Friday, May 29, 2015

Honeysuckle at Work

The car windows were open, the scent of honeysuckle flowing in with the early morning air. So when I was walking to Metro yesterday, on impulse, I snatched a sprig of the plant and took it to work.

I almost forgot it when I arrived at the office. The stem had gotten wedged in a nether region of my bag, the newspaper and file folders of papers almost burying it.

But it revived when I stuck it in some water, and I stationed it as close to my nose as possible.

All day long the honeysuckle brought the outside in. I would catch a whiff of it when I was on the phone or sending an email, when I was reviewing notes for an article I'm about to write. And every time I would feel my shoulders drop a little in response.

It was a busy day, trying in some ways. The scent of honeysuckle helped me through it.


Thursday, May 28, 2015

Now You See It ...

Walking to Metro this morning I noticed a rubble-strewn lot where a block of low-slung buildings used to be. They were ugly little buildings but still ... they existed — and now they do not.

Change is our reality, our destiny, what must be embraced.

I wonder if walking helps us better withstand the inevitable comings and goings of life? Not that there's anything especially marvelous about walkers, of course, but because we are bopping around all the time we are also looking around all the time. We notice the old cars and the new shutters. We see the world in all its transitory glory.

The empty lot I passed today will one day be an apartment or office building, part of the new development taking place near the Reston Wiehle Metro station.

Or take this scene. Every day construction workers dismantle more of the barrier wall for I-395 near my office. Eventually they will install steel beams and girders and a new neighborhood will rise over the top of a busy highway.

Now you see it and now you don't. And walkers see it (or don't see it) first.

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Wednesday, May 27, 2015


We have come to that point in the month, in the season, when blossoms hang heavy over fence rows and window boxes; when the air itself has taken on the heft of summer and given up the thin, clear bell tones of spring.

It's always welcome, this time of year, as if we have been waiting to get back here forever, as if this is the season, the only one. And in some parts of the world it is. I can say this now having been to a place where heat and humidity are a way of life, where some people have never worn a pair of closed-toe shoes.

But in those places, in warm places, there is not the same glad recognition of difference we have here. There is not the memory of frost-hardened ground when digging in the warm soil of spring. There is not the acrid taste of snow displaced by honeysuckle on the tongue.

So here we are, finally, in this season of abundance. Stay a while, I want to say, holding fast to the profusion, knowing as I do that holding on defeats the purpose.


Tuesday, May 26, 2015

That May Morning

When the weather is exquisite, most any walking path will do. I put this philosophy to the test a few days ago and did not find it wanting.

I started from a Target parking lot, a paved path around a containment pond where there was immediate gratification in the form of a trilling mockingbird. The bird perched on the lower limb of a small, low tree, which gave me a chance to stand and watch (as well as listen to) his performance. I almost clapped when he was done.

The path led to a new concrete sidewalk along a two-lane road. It was the kind of area we have many of in the suburbs, the kind you drive past on your way to somewhere else, the kind filled with self-storage units and auto body shops.

A sad little road if you were traversing it on a gloomy March afternoon. But on a sparkling May morning, the water spurting up in the sterile office park pond could have been the Trevi Fountain. That's how intoxicating it was to be alive and walking on this late spring day.

(Photo by DAVID ILIFF. License: CC-BY-SA 3.0)

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Saturday, May 23, 2015

The Art of Eating Crabs

Yesterday there was a graduation in Maryland, so after the congratulations and the photographs and the appetizers it was time for the main culinary attraction — that would be the Maryland blue crabs.

They start off blue but by the time you eat them they are red from the steaming and the seasoning. And eating them is an art. First you pull off the legs, then you find a little tab on the underside of the shell that opens up the critter — almost like a can with a pop top. Then you scrape off the gills and eat the meat inside. You save the claws for last, cracking them with a nutcracker or pounding them with a mallet. The meat is delicious!

Yesterday I sat next to some accomplished crab pickers who made the difficult look easy and left a pile of picked-clean shells. "Eating crabs is not just about eating," said one of the experts. "It's about sitting around and talking, the whole experience."

And this was true. Because it takes so long to eat a crab — and because you have to eat so many of them to fill up — the meal is long and the stories fly. We talked about history and the Bible and Willie Nelson and the singer Meat Loaf, the stories unspooling, the crab shells flying and the perfect May day winding down into dusk.

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Friday, May 22, 2015

Still Life

Still life at dawn. It's happening as I type these words.

While I think and pause, fingers above the keys, the morning proceeds as it always does.

Writing imposes order on chaos — or it often seems that way. But nothing can compare to the order of the day, to the reliability of the silent house, the roiling tea kettle, the first birds, the shapes emerging from darkness.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Running Late

I have a watch with more beauty than brains, a timepiece whose oblong shape distorts the minutes and even the hours. Glance at it quickly and it's easy to think you're running late.

But when its strap broke last week I missed it more than I thought I would. Even a vague notion of time is better than no notion at all. I was reduced to taking out my cell phone (usually tucked away in a sleeve of my purse) and glancing at its digital display.

Doing this got me thinking about how much harder it is these days to say "I lost track of time." Most everyone has a cell phone, and cell phones not only tell you precise minute and hour but they also automatically spring ahead or fall back. What has happened to immersion, to flow, to losing oneself in a task?

My watch is back in business now, but the questions remain.


Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Posture of Africa

The motions of weeding are simple: Reach, grab, pull and throw to the side. The question is whether you perform this operation standing up, kneeling or sitting down. Given the buggy nature of the territory, given the topography of my garden (the weeds are scattered across a wide area rather than concentrated in one patch), I decided the other day to weed while standing.

This entailed not just standing, of course, but bending and straightening. And bending and straightening. And bending and straightening. And ... you get the picture: Now I can barely bend or straighten at all!

Which brings to mind not just the weakness of my flesh but also the posture of Africa. My visit last winter was brief but long enough to see that the average Beninese spends much of his or her time bending over to wash clothes, sweep or tend a fire.

The Africans I met have no need of exercise classes or Fitbits. No "Absession" or "Buns, Hips and Thighs" for them. They walk to the pump, tote the water, pound the yams. They bend and crouch and stoop all day long. And when they wake up the next day, they have no trouble getting out of bed — if they have a bed to get out of, that is.


Tuesday, May 19, 2015

What Light Reveals

Already the sky is lightening. The birds — not just the first, brave one, but a chorus of them by now — are making dawn an aural as well as visual event.

I revel in the extra light — and the warmth and humidity that go along with them. But it struck me the other day that early mornings this time of year resemble a public beach at low tide. The waves pull back to reveal not just a whelk or a sand dollar, but a sandwich wrapper and a bottle cap. The flotsam of the day, that which is better left hidden.

Early light shows us the dog walker in pajamas, the late-arriving teen, the neighbor dashing out in robe and slippers to scoop up the morning paper. It shows us the blurred eyes of the commuters; in fact, it makes our fellow passengers on the platform more individual and real because we see them as more than just vague shapes.

I have this thought every year, appreciating the mercy of darkness, its absolution. Some morning duties — even and including the trip to work — are best done under its cover.

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Monday, May 18, 2015

Reston Walk

On Saturday I walked a Reston trail, leaving from the park-and-ride lot, traipsing along Lawyers Road for a few hundred feet and then entering the sort of alternative walker's universe that exists off-road in many places — if we only know where to look for it.

It was muggy and still with sunlight moving across the paved path like swells on the sea. Cardinals and robins darted in and out of the bushes or soared from one tree perch to another while a crow cawed plaintively in the distance.

A well-trod dirt footpath angled off the main trail. It looked so inviting — like the road to an enchanted castle in the forest — that I just had to take it. I strolled alongside yards and houses, past tennis courts and pools. I crossed two streets and interrupted more than one spiderweb before I reversed course and walked back the way I came.

It was just as special going the opposite way, with fetching twists and turns, a tiny bridge over a mossy-rocked brook, and newborn plants in secret gardens. It was proof to me of nature's variety, and proof too that if we look for a place to walk one we can usually find one.

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Friday, May 15, 2015

A Fuller House, Again

The house is asleep in a way it can only be when there are young people inside. The kind of oblivion they can muster spreads through the walls and settles on an older inhabitant, makes me feel drowsy too, like I could easily crawl back under the covers and sleep for a few more hours.

I marvel at the way a house can change its moods and mettle. Is this serene room the same one that housed a playpen in the corner? Or an impromptu dance concert on the floor?

I grew up in several houses; my kids have only had this one. To them it will always be home. But to me it is many homes.

It's the place we moved with a six-month-old baby, certain we'd made a mistake, that it was far too much house. But it's also the place that seemed impossibly crammed eight years ago, stuffed full of kids and books and clothes and shoes.

The clothes and shoes, they will always be with us, but the children, they are gone. Even the one who's asleep upstairs is gone, though she's here for the summer. I know how the empty nest can fill again and I won't be surprised if this one does. What I marvel at is the constancy of the dwelling as life swirls in and around it. Sometimes I just sit here and try to take it all in.


Thursday, May 14, 2015

Parade of Humanity

It was one of the crazy-quilt walks that make you glad to be living and breathing on this earth. It is Police Week here in our Nation's Capital, and E Street was clogged with the men in blue honoring their fallen comrades. I strolled past police of every stripe and family members wearing t-shirts with slogans like "In Search of Heroes." I stepped over wires and past big banks of lights; noticed a box of white candles and another of red roses.

By Seventh Street I'd moved on to the hustle bustle of Chinatown and Penn Quarter. Feeling flush, I pulled two dollars from my purse to buy a copy of Street Sense, a newspaper written and sold by the homeless. My salesman was hawking another publication, too. "I used to be a cowboy," he said, "and I've written this book. You can buy it on Amazon."

Turning the corner I found myself in the middle of a line of wheelchairs; maybe these folks were heading to the Police Memorial, or maybe they were bound for the corner, where they would buy a book by a homeless cowboy poet.

As for me, the work day was draining away. In its place was a parade of humanity— and the precious walking time to take it in.

(View from another D.C. walk.)

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Wednesday, May 13, 2015

The Foxes

We were in a stand off, the fox and I. He had darted out from a small stand of trees in the neighbor's yard, angling to cross the street and enter the woods beyond. I was in his way.

For a few seconds we took each others measure. I saw a sleek animal with perky ears and a bushy tail. He saw a long-legged creature with wires coming out of her ears. Neither of us was going anywhere.

I thought about my initial few fox sightings in this neighborhood, maybe half a dozen in the first 10 years. Now I spot a fox every few weeks. And last month, on one of the first warm days of spring, I saw a den of baby foxes a few feet off the Cross County Trail. They were sunning themselves on a rock, clambering over a tree trunk and batting at each other in a most fetching way.

Will foxes soon be as common as deer?  I hope not. I hope they stay elusive and cunning, playful and bold.  I hope they stay wild — for at least a little while longer.

(The baby foxes are in the center of this photo; you have to zoom in.)

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Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Happy Birthday, Dad

Dad would be 92 today; it's the second May 12th we've had since he's been gone.

Looking for a picture to post, I came up with this one. Dad with his brother Kenneth, who was 12 years older and a model to Dad in many ways. Uncle Kenneth took a teenaged Dad on a trip out West in 1938. They saw Mt. Rushmore — before it was completed.

Sons of an itinerant minister and one-time railroad man, these boys got the traveling gene. Between the two of them they racked up most of the 50 (then 48) states and many countries. They even traveled together as adults, visiting London and Paris and Copenhagen.

I like to think of them together now, faces young and unlined, smiling in some heavenly version of a selfie, about to jet off to a place that none of us still-living folks can even imagine.

Monday, May 11, 2015

Mother's Day Hike

You can do a brunch or a picnic. You can do church and a corsage or dinner and a movie. When asked how I'd like to spend Mother's Day, I said, let's take a hike.

We went back to Great Falls again, the park I visited Friday to see vintage aircraft but left that day without walking even 10 minutes on one of its inviting trails.

Yesterday the road to the park was closed when we first drove by. Completely full. But after trying a crazy trail head parking lot we could barely get out of once we got into it, we drove back by the park and found it was admitting visitors again.

We strolled above the chute and the falls and Mather Gorge. Then we looped down to Sandy Point where we picked up the Matildaville Trail that took us back to the parking lot. It was a perfect Sunday amble with rocks to scramble, straightaways to savor and views to inhale.

And when it was over, we had a piece of the sinfully rich chocolate strawberry cake that Claire made.

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Saturday, May 9, 2015

VE Day Plus One

I heard them before I saw them, a great roar that meant business. I craned my head out the car window, but the tree cover made it impossible to see the planes overhead. I was sitting in line to enter Great Falls Park, an idea that I realized wasn't so very original as I saw the dozens of cars ahead of and (soon) behind me.

Less than a few thousand feet away was the Potomac River. The World War II aircraft assembled yesterday would fly down the river to the Capitol. It was my best chance to see the planes in flight.

Finally, I reached the gate, paid $5, found a parking spot and ran — full-out ran — to the overlook. As I did, I heard more engines. A group of four planes rumbled overhead. This was enough. Just to see and hear these four.

But oh, it gets better. Because the planes were actually circling above us before they flew downtown, so we saw most of the formations twice. And it quickly became apparent that I was standing with a bunch of die-hard WWII aircraft enthusiasts. "Look, it's a P-38," said one. "You can tell by the twin fuselage."

Maybe it was just me, but I think most of us were there not just for ourselves but for others. The man standing next to me said his father was a tail gunner in a B-29. And when I nodded and smiled at one woman about my age, I noticed her eyes were as full as mine.

One thing I'm sure about — and I'm not sure about much — is that once our loved ones are gone, we become their eyes and ears. Yesterday, Dad was all around me — in the warm spring sunshine, in the contrailed sky. And he was there especially when the B-17s flew out of the clouds, over our heads and into the limitless blue beyond.

B-17 in flight

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Friday, May 8, 2015

Wild Blue Yonder

It's the 70th anniversary of VE (Victory in Europe) Day and what I'm thinking about most is that my dad is not here to see it. How he would have loved to see the planes roaring down Independence Avenue and soaring above the Capitol.

It's being called the "Arsenal of Democracy Flyover" and is the largest array of World War II aircraft ever assembled.

If we were watching it with Dad, we would have needed no cheat sheet; he could have identified all the aircraft himself with his still-sharp (at 90 years of age!) eyes.

"There's a Mustang, there's a Wildcat, there's a Lightning," he would have said. Of course, he would have been most excited to see his beloved B-17 bomber, the Flying Fortress. I grew up hearing stories of that plane and his special spot in its, the tail gunner position. He flew 35 missions over Europe — two on D Day — and in every one of them he was facing backwards.

The WWII veterans are over 90 now, but there will be a great gathering of them today, too. This flyover is in their honor — and the honor of all their fallen comrades. 

(The Missing Man formation.)

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Thursday, May 7, 2015

Silent Cheer

I write a blog post almost every day, and I write plenty on the job. Subtract time for things like eating and sleeping and commuting, for buying groceries and cleaning the kitchen, for pulling weeds and returning books to the library.

And then take away the time for exercise, for running and walking, for bouncing on the trampoline, for tapping on Wednesday nights, for taking torturous classes on my lunch hour. All of this necessary for the health of the mind as well as the body.

And then there are the hours spent with friends and family, precious time in person or on the phone or the computer, keeping up with the people I love. And time to entertain, to meet friends for lunch or dinner. The wine of life!

All of which is to say how hard I struggle to find the time to do what I really must be doing — which is writing the other stuff, essays, perhaps even another book someday.

Every week I vow to make more time. Most weeks I come up short. But this week I've made it happen. I'm exhausted — and behind in other ways. But I carved out the hours.

Which is why this blog post consists of one long, sustained (but silent) cheer! Why silent? I don't want to raise too much racket, you know. That might jinx it!


Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Baby Shade

The trees are sure of themselves now. Even the most timid have leafed out. The only outliers I see  are the crepe myrtles, and I get their reticence. They are in glorious bloom at the end of summer; they need to bide their time now.

Leafing trees mean a canopy between us and heaven. They are an aural presence, something for the wind to blow through before a storm.

And of course, they also mean shade. At this time of year it's baby shade. Not the deep cool gladness of June, July and August. The shade of May is a winsome thing, still finding itself.

Come on, baby shade! You can do it!

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Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Not So White Shoes

As I was saying, I love my white tennis shoes, took great pride in finding a pair that is not fluorescent pink or day-glow orange. The beauty of white shoes is that they're white — but that's also their problem. One is tempted to keep them always white. But that would mean keeping them always in a box.

I started out with good intentions, switching to my old shoes whenever I was going off road. But I don't always know where my feet will take me. Sometimes I start on pavement but return home a different way.

Yesterday's ramble took me into the neighborhood of South Field, where I thought I could pick up a path that meandered back to Folkstone. The path never emerged, and before long I was bushwhacking through downed trees and brambles. Ahead of me was a creek (there is always a creek around here; though we call them runs), so I searched the bank to find a narrow place to cross.

As you might expect, it wasn't quite narrow enough.  I slipped and doused my right foot in creek water, then stepped back into a couple inches of  mud just for good measure.

I'm reminded of this quotation by John A. Shedd: "A ship in harbor is safe, but that's not what ships are for." The same could be said of white tennis shoes!

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Monday, May 4, 2015


The rain left us a dozen shades of green and a thousand spent petals. They fell from the dogwood and the cherry and the forget-me-not. They mingled with the new grass.

Here they are, the raw material of spring, cast aside now that that they've done their job. The essence of the season, its molecular structure. Or, to be painterly, is dabs of color, its brush strokes.

Looking at them now I see their glory and their transience. It is the oldest story of all, but one we never stop telling. Beauty is born, beauty reigns, beauty dies.

Saturday, May 2, 2015

Derby Day

You could look at their odds, their post positions, the strength and slenderness of their ankles. You could analyze their blood lines, their dams and sires. You could travel the circuit, see them run at Aqueduct and Keeneland and Santa Anita.

Or you could dispense with the horse and put your money on the jockeys or trainers. You could check out their records, regimens and philosophies. You could, if you were serious, attend a morning workout, at least at some of the tracks. You could rise early and see the horses and riders flying down the backstretch in relative silence, without the distraction of a crowd.

Then again you could cast all these practicalities aside. You could learn the color of the jockey's silks and base your pick on that. You could read the list of contenders and choose solely on the name: Carpe Diem, Upstart. You could, if you want (and I know for a fact this has happened) wager solely on the strength of a dream you had the night before.

The point is, if there was a winning formula, someone would have found it long ago. These colts will do what they will. As for me, I'm pulling for the gray horse, Frosted. It's just that simple.

(Just don't bet on these horses; they ain't going anywhere!)

Friday, May 1, 2015

First Summer Storm

I ran into the house last night dodging fat drops of warm rain. The thunder and lightning started as soon as I closed the door. Finally, a spring storm, not a chill winter rain.

Copper ran down to the basement even though I slipped him into a green doggie polo shirt. I'd read somewhere that any close-fitting shirt can be a "thunder shirt," can make a creature feel safe in the storm.

But isn't darting under a table in the basement an eminently sensible thing to do? The universal need to take cover. My own grandmother hid in the closet during storms, I've been told. And any feelings of coziness storms bring is directly related to how secure I feel during them.

This morning I awoke to a drenched world full of eye-popping green. Not exactly a rainbow but the next best thing.


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