Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Another Year

My dear friend Kay celebrates her birthday on January 2. I always feel for her, since her special day comes when everyone goes back to work after the holidays.

Today I'm in a similar boat. May 31, always the afterthought day when I was a kid, the day after Memorial Day, is in exactly the same spot this year — with the added ballast of being a back-to-work-after-a-long-weekend day, too.

But this is fine. A stealth birthday is what I'm after (though mentioning it in a  blog post can hardly be called "stealth").  Maybe Father Time will be too busy driving home from Ocean City to slap another year on me.

Even if he does, though, I won't complain. It is, after all, another year to embrace.

Monday, May 30, 2016

Double Memorial

Some of us remember that this year the national holiday falls on the real Memorial Day, May 30.

But the double I'm thinking of is at Camp Nelson, the veteran's cemetery nestled in the rolling hills half an hour south of Lexington. There Mom and Dad lie together. A hero's grave.

I commute now through Arlington Cemetery, and I look up from my newspaper when we briefly come above ground there. I see the orderly stones, the tidiness of death at a military burial ground.

Life is so messy — but life is what we remember. And the least tidy lives we remember most. The passions and the excesses and the outbursts and the love. These can never be contained in measured plots and structured rows. 

And on this double Memorial Day I'm feeling doubly this way.


Saturday, May 28, 2016

New Dawn

When it comes to life lessons, climbing roses have a few. Their growth pattern is out and up. They thrive on training. They are tender and delicate, but can take care of themselves. (Don't believe me? Just try getting a few of their thorns embedded in your thumb!)

They wait until spring is well underway before venturing out. And when they arrive, it's in splendid style.

I'm admiring them today, in full flower. I worry, of course, that the weekend heat and Monday's rain will do them in, shorten their already short lifespan. But even in that, they are illustrative.

Enjoy us now, they tell me. Don't worry about tomorrow.

See what I mean?

(The New Dawn climbing rose in all its glory.)


Friday, May 27, 2016

Three-Day Stay

The airport will be busy. I could spend the whole morning on the back side of the office, watching the planes take off and land. Or I could look right behind my building at the train tracks. They're mostly for freight lines but carry the odd passenger car or two. The rails will be humming today, too.

And don't even get me started on the roads. The big story on the all-news radio this week was that the worst day to drive out of the second worst traffic city in the United States before a long weekend isn't Friday but Thursday. I was driving west on a major highway last evening — and I would agree.

So as tempting as it might be to flee, I'm looking forward to staying in my own backyard — which I'm overlooking right now, sipping tea and listening to the crows call.

Thursday, May 26, 2016

Finally May!

An early walk through a perfect morning: just enough chill to make my skin prickle. Birds calling from the deep woods. Almost no cars.

With the rain gone the air is perfumed with honeysuckle and spirea. Fences groan with flowered bushes. Banisters and deck rails double as plant props.

The hanging plant I bought is still alive! The red roses are blooming!

It's finally May!

Labels: ,

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Around the Block

Inside it was about 65; outside a good 20 degrees warmer. The air was filled with a collective exhale as office-workers enjoyed their lunch hours on the first warm day of the season. People wore shorts and running shoes. They were biking and strolling and just hanging around.

The outdoor seats at Cosi — the cafe where I sat and had a raspberry iced tea before my first interview here — were filled with al fresco patrons.

I walked past them though. No more sitting for me. I was in search of a block to walk around, but there aren't too many of those here.

The one I found consists mostly of a service road behind my multi-block office complex. It's not the grit and glamor of my old walks on Capitol Hill, but it was quiet and warm. I could stretch my legs and let my mind wander.

It was interesting, too, exploring the unseen underbelly of this glitzy space. The bleeping of backing trucks. The aroma of smokers on the periphery. It was around the block, Crystal City style.


Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Lost and Founds

I looked out the window at the garden today and spied a pink balloon where the peonies are supposed to be (the peonies that have taken a hit with the cold and rain). The balloon is an interloper. A visitor. A stowaway on the west wind.

From what little girl's birthday party did it arrive? From what sticky little hand did it detach and float away?  Did it break free from a backyard boquet to fly over tree tops and land gently among the day lilies?

Wherever it came from it arrived intact, ribbon attached and almost fully inflated.

If the garden is to become a destination for wayward balloons might it also attract other lost items? Socks and keys and earrings?

A garden of lost and founds — now there's a thought.


Monday, May 23, 2016


I work on the fifth floor of a large building that overlooks a train track, a highway, a street and National Airport. Windows on the other side of the building have a perfect view of the control tower and take-off and landing. Given that I used to work on the ground floor, this is a welcome change.

There is a light, airy and aerie-like feel to being up this high, a sense of being the first to spot the weather when it changes. And...  about an hour ago I saw a bit of sun peak through the clouds.

I was intending to report this news immediately, of course, but work intervened. And now, alas, the sun has gone away. But it was there, I'm sure of it. And the weather forecasters assure us that that sun returns in earnest in a couple of days.

Meanwhile, I'm glancing out the window whenever I have a second. Right now the only light is see is what's reflected back at me. But I'm hanging on and hoping for more!

(OK, not up quite this high — and with a decidedly less pastoral view ...) 


Saturday, May 21, 2016

Rain Song

The rain began before I woke up. I knew it was coming, but I didn't think it would sing to me. A pitter-patter, yes. But not this other sound, this low ping. It's as if someone is tuning a cello or plucking a piano string.

And it has a steady and distinct pitch, too. I hum it, walk over to the piano. Could it be an A? Always a good first try; a million tuning orchestras can't be wrong.

But no, it's not an A, or a C or an F. Better try some black keys. And there it is — a B flat — or at least my out-of-tune piano's version of that pitch.

Were I of a more mechanical bent I would worry about what's making this sound. I would check for leaks or breaks. But instead, I listen. I let the rain sing its song.

(Waiting for Sächsische Staatskapelle Dresden to arrive and tune in the large golden concert hall of Vienna's Musikverein)

Labels: ,

Friday, May 20, 2016

Escape Route

For a walk break yesterday I turned left, strolled south down Crystal Drive. The lunchtime bustle buoyed me; I was ready to explore.

It's a neighborhood of hotels, restaurants and fancy office buildings connected by glossy indoor passageways — not my style, but handy in the rain.

Beyond all of this, I'm convinced, lie real streets with real people picking up dry cleaning, dragging reluctant toddlers, walking the dog. But to find them I first need to discover the connector routes, the roads that will take me under the busy highways that honeycomb the area.

There aren't many of them. Crystal City is almost an island. But all I need is one escape route. The maps are open. The shoes are new.


Thursday, May 19, 2016


Woke up this morning after more sleep than usual and immediately started puttering. I emptied the garbage. I watered the plants. I made Celia a pot of coffee.

Then I went outside. I moved the begonias. I caught an errant strand of climbing rose, looped a green wire around it and attached it to a sister branch.

I was about ready to sweep the deck when I realized this wasn't a Saturday but a weekday, and while I wasn't planning to go in early today because of after-work plans, I at least had to get there by 9!

So I ran upstairs and started getting ready, but not without a wistful backward glance at all the little chores that can be slowly checked off during a morning of puttering.


Wednesday, May 18, 2016

A Little Life

It's difficult to know just what to say about Hanya Yanagihara's A Little Life. It's not a little book, to be sure, and not easy to finish within the three weeks allotted by Fairfax County Library.

At times it was only the fact that I was 400 pages into it that made me keep reading. Not because it wasn't beautifully written and a page turner in the character-reveal rather than plot-reveal sense of the word — but because the characters must endure the endurable. (And somehow, most of the time, they do.)

The book grapples with big questions, some of the biggest. Why are we here? How do we find meaning? What are the limits of love?

It doesn't answer any of them, of course, but it makes us ponder them, and it makes us care about the characters who are pondering them. And that, as good fiction always reminds me, is what it's all about.


Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Frost Free

I once heard — and never forgot — that May 15  is our frost-free date in northern Virginia. For that reason, I don't put annuals in the ground until Mother's Day or later. This year I was especially careful, given our cool rainy spring.

So it was only last weekend that I bought begonias and impatiens — and even then, I hesitated. I potted the begonias on Saturday, but Sunday night's temps were expected to drop into the 30s, so I waited till last evening to plant the impatiens. They are tender things, and need the best start in life.

The whole exercise got me thinking about risk and how our acceptance or rejection of it shapes so many choices in life. I'm more conservative as a gardener than I am in other ways. I changed jobs at an age when many others might have stayed put.  I was willing to accept in life what I can't in horticulture.

Whether this was foolish or wise, I'm not yet sure. But I do know this: In real life, there are no frost-free dates.

Labels: ,

Monday, May 16, 2016


As part of my new job I'm writing and editing stories about people who have nothing. About school children from South Sudan dressed in tidy uniforms who must sit on rocks or tin cans because their school has no desks.

I think about the white boards and the wired classrooms here — and then remember the school in Toura where Suzanne and Appolinaire taught: the cinderblock walls and wooden desks that you see here.

It's easy to romanticize learning, to say it happens wherever teachers are gifted and students inspired. But when children are cold or hot, when they cut their legs on the sharp rocks they've lugged to the school for seating, when they aren't even allowed to go to school because they must help their families in the fields — there is no magic there. There can't be until the basic physical needs are met.

I'm glad I have a chance to be reminded of this now, to write about people who have nothing. Because of the perspective they bring, of course, but most of all because their stories must be told.

Labels: ,

Saturday, May 14, 2016

Sunshine, Finally

A friend who counsels people for a living said the last few weeks have been difficult for her patients. Depression, anxiety, fibromyalgia. People in the mid-Atlantic aren't used to weeks and weeks of gray, rainy days — especially not in May — and they've taken their toll.

They would usually bother me more, but I've been caught up in a new job, and not paying as much attention to weather as I usually do.

Still, for a walker in the suburbs who's been forced to row in the suburbs (on the erg in the basement, which means yet more — ouch! — sitting), it's cramping my style, to say the least.

So today's sunshine is more than welcome. It's gratifying, life-enhancing, healing.

Labels: ,

Thursday, May 12, 2016

On Dad's 93rd

Today, on what would have been Dad's 93rd birthday, I'll attend a Mass that's being said for him in my parish church. I reserved this date not long after his passing, had to book it about 20 months in advance. Dad would get a kick out of this. "I guess they give priority to the Catholics," he'd say. (He was not one!)

Thinking of all the funny things Dad said to me growing up, the gentle religious humor. "Just tell 'em it's your father's feast day," he'd suggest, deadpan, when I didn't want to go to school.  We always got a holiday on the feast day of our pastor and principal, Father O'Neill.

It was the humor of an agnostic. Only Dad pulled a fast one. At the end of his life he reverted to the Methodism of his youth, went to church most Sundays. When I was in town, I would go with him, reveling in his rich baritone as he belted out the hymns he learned as a kid.

Was he hedging his bets by returning to church? Not Dad. It wasn't out of fear that he returned, I think, but out of love. He was a deeply grateful man. I imagine he was saying a lot of "thank-you's." Today I'll be doing the same.

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Time Warp

Unseasonable weather creates a time warp.  Are these the first floundering days of March? A rainy patch in October? Or the sort of chilly midsummer I remember being called blackberry winter?

Strawberry winter is more like it.

These are usually our jewel-tone days, the azaleas and iris overlapping, rhododendrons too. They, by the way, are doing well this year; they thrive on moisture. But the others haven't lived up to promise. They've been too busy staying alive.

I gave May a pass until we hit the double digits. But it's the 11th. Time to get with it, May. We need some warm weather, and we need it now!

Labels: ,

Monday, May 9, 2016

The Cake

For the last two Mother's Day in a row, Claire has whipped up this confection. It's two layers of feather-light chocolate cake, iced and topped with a thin layer of hazelnut, a cushiony helping of whipped cream and a generous dollop of strawberries.

Five of us consumed half of it last night — and I'm embarrassed at how much I'm looking forward to nibbling on what's still left in the fridge.

Yesterday, watching the girls in the kitchen together, thinking about all the meals I made when they were young, thinking about one in particular when Claire was just a newborn and I had for some reason decided to make lasagna. She was sitting in her little seat on top of the counter, amidst the ricotta and mushrooms and mozzarella — probably breathing it all into her little brain.

It was one of those times when I probably should have just heated up a frozen pizza. But the cooking and the kids just naturally went together. They still do.

How much of family life takes place in the kitchen, how many joys and sorrows, how many delights. When I think about it now, the cake in its yummy extravagance was the perfect expression of the day, of its bounty, of how much I have to be thankful for.


Sunday, May 8, 2016

Mother's Day

On this Mother's Day, my first without Mom, I think about a scene I witnessed at the beach and have thought about often since. It was nothing special; in fact it (or something similar) happens all the time. A little girl in pink was running down the shore. She caught my eye because there were precious few people on the beach that day — it was cold! — and also because she seemed young to be on her own.

I had no fear for the child, assumed she was being watched from some distant towel. Instead, I thought about what the world looked like through her eyes. Maybe her first burst of independence. The horizon spreading out before her, endless sand and a squawking gull she wanted to catch.

Then I saw a woman in quick pursuit. "Marina! Marina! Where do you think you're going?"

The little girl turned, ready to be caught. The woman threw her arms wide open and dashed toward Marina, who was now flying toward her. Soon they came together; the woman gathering the child up in her arms and twirling her around.

It's the oldest story and the truest story. And it made me think of this passage from Annie Dillard's An American Childhood, which I can never read with a dry eye, especially not today.
I write this at a wide desk in a pine shed as I always do these recent years, in this life I pray will last, while the summer sun closes the sky to Orion and to all the other winter stars over my roof. The young oaks growing just outside my windows wave in the light, so that concentrating, lost in the past, I see the pale leaves wag and think as my blood leaps: Is someone coming?
Is it Mother coming for me, to carry me home? Could it be my own young, my own glorious Mother, coming across the grass for me, the morning light on her skin, to get me and bring me back? Back to where I last knew all I needed, the way to her strong arms?


Friday, May 6, 2016

Background, Foreground

A quick lunchtime walk the other day found me on the Mount Vernon trail. The little connector path took me past banks of honeysuckle and edgings of little geranium-looking flowers.

I kept shifting my gaze from the close to the faraway. In the background, the Washington Monument rose behind National Airport's runways. In the foreground, all the bluster and bother of modern transportation: trains, buses, cars and jets.

Movement all around but striving for stillness within.


Thursday, May 5, 2016

Leap of Faith

This morning I heard a minute of The Writer's Almanac as I turned into the parking garage at Vienna Metro. It's the birthday of Soren Kierkegaard, said Garrison Keillor in his mellifluous voice. Kierkegaard, the philosopher who gave us the leap of faith — "that faith is not possible without doubt. That one must doubt the existence of God to have faith in the existence of God."

Thinking of the basement study room in my freshman dorm where I wrestled with Kierkegaard and (I think it's safe to say) Kierkegaard won. Realizing then that philosophy was not just admiring big ideas, it was grappling with them, plumbing them, going deeper and deeper into their caverns until I wasn't sure I could claw my way out.

But those same ideas are how we live our lives. The leap of faith, for instance. How difficult to summon it — yet how utterly imperative.


Wednesday, May 4, 2016

In Training

I spent some quality time with the climbing rose on Saturday. Well, it wasn't quality time at first, but after a while we came to know each other better.

I was trying to train it, you see, to make its long sinewy branches go up rather than down, left rather than right. I was trying to create a rosy bower using the pergola that Tom and Appolinaire built a couple weeks ago.

At first I just stood there, stumped by the enormous tangle. The rose needs to grow up and out, but without something to anchor it, the poor thing had been an unruly mess. It didn't like being pushed too hard, though. Quick movements guaranteed puncture wounds.

But in time I got into the zen of the task, moving slowly to avoid snags, taking off the gloves (which were just getting caught up on the thorns) and following each ascender to its descender — puzzling out the plant's internal order before fastening branches to wood with twisty green wire.

It's still a work in progress, this splendid, gangly plant — but at least it's in training.

Labels: ,

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Still Life with Shells

When I returned with the great haul from Chincoteague I soaked the shells for a week. The bucket was so heavy I could barely pick it up. But over the weekend I mustered the muscle and shook out each whelk, rinsed residual sand from its core, and put it on the glass-topped table on the deck.

And there they sit, rain doused rather than surf doused, collecting tree pollen and stray sticks. The damp weather clouding the glass, giving the shells a soft-edged frame.

Though I took no care in their arranging, they easily fell into a tableaux. A companionable collection. A still life with shells.

Labels: ,

Monday, May 2, 2016

A Slant of Light

Lines from a book I just finished, A Slant of Light, by Jeffrey Lent. It was better than most at charting the ripples and eddies of a mind on a walk:

And he paused then and let his mind drift off a bit, as if overhead, riding the thermals of a hawk, or better, the air as a crow flies. And saw then his route, not along the road, but among the fields and farm lanes, the wooded ravines and gulleys that stitched together than land as a rumpled quilt, and continued walking until he came to the next to the last home on the rise of land.
 It was a book filled with long sentences that didn't ramble but were well-tuned to the ramble, to the sight collage one experiences while moving through space and time.

It was a book that plumbed daily routines to tackle large topics. And one of the most elemental of these routines, of course, is walking — the thoughts and images to which it gives rise, the poetry it inspires.

Labels: ,

Sunday, May 1, 2016

May Day

Ours starts out with rain, and not even warm rain. A cool 50-degree soaking that I hope hasn't shocked the ferns, which I moved up from the basement yesterday.

It is, however, a green and portentous day, the beginning of a new month, a lovely, flower-filled one.

In the distance a cardinal sings. I can imagine it puffed up against the chill, delighting in the moisture as birds do.

The rain is making the companionable sound it does when it flows down the gutters and into the grass The yard is seeded and needs to be weeded. The rose is (mostly) trained. There are scads of to-dos on my list. But on this quiet Sunday morning, I sip my tea, make a list — and turn to words.

Labels: ,

blogger counters