Friday, January 31, 2014

This Other Life

The flight left at 5:30, which seems insanely early even for an airplane, creature of the sky that it is. But powered by humans, of course, humans who must sleep.

Still, it did leave and it did arrive, and before 9 a.m. I was already where it normally takes me all day to reach by car. And so into my life the gift of time has fallen.

What have I done with it so far?

I've written, read and snapped some photos. I've looked at snow on mountaintops and marveled at the thin pink line where earth meets sky.

I've seen my hometown from the air — there's Keeneland Race Track on the right.

I've slipped quietly into this other life.

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Thursday, January 30, 2014

The Coverup

Few activities in life bring as much simple pleasure as covering up the ones we love.

Swaddling a newborn.

Finding the beloved blankie for a toddler in footie pajamas.

Tucking in a child after the fifteenth reading (that night!) of Goodnight Moon.

Pulling a jacket over the sleepy, sullen high-schooler you're driving to school after she missed the bus.

Covering the teenager who came home late from the party and crashed on the couch.

And, when there is no one else around, tucking in this character.

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Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Molting Season

To have two parakeets in a cage that hangs from the ceiling is to have a complicated relationship with feathers.

Feathers are, of course, beautiful to look at, whether on or off the bird. They come in iridescent yellows, blues and greens — hues that might be garish elsewhere but seem perfectly natural on a bird. And feathers are fun to collect and hold: the sharp peak of the long flight feather and the soft fuzz of the white down.

But when birds molt and feathers fly, well, then you have a lot of cleaning to do. It was while cleaning after a recent molt that I began to wonder:  How would it feel to live with feathers, to fluff them and preen them, to see them piled on the cage floor?  How would it feel to lose them, one by one?

Would we be lightened? Would we be freed? And when new growth appeared, would we know then what it means to begin again?


Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Winter Musical

First, the dripping, a melodic plunking, a tune of winter's making. Not the insect hum of summer, but slower and lower-pitched.

Inside, on the radio, the music of Mozart in honor of his birthday. Trilling clarinets, swelling strings — melodies that transcend the seasons but which take on a wintry tone today.

And finally, as noon approaches and the west wind roars into action, the sound of branches tapping against the house, of breezes sighing around corners and through branches that bend in their wake.

The sounds of late January. A winter musical.

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Monday, January 27, 2014

Warm in the Morning

The temperature this morning is 37 degrees, the warmest it's been in a week. It's all downhill from here. Tonight a wave of arctic air rolls into town just in time for another frigid Tuesday morning.

But today is a better story. Today reverses the normal winter order of things: It will be warm in the morning, colder later on. That's a relative "warm," you understand. Two layers instead of three. A run at 9 instead of noon.

Still, today's thaw is a reminder that we will not always have winter, that the ground will soften and slender green shoots will emerge.

Even thinking about this sends my internal temperature up a couple of degrees!


Saturday, January 25, 2014

Twin Contrails

Gray skies today but last Monday, on a warmish morning (40s instead of teens), I took my cup of tea out on the deck, wrapped up in a blanket and watched the birds at the feeder.

There was a softness to the air, and I could hear the sound of traffic from a busy road miles away. As the day warmed and brightened, I looked to my left. And there, emerging through the trees, twin contrails.

I bet they're around most every morning. The 7 a.m. flights out of Dulles. I let my eye follow those white streaks as they emerged from behind the trees. I imagined I was aboard one of those jets, looking down at the rolling Virginia countryside, heading west.


Friday, January 24, 2014


These are cold days in Northern Virginia (emphasis on Northern)! A person (or a dog) might have every reason to bound out the door, trot across the deck but then screech to a full stop at the top of the stairs.

Hesitation is in season.

"Do I really want to go out in this?"is what I imagine Copper is thinking.

Which is similar to my thoughts this morning:  It's 6 a.m., 4 degrees F. — and, of course, it's dark. "Do I really want to go out in this?"

And the answer, for both of us, for different reasons, is yes!

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Thursday, January 23, 2014

High Fidelity

It's been years since the turntable was hitched up to a stereo receiver. But it is again, and for the last few days I've been playing records I haven't heard in years.

John Klemmer's Touch. The Antiphonal Brass Music of Giovanni Gabrieli. Joni Mitchell's Blue. Switched on Bach.

Time capsules, all of them. I remember who I was when I listened to these albums — and what I thought about when I played them.

And then there are those timeless movements I'd almost forgotten: slipping the records from their sleeves, holding them by the edges with flat palms, lowering the arm so the needle glides gently onto  vinyl. Slow, careful, mechanical motions.

The music that emanates (at least from my down-on-its-heels collection) is not an audiophile's delight. It's snap, crackle and pop. Scratchy. A sound that's known better days.

High fidelity? Not really. Except this: It's music the way I remember it best.


Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Tale of Two Railings

Yesterday's snow meant business. Right from the start, the flakes flying only briefly before they touched and stuck. And unlike recent, more iffy snows, this one light, dry, easier to shovel and scrape.

It piled up slowly but inexorably, and by late afternoon, snow on the deck railing looked about three to four inches. After several more hours of steady precipitation (minus a little from the blowing), this morning's total looks closer to six. And if today's temperature is any indication (3 degrees F), it will be with us for a few days.

Gee, I guess it's winter or something. It hasn't been for a years, so we're out of practice.

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Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Company Town: Closed

Living in a company town produces some funny situations. Like today. The federal government is closed and so is my university. No complaints there, although deadlines being deadlines, I'll be working anyway.

The funny thing is the unanimity of opinion. And the reliance on experts, in this case meteorologists. There's not a flake of snow flying but we're all hunkered down. The reason, of course, is traffic. In the last few years late-breaking snow storms have produced jams of biblical proportions, people arriving home seven, eight hours after they left for what they thought would be an hour-long commute.

So we're taking no chances. We're playing it safe. We're grinding the wheels of government and commerce to a halt. We're calling it a snow day.

Now all we need is the snow!

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Monday, January 20, 2014


They visited us on Saturday, several of them, including a persistent pair that hung out on the deck railing, the feeder or nearby branches. At the slightest sound (especially when I opened the window to take their picture), they would flutter away.  But I waited — and they returned.

Maybe they were driven here by the northwest wind. Or more likely the suet — a high-calorie treat to fuel their winter rambles. I hope they checked out the real estate while they were here: there are a couple of dandy bluebird houses in the neighborhood, and this time of year they're open for takers.

Mostly I wondered where they had come from and where they were going. I'd like to think they were the proverbial bluebirds of happiness, come to pay us a visit on this cold midwinter day.

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Mountain Views

This morning is blustery and cold. I look out the French doors into the backyard, with its dusting of snow, its wind-bent boughs.

It's a familiar view, a treasured view. But for some reason this morning I notice how the bare tree branches across the street come together to resemble a peak. If I didn't know better, if I looked quickly, I could be staring at a mountain.

So now I'm dreaming of mountains I've seen — and the views they've given me.


Friday, January 17, 2014

The Un-Resolution

Midway through January and resolutions are falling away like petals off a full-blown rose. Stretching — I do that about half as much as I should. The perennial "don't worry so much" — there's a reason it's a perennial.

But one resolution snuck up on me — giving up caffeine. I didn't make it official on New Year's Day because I didn't think I could. Give up the cups of strong black tea that wake me every morning, the Diet Coke that revives me in the afternoon or the iced tea that refreshes at dinner? Water, sparkling water, juice — what are those? For me, for years, it's been caffeinated beverages from morning till night.

But on January 2 I woke up with yet another headache. I perused the dietary chapters of Heal Your Headache, by Dr. David Buchholz, which I'd read in the fall but hadn't the nerve to try. I saw the list of triggers, including some of my favorite foods — yogurt, nuts, chocolate, even sugar snap peas! But one culprit stood out above the rest. If you can banish anything, Buchholz wrote, make it caffeine.

And so I did. Quit cold turkey. Haven't had a cup of "real tea" in more than two weeks. I limp by with two cups of de-caf black in the morning and a mug of herbal brew in the afternoon. In between I drink water — more than I used to.

And ... so far so good. After four or five days of feeling jittery and headachey, a worse withdrawal than I'd expected, I emerged relatively headache-free. The verdict is still out, but I like the way I feel, which I can best describe as "clean."

I sit now with my second cup of de-caf. It tastes far more like cardboard than I'd like it to, but that doesn't bother me anymore. It's what comes next that matters.


Thursday, January 16, 2014

Body in Motion

Here is a brief hymn to the body in motion, a passage from the memoir Winter Journal by Paul Auster. I read the book a few weeks ago and marked this page:

Your body in small rooms and large rooms, your body walking up and down stairs ...
leaning back in chairs with your legs propped up on desks and tables as you write in notebooks, hunching over typewriters, walking through snowstorms without a hat ...
feeling the different sensations of putting your feet on sand, dirt, and grass, but most of all the sensation of sidewalks, for that is how you see yourself whenever you stop to think about who you are: a man who walks, a man who has spent his life walking through the streets of cities.

To which I will add ... and along woodland trails, suburban lanes, the paved paths that run beside busy roads, the strips of sidewalk that show up unannounced when I least expect them — and across streams on cylinders of concrete, the water rushing beneath my feet.

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Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Moon Alone

Yesterday's lunar encounter happened later than Monday's. I found the orb higher in the heavens, no trees or clouds to hide it.

A thick fog was swirling up from the ground, but it didn't obscure the sky. So when I went outside after dark, the moon (the "wolf moon" I later learned), was throwing striped shadows across the backyard. There were bars of darkness and light and I stepped through them, like rungs of a ladder lying flat on the ground.

Venus was rumored to be in the neighborhood, but I didn't see it. Only this moon, alone in a field of black.


Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Moon through Trees

This week's warming pattern has brought us back to November: The air is raw but not frigid; the trees are bare but not icy.

We've not yet crossed the boundary where a warming trend feels like spring. Instead, it feels like fall with all of winter yet to come.

Last evening, stepping out of the car to get the mail, I paused as I turned when I spotted this moon. It was a Halloween moon that was late to the party. I looked for the witch on her broomstick. I saw instead today's clouds moving in on a freshening wind, and a blur of light both wan and enigmatic.

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Monday, January 13, 2014


The Golden Globes have happened, Oscar nominations will be announced soon — and yesterday I saw two movies back to back. It was a double feature of my own making, made possible by an art house theater that happened to be playing several of the films I want to see. The movies were "Nebraska" and "Philomena," but that's not important.

What's important is that in that darkened theater there was no past or future, only present. The elusive present, so hard to reach. The present filled with motion and sound.

It was a present that took me out of myself and deposited me into the lives of others, where, for four hours, I lived quite happily.

Movie-going doesn't take away our problems; it's more like respite care. But sometimes, that's enough.


Saturday, January 11, 2014

Decluttering the Nest

It often attacks me this time of year, the organization bug, as if I'm seeing the house for the first time.

Why is this basement bookshelf filled with children's books? The children have grown up. Do I still need that (fill in the blank) jacket, lamp, stack of magazines? Wouldn't life be easier if there was a place for everything and everything in its place?

When this impulse strikes I try to seize on it immediately. It usually doesn't last for long. Let's just say I'm hoping for a bumper crop of trash on Monday...

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Friday, January 10, 2014

Ground Rules

Today the ground rules. The heavens send us rain; the ground gives us ice. We are coated from the ground up. We are bound to the ground, are creatures of it. From it we come and to it we return. We look to the heavens but are bound to the earth. 

The other day I watched a show about bird men, people who bundle up in special suits with “wings” then jump off cliffs and “fly” down. The most crucial time, said one of the daredevils, is when you pull the ripcord. Too soon and you miss the ride. Too late and you die.

To pull the ripcord is to speak the truth — that we are creatures of earth, not of heaven. It’s to say, with a reluctant dip of the wing, that the ground rules.


Thursday, January 9, 2014

Traveling Light

Speaking of single digits, we come today to the last single-digit date in January. This is cause for cautious celebration.

If today is the 9th, then tomorrow must be the 10th, and next Wednesday will be the 15th and we will be halfway through the month.

Not that I'm wishing my time away. Don't get me wrong. But these early dates of January have always had the look of lone, lean pioneers. Leave them alone, let them pass.

They are the brave first days of the new year, sharpened and wary. They are simple and unadorned, one digit only. They are traveling light.


Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Single Digits

Yesterday I awoke to a temperature of 1 degree F. This morning we are basking in a relatively balmy 5 degree F. Which has me thinking about digits, single in specific but also digits in general.

When I studied "new math" in the old days we called them "tens and ones."  Maybe I've just forgotten, but I don't think we used the term "place value." Then again, the "new math" I studied in grammar school was discontinued by the time I reached junior high.

The word digit, though — it's been around a while. And I thought of it yesterday not only because the temperature was in the single digits but also because the temperature most affected my digits. My fingers and toes were aching with the cold after my single-digit walk (nine minutes, tops) from Metro to the office.

So this post is a paean to digits, to the fingers and toes, the most exposed; to the basic unit of measure, the original abacus; to the root of digital and all the good things (!) that derive from it.

We start with the body and move ever outward. Just think how far we've come.


Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Polar Vortex

Snowmaggedon. Snowquester. And now ... the Polar Vortex.

Used to be, only hurricanes had names. Now rain, snow — even cold snaps — do.

There's something homey about naming a weather system, something that binds us to it. True, there is a cheekiness about it, a bit like the arm-clasping, shoulder-hugging person who calls you by a nickname you've never liked or used. But it makes it easy to refer to it later; it's a handle, a quick reference.

But listening to the wind roar in yesterday, hearing its powerful rush, seeing this morning's thermometer reading (1!), I have this feeling that the weather would rather remain anonymous, mysterious, even magisterial. That which should not be spoken aloud, only witnessed.

Reducing it to a nickname may make it easier to take, but it doesn't diminish its power.


Monday, January 6, 2014

Radiant Way

For me it's a return to work after two weeks off — a good day to celebrate the Epiphany, a feast that marks revelation, the manifestation of the divine and, in the words of James Joyce (courtesy of the Writer's Almanac), the "sudden 'revelation of the whatness of a thing,' the moment when 'the soul of the commonest object ... seems to us radiant.'"

The workaday world sorely needs some radiance, some shining representation of its meaning and purpose.

So today, on my return, I will look for it.

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Saturday, January 4, 2014


Walking the roads and paths of this suburban land, I think often about belonging, about whether I do or do not. At this point, it's a moot point. I belong, whether I "belong" or not! Our children have grown up here; this is their "hometown."

But still, I often compare the way I feel about my home in northern Virginia with the way I feel about my hometown of Lexington, Kentucky. No matter how many walks I take, shortcuts I learn or people I know — this place will never be that place, the place where I grew up, where I first came alive to the world.

On Monday, the last day of a week-long trip to Kentucky, I spent a few minutes snapping photos at Keeneland. I remember going to this gem of a racetrack as a little girl, smelling the beer-and-cigar-laced air of the cool, dark area under the grandstand, watching the jockeys mount their horses in the paddock, joining the throngs screaming at the rail as a 99-1 shot pulled off the impossible.

Seeing it alone, in midwinter, stripped of the crowds and the thoroughbreds that bring it life could have been a melancholy experience. But it wasn't. I have Keeneland right where I need it to be; it's part of me now.  

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Friday, January 3, 2014

Wind and Snow

The wind woke me. It roared in from the west, carrying single-digit temperatures and an arctic bite.

This is cold that takes your breath away, that is no longer bracing but something to brace yourself for.

The bamboo hangs its head, weighted with the white stuff. Maybe the winds will blow it clean.

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Thursday, January 2, 2014

On Faith and Coincidence

I just realized (in my typically math-challenged way) that yesterday, the first day of 2014, was also my 1, 200th post. A pleasing synchronicity between calendar and art — even more enjoyable because I was unaware of it until today.

I like to think that there is order in the universe, that such coincidences don't happen randomly. What purpose could there be in this one? Only this: that any coincidence heightens my belief that there is meaning in creation.

Which leads me to ponder passages from Marilynne Robinson's essay "Freedom of Thought."
For almost as long as there has been science in the West, there has been a significant strain in scientific thought which assumed that the physical and material preclude the spiritual. The assumption persists among us still, vigorous as ever, that if a thing can be "explained," associated with a physical process, it has been excluded from the category of the spiritual.  ... 
If the old, untenable dualism is put aside, we are instructed in the endless brilliance of creation. Surely to do this is a privilege of modern life for which we should all be grateful.
 Being grateful for the "endless brilliance of creation" — and believing that it is a creation — these are thoughts I take with me into the new year. That they were triggered by a "random" coincidence, so much the better.


Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Begin Again

Twelve hours into the new year and it still feels like early morning. One late-night reveler in my family just returned from her evening out. Another sent a text at 3:02 a.m., as if she was ringing in 2014 in California — only she was 20 miles away.

I caught up with our oldest daughter at midnight her time, 6 p.m. here. She was celebrating with fellow Peace Corps volunteers at a work station in northern Benin.

As for me, I woke up unsure whether I was in Virginia or Kentucky.

Disorientation: It's good for the soul. And not a bad way to begin again.

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