethoven: One Day Late

His birthday was yesterday but I'm thinking about him today. Remembering the Beethoven extravaganza on the radio: the measured cadences of the Seventh Symphony's second movement (the one popularized in the film "The King's Speech"), the off-stage trumpet of the Leonore Overture No. 3, the slow movement of the Third Piano Concerto. 

Years ago, on a shoestring student trip to Europe, I drug my friend Nancy into at least a half-dozen decrepit Viennese apartment buildings, each one of them places the composer was believed to have  lived. They were not pretty or in a nice part of town. They were often up a flight or two of poorly lit stairs. They made clear that Beethoven's personal life was unsettled and on the edge.

But yesterday these places were the furthest thing from my mind. What remains of Beethoven, of course, is the music — timeless, placeless, soaring above it all.


Monday, December 16, 2013

Light from Inside

A gray morning. I turn on the tree lights early. I sit and work beside the fir.

At first it distracts me, so many ornaments have stories. And even the shape of the tree this year — a widened base, giving it a solid, grounded feel — draws my gaze.

But I strengthen my resolve. I will myself to see it only from the corner of an eye.  To work beside it, to let its presence spur and not derail the day.

Less than a week until solstice; the light must come from inside.

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Saturday, December 14, 2013

Wreathed Whimsy

Some people put wreaths on their car; they deck the wheels instead of the halls. There was a time in my life — the "Carpool Years" — when that would have made sense.

For the most part, it makes sense to wreathe a stationary object — a door, a window, a lamppost.

The other day on my way to work I noticed a tall, dead tree with an equally dead branch all decked out with a, well, dead wreath.  Dead only in the sense that it was fashioned of clipped boughs. It was still fresh and green. And it made me smile at 7 a.m.

Here on our street a neighbor has wreathed her mailbox. At night it glows.

Wreathed whimsy — 'tis the season.

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Friday, December 13, 2013

The Transcriptionist

My work these days calls for lots of interviewing — which in turn entails plenty of transcribing. While I've adapted to many new technologies, my taping equipment is decidedly non-digital.  I transcribe interviews as I always have, slowly and labor intensively, with many hits of "pause" and "rewind."

This gives me time to ruminate on the human voice, on the pitch and timbre of it, and mostly on the pace of it.

Some reflective souls, bless their hearts, speak so slowly that my typing can keep up with them. Those conversations are a cinch to get down on paper.  Other subjects — I call them fast-talkers — are fun to interview but a nightmare to transcribe. They chatter, they enthuse, they barely pause. An hour with them takes four or five hours to capture.

Best of all are the conversations that seem opaque in real time but in transcription reveal a deeper, richer undertone. Makes me wish for a more all-encompassing rewind button — a replay for life, I guess you'd say. What would I choose to listen to again?

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Thursday, December 12, 2013


The other day I sat in on a preview of a Supreme Court oral argument, a job perk as unique as the program it represents. I'm bound by confidentiality to say nothing of what I heard — but that's not what I want to write about anyway.

I want to write about needlework. I want to write about the woman who sat beside me for two hours, and as complex legal arguments flew across the room — a room designed to look exactly like the real Supreme Court, right down to the color of the drapes, the style of the clock and the pattern of the carpet — her fingers flew, too.

She was knitting a sweater of warm burgundy wool, cable stitch. And every time my eyes would glaze over with strategies and counter-strategies, I would glance down at her hands, the surety of every knit and perl. I watched the sweater as it grew. Work of the hands, not of the head.

It was precious time for the petitioner, taking his strategies out for a test drive just days before facing the black-robed justices themselves. But it was precious time for the knitter, too, for the sweater that advanced several rows that morning — and for the person who will be wearing it soon.

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Wednesday, December 11, 2013

White World Shining

Yesterday's walk took me past evergreens with fondant-icing snow caps and bent trees aching with ice but still lovely in their brokenness. In the sky was a wan half moon with V’s of blackbirds flying.

Nature consoles even as it wounds. The forest so deep and white, the trees glimmering in the sun that appeared late enough in the day that I had already resigned myself to snow, fog and cloud cover.

But shine it did, and I had no choice but to pause in my shoveling and writing and editing and  telephoning  — pause to see the white world shining.

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Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Snow on Ice

Yesterday morning we woke to a frozen world, each bough and twig coated and gleaming. By 1 p.m. it was 33 degrees, and I could slide to the corner, where the pavement was wet but not icy. I could run the main road, could see how many trees were damaged during the storm.

Ice is beautiful but dangerous. How much would we pay for such beauty? Not another red oak, that's for sure — but some bent bamboo stalks, I would gladly trade those to walk through such a strange, glittering, dripping world.

A new day now and fresh snow is falling. We have several inches on the ground and, more to the point, a heavy layer on every branch, bough and twig. It's no longer a hard, bright, frozen world,  it's a soft, white, feathery one.

But I know the ice that lurks beneath.

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Monday, December 9, 2013

Running with Children

The flakes started flying before the race started. That would be the 5K Run with Santa — the first race I've run in, well, let's just say it's been a few years!

A little over three miles — doable, even for a walker in the suburbs. But my already conservative pace was slowed even further by the slick spots on the road. Luckily, my running buddy was Claire, whose last race was the Marine Corps Marathon but who matched her cadence to her timid mama's.

Timid was putting it mildly. I worried the whole time about wiping out, ending the race on crutches or worse. One middle-aged woman went down within the first few minutes. "Don't worry, Mom," Claire said. "She just ran into a cone."

The last few tenths of a mile, though, the pavement was wet, not snowy, and Claire and I kicked it in and dashed (sort of) to the finish line.

Children do many things for their parents (as parents do for their children). They care for us, make us laugh and introduce us to the future. Yesterday I was thinking how they make us face our fears. We will do things for them we don't do for anyone else. And in that sense, they keep us young — they keep us, quite literally, in the running. 

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Saturday, December 7, 2013

Pearl Harbor Day

Today is the anniversary of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, but for people much younger than I am, it's simply December 7. September 11, 2001, pretty much took care of what time and attrition hadn't already.

This is not altogether a bad thing. How many days of infamy should one year hold?

But because my father is a World War II veteran, and because I shared his pain recently when a nurse at the VA Hospital had no idea what "D Day" meant, I feel some sadness as Pearl Harbor Day vanishes from the collective memory.

At least this shouldn't happen until everyone directly affected by it is gone. That's not the way it is, I know, especially as our national attention span grows shorter by the day. But that's the way it ought to be.

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Friday, December 6, 2013

Virtual Recall

I've now read half a dozen or so books on my Kindle and the verdict (for me, at least) is in. While my book recall is poor enough with ink-on-paper tomes, it is almost nonexistent with the electronic product.

Night before last, at my book group's annual book-picking, my friend Gwen proposed The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes. Oh, that's lovely, I said. And it was. I remember that much.

"What's it about?" Marianne asked.

I pondered, I reached way back into the dim recesses of memory (nine months?) and ... came up with nothing. Only that it was lovely and I enjoyed it.

Luckily, my book group friends totally understood. They have also experienced "Kindle Brain." In fact, just a few minutes later, someone would propose a book we already read -- and it would take us half an hour to notice it.

Thank God it was a book I'd read in hard copy. Had it been electronic I would be re-reading it now.


Thursday, December 5, 2013

First Cup

My morning ritual has changed through the years. I used to roll out of bed, pull on my running clothes and, in minutes, be chugging along outside, almost unaware of what hit me.

Now my days start in a less, a-hem, active way. I sit with this machine in my lap and wait for my first cup of tea. This is not a passive activity. First, I fill the electric kettle, then I wait for the familiar roaring crescendo that tells me the water is boiling.

What a sound that is! The sound of comfort and covers — the sound of anticipation.

Soon the tea will brew and I'll be holding a warm mug of it in my hands. Soon my eyes will be fully open.

And speaking of tea, I'm writing this in real time.

The tea is ready. The day has begun.


Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Walking Lake Anne

The other day, looking for some adventure, I ambled around Reston's Lake Anne. I started at the landmark Heron House, the 16-story condominium building that was the epicenter of Robert Simon’s bold bid for urban density in suburbia. Lake Anne Plaza doesn’t feel very urban today — or very dense for that matter — but I know it’s a work in progress. I find a path that hugs the lake, cross a little bridge and walk past town houses adorned with native plants, witty sculptures and small fountains.

In the distance, I hear the clang of a metal ladder as it’s leaned against a house. Someone is painting. I stroll along South Shore Drive, steel blue water winking between the trees, and imagine what it must be like to live beside a lake, to take a daily measure of its moods and colors. From the looks of the canoes and kayaks along the shore, this lake is not just observed; it is experienced.

Before long I’m at the far end of Lake Anne — and Wiehle Avenue, which I thought was farther east. Foot travel often surprises me this way, showing me connections that car travel cannot. As I swing around to the northern shore, I catch a whiff of simmering grains and the sharp-sweet scent of cinnamon. Rice pudding? My stomach rumbles, and I walk faster, back to my car. It’s never far away in the suburbs.

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Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Reentry Walk

Low skies and gray clouds made for a tough reentry yesterday. The pleasures of the table, of family and friends, of long sleeps and easy afternoons — all reverted to workaday tasks and tedium. Even the knowledge of more holidays in the near future, of how much there is to do between now and Christmas — even those thoughts didn't move me.

So when I left the house at lunchtime, I made my way to the meadow. I needed the sweep of open land, of a path running through it, of birds on the wing.

And that's what I found: quiet fields asleep for the season, a pair of robins (so soon? ), and a still pond without last week's thin skin of ice — a still pond that is liquid once again.

Familiar sights, easy on the eye and stimulating to the brain.

Yesterday's walk that did what the best walks do: send me cheerfully back into my day.

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Monday, December 2, 2013

Getting the Tree

We're several weeks ahead of schedule, but the girls were here and the weather was fair, so yesterday we drove  to Snicker's Gap to cut our Christmas tree. After Leesburg, foothills appear on the horizon and the road curves up to meet them. Soon after that, I spot the familiar hillside, parceled in fir and pine.

I breathed in the evergreen scent, took in the scene, livelier than usual this busy weekend. As with any annual tradition, I was measuring, calculating, thinking about where we are now compared with this time last year. A better place, I decide, shoulders relaxing as we trudge up the hill.

The trees are healthy and plentiful, and there is variety in each plot. Old trees and young trees, tall and short — giant blue spruce and scraggly pine seedlings — all share the same southern slope. As I watch the girls stride ahead I realize they aren't the only ones who've grown up. The trees being cut today were babies when we first came here.

We have lived through an entire Christmas tree life-cycle: 10 years of rain and sun and wind and snow. Ten years of growing pains, of hour-long car trips here, some coerced, some not.

And still we return to saw the trunk and topple the tree; to drag it, lash it and bring it home. We drive west to seek the southern slope. We mark the years as best we can.

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Sunday, December 1, 2013

Home Light

The light these days feels thin, stretched — a blanket too short to cover my toes. But it's all we have, this light, so sometimes I walk twice, early and late, my breath a cloud, my feet warming to the pace, drawing out the day.

By the time I'm finished, stars shine in the darkening sky and I've come to a house where lamp light glows yellow through tall windows and porch lights wink beside the door.

Then I realize: It's for this light I've come — for a glimpse of the familiar through altered eyes, for the light of my own house welcoming me home.

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