Wednesday, December 31, 2014

In Benin

In the last 24 hours I've been on two continents and in three countries — but I've finally come to rest here in Benin. The sun was setting as we took a walk, Suzanne showing me the route she takes to work, to church; introducing me to her favorite merchants. "Bon soir, Mama. Bonne Fete!"

The sights and sounds and smells overwhelm the senses. Motorcycle taxis zip around from all possible angles. Chickens rest in cages ready for slaughter. Markets offer pineapples, mangoes, onions, carrots. Busy main streets give way to dirt side alleys that dead end at the train tracks. The smell of burning trash mixes with the aroma of roasting meat.

Another continent. Another world.

As the plane prepared to land today I kept thinking of Suzanne as a baby, a girl and now a young woman. Suzanne who chats up shopkeepers in French, who grabs her mother's hand as we cross the street. She brought me to this place. This is where our children will take us — if we let them.

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Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Into Africa

I woke up this morning with that familiar jump start. I ran through the possibilities: Is someone I love sick or in need? Is there a work deadline? Something else I have to do?

Oh, that's right. I'm flying to Africa today.

While the exquisite shorthand of modern travel means this requires very little effort on my part (I live less than 15 minutes from Dulles International Airport), the decisions, postponements and preparation it took to get here have occupied me for more than two years.

This journey, then, begins not just with a single step but with a series of partings, reunions and reflections. They have brought me here, to this point of departure, to this familiar action, boarding a plane. But the plane will take me to another continent, one I've never visited before. A universe of its own with customs, climates, peoples, beliefs and practices I can barely begin to fathom.

Travel is, at best, about possibilities. I begin at home. I will land, God willing, in a faraway place, a continent so vast that our country would be swallowed up by it. It's a place my daughter has come to love. I go there to see her world.

(Photo: Katie Esselburn)

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Monday, December 29, 2014

Mine the Gaps

I began this blog in February 2010 with only a vague sense of what I wanted it to be and how long I could continue it. I wasn't even sure how often I would post. But a few weeks into the project I realized I could post almost every day — at least six days a week — and I've done that for  59 months and 1,500 posts.

That's 1,500 posts exactly. Strange I would notice the total today. Strange because after tomorrow I may not be posting daily. Benin has spotty Internet access, spotty electricity, too. So while I'm taking my laptop in hopes of posting as often as possible, there may be gaps.

However ... gaps could be good. Gaps mean less reflecting and more living. Gaps mean life comes at you so quickly that there simply isn't time to write it down. So, dear readers, if there are gaps, please know I am mining them — and I'll write about them here soon.

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Sunday, December 28, 2014

Packing Light

A trip to Africa requires not just one packing list but several. There's the electronic one I've been tapping on my phone whenever I think of something on the run — ear plugs, a headlamp, the Kindle! 

There's the scribbled one upstairs near the brand new suitcase — kitchen towels for Biba, a book for Apollinaire, candy, gum and pens for other friends I'm about to meet. 

And then there's the carefully typed list Suzanne sent me a couple weeks ago — her attempt to rein in her mother's (ahem) over-packing tendencies. After all, she took only two suitcases and a carry-on for two years.

So my new motto is travel light, take only what I need, nothing "just in case." Let's see how long it lasts!


Friday, December 26, 2014

The Day After

The day after Christmas: filled with boxes and bundles, loading up the car, waving goodbye, saying hello, eating (some more). And then, when it's almost too late, a walk to the Severn River.

From the warmth and chaos of a family holiday to the pure piercing beauty of a midwinter sunset.

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Wednesday, December 24, 2014


Once again the days have passed, the splendid ones and the trying ones. Once again we've come back to this point, which is for me, and for many, the great pause. Christmas Eve. Christmas Day. New Year's. Once again I'll re-run this blog post, one I wrote in 2011, which was, I now know, the last holiday Dad would spend in this house.  All the more reason for appreciation:


Our old house has seen better days. The siding is dented, the walkway is cracked, the yard is muddy and tracked with Copper's paw prints. Inside is one of the fullest and most aromatic trees we've ever chopped down. Cards line the mantel, the fridge is so full it takes ten minutes to find the cream cheese. Which is to say we are as ready as we will ever be. The family is gathering. I need to make one more trip to the grocery store.

This morning I thought about a scene from one of my favorite Christmas movies, one I hope we'll have time to watch in the next few days. In "It's a Wonderful Life," Jimmy Stewart has just learned he faces bank fraud and prison, and as he comes home beside himself with worry, he grabs the knob of the bannister in his old house — and it comes off in his hand. He is exasperated at this; it seems to represent his failures and shortcomings.

By the end of the movie, after he's been visited by an angel, after his family and friends have rallied around him in an unprecedented way, after he's had a chance to see what the world would have been like without him — he grabs the bannister knob again. And once again, it comes off in his hand. But this time, he kisses it. The house is still cold and drafty and in need of repair. But it has been sanctified by friendship and love and solidarity.

Christmas doesn't take away our problems. But it counters them with joy. It reminds us to appreciate the humble, familiar things that surround us every day, and to draw strength from the people we love. And surely there is a bit of the miraculous in that.

Photo: Flow TV

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Land Between Fences

I still have wrapping to do, cooking and baking, too. Yesterday's rainy walk was a calm oasis amidst the holiday to-dos.

At one point I found myself walking along a fencerow. To my right, a golf course. To my left, a tangle of trees and brush. It was only halfway down the path that I realized there was a fence on my left, as well.

So this was a double fencerow, the land between fences, uncultivated, unclaimed. Except ... it has been put to the best of uses. It leads from the eddies and ripples of Little Difficult Run to the sleek office parks of Blake Lane and Waples Mill Road, and from there (I now know from experience) to lakes and dams and ridges.

It's a trail, a passageway. It takes us from one place, one reality, to another. And it looks very inviting here, I think — in a Thomas Hardyesque way!

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Monday, December 22, 2014

The Sound of Rain

I began in a light rain, parking the car at a gravel turnout and approximating where I left off on this section of the trail a couple months ago. Not the best weather for walking, but I had two hoods, one on my sweatshirt and the other on my down jacket. Together, they kept most of me dry so that only my shoes and jacket took a hit.

The thing about hiking in the rain — in any weather, really — is that the weather becomes part of the walk. In this case, the splatter and the damp made their way into the setting. There was mud, of course, and lots of it. In a couple of low-lying spots someone had thoughtfully laid long two-by-fours as makeshift bridges through the muck. 

And there was the acoustic aspect, the splash of drops on leaves — fat drops that seemed more solid than liquid (and afterward, on the radio, I heard we were expecting freezing rain).  This was my accompaniment on today's stroll. A quiet world, just the sound of rain hitting earth.

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Saturday, December 20, 2014

In Praise of Snail Mail

The cards are arriving, my favorite part of  holiday decor. They're displayed on the mantel and also in a contraption that holds the ones that don't stand up as well on their own, the photo greeting cards.

The cards are all colors, shapes and sizes. Some say "Merry Christmas," others say "Happy Holidays." Some are religious, others are not. Dogs on cards are big this year, with birds on cards a close second. Somehow, despite the wide variety, they always work together beautifully; there is harmony in the disarray.

As the world evolves, becomes more digital, fewer snail mail missives make their way to the house. But there is still a critical mass — and I treasure the cards I receive even more.

I'm just off the phone with a dear friend whose card will be late this year, she says. We chatted about why we refuse to go totally electronic in our communication (she still sends magazine and newspaper clippings!), about how much it means to receive a note that someone has taken the time to write, stamp and send.  I'll admit I'm a dinosaur — and I have the mantel to prove it.

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Thursday, December 18, 2014

Almost Solstice

Only hours from the shortest day, I leave the house in lessening darkness. A few houses are still lit  from last night, a subtle defiance. Above it all a crescent moon, purer than the others, though just reflection.

Of course we need the light, will take it any way we get it, are drawn to flames, fires, a faraway porch bulb in the rain.

I catch myself dreaming of summer, of days long enough to waste an hour. Now every minute is precious as we tick down inexorably to the end.  

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Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Two Weeks from Today

If all goes according to plan, two weeks from today I land in Africa — first in Ethiopia, where I board a connecting flight, and then in Cotonou, Benin. It's a trip I've wanted to take for three years, since Suzanne learned she'd be joining the Peace Corps.

I've tried to imagine it, but I get only as far as stepping out of the airport into a steamy, tropical afternoon. The sights and smells and sounds — I've heard about them, but they're abstractions. So I've turned to ... a book, of course.

In The Shadow of the Sun, the late journalist Ryszard Kapuscinski writes that three things struck him on his first arrival in Africa: the heat, the odor and the people. Here's what he says about the aroma:

It is the smell of a sweating body and drying fish, of spoiling meat and roasting cassava, of fresh flowers and putrid algae — in short, of everything that is at once pleasant and irritating, that attracts and repels, seduces and disgusts. This odor will reach us from nearby palm groves, will escape from the hot soil, will wait above stagnant city sewers. It will not leave us; it is integral to the tropics.
 And here's how he describes the people:
How they fit this landscape, this light, these smells. How they are at one with them. How man and environment are bound in an indissoluble, complementary, and harmonious whole. ...  [They] move about naturally, freely, at a tempo determined by climate and tradition, somewhat languid, unhurried, knowing one can never achieve everything in life anyway, and besides, if one did, what would be left over for others?

I will have 19 days to meet the people, see the sights, sample the pace. To get a taste — just a taste — of a continent.

(Photo: Katie Esselburn)


Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Birthday Boys in Red

Today we celebrate two indeterminate birthdays. Beethoven was baptized on December 17, 1770, which leads most scholars to believe he was born on December 16 of that year. Happy 244th birthday, Beethoven!

Also on this date, Copper the dog came to live at our house. It was 2006 and things were pretty busy. Arguably too busy to add a dog to the confusion. But add we did, and once the dust settled (that would be the dust left by Copper as he ran away from us), we were left with a lot of joy. Not knowing his exact birth date, we've always celebrated it today. Happy 9th birthday, Copper!

Can't think of much else Copper and Beethoven have in common. Unless it's their Christmas attire.

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Monday, December 15, 2014

Morning Happens

When I work at home I can see the morning happen, can see night peel off around the edges.

No dramatic sunrise today, just steadily less dark. A lighter shade of gray and the tall oaks emerging from it, first the trunks, then the large limbs and finally a crowd of branches at the top.

Only now can I see the houses, three from this vantage point — gray, tan and brick. Only now do I notice the dark fringe around the horizon, the woods on the far side of the road.

But I keep my eyes trained on the sky, on the vast ceiling above us that finally gives way to day.

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Saturday, December 13, 2014

By the Numbers

Today — 12/13/14 — is the last sequential date most of us now living will ever see. The next one won't occur until the year 2101. 

I learned this from the Washington Post. Had I not read the Style Section I would probably have passed through the day oblivious to it's being the last sequential day in almost a century. But reading the article, I realize how many other numerically remarkable days I've missed — 11/11/11, for instance, or 11/12/13. The 21st century has had a bounty of them!

I did note the numerical significance of 10/10/10 (in this blog, as a matter of fact). But that, too, was a matter of happenstance.

All I know is that 12/13/14 is less than two weeks till Christmas. And that's all the numerical significance I need for now.


Friday, December 12, 2014

Schedule Adjustment

Here are phrases that chill the hearts of Metro commuters — "car offloading," "single tracking," "track maintenance." The one I heard yesterday — "schedule adjustment" — elicited no ire, only a wry grin.

Come on! Is Metro running so smartly and speedily and easily that it needs to pause to avoid arriving early? Couldn't it just be ahead of time for once and put that anomaly in its karmic bank account against future late arrivals?

But no, we sat several minutes or more at some insanely early hour — doors wide open to the wind and to customers who dash into the car breathlessly thinking they'd just made it only to realize that they could have taken their time and sauntered in. It doesn't take long before they realize that this train isn't going anywhere for a few minutes — and that now they are part of a schedule adjustment, too.


Thursday, December 11, 2014

All Lit Up

The Christmas tree moves slowly from hillside to hearth. It spent its first week in a bucket beside the garage, not the most glamorous entrance but a respectable path to greatness. It's what happens to trees cut early. The old "hurry up and wait," yes, but something more — a tree chosen by all of us had to be chosen early.

We wrestled the tree into the house on Sunday but until yesterday it sat darkly in the corner, displacing the console, lamp and rocking chair that are usually there. But yesterday Claire visited, worked her magic, and now the tree lacks only ornaments.

As the tree evolves, I have time to contemplate its significant moment of passage. Is it the choosing, the cutting, the standing, the watering? It is, I'm convinced, the illuminating. The red, blue, green, orange and white bulbs (not the fairy lights, but the real thing, the opaque C7s) have turned a field tree into an emblem.

The lights are on, the corner is bright again. Christmastime is here.


Wednesday, December 10, 2014


We left warm dry homes to venture out on a cold, wet night. We left willingly, joyfully; we left to sing "The Messiah."

There are hundreds, maybe thousands of "Messiah" Sing Alongs held through the country — from the grandiose ones with full symphony orchestras to the most humble held in church basements and community centers.

Last night's concert featured four soloists, a conductor and a crack organist who didn't miss a note. The chorus was, well, us — people who've hung onto their old scores from the first time they sang the oratorio in college or choir. People who probably worked a full day and did no vocal exercises before arriving. The most enthusiastic and wondrous of choirs. 

We may not have hit every note — in "His Yoke Is Easy" it is doubtful whether I hit any right notes — but as we belted out "King of kings/Forever and ever/And Lord of lords/Forever and ever/Hallelujah! Hallelujah!" it didn't matter one little bit.

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Tuesday, December 9, 2014

The Slow Season

The cars were glazed with ice this morning, and the pavement was suspiciously shiny. I crept up to the Metro Parking Garage leaving lots of follow room between my car and the cars in front of me.

A winter pace is upon us. I slow down on bridges and ramps, which — we're always told — freeze first. (Because, of course, they do.) I walk self-consciously, noticing each footfall, the breaks in pavement, the gleaming patches where ice might lurk.

Winter does not promote speeding — or fast movement of any kind. Instead, it slows and mutes us, makes us notice what is right at hand. It is, in that way, a steadying, calming time.


Monday, December 8, 2014

What Is It About?

In his farewell to Washington Post readers yesterday, reviewer Jonathan Yardley said that throughout his 33 years at the Post (writing more than 3,000 book reviews), he came to the task as a "journalist not a literateur."
I have high literary standards and delight in the expression of strong opinion, literary and otherwise, but I also read a book as if I were a reporter: looking for what it is “about” in the deepest sense of the word, determining what matters about it and what doesn’t, trying to give the reader a feel for what it is like as well as passing judgment on it.
When I led workshops at the Writer's Center, "what is it about?" was my standard question. It's the one I ask myself as a writer, too. I suppose journalism has a lot to do with it, but it seems like common sense, too. If a writer has nothing to say or if the point is hopelessly muddled, there is no communication.

I like to think my journalist roots keep me honest, anchor me in sound thought and clear language. Often this is more aspiration than fact. But it's a worthy goal — and one I was glad to see confirmed.


Sunday, December 7, 2014

The Creches

They came from Peru and Uganda and Poland and Germany. They were made of wood and porcelain, silver and stone. They were small and large, sweet and serious.

The creches I saw this morning after Mass were assembled for blessing. They were family heirlooms, souvenirs of travel, some a little battered around the edges.

The nativity scene I grew up with is in no shape to photograph. It's battered and chipped and its little cardboard stable would be in the trash if I didn't own it.  But it figures into my earliest Christmas memories and is precious for that reason.

This is a new creche, a little ornament I bought today. I'm giving it to Claire for her first Christmas tree. I hope it will work its way into some memories, too.


Friday, December 5, 2014

The Dome in Darkness

Driving in this morning, dark skies, rain on my windshield, I waited, as I always do, for that first glimpse of the city. It's a low city, D.C., but there is a spot on the Roosevelt Bridge where you can see both the Washington Monument and the Capitol dome.

The Monument, earthquake repairs complete, stands in all its unsheathed glory. Now it's the Capitol dome's turn for repairs. It's been more than 50 years since the last major work was done, and the dome needs cast iron filler, new windows and paint. Without them, the dome — and even artwork in the rotunda — will be in danger.

I'd dreaded the project, worried about how it would spoil the view of the Capitol. But what a picture it makes at night. The dome glows within its cage, giving the scaffolding an airy, ethereal feel and amplifying the impression the dome always gives, which is that it floats above the rest of the city.

The only difference is that now it looks a bit fuzzy around the edges. The scaffolding — and the darkness — make their own artistic statements.

(Photo: Courtesy Architect of the Capitol.)


Thursday, December 4, 2014

That's E-Life

Speaking of the dark side, I've spent much of the last two days thinking, writing about and dealing with technology. The dealing-with part is funny, because while covering a competition in which students presented various expert legal systems (high-level stuff for my feeble brain), I was confronted with a tech emergency of my own.

My little digital tape recorder was suddenly beeping and declaring itself full. I made do the old-fashioned way — by taking notes. But the juxtaposition of the two events made me smile.

We are riding so high with our smart phones and tablets and computers — until we aren't! That's E-life, I guess.

(Old-school knowledge delivery vehicles.)


Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Cyber Shopping

I have not yet gone completely over to the dark side, but night before last I spent several hours succumbing to the unique pleasures of Cyber Monday. It's a strange experience, shopping online. I've done it often before, of course, but never is such, uh, volume.

There are the obvious differences: One is not strolling through a store, searching for and finding and then touching the merchandise. One is sitting on the couch in fuzzy pink bedroom slippers while a cold rain falls. The coziness of the living room may inspire more of a spending frenzy. But I don't think so. The bargains speak for themselves.

More to the point, there is an unreality to it. The slacks and sweaters and blouses look like paper doll clothes. I could almost cut them out and fold their little tabs over the shoulders of cardboard models.

But instead I whip out my tired old credit card, type in the numbers and click "Buy." It's all so easy and virtual — until the boxes and the bills start arriving. I'm expecting them tomorrow.

(Even cyber gifts must be wrapped in real paper.)


Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Back to Africa

I tracked Suzanne's flight across the ocean — her plane was off the coast of northern Europe by the time I went to bed — and am now checking the status of her connecting flight to Africa. That plane is flying south over France, the Mediterranean, Algeria, Mali and Niger, and is scheduled to arrive in Cotonou at 9:30 tonight (3:30 my time) — 24 hours after we said goodbye at Dulles Airport.

Suzanne returns to a life I can barely imagine — a place where taxis are motorcycles, kings ride on horseback, and electricity and running water are sometime things. Her digs in the capital are relatively deluxe compared to her life in village, where she drew water from a pump, took bucket baths and shared a latrine.

What struck me most from the stories she told is the deep faith of the people. Some worship Jesus, others worship Allah, most all believe in magic of one sort or the other. Many educated people live their whole lives without riding on a plane or leaving their country. Their lives are hemmed in by the unknown far more than ours are.

I was thinking of this today while reading Ursula Le Guin's The Left Hand of Darkness: "'The Unknown,' said Faxes's soft voice in the forest, 'the unforetold, the unproven, that is what life is based on. Ignorance is the ground of thought. Unproof is the ground of action."

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Monday, December 1, 2014

Farewell to Suzanne

For six weeks I've been joking that I would tie Suzanne to a chair to keep her from boarding the plane back to Benin. Now the moment is here: she leaves today.

But I've come up with a better idea. In a month I'm planning to visit her.

So it's "see you soon" instead of "goodbye" — "a bientot" instead of "au revoir."

Don't know how I could let her go otherwise ...

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