Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Six Twenty-Eight

I'm learning a little more about Metro's new Silver Line every day: where to stand on the platform so  I can transfer easily downtown; how to negotiate the confusing, multi-level garage; and, this morning, how to avoid the garage entirely.

There's a free parking lot near the Reston Wiehle station, actually a series of parking lots. I've known about them for years — they were originally intended as park-and-ride lots for bus riders — but it suddenly dawned on me that they're just a couple blocks from the new Metro station. Maybe they're not open anymore, maybe they're reserved — or maybe they're a way to save $4.85! 

Today was the day to find out, so I left the house a little after 6, pulled up to the lots about 6:20 and found ... pandemonium. Cars pulling in, cars circling, cars like vultures searching for carrion. I tried one section of the lot and found it completely full, then headed back the way I had come in to explore the other side. It looked tight. Most spots were taken but there, off to my left, wasn't that an opening? Yes! It was! I pulled in quickly before someone beat me to it.

As I was walking to the station I fell in step with a fellow commuter who told me that this lot "always fills up by 6:28. Those cars there are the last ones that will find spots."

Why 6:28 and not 6:29 or 6:31 I never learned, but the man seemed quite sure of himself. A full lot by 6:28 a.m.? Why not?


Monday, September 29, 2014

Walking to the Potomac

Yesterday a hike from Colvin's Run Mill to the Potomac River, eight miles round trip on the Cross-County Trail. The river is the trail's northern terminus and you have to work a little to get there. Floods have taken out part of the gravel walk along the stream and there's a stretch where you must clamber over rocks or turn back. Combine that with two fair-weather creek crossings and I used up my courage quotient for the day.

The destination was worth it, though, walking along the roiling waters of Difficult Run as it makes its way to the river, plunging and skipping over rocks, through channels narrow and deep. (Hard to believe it's related to the rivulet that meanders through my neighborhood.)

And then coming finally to the Potomac, the orange and yellow kayaks glimpsed through the trees, Maryland on the other side. The stateliness and otherness of a river. And a walk that made the destination matter.

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Saturday, September 27, 2014

Changing of the Guard

The small peeps of the hummingbird have given way to the eponymous "chick-a-dee-dee-dee" of that small bird. The chickadees will be with us all winter, and if last year was any indication, other birds will crowd the feeder and suet block: cardinals, grackles, woodpeckers, maybe even a bluebird or two.

But I'll miss the hummingbirds, their aerial displays, the way they dive-bomb each other, claiming all the nectar for their own. I'll miss seeing their tiny outlines as they perch on the wire of the tomato cage. Who knew they could perch?  They seem the very embodiment of perpetual motion.

Now they're whirring their way to their winter destination in Central America, propelling their impossibly tiny bodies across the Gulf of Mexico fortified with nectar, insects and what I can only think of as hope.

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Friday, September 26, 2014


"I produce nothing but words; I consume nothing but food, a little propane, a little firewood. By being virtually useless in the calculations of the culture at large I become useful, at last, to myself."

Philip Connors, Fire Season: Field Notes from a Wilderness Lookout

I've just started reading this book, which is a meditation on solitude, a history of wildfires and fire control in the American West, and (at least in part) a paean to Aldo Leopold, the great conservationist I discovered a few years ago. It's written by a guy who sits in a tower looking for wildfires in the Gila National Forest in New Mexico.

Talk about dreams of escape — this is certainly one for me. Purposeful, sporadic work, enforced alone time, the splendor of creation. But for now, my secondary landscape will have to be the one I create every time I lace up my running shoes and step out the door.

Walking is for me a way to be "useless in the calculations of the culture" so I can become "useful, at last, to myself." Walking is also low-tech. It produces nothing, consumes little. But it is rich in what matters most: the time and space in which to observe, think, slow the wheels of time.

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Thursday, September 25, 2014

Rain Power

I don't love the rain but I do appreciate its force and manner, the way it reminds us of elemental things, of topography, for instance.

My neighborhood is laced with the tributaries of Little Difficult Run, and when showers are heavy these timid trickles become raging torrents. I've seen bridges lifted off their moorings and deposited downstream. I've seen small lakes form as creeks flood their banks and become rivers. I've seen trees topple, their roots torn from rain-loosened soil.

Today's deluge is not enough for that. But it's enough to make me remember.

(Before the storm.)

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Wednesday, September 24, 2014

I'm Stumped

On one of my favorite, most well-trod routes, I start on the street and end up in the woods. The last part of my walk winds through the "Folkstone Forest," a straggly stretch of trees that lines the road and leads to the common land meadow.

It's not a forest in the classic, fairy tale sense, but a neighbor has gone to the trouble of printing up a green sign that says "Folkstone Forest" and hung it from a branch, so who am I to contradict?

The little trail I take is lined with fallen logs and dignified by a small plank bridge. But by this point in my walk I'm ready to be home. The playlist is winding down, the work is waiting. So of course it's then, when I'm not paying attention, that I run across the tiniest little nub of a tree stump.

Can I tell you how many times this stump has tripped me up? Too many to count. So now I look for it. I check out the smooth dirt path for the aberration, the knob. It's become a game for me, to find the stump before it stumps me. Sometimes I do, sometimes I don't. The stump keeps me humble.


Tuesday, September 23, 2014


It was a day of balancing — darkness and light, summer and fall. And for me, a day of driving eight and a half hours from Kentucky to Virginia.

Fall comes early in the higher elevations, and the hills were brushed with yellow. Yellow from the thinning trees, from the just-turning leaves, from the goldenrod. Yellow set off by the shaggy gray limestone cliffs that line the road.

A drive is a balancing act, too, a passage from one place to another, holding each in mind as you pass between the two.

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Monday, September 22, 2014

A Week Without "The Roosevelts"

For those of us who were engrossed in Ken Burns' latest film, this is the "week without Roosevelts." Last week I could come home from the workaday world of the 21st century and enter, for two hours, the 19th and 20th. The latter half of the show was recent history for me, times that my parents and grandparents lived through, and times, therefore, that I don't always consider history.

But it is history, and well worth learning. The film left me with curiosity — wanting to read books about TR, FDR and ER — and with hard-to-forget images: a diagram of where the bullet struck Teddy Roosevelt as he was giving a campaign speech. (He spoke for another hour before going to the hospital.) Photographs of ordinary Americans, their heads inclined toward big boxy radios, listening to FDR's fireside chats.

On those nights, apparently, you could leave your house, walk down the street and never stop listening to the president's voice. FDR's words, calm and comforting, were pouring out of every window, were soothing the jangled nerves of a troubled nation.

Would we ever again be so unified? Maybe on September 12, 2001. But then again, maybe not.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Tale of A Trespassing

Yesterday I had my comuppance. I clambered over a fence, tiptoed through a beautifully manicured lawn and was just preparing to scale the second fence into a horse pasture when I heard a voice. It sounded angry. I pulled out my earphones.

"What do you think you're doing? This is private property," said the irate homeowner.

"I'm so sorry. I was just cutting through your yard to get to Parker's Mill Road," I answered, by way of apology and with just a trace of a question mark at the end of my sentence, hoping he would see the utter harmlessness of my actions.

"This is not a cut-through," he snapped.

"Don't worry," I said, my voice rising now. "I don't even live here. I'm just visiting my mother."

"Make sure it doesn't happen again," he said, rage bubbling up through his words.

"Got it," I said, all attempts at politeness vanishing. The only way out at that point was to climb another fence, which I did as quickly as possible.

This was at the beginning of my walk, and after that I started trotting, hoping I could bounce the bad feelings away. It was what I deserved, I know. But the punishment did not fit the crime. It made me think about how many times it doesn't. Not a bad thing to ponder from time to time.


Friday, September 19, 2014

Thinking of Scotland

For me it means solo travel (my first), discovering the charms of Inverness and Edinburgh, the endless depths of Loch Ness; the panorama of earth and sky and bare, dark hills leading up to Ben Nevis. I took the West Highland line to Mallaig, and watched the ferries scuttling off for the Isle of Skye. I felt like I was at the roof of the continent, on top of the world — and, in more ways than one, I was.

So this morning, when I learned that Scotland voted no to independence, I was excited. I know little of the politics and the frustration — mine is an admittedly romantic view of this misty, feisty nation.

But I'm glad it will keep its ties to the United Kingdom, glad it will not become another casualty in this strange new world.


Thursday, September 18, 2014

Washing and Drying

The dishwasher is fixed so now I can look back wistfully to the weeks of washing and drying. OK, not too wistfully. It was getting old. But the glasses did feel squeaky clean when I rinsed them and  the plates stacked up nicely after they were dried.

There was the pride of completion that I don't feel when the dishwasher does all the work. And I never ran out of knives or spoons. Dishes were washed after they were used. No two-day limbo while the food left on them grew ever more caked and dried.

So yes, washing dishes by hand had its charms. But I'm glad the old machine has been pressed back into service.

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Wednesday, September 17, 2014

The Dentist

On Monday I went to the dentist for what was supposed to be a routine extraction. It was a wisdom tooth, not impacted, and I was assured that I didn't need to consult an oral surgeon.

Wrong! The routine quickly became difficult and I experienced two hours of what can only be described as medieval dentistry — with gloves.

As I reclined there, hands clasped tight, mouth pried unnaturally wide open, the young (key word) dentist experimented with tool after tool. (I was waiting for him to try a come-along!) And I kept imagining those old illustrations of medieval dentists. I've seen this kind of art in modern dental offices; it's supposed to be a humorous nod to how far we have come.

After Monday I would say we haven't come far. Because now I know that underneath all the equipment, all the whirring, spinning bells and whistles of modern dentistry, there is still just the dentist and the tooth. It's a contest of wills. In my case the dentist won. But just barely.

Johann Liss, Farmer at the Dentist, 1616-17 from Wikipedia


Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Home Leave

Yesterday word came from Suzanne. Her home leave is approved! She will be arriving at Dulles Airport at 1:30 on October 20 — and she'll be in the U.S. for six weeks!

The Peace Corps grants paid home leave to folks who sign on for a third year. Suzanne has already started her new job, as technical assistant to Population Services International and its Beninese partner, planning and training for the peer-education program there known as Amour et Vie. PSI estimates that in 2012 alone its services helped prevent 1,340 HIV cases, more than 70, 000 unwanted pregnancies and almost 30,000 cases of diarrhea.

The peer educators now give Ebola prevention suggestions, too. But their primary work is to bring about the sort of deep-boned changes that will someday lift the country out of poverty — and these will continue long after the epidemic is in check.

It's good, important work — but it's thousands of miles away. I'm beyond excited to know that our girl will be home soon — at least for a while!

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Monday, September 15, 2014

Leaving "Black Care" Behind

"Black care seldom sits behind the rider whose pace is fast enough."
                                                      — Theodore Roosevelt   
So the man I met last night in Ken Burns' new film "The Roosevelts" is in many ways the man I knew: the man of action, man of privilege, man of tragedy and loss. His father died when he was in college; his mother and wife died a few years later on the same day.  In an agony of grief Roosevelt headed west, to the Badlands, where the limitless sky and active life helped him heal. 

Hearing all this last night — especially the quotation — makes me think about walking. How many suburban amblers stroll just fast enough to make their worries go away. I know I do. Sometimes I can outrun my troubles, sometimes I can't. But I usually return in better spirits than I left. "Black care" is almost always left behind.

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Saturday, September 13, 2014

Tangled Harvest

It's harvest time on the back deck. The thyme is thriving, the basil is bolting and the cherry tomatoes are tangled up with the climbing rose (which I'm training to clamber up the balusters).

There's not enough sunlight in the backyard to put tomatoes directly into the ground, so they grow in pots. And the most successful pot-grown tomatoes, I've learned, are these little guys. They're as sweet as candy and taste great in salads or pasta or right from the vine.

The only problem, every year, is that they really get the hang of it in September. There are green tomatoes aplenty on these vines. Will they ripen in time? Some of them, probably. The rest will harden, their stems will shrivel — and then — and only then — I'll untangle them from the rose.

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Friday, September 12, 2014

Difference of Opinion

At my writer's group last night we had a difference of opinion. Half of us thought a short story ended with a narrator's father in the intensive care unit of a hospital, and the other half thought it ended with the narrator herself there.

The other half was right, said Cathy, who wrote the story.

But this raises some questions, the kind you can't help but ask yourself if you believe that the endpoint of self-expression is to communicate with an audience. Because the essay or novel, play or story takes on a life of its own, doesn't it? It is reshaped and relived every time a new reader comes to it, takes its words into her mind, makes it her own.

Even though I stood corrected, even though I realized that I had to some extent missed the point, the piece I read worked well on its own, the details of landscape and sky were no longer that of a pain-fogged dream but of an actual journey through a quiet forest. Because when the words leave our pen or keyboard they stop being ours and become the reader's. That's the way it's supposed to be, I think. In a very important way, that's the point.


Thursday, September 11, 2014

Writing and Forgiveness

When I picked up Ann Patchett's book This is the Story of a Happy Marriage I wasn't expecting an essay collection.  Whatever review convinced me to foist it on my (decidedly pro fiction) book group had long since vanished from my sieve-like brain. I like Ann Patchett's writing — and that's that.

But the book is an essay collection and the essay I'm reading now, which has also been published as a single, is "The Getaway Car." It's about writing. And forgiveness.

"I grieve for my own lack of talent and intelligence. Every. Single. Time. Were I smarter, more gifted, I could pin down a closer facsimile of the wonders I see. I believe, more than anything, that this grief of constantly having to face down our own inadequacies is what keeps people from being writers. Forgiveness, therefore, is key. I can't write the book I want to write, but I can and will write the book I'm capable of writing. Again and again throughout the course of my life I will forgive myself."

Writing and forgiveness. I hadn't linked them like this before, hadn't thought of how much slack the rope requires before it turns taut and stops you. Now I have.

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Wednesday, September 10, 2014

"It is Solved by Walking"

I just finished reading Alice McDermott's novel Someone, in which twice appears a favorite quotation (motto? adage?) of mine: "It is solved by walking."

When I wrote about this in an earlier blog post, I used the Latin "Solvitur Ambulando," a term beloved by pilgrims and poets, and mentioned that I might have given this name to my blog had it not already been taken. Still, the spirit of "Solvitur Ambulando" fills this space. I can't count the number of times my mood, my priorities, even my energy level, have been "solved," have been set right, by walking.

According to some sources, the phrase originated with Diogenes, who disputed the unreality of motion by walking away. In that sense, solvitur ambulando not only means walking but any practical proof of an argument.

In The Tao of Travel, Paul Theroux attributes the adage to St. Augustine. "Walking to ease the mind is also the objective of the pilgrim," Theroux writes. "There is a spiritual dimension, too: the walk itself is part of a process of purification. Walking is the age-old form of travel, the most fundamental, perhaps the most revealing."

For me, it's the most essential. Not for locomotion — but for sanity. 

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Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Rush Hour

My walk yesterday nudged right up against the morning rush hour. Not the D.C., Reston or Vienna rush hour — but the Folkstone rush hour.

Because my subdivision's "main drag" leads to the local elementary school we have a half hour in the morning and a half hour in the afternoon when active pedestrians risk being run over by a convoy of mini-vans.

Not so for me today; I squeaked in before the brigade. But I wasn't too early for the bus stop coffee klatsch. Whether by choice or requirement, every child now waiting at the bus stop waits with at least one parent. Gone is the small kid society my children enjoyed during those years — with its own hierarchy and pecking order, sixth-grade patrols at the top, morning kindergartners at the bottom.

Now it's a time for parents to chit-chat and kids to revolve around them. It's another way that childhood is changing, another thing I miss about the way things used to be.

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Monday, September 8, 2014

View from a Hammock

Speaking of (pictures of) hammocks, I spent some time in one yesterday. I'd been looking at it longingly all week but there was no time to partake. The weather was summer but the work load was decidedly back-to-school. By this weekend, though, with a big project completed and the house (relatively) clean, I had no choice but to relax.

It's funny that hammocks are so often the symbol of carefree existence. Perhaps it's their weightlessness or their airiness, the fact that they swing.

Or maybe it's their contours and mechanics. While I've often heard of folks flopping into a hammock, you cannot flop into mine. The contraption is not easy to get into or out of. In that sense it holds me captive. Once I get into it, am I  really going to try and get out very quickly?

Take yesterday, for instance, I had my pillow, my journal, a book, a phone and of course, the requisite glass of iced tea. Imagine the logistics of assembling all that within arm's reach. I didn't stir for an hour. Then again, why would I want to?

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Saturday, September 6, 2014

Late Summer

Here we are in the dog days of ... September?  I've always counted early September weather as the most reliably pleasant of the year (blue skies, low humidity, plenty of sunshine).

This year quite the opposite. It will be 94 today. The air conditioning, mostly off all summer, finally has a chance to flex its muscles. We had September weather in July; now we're having July weather in September.

I'm glad for this sticky heat that makes me long for fall. Late summer in more ways than one.


Friday, September 5, 2014

Words on the Wing

Speaking of ink on paper, today we upload  the files of the magazine I've been working on these last few months. I've been thinking about the way it used to be, other magazines I've worked on and how those files were delivered — on boards via Fed Ex or (when we were too late for that) via a package delivery system called "Delta Dash." I used to send articles to magazines in hard copy, too.

It's much easier now, of course — write the article in a Word file, attach it and send it off with the click of a mouse or the touch of a finger. Upload whole magazines that way, too.

But the other way — the "old-fashioned" way — had a certain drama. There was the last-minute rush to the post office or Fed Ex, often with a child or two in tow. There might be minutes left before the place closed down. I would scribble my editor's name and address as quickly as possible, then stuff the manuscript in an envelope and send it off. This was always the day before the deadline, of course.

Now I push some keys and it's gone. I don't want to go back. Don't get me wrong. I'm just remembering.

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Thursday, September 4, 2014

Ink on Paper

It's harvest time. The brochures and pamphlets designed this summer are coming back from the printer, arriving at the office in heavy cardboard boxes. When I open them up, the world smells right again.

It's the aroma of ink on paper, and it is, to an old print person like me, almost intoxicating.

Say what you will about seamless modern communication, about the touchscreen, the tablet, the tweet. The digital world is ours whether we like it or not. I understand that now. I have come to terms with it.

But give me the heft of a September Vogue, the welcome weight of a Victorian novel, the stacks of heavy, photo-rich college and university magazines that threaten to take over the bookcase in my office. Give me something I can see and hold and smell — and then I'll really have something to read.

(Ink on paper run amuck)


Wednesday, September 3, 2014

From Place to Words and Back Again

I learned from the "Writer's Almanac" that today is the birthday of Sarah Orne Jewett, born 1849 in South Berwick, Maine. A descendent of doctors and sea captains, Jewett wrote poetry and historical fiction but is best known for her short stories.

She is a rare writer for me, one I came to know through her home rather than her work. I had yet to read Jewett's stories when I wrote an article on historic homes of New England that took me to her house in South Berwick.

I've never forgotten the upstairs writing room, what it was like to look out those thick glass windows, imagining the world Jewett knew, the New England shipbuilding culture that was vanishing as quickly as she could describe it.

It's a funny thing, meeting a writer first in her house. It's not unlike the acquaintances you form when traveling on a train or airplane, seat-mate confidences. There's a quick and easy intimacy that flows from the place that then lingers when you read the words.

After that trip, I read what many consider Jewett's masterpiece, the story collection Country of the Pointed Firs. And there it was again, the place I had seen, the lowered light of that northern clime, the herbs, the dark firs. From place to words and back to place again.

(Photos: The house now and then, courtesy Historic New England)

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Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Wearing White

While not a fashion traditionalist in most ways (I'm writing this in a work skirt and tennis shoes), I do have a thing about wearing white after Labor Day.

It's a dictum that originates from my earliest years, from the same place as skirt and sweater sets and little white gloves for dancing school. From a time when there were rules and penalties (a withering glance, an averted head) for breaking them.

Those have gone away, of course — the rules and the penalties — but wearing white after Labor Day ... Well, that's a tough one to break. So white skirt and pants are tucked away for next year. White blouses and shirts, they're allowed, of course. I'm wearing one right now. A way to keep the flickering flame of summer burning brightly a few more weeks.

(In no hurry for this kind of white.)

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