Saturday, May 31, 2014

Accidental Bouquet

Yesterday on a walk I spotted chicory, daisy and buttercup growing in a clump beside the road. If I had planned a garden in that spot, those would not be the plants I'd choose. I notice this especially in spring: purples and yellows, pinks and blues. Colors I wouldn't pair in my wardrobe or on my walls.

The most stunning bouquets are the accidental ones, the ones nature throws together randomly, the seeds floating to earth, bedding down together on a whim, finding beauty in their togetherness.

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Friday, May 30, 2014

Holly Blossom Time

I drive with the windows down now. Not just because I like the wind in my face but also because the air smells like honeysuckle and holly blossom.

The former is a well known harbinger of summer; the latter has taken me a while to recognize. It is subtle and tender, not as overpowering as honeysuckle but just as redolent of warm weather and freedom.

Here is the holly flower, blurry and slightly past peak. A blossom hidden under the canopy of this prickly, upright tree.

We think of the holly around the holidays but it's just as important now, when it sweetens the air with its scent.

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Thursday, May 29, 2014

The Company

We are all shapes and sizes. All ages, too. Some of us are in high school. A couple of us don't even have kids in high school anymore.

But for one hour every Wednesday, we are one. Slapping, flapping, bouncing, turning. We are the beginning tappers at Ballet Nova.

It dawned on me tonight, driving home from class, that we are a company. OK, we're not Alvin Ailey or the New York City Ballet. Fame and fortune have so far eluded us. But we are a group, a troupe. We "work together to perform dances as a spectacle or entertainment."

The spectacle is what we're making of ourselves and the entertainment is how much we laugh when we can't execute a perfect buffalo. We look nothing like this picture, but we have fun just the same.

Yeah, I'd say we're a company. Earnest, ragtag, trying hard. But a company just the same.

(Photo from "A Chorus Line"


Wednesday, May 28, 2014

They're Back!

"I don't like hummingbirds," said Celia as we finished up dinner on the deck a couple nights ago. "They look like big bees."

And they do. In fact, it often takes me a moment to figure out which one I'm seeing — a big bee or a  tiny bird.

For the last few weeks we've had plenty of both as the wood bees (their fat bottoms wiggling into holes in the pergola so they can chew it to pieces) and the hummingbirds (back from southern climes) flit around the house.

Hummingbirds winter in Central America, I learn, and often return to the same feeder on the same day. They gorge themselves on insects beforehand, often doubling their body weight (which still isn't much, of course) for the 500-mile (18- to 22-hour) flight across the Gulf of Mexico.

So this little bird and its ruby-throated mate are world travelers, intrepid souls that whir and wing their way thousands of miles in pursuit of nectar and insects.

With knowledge comes admiration.

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Tuesday, May 27, 2014

The Grass is Shining

Because it's new. Because it's well-watered. Because it's May. These are some reasons why the grass is shining.

I'm not really sure, you see. It may just be the way I look at it, the way the wind bends the spears. The angle of the sun, the time of day, planetary alignment.

But I walk around, examine it from all sides. It's shining no matter where I stand.

I don't remember it shining like this other years. But it was a long winter, a long spring. The grass was biding its time. We all were. But now it's summer and the grass is shining.

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Monday, May 26, 2014

In Memoriam

What you remember is the precision, even in death: straight lines, markers in rows. Such even rows that it's hard to tell if there are hundreds of graves or thousands. Of course there are thousands, tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands when you add them all up.  The final resting place of those who served.

There are 131 national veteran's cemeteries in this country and many more state and local ones. My dad lies in the Camp Nelson National Cemetery, only miles from the Kentucky River. It has a history of its own — a civil war camp where the wounded were treated and African American soldiers enlisted.

It's a sunny, placid place with a roll to the land and a few big trees along the borders. I visited in April, got a better view of what I couldn't quite take in before. It's proper and dignified, the grounds meticulously maintained.

It's amazing the pull the place has on me now. I wish I was there today.

(This photograph is of Arlington.)

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Saturday, May 24, 2014


This day, the curve of its numbers, its 2 and its 4, the late Mayness of it, all of its features and character will always and only mean one thing to me: my parents' wedding day.

This is the first day in 62 years they have not celebrated it together. Here's what I wrote about them two years ago, on their 60th wedding anniversary:

What started 60 years ago was not just a marriage; it was a family, a way of life. It was jumping in an old Chevy and driving across the country. Finally running away to California to start all over again — then realizing that Kentucky was where they wanted to be all along. ... There has always been a certain jauntiness, a sense that you didn't have to be what circumstances dictated. Dreaming was encouraged. ...

And in fact, they kept on dreaming, right to the end of Dad's life.


Friday, May 23, 2014

Catching My Breath

So begins a long holiday weekend, last hurrah of the school year and opening salvo of summer. It is a delicious morning. Scrumptious. Meant to be eaten with a spoon. Or no, with a fork, slowly. Not slurped or inhaled but consumed mindfully.

On a go-to-office morning I would be encased in glass and masonry by now, shut off from the elements. All head, no heart. But today I'm at home, windows open, air flowing through the house. Birds outside, birds inside. Music everywhere.

Time for a long exhale. Very long. Then another, and another. The long winter is over. Time to catch my breath.

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Thursday, May 22, 2014

Bartholdi Fountain

A noontime walk in the city yesterday took me to Bartholdi Fountain. It didn't look like this, of course. It was daylight and water droplets sparkled in the sun. Peonies hung their heads in the park. Creamy roses and colorful columbines competed for attention.

The bounty of bloom was an artless companion to the fountain, which is elegant, classical. Created by Frederic Bartholdi before he made the Statue of Liberty, it was first displayed at the Philadelphia Exposition in 1876 and later sold to the U.S. Congress for $6,000, half the asking price.

I learned these facts today on Wikipedia. But yesterday, when I was walking, what struck me most was the energy of the scene. The water shooting, gushing, cascading. Nearby office workers strolling, checking their phones, rocking in the chairs that offer prime viewing spots (and maybe a little fountain spray). And taking in all of this at my own pace, which is a bit of a whirl, especially when I'm trying to walk halfway down the mall and back.

The Bartholdi Fountain made me want to sit down and rock for a while. Maybe I'll do that next time.

(Photo: Wikipedia)

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Wednesday, May 21, 2014

The Child in Spring

"We could never have loved the earth so well if we had had no childhood in it."      --  George Eliot

I often think of these words, especially this time of year. In mid-May, childhood runs rampant. Kids frolic at the bus stop, forgo homework to dash outside the minute they get home from school. After dinner they ride bikes and scooters around the cul-de-sac. The end of the school year dangles tantalizingly in the future. It won't be long now.

I caught this excitement the other day on a walk through the neighborhood. I inhaled it in the aroma of cut grass, felt it in the sun on my face. So many memories as I amble. Not even memories, but deeper than that. Sensory impressions. A whiff of juniper. The musty odor of a storm drain.

We forget how close to the ground we were in those days, how the earth rose up to meet us then with all its sounds and scents. But because it did, I can stroll through the world now with my middle-aged self — and the whole world comes alive again.

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Tuesday, May 20, 2014

A Fluff Piece

For the last few days cottonwood fluff has been floating through the air. I think I know the source, a tree that's half a block or so away. But every year at this time when the wind is right and the air is clear, I see its progeny.

So light, so fragile, yet tenacious enough to go the distance, it lodges itself in driveway cracks, leaf piles and sometimes even on the ground. It's hard not to see it as wishes spun from the spring air, spores of hope.

I read about the tree, learn that it's a type of poplar that does well in stressed soil. It became the official state tree of Kansas in 1937, the state legislature dubbing it "the pioneer of the prairie."

Funny then to see it cast its seeds out onto the tidy, mulched lawns of suburbia. Perhaps we are the final frontier.

(Photo: Wikipedia)

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Monday, May 19, 2014

Grow Up

Trees do it. Flowers do it. Even exasperating toddlers do it. But at this time of year it's hard not to be thrilled by the sheer verticality of the green and growing world.

The climbing rose is a case in point. It grows up and out. Or over and out, depending upon how you look at it. And you'll have to take my word for it, because this picture doesn't capture it.

The point is, the branches grow out so the roses can grow up. Such is the power of the sun, of the life force.

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Saturday, May 17, 2014

Bending the Knee

Attending two college graduations within a week has made me think about endings and beginnings, about markers. There are the organic ones — births, deaths, birthdays. And there are the ones that celebrate a decision or an achievement — marriages, graduations, retirements.

Two nights ago, at Claire's graduation, we also saw the hooding of  Ph.D. candidates. For some reason, the professors doing the hooding were always shorter than the newly minted doctors of philosophy being hooded. So the latter were often bending their knees, lowering themselves to make it easier to slip on the doctoral hoods.

It was an odd ritual, vaguely feudal in feel, akin to kissing the pope's ring. Though it had a practical explanation, it felt like a sign of homage, almost a genuflection to the educational powers bestowing the degree.

Since there is little anymore that is held in high esteem, I found this ceremony both comforting and inspiring. It's a good way to begin a new enterprise, with a sense of awe and respect. With a pause, a salute, a nod to all who have gone before.


Thursday, May 15, 2014

Happy Graduation!

Tonight my daughter Claire graduates from George Mason University.

I'm pausing a moment to let that fact sink in.

Not that it doesn't seem possible. I know by now how quickly it goes. But still, a momentous occasion. A marker. A passage. A time for parental pride.

Claire has studied hard, worked at least one job throughout college, helped conduct experiments in labs and written a thesis. She graduates with honors and will start a masters in social work program in the fall.

When she graduated from high school I could find Claire by spotting her hot pink sandals. Tonight when Pomp and Circumstance begins to play I'll strain to see if I can pick her out again. She'll be wearing green and gold this time, not maroon. And she'll be older, wiser and more mature than when she went in (of course). But she'll still have that killer smile. And she and I — and the whole family — will know all that went into this. 

Happy Graduation, Claire. You did it!


Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Quarter Century

I had a reference point, so I looked it up. Mother's Day, 1989, was May 14. That's the day we moved to northern Virginia. Suzanne was six months old. We planned to stay "a couple of years."

But two years passed, then four, eight, twelve; they passed in a whirl of babies and toddlers and deadlines and milestones. And when I realized what was happening, that I was settling in a place I never intended to stay, I chafed at that fact.

It wasn't the house itself or the immediate neighborhood that rankled, but the suburban experience. The tidy lawns and mulched trees, the lawnmowers and snow blowers that seemed always to be whirring. The traffic, the homogeneity, the "placelessness." The influx of affluence that led our children to ask us why they couldn't live in a house with a two-story foyer.

But a few years ago (yikes, almost ten!) I began to work downtown. I explored the neighborhoods of D.C. — Brookland, Capitol Hill, Penn Quarter. There was an energy and a discombobulation that felt new and familiar at the same time. There were long city blocks where I could stretch my legs. Without intending to, I began to soften toward the place.

This is good, because what's happened in the last quarter century — what's happened when I haven't been looking — is that northern Virginia has become our home. I still may thrash at its limitations, but it's where two of my children were born and where all of them grew up. This is their place, where they've come alive to the world.

A lot can happen in a quarter century. A lot has.

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Tuesday, May 13, 2014

En Plein Air

Never use a long word where a short one will do. Never use a foreign phrase if you can think of an English equivalent. I looked up George Orwell's rules for good writing when I thought of this title.

Yes, "en plein air" is longer — and more French — than "outside." It may seem like an affectation. A highfalutin phrase.

But it seems more appropriate than "alfresco," the other choice. "En plein air" is the French term for "in the open air" and used primarily to describe setting up an easel and painting outdoors.

Writing was my "en plein air" activity yesterday.  And the French phrase captures the deliciousness of it, even the setting-up-the-easel of it. Yesterday I gathered paper, pen, laptop and phone and moved them all outside to the deck. Suddenly my work was part of the larger scheme of things, no longer crabbed and shallow but open and expansive.

Or at least it felt that way. The first warm days of spring have a way of turning one's head.

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Monday, May 12, 2014

Remembering Dad

Today would have been Dad's 91st birthday. And I've been seeing him everywhere. In the graduation celebration we just had. In the new spring leaves. In the finally warm, "not-a-cloud-in-the-sky" day.

Where I've not been seeing him is in the arm chair where he used to read. Or the corner of the couch where he sat to watch TV. Or the McDonald's where he hung out with his coffee buddies. It's still a shock that he's not in all those places, not alive and laughing in the world.

"Come on, Annie," he'd say to me during episodes of childhood drama. "You're living your life like it's a Greek tragedy." At the time it bothered me. Did he not appreciate the full implication of having bad hair on picture day?

Somewhere along the way, of course, I realized that he did. But he also knew how to swallow hard and move through life's sorrows and disappointments. He knew how to make the best of things. It's a valuable skill. One I'm nowhere near mastering.

Luckily I have his words and his example.  And I think of them often — especially today.

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Sunday, May 11, 2014


Two college graduations in a week. One for my daughter, one for my brother. The latter happened yesterday. It was a special one, long delayed.

Not many of us go back to school for an engineering degree in midlife. But Phillip did. He solved problems, wrote papers, took ever-more-difficult classes. And life being life, he also worked, took his parents to doctor's appointments, and, just a few weeks ago, said goodbye to his father.

That's what I thought about most as "Pomp and Circumstance" swelled and the students students processed in. I kept thinking of one of my last visits with Dad. "If I'm alive," he said, "I'm going to see your brother get his diploma."

He almost made it — but not quite. So the rest of us were there for him. That's how it works, I guess.

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Friday, May 9, 2014

Road Trip

I take a lot of  these, but usually alone. I listen to music, chew gum, sing along to musicals, daydream.

Still, eight-and-a-half hours is eight-and-a-half hours.

This time I'm traveling with my sister. Words make the miles fly. 


Thursday, May 8, 2014

Slow Dawn

There is something so companionable about waking up with the day. As my eyes open, the room fills with dim light. Shapes are still shadowy and bird song tentative. But the deck railing and rocking chair have already revealed themselves.

It is the perfect way to leave sleep behind. Dim, still, nothing expected of me. No loud jangly noises to make my head spin. The lights of a car on a distant road all the illumination I need — that and the light of this screen.

Only one thing could make this better.

I'll walk to the kitchen now and pour myself a cup of tea.


Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Bouncing and Bierstadt

Last evening, a late-in-the-day bounce on the trampoline. I've jumped at this time before but had forgotten how transcendent it is.

The sun was low in the sky but not yet setting. From my vantage point the trees in the front yard were shining. And though I knew it was a reflected gleam, I could not shake the belief that they had generated that light themselves. Beyond the leaves was the sky — and it was the shade of blue it turns before going out for the night — a radiant hue.

The landscape had the sentimental, heroic scale of a Bierstadt painting, which was no doubt caused by exhaustion and bouncers' (instead of runners') high.

But it was as real to me as any humdrum scene, as real as the pale dawn now unfolding outside my door.

(Albert Bierstadt, Forest Sunrise)

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Tuesday, May 6, 2014

All Aboard

It doesn't always happen this way — in fact, it usually does not — but today I didn't so much ride the train to work as float here. I opened the novel at West Falls Church, left it out of the bag to read while waiting for the Red Line at Metro Center, and only reluctantly tucked it away when I exited at Judiciary Square.

It's not the book itself I want to write about here, but the act of reading.

Sometimes I'm the person staring into the tiny screen of a smartphone or tapping on its keyboard. And the newspaper also has its allure. But books are the best commuting companions. They are the ones that blur the miles, that stitch home to office most deftly.

But just as books are good for commuting, commuting is good for books —100 minutes of almost uninterrupted mind space (round trip) — time to lose myself in even a boring tome, to say nothing of a moderately engrossing novel.

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Monday, May 5, 2014

Open Door

Other topics were rattling around in my head this morning. But then I turned to look behind me, through the tidier than usual expanse of the living room, and saw this.

The front door open with just the storm door closed. Light pouring into the house from the east. Morning light that blots out the landscape, the bleeding heart, the azalea, the forget-me-nots, the lone tulip. (What happened to the others? I suspect deer!)

With the door open, the hall elongates and the floor shines. The world lies waiting, resplendent. All the promise of a May morning.

The outside comes in, not in its unique particulate form (not the way I see it now, for instance), but in a blur of possibilities, a smudging of light.

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Saturday, May 3, 2014

Derby Day

I've spent more time in Kentucky this year than any time since I lived there decades ago. So it's ironic that I've been less on top of Derby hopefuls than usual.

But maybe not. The Derby is Kentucky as metaphor. I've had Kentucky as anything but. The state has been so real for me that I don't have to pine away for it.

Still, when the thoroughbreds strut in the post parade and "My Old Kentucky Home" begins to play, I'll have white fences on my mind — and tissues at the ready.

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Friday, May 2, 2014

About Those Azaleas...

I don't take back everything I said in yesterday's post, but I do issue a qualification on the azaleas. Today they're not hesitant. They are in bold, bounteous bloom.

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Thursday, May 1, 2014

May Day?

Here we are at May Day — sodden, squishy, water-logged. The petals of our dogwood, our Kwanzan cherries, scattered and beaten to the ground. Our airy forget-me-nots hardly the azure clouds they were three days ago. The azaleas hesitant, unwilling to bloom.

After this winter, I'd hoped for a knock-'em-dead spring. Something to warm and delight us. But nature doesn't operate like that, I tell myself. Rain pelts and puddles — or fails to fall at all. Winds  funnel and destroy. Sometimes, snow even falls in spring.

The balance we seek, the recompense, is not in the natural world. If it is to be, we must supply it.

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