Monday, February 29, 2016

Reluctant Date

February is one of those months that is not improved by augmentation. In fact, one of its best attributes is its brevity.

So the fact that we have an extra day this month is less than welcome. Leap years mean you lose that lovely divisible-by-seven nature of March dates. It means things are odd instead of even. And, since February means winter and March means spring, it feels like we're stuck another day in an outgrown season.

I've been thinking this morning of all the other months I'd like to see more of: May, for instance. Or  April, June, July, August, September or October. Any warm month.

But February, being low on days, is the perfect candidate to absorb another. So here's a reluctant nod to a reluctant date. Happy Leap Year!

Friday, February 26, 2016

Anatomy of Cuteness

With babies, they say, it is in part the ratio of head to body and eyes to head that makes them so adorable. What is it, then, with dogs?

There is, of course, the way they cock their head to one side, as if to say, "Really?!"  And their warm, almost human, eyes. Their jauntiness and energy.

With Copper, there are his antics: racing around the house in circles, begging on his hind legs like a circus dog, thumping his tail on the floor then barking because he doesn't realize that he just made that noise and not an intruder.

With Motet, who's visiting us for a while, it's her big ears, her tiny little body (she weighs less than 10 pounds soaking wet), her wiry coat (looking as if she just threw on a robe out of the bath) and her sweet little face.

Whatever it is, it's cute.


Thursday, February 25, 2016

In Sync

It's been gray and rainy and I've been thinking about the beach. About the waves and the breeze and the elemental rhythms that flourish there. The sultry mornings and the afternoon thunderheads that pile up on the horizon and darken the skies.

Rain falls so heavily there that it floods the streets and sidewalk and beach, creates another world of detours and discoveries — the perfect excuse to stay inside and dream.

After the rain, the air is drenched clean, and the surf is stirred up enough to bring sand dollars to the surface. Reach down and find one, stamped from the ephemeral, the transient made tangible.

When the sun starts to set, the big show begins. This is the gulf coast, after all, and the afterglows set the western sky ablaze. Stand there long enough and it seems the sun will never leave, that it will hover on the horizon forever, perfectly in sync, perfectly in balance, perfectly in view.

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Four Walls

Cold rain, and plenty of it. Wind, too.  Even the hardiest walker would have found yesterday's weather tough going.

Commuting by public transport, though, makes us all walkers, which means we have a taste of the weather, like it or not.

So I dodged puddles on the street and jumped over them to reach the curb. I stood shivering on the platform, waiting for a train.

 I dashed into buildings gratefully, shook off the umbrella, stamped the feet, brushed off the coat. It was too cold for a raincoat so the wool one was pressed into service.

And at the end of the day I marveled at the warmth and dryness of this house I sit in now. Four walls that, among other things, keep out the elements. And yesterday, that was a very good thing!

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Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Essays After Eighty

I don't know what prompted me to pick up the book Essays After Eighty by Donald Hall. I've read Hall before and liked him. The book was slender, could be read quickly. I like essays.

Whatever the reason, I'm glad I did. Hall is funny and wise and drops names only occasionally. But he is an honest chronicler of old age, of its limitations and indignities. The end of driving (two accidents), the end of his blue chair (he dropped a cigarette and the chair caught on fire), the end of mobility (being pushed through art galleries in a wheelchair) — all of these are related honestly, dryly, with no self-pity.

What remains for him is writing — and rewriting:
My early drafts are always wretched. At first a general verb like "move" is qualified by the adverb "quickly." After sixty tries I come up with a particular, possibly witty verb and drop the adverb. Originally I wrote "poetry suddenly left me," which after twelve drafts became "poetry abandoned me."
Someone in his ninth decade who loves revising — that's encouraging.

Monday, February 22, 2016

Binge-Watch Weekend

The Oscars are less than a week away. The Netflix movies had been piling up. It was time for a binge-watch weekend.

It began with "Under the Sand," a French drama with Charlotte Rampling. I'd like to see "45 Years" before next Sunday, so this was a Rampling appetizer of sorts. Next up was "Bridge of Spies," a best picture nominee already available for rent on Amazon. It was long, as advertised, but because I was watching it in the basement, I could pause and come back an hour later to finish it.

"The Revenant" was the only film I saw in a theater last weekend. It was also long, as well as beautiful and brutal (also as advertised). After an evening of "Foxcatcher," a 2014 film for which Steve Carrell was nominated for best actor, I ended the day with an hour of "The West Wing" with Celia and Suzanne.

Yesterday was the Steve Jobs biopic, also available to rent, and just before bedtime, the second-to-last Downton Abbey. It, quite frankly, made the whole binge-watching weekend worthwhile.


Friday, February 19, 2016

A Vital Process

In The Natural World of Winnie-the-Pooh: A Walk Through the Forest that Inspired the Hundred Acre Wood, author Kathryn Aalto takes us through Ashdown Forest, past Poohsticks Bridge and to the top of Gills Lap, with its panoramic view of England's South Downs.

These are real places — but they are also places of the imagination, where A.A. Milne traveled with his real-life little boy, Christopher Robin, and perhaps saw peeking from the trees there a chubby bear and a winsome piglet.

Like many writers, Milne was a walker. And Aalto's words describing that here could double as a mission statement for A Walker in the Suburbs.
A lifelong joy and habit for the author, walking sets the mind adrift, clarifying and organizing thoughts — a vital process for writers. Walking allows a pace for discovering small, new things: how gorse has the faint smell of coconut in spring, that the red dragonflies hovering over bogs are actually rare, and that the nocturnal bird calls are from the threatened nightjar.
Sets the mind adrift ... clarifies and organizes thoughts ... allows a pace for discovering small, new things ...  Yes, yes and yes.

A vital process? Vital, indeed.

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Thursday, February 18, 2016

Anne Frank Tree

I usually walk right by it when I stroll around the Capitol, but for some reason yesterday I did not.

It seemed like nothing more than a fenced-in stick, so slender and insubstantial. But the fencing told me something important must be within — so I took a peek. I learned that the young tree is a sapling from the white chestnut that  grew outside the window of the Secret Annex of the Frank House in Amsterdam.

In May, 1944, less than a year before she would lose her life at the Bergen Belsen Concentration Camp, Anne Frank wrote, "Our chestnut tree is in full bloom. It’s covered with leaves and is even more beautiful than last year."

The tree was brought down by a windstorm in 2010, but its chestnuts were gathered and germinated and the saplings donated. This little twig of a tree was one of its progeny. Here is what its parent meant to Anne:
Nearly every morning I go to the attic to blow the stuffy air out of my lungs, from my favorite spot on the floor I look up at the blue sky and the bare chestnut tree, on whose branches little raindrops shine, appearing like silver, and at the seagulls and other birds as they glide on the wind. As long as this exists, I thought, and I may live to see it, this sunshine, the cloudless skies, while this lasts I cannot be unhappy.

(Photos: Wikipedia, Architect of the Capitol)

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Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Good Walking

The day began early, but the only walking I've done is what was needed to take me to and from Metro. Which got me thinking about the difference between walking and good walking.

Walking is like writing. Both are humble and utilitarian occupations, something most people do all the time.

But like good writing — in which words are strung together in a way to arouse sympathy or disgust, beauty or ugliness — good walking elevates the pedestrian. It is more than just a way to move from one place to another. It is a conscious and reflective exercise.

Good walking wears out the body and fills up the soul. It turns otherwise dreary and muddled days into clear and purposeful ones.

Good walking — I hope to do some at lunchtime.

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Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Rowing Thoughts

When weather makes walking impossible, I use the rowing machine in the basement. It's a noble form of exercise, full-bodied and bracing. The first few minutes are agony.

But like most activities that require intense exertion, rowing eventually settles the mind. Arms pull forward, legs push back. The rhythm takes over.

And it's only then, ten minutes in, that the mind can begin to roam. Rowing thoughts are bulleted and basic. They are not walking thoughts. But they are better than not-exercising-at-all thoughts. And yesterday, they were all I had.

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Monday, February 15, 2016


More snow last night, a few inches, enough to coat the mud and the leaves, the daffodil and crocus shoots. Enough to make it clear that it's still winter.

Temperature-wise there has been no doubt of late, with single digit wind chills. But palette is important, too, and today February looks the part.

We are back to a monochromatic world. Black trees, leaves, lamp posts and pickets. White everything else. It's better this way, I think.

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Saturday, February 13, 2016


On February 13, 2006, my children were in fifth, ninth and eleventh grades — all still at home.  My parents were alive and going strong. Copper the dog had not yet come to live with us.

On this day, a Monday, I got off  Metro three stops closer to home, walked into a new office and started a new job. I was editing a magazine, which meant not only writing and line editing but also working with designers and a printer. I'd never done anything quite like it before.

The months and years have passed, the magazines have gotten to the printer (on deadline!) — and the job has remained.  It's changed, of course. Now I edit web stories, press releases and media advisories; I keep tabs on videos and tweets and Facebook posts. I've adjusted, I guess you'd say.

I try not to think about what I would have done instead. This job has given me an income and security. It has given me the flexibility I needed to raise children and tend parents. But I'm a freelancer at heart and don't always measure success in the conventional manner.

Still, today I raise a glass — a bit tentatively and not without irony, but I raise one just the same. Ten years is a long time to be at a job. It's a milestone worth celebrating.


Friday, February 12, 2016

Ripples in Space

Yesterday's announcement of the discovery of gravitational waves, a phenomenon that Einstein  predicted but which had not been observed until now, does not exactly make me slap my forehead and say, "I knew it, I knew they were going to figure that out one of these days."

I had no idea that gravitational waves were even in the maybe column. Physics for me will always be a high school class I somehow registered for without the required calculus and Mr. Taylor peering over his glasses to say, "Miss Cassidy, WHY are you in my class?" 

But after reading about the "chirp" scientists heard after converting gravitational waves to sound waves, a "chirp" that had for decades eluded them, I wanted to learn more about gravitational waves, these "ripples in the fabric of space."

"Gravitational waves provide a completely new way of looking at the Universe," Stephen Hawking said upon learning of the discovery. "The ability to detect them has the potential to revolutionize astronomy. This discovery is the first detection of a black hole binary system and the first observation of black holes merging."

Black holes merging. Ripples in space. Kinda puts everything else in perspective, doesn't it?



Thursday, February 11, 2016

The Climate of Reading

The Wind is Not a River is not a book to read in the winter. When his plane is shot down, journalist John Easley bails out and lands on Attu, the westernmost of Alaska's Aleutian Islands and the site of the only World War II battle fought on U.S. territory.

Easley has come to report on the war but instead finds himself in a damp, cold place known as "the birthplace of winds." He survives by eating mussels and coaxing fire out of grass and driftwood. He wraps up in a parachute to sleep.  He is never really warm.

When I read this novel I find myself pulling up the covers or tightening my scarf. Such is the power of fiction to take us out of one place and plop us down in another.

But I must choose books more carefully. Read in the warm months, this book would be a cool breeze. Read in the winter, it's yet another nail in the coffin of cold.

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Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Passage to Spring

Lent arrives early this year — before Valentine's Day. This is cruel timing for those of us contemplating a 40-day ban on chocolate.

But if it gives us an early Easter and an early spring (not that those two necessarily go together ... ) then bring it on.

Meanwhile, the wind is howling in from the west and roads are slicked from last night's freeze. This will be the coldest week of the winter. A fitting time, then, to begin a spiritual pilgrimage, a journey, a passage.

I always remind myself that "lent" comes from the word "to lengthen." Seen this way, then, lent is a passage to spring. It is a time of lengthening days, of birds on the wing. A time of promise that soon we'll be green and growing again. 

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Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Back to Africa

Time for a mental vacation. I'm heading back to Africa for a few minutes, to Parc Pendjari in northwest Benin, bordering Burkina Faso.

It was a last-minute addition to our itinerary, something we undertook because we found a family of five to tag along with. They had hired a guide and driver — the only way to see the park — and let us join their group.

We saw elephants and baboons and a young cheetah. We stayed at a lodge that seemed lifted from a novel: a circular, open-air lobby with small cottages clustered around it. Our twin beds were draped with mosquito nets, and there was a shower with running water.

After lunch and siesta we clambered back on top of the van and rode through the countryside as the sun sank lower in the sky. A sea of grass waved around us; the whole world seemed made of it.

It was a moment out of time, one I return to often, a moment of tamed adventure. The wild around us, the promise of rest to come.


Monday, February 8, 2016

Sculptural Snow

A walk over the weekend took me past snow piled in fantastical shapes. Snow like the wind-scoured face of an ancient mountain. Snow like an architecturally inspried installation of an avant garde exhibition.

What snow we have left has blackened caps and sides. It has hardened into peaks and valleys. It is nothing like what fell here 17 days ago.

What's left now are the remnants of plowed mountains, covered with exhaust and road soot. It's snow as refuse, snow as sculpture.


Sunday, February 7, 2016

Now We Are Six

The recent blizzard reminded me of this blog's beginnings six years ago today during the snowstorm known as "Snowmageddon." (This year's blizzard name, "Snowzilla," just hasn't caught on.)

Had we not received two feet of snow in 2010 I would probably not be marking six years of A Walker in the Suburbs in 2016.

But we did, and I am.

To celebrate the day, I turn to A.A. Milne, who not only wrote Winnie the Pooh but also this lovely poem:

When I was one,
I had just begun.
When I was two,
I was nearly new.
When I was three,
I was hardly me.
When I was four,
I was not much more.
When I was five,
I was just alive.
But now I am six,
I'm as clever as clever.
So I think I'll be six
now and forever. 

Friday, February 5, 2016

Pure Possibility

End of the week. End of ideas? Probably not. They will emerge again, maybe even in a few minutes. But this is the time I have to write, this crazy early time, propelled by sleeplessness to grab the few moments I can reasonably (or not so reasonably) claim.

What is it that makes these morning minutes so sacred? It is, in part, the quiet. Others sleeping. Tea steeping. The duties of the day still a couple of hours away (unless I check work email!).

But it is also a sense of anticipation, of having another day. A day that at this point is still pure possibility, not yet freighted with what might have been.

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Thursday, February 4, 2016

Late Walk

The snow didn't just melt yesterday, it evaporated. It left us in a great sigh of fog and cloud. A late walk convinced me of this, put me in the midst and the mist of its vanishing.

Along the shoulder, snowbanks receded, and rivulets streamed across the pavement. The air was alternately cool and warm, pockets of moisture and of scent.

Car lights cast rainbows in the air. I kept my distance, knowing they couldn't see me. But I marveled at the diffused light they cast, and used it to find my way.

In the west the clouds parted just enough to showcase the sunset, its pinks and violets a simmering, shimmering band of unexpected color.

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Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Dreams of Spring

Punxsutawney Phil has spoken. We will have an early spring. Time to commence some serious daydreaming.

In my mind's eye I see the three-inch daffodils out by the front tree emerging unscathed from the (rapidly melting) snow. I see them grow taller and plumper by the hour soon to erupt in yellow flower.

I see the hydrangeas, not frost nipped this year, exploding in riotous pinks and lavenders.

And the rosy-flowered tree behind the garage, the one that was blooming a few weeks ago, it has somehow gotten a miraculous second wind.

But for now, the snow still lies deep in woods and fields. And all my dreams of spring lie buried beneath it, buried beneath a thick white coverlet.


Tuesday, February 2, 2016

The Next Day

Common wisdom says the mileposts of grieving are the big days, the first Thanksgiving, Christmas or birthday without your loved one. My sister and brothers and I have passed all of these in the first three and a half months.

What I've learned, though, is that grief is a wayward thing. It sneaks up on me when I'm waiting for a Metro train or rummaging through a drawer to find an emery board.

It's there in the earrings Mom brought me back from Ireland in 1998 or any of her sweaters I couldn't bear to give away. I bury my nose in them sometime, inhale the faint odor that was her closet.

Mom was a dignified person, alone in her being. She was not big on hugging. My deep connection to her was expressed in words and deeds. But I miss her now in a physical way. 

It's the riddle of the ages, the riddle of corporeality. What we love of a person is so often the mind, the spirit. But it's a spirit that must exist in the flesh, in a body that moves in this world. Which is why, in the end, it's the worn wallet or tattered address book that brings us to tears.

(Mom with her sisters and brother; she's second from the right.)


Monday, February 1, 2016

February 1

No one inhabited a birthday as Mom did February 1. "It's the worst day in the world for a birthday," she would moan. Cold and snowy or gray and bleak. She hated winter, especially toward the end of her life, and it seemed a personal insult that was born smack dab in the middle of it.

But perhaps because she was so vocal about the day, I've associated it more closely with her than I would otherwise. And in a way it suits her. There's a no nonsense quality about it, a black-and-whiteness. It is strong, a proper reflection of her character, and like her has had to endure a fair amount of adversity.

So now we come to February 1, 2016, the first February 1 without her on this earth since 1926.  It is a mild, sunny day, one Mom might approve of.

Happy 90th birthday, Mom! It's hard to express how much I miss you.

(Mom with her namesake, my daughter Suzanne, 1989)
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