Friday, October 31, 2014

Happy Halloween!

The candy is hidden so there will be some left for tonight. There's a plump pumpkin for carving. And the yard is covered in crisp brown leaves.

I took this photograph at a pumpkin patch Suzanne and I visited three years ago. I remember even then the preciousness of time with her. (Peace Corps was already in her plans.) The preciousness of that time, telescoped as it was then, and especially as it is now during her leave, is just a compressed version of all the precious times we spend with those we love.

The ripe fruits of autumn remind me how important it is to store up those times. Store them up as a plant does, capturing sunlight, soil and rain.

Labels: , ,

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Dancing Bones

Advanced beginners' tap is, at least for me, more about the advanced than the beginners. There's a lot of fancy footwork, quickly executed. Balance is required. The kind of balance you have in your 20s or 30s but not — ahem — later in life.

Relax your toes, teacher Candy said last night. You need to relax your toes inside your shoes and then you'll be able to move more smoothly. She broke one complicated step down into its components, told us the movement was like a ribbon unfurling.

There were other suggestions —jump down not up, take smaller steps. But the one said most often was "keep smiling." That wasn't hard. The woman next to me was wearing dance tights with skeleton bones. Suddenly I saw a parade of dancing, prancing skeletons, out for a night on the town.


Wednesday, October 29, 2014

How to Live? Walk.

I've been reading about the 16th-century writer Montaigne, who invented the essay, from the French essayer, to try. The idea of "writing about oneself to create a mirror in which other people recognize their own humanity has not existed forever," says Sarah Bakewell in her book How to Live or A Life of Montaigne: In One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer. "It had to be invented. And, unlike many cultural inventions, it can be traced to a single person: Michel Eyquem de Montaigne."

"Unlike most memoirists of his day," Bakewell writes, "he did not write to record his own great deeds and achievements. Nor did he lay down a straight eyewitness account of historical events." Instead, he used ordinary topics — friendship, names, smells, thumbs, wearing clothes — as a way to explore the question "How to live?"

Here are some of his answers, according to Bakewell: Pay attention; read a lot; wake from the sleep of habit; see the world; reflect on everything and regret nothing and, finally, let life be its own answer.

I've been taking notes, as I often do, and there are many passages I've recorded to reflect on later. Here's one of my favorites:

Montaigne did not brood in his tower, Bakewell writes. "He liked to be out walking. 'My thoughts fall asleep if I make them sit down. My mind will not budge unless my legs move it.'"

Every hike, saunter, amble, walk and run I take tells me he's onto something there.

Labels: ,

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Trail Thoughts

Yesterday's trail hike took me from Lake Accotink to Byron Avenue Park, almost to Old Keene Mill Road. This is true terra incognita. I could as easily be in Maryland or Delaware or Pennsylvania as Fairfax County.

The trail has its own rites and its own rhythms. It mesmerizes. There is the creek gurgling in the distance, the sound of a distant mower, a faint cricket chirp. My feet rustle through the leaves. I pass a few people, not many on a Monday. A gaggle of school children, a couple of lone mountain bikers, exercisers sprinting up the stairs near the dam.

But for the most part, I'm alone, notebook in hand, writing down the thoughts when they surface. Because out on the trail, they always do.


Monday, October 27, 2014

Decoration Inflation

It used to be a pumpkin beside the door. But the ante has been raised and now more houses than not feature dangling skeletons, inflatable jack-o-lanterns or witches that have flown — splat! — into trees. Some neighbors string orange lights or garland their mail boxes with autumn swag.

I enjoy these tokens of the season — because they're fun and they add variety and texture to life — but I bristle at decoration inflation, at a decorating season that stretches from October 1 through mid January.

So I've established a modest compromise. A few fall tokens (all of them souvenirs of when the girls were young), an autumn wreath and, come mid-December, colored lights around the door and on the front bushes. It's decoration without inflation.

(Claire made these tombstones from paper and croquet wickets when she was in fourth grade. )

Labels: ,

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Outside In

It's cold enough that the heat came on, and hot air ruffles the leaves of the peace plant. I had to look up the name of this plant. I've had a smaller one for years, but never knew what it was. Now that I have a large one (given to us at Dad's funeral), I feel a greater responsibility to it, am working harder to keep it healthy, to coax its airy white flower — which shoots up, seemingly out of nowhere — in bloom.

In from outside is the cactus, the large fern and — new this year — a hardy, happy thyme plant. (We'll see how long it's happy inside.) They join a profusion of cut flowers — bouquets from Suzanne's arrival — all making the house cheerful.

As flowers fade outdoors they bloom indoors. I'd rather have the profusion of summer, but when that's not possible this is the next best thing.


Friday, October 24, 2014

Seasons of Hope

I spotted these trees on a walk two years ago and have never forgotten them. The way the living tree flames out behind the dead ones. The promise of new life hidden in each glowing leaf.

As leaves fall it is easy to be melancholy, but I remind myself that until they do, the new ones cannot grow.

What this tells me is that each end is also a beginning. That there is no season without hope.

Thursday, October 23, 2014


Suzanne was born 26 years ago today. It's the first birthday I've spent with her in three years. Not that one expects to be with an adult child on every birthday, but after having her so far away from home these last three years having her here feels pretty darn good.

I think today as I always do about the moment I first saw her — and the feeling is as clear today as it was then. It was a supercharged familiarity. "I know you," I said to myself the instant I glimpsed her face. "Of course. It's you."

And even though she lives in Africa now, and has been independent for years, I still have that feeling about her — and about Claire and Celia, too. There they are, I think, as I watch them grow up and enter their own lives, the children I was meant to have. As unmistakable as blood or water.

Labels: ,

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

True Colors

The hedge is returning to its roots. The pink hues of bud and stem — the colors I notice every spring — are present now in the roses and russets of autumn. In the months between, of course, there's a lot of green. But the green is fading now and those first colors are reappearing.

Which makes me wonder: What are the hedge's true colors? The green it wears most of the summer or the pink it dons in spring and fall?

I'm no botanist, but I'm fond of the hedge. I notice its growth and cycles. And if I had to name its true color I would say the one it was born with. Apples, hedges — and people, too — none of us fall too far from the tree.

Labels: ,

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Back Home and Walking

Suzanne was out the door yesterday morning before sunrise, running down a paved road first and then, with first light, ducking into the woods and the old trails she knows so well. At midday she  took Copper for a walk, and, in the late afternoon, she, Claire and I drove to a southern stretch of the Cross-County trail and strolled it together.

I didn't think of this in the countdown days before Suzanne arrived, but now that she's here it seems perfectly natural. When you return home after a long absence your feet seek firm ground. Walking becomes a way to reacquaint yourself, to re-enter the landscape.

Walking does this for me, of course; it's a way to ground myself and put life in perspective. But it's nice to see my children walking, too. All three girls run or walk —they move through the world to help the world make sense. I hope they always do.

(Suzanne and Claire on the Cross-County Trail.)


Monday, October 20, 2014

International Arrival

You would need a heart of stone not to be affected by the international arrivals hall at Dulles Airport. Everywhere you look are reunions of one sort or another: husbands and wives, children and parents, brothers and sisters, friends. There was a man next to us who said he was waiting for his sweetheart to return from Denmark. His cap was pulled down low so it was difficult to see his eyes — maybe because he was expecting them to fill.

Claire and Celia were holding Claire’s two homemade signs. One of them said “Welcome Home” in “pennant” letters. The other was a map of Benin in green magic marker.

After what seemed like an eternity, we saw Suzanne. She was wearing a short-sleeved “Virginia is for Runners” t-shirt and her arms and face were tan. She was wheeling three large suitcases and a carry-on. (I later learned that only one of those large bags was hers; the others were for Peace Corps friends.) 

The first impression — that ever amazing, important first impression — was that she's a world traveler now. There was a nonchalance in the way she wheeled the bags, a certain jauntiness about her. 

My second impression — or perhaps I should say thought once I was capable of having thoughts — was that I don't ever want her to leave again.



Saturday, October 18, 2014


It's not only possible now but entirely sensible to count down to Suzanne's arrival in hours not days. No more than 32, if all goes well! Her plane is scheduled to touch down at Dulles tomorrow at 2:30 p.m. She's well into her departure preparations, I imagine, and will leave for the airport in five or six hours for an overnight flight to Brussels, where she transfers to the plane that will bring her home.

The last time I saw her was June 24, 2012. A lot has happened since then.

This is one of the last images I have of Suzanne, walking with two heavy suitcases through a crowded Union Station. She would begin her long journey aboard a train for Philadelphia, meeting up with other Peace Corps volunteers there for the flight across the ocean to in-country training.

She's not returning for good tomorrow — I wish! — but she does have a six-week leave, and I've warned her that she may find herself tied to a chair come December 1. Besides, we're not thinking of departures now, only arrivals.

For now there's a new day dawning, grocery shopping and last-minute tidying still to do — and only hours till she arrives.

It seemed like this day would never come. And now it's tomorrow.

Labels: ,

Friday, October 17, 2014

Friday in the District

I usually work at home on Fridays, but today I'm in the office. It's a beautiful day here in the nation's capital, a transitional day. Not only does it feel a little bit like summer and a little bit like fall, but it also feels a little bit like a weekday and a little bit like a weekend.

And I wonder: Is this how workday Fridays are now? Maybe they are and I just haven't noticed. On the sidewalks: a greater mix than usual of suits and workout attire. On the Mall: a higher proportion of joggers and bikers.  On the streets: more double-parking!

On the whole: A deliciously casual, buoyant air. Not enough to make me come downtown every Friday, but nice for a change.


Thursday, October 16, 2014

Fighting Fear

I try to think of something else but it's hard not to. I have a daughter flying into Dulles from West Africa this weekend.  She's not arriving from one of the affected countries but from somewhere close. And while at this point the extra scrutiny (temperatures taken, isolation if necessary) only applies to passengers arriving from Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia, I wonder if officials will widen the net, start checking those arriving from any West African nation.

It's fear at work, I know. But fear is contagious, too. And just as there's no vaccine for Ebola so also there is no immunization for fear. Information doesn't help — it's hard to read a newspaper or watch the news — but ignorance is no better.

One of the most poignant news programs I've heard about the epidemic described what doctors and nurses do in Liberia before starting their shifts. Here they are on the front lines, dealing with Ebola patients every day, wearing substandard protective gear and working in primitive conditions. And what do they do before anything else? They stand in a circle, they pray and they sing. 

If they can sing, so can we. Sing in their honor. Sing for their safety. Sing until the fear goes away.

Labels: , ,

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

The Deer Hunter

I had seen warning signs like this one along the trail for months — "Archery Program in Process." But until last weekend I had never seen a deer hunter. He was decked out in camouflage and his face was smudged with paint. If he had been in a tree stand I would not have seen him.

But he was on a trail and I was, too. We passed each other, exchanged brief hellos. He held an elaborate bow, nothing like what I remember as a child. It was all metal and wires. It meant business. And he did, too. If I'd had more time to prepare myself I might have asked him to pose for a photo. But he was in a hurry and did not look happy. He was not dragging a six-point buck behind him.

I curse the deer that gobble up the daylilies and scrape the bark off the Kwanzan cherry. I think of them not as Bambi but as Super Rat. I wish they were gone — all but one or two I could spot across a sylvan glade once or twice a year.

But the idea of this guy up in a tree looking for movement, scanning the woods with his high-powered scope — well, frankly, it creeps me out. So I gave the deer hunter a wide berth — and I shivered as he passed.

Labels: , ,

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Autumn Planting

There's a delicious irony in autumn planting, a slap in the face to fall. All around me leaves are yellowing, dying, flaming out, and here I am plying the soil, ripping out the summer flowers, putting fall ones in their place.

I chose mums and ornamental cabbage, hearty plants that can bear a hard freeze and stff wind. I forgo the pretty pansies with their thin stems and hopeful faces.

Planting in the fall is a vote for life. It's thumbing my nose at winter, saying (if only to myself) maybe it won't be as bad this year.

Labels: , ,

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Ten Years

Every so often I receive a message from LinkedIn reminding me to congratulate a contact on a work anniversary. Silly stuff, for the most part. But there is one work anniversary I celebrate every year. And I don't need LinkedIn to remind me.

Ten years ago today I went back to work in an office again. I had been a full-time freelancer for many years by then and —truth be told — wasn't sure that being a staff writer-editor would "take." It's not that the work wasn't interesting; it was giving up the freedom of the freelance life and swallowing the three-hour round-trip commute.

But I did swallow it, and through the years have earned back a bit of flexibility. It's a routine and a rhythm I've gotten used to. But it's not the work that matters. What matters is the writing I do when I'm not working. Which, in a way, renders the anniversary moot. But I celebrate it still. It was a milestone.

Labels: ,

Friday, October 10, 2014

Piano at Rest

After half a century on its feet the piano needs a rest. And it's getting one.

It all started when the instrument kept losing its tune. The tuner diagnosed loose pins and proposed a remedy. Turn the piano on its back, insert a wood-expander solution around the pins and wait a week.

Luckily there's a largish space in the front half of the living room so the piano could rest there — well barricaded, of course, so Copper doesn't interfere. Meanwhile, the room is topsy-turvy, and there's a big wall space where the piano used to be.

Still, I think the vacation is well deserved. I imagine the piano on a beach, a gentle breeze tickling its ivories, its noble shoulders sunk into the sand. Soon it will sit up, shake itself awake and be ready to play again.

Labels: ,

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Capitol Walk

One of my favorite city routes is walking around the Capitol. So at lunchtime yesterday I did what I often do: strolled down New Jersey Avenue with its high-arching trees, skirted the Carillon (named for President Taft's son, Robert, who served in the Senate from 1938 to 1953), and crossed Constitution Avenue onto the Capitol grounds.

From there it's a clockwise sweep of the 58-acre park — dodging tourists, watching workers clamber on the scaffolding around the dome, keeping eyes and ears open to the kaleidoscopic scene.

There's the slow pedaling of the bicycle cops patrolling their beat; the brisk stride of the office worker hurrying to lunch; the lingering saunter of tourists, guidebooks in hand.

At the southwest corner I stop to smell the last roses of summer, still blooming in the Botanical Gardens. The trees there are already orange.

Heading north, I cross the Mall, weave through parked cars, then take a paved path back to Constitution. Only 40 minutes out of the office. An eternity.

(The Capitol from the east, before the scaffolding went up.)

Labels: ,

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Cutting My Losses

The walks I've been taking lately on the Cross-County Trail are not without their lessons, and one of the foremost is learning to recognize when I'm lost. The trail is well marked — most of the time — but on Saturday there was a stone crossing, a sudden turn and — voila! — I was in uncharted territory.

There was a path, of course, but there are many paths in the woods. Some are barely perceptible, the width of a deer (and given the skinny deer we have in Fairfax County, that's not very wide); others are broad but lead in the wrong direction. The latter is what I was dealing with Saturday. It could have been the Cross-County Trail — except that it wasn't.

When I'd walked for a while without noticing the distinctive CCT marker, I turned around and retraced my steps. There was a trail that went off to the left, but it was rockier and less cleared than I was used to — probably a dead end. There was another possibility, but it looped back onto the path I was on. I walked all the way back to the steppingstones before I found my error — and it was a big one — turning the wrong direction after I crossed the creek.

Once righted I could immediately tell the difference. The path was sure and springy beneath my feet. I had cut my losses quickly. I was on my way.

Labels: , , ,

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

How We Learn About Meadows

On Sunday's walk I passed an informational display telling me what a meadow is, why a meadow is important. How sad that we have to learn about meadows from a sign! How much better to learn about them from the burrs in your socks, the poison ivy on your ankles and the sunburn on your shoulders.
I grew up in savannah land — bald, barely treed land where meadows ruled. I learned to treasure the shady tree line around the edges of fields and the majesty of the lone burr oak. I learned first-hand  the loud racket of meadows — cicadas chanting, grasshoppers buzzing — but also the quiet heart at their center and how their beauty is best set off by the presence of a grazing cow or thoroughbred.
 But mostly, I learned my way around meadows by tramping through them, by looking out at them from fence rows, or by harvesting them, collecting goldenrod, Queen Anne's Lace and Joe Pye Weed. So when I came across this meadow sign on Sunday, I snapped a shot — but I made sure that there was a lot of meadow in the picture too.

Labels: ,

Monday, October 6, 2014

One and Only

Yesterday I walked the Twin Branches Nature Trail, which is now part of the Cross-County trail. The last time I walked it there was huge earth-moving equipment deep in the woods and a new dam going in. I got hopelessly lost on the detour, was caught in a fierce summer thunderstorm and rescued by a homeowner who saw me shivering under a tree and invited me into his garage.

Sunday's adventure was much calmer — although there was a little excitement. Here's a sign I saw on my way into the woods. It was no problem heeding the warnings: Stay on the trail. Check. Do not overturn rocks or logs. Check again. Do not approach a copperhead. Check for sure on this one.

But my favorite part of the warning is this: [Copperheads] are Reston's only venomous snake. Whew! I feel much better now.

Labels: ,

Saturday, October 4, 2014

Hidden Pond

Today I walked down an old section of Hunter's Valley Road to twin stone pillars flanking a trail. A few hundred feet down a muddy path I came to a grove of bamboo so thick that light barely penetrated the thicket. It rained hard last night and everything was drenched. Moisture beaded up at the ends of the bamboo fronds and dripped on me as I shoved my way through the foliage.

Once into the enclosure I marveled at the space. A pond, completely hidden from view, surrounded on three sides by bamboo and on the other by banked rows of rhododendrons and azaleas. Fallen leaves and lily pads dotted the surface, and the great shaggy bamboo, weighted by water, hung its head in the pool.

What is it about a hidden garden we find so appealing? Is it the incongruity of something outside and in the open but still out of sight? Or is it the feeling that it gives us, one of enclosure and safety. Whatever the explanation, the place had a magical effect on me; it calmed me, slowed me, made me want to stay.

Labels: , , ,

Friday, October 3, 2014

Learning the Rules

I've been thinking about suburbia and suburbanites this morning — about those of us who make our homes in neither the city nor the country but in that place in between — and how we are the product of zoning laws, cheap mortgages and office parks.

I work for a law school but seldom think about how laws and policies have shaped the place I live. Even the open space I praise in this blog is mandated by regulations on density and the percability of soil. The same rules that give us a meadow isolate us from each other.

So what's a walker to do? Keep walking, I suppose. Because walking knits together the here and now with the then and gone. It also makes me care. And if we are ever to change the way we live we must first care enough to understand how it came to be.

Labels: , , ,

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Possibilities of Place

Since Sunday's hike I've been doing a little research on the Cross-County Trail, Difficult Run and the watershed. I've learned about ongoing projects to manage the streams, to keep them healthy with drainage and tree buffers.

I've learned about the flooding that often occurs in the section I hiked a few days ago. Most of all, I've learned about the communities of runners, walkers and bikers who have traveled these trails before me.

I've read stories of single-day marathons, of Nordic pole-walkers, of runners wading waist-high across streams when the water tops the fair-weather crossings.

What these tales have in common is a sense of adventure and discovery. There is awe of the natural beauty, of the possibilities of this place.

Labels: , ,

Wednesday, October 1, 2014


It struck me yesterday as I was walking that it was the last day of the month — payday.

Like many people, I'm paid electronically. The money enters our account without a sound. No envelope opening, no bank teller tabulating. A silent acquisition.

This is a wonderful convenience and not something I want to change. But it means I seldom celebrate the wage-earning aspect of my work, the fact that every month a comfortable sum is exchanged for my toil.

So today I'm celebrating — with a silent cheer.


blogger counters