Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Letter from Sumba

A few months ago I traveled around the world — a trip that came together so quickly and with so many appointments and interviews packed in that I have to pinch myself now to believe that it really happened.

I have the photos to prove it, though, and, as of late last week, I also have a story about it on the Winrock website: Letter from Sumba. 

It's the first of several stories based on reporting from that trip, I hope. And it's gratifying because it translates the long flights and disorientation into words and photos.

It doesn't capture everything, of course: how muggy it was that day, how storm clouds rolled in but the rain held off, how the ocean looked on the night drive back to our hotel. But it chronicles some of it. Enough, I hope.

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Monday, January 30, 2017

Snow in Place

A white world this morning. The snow behaved itself, stuck to grass and trees and lampposts — and left the streets alone. So I could drive along wintry ways with scenery softened by the snow and made beautiful by it.

It didn't take much to transform: less than an inch. But what a difference it made. How calm and lovely the passage from place to place.

Here we are at the end of January. We could (fingers crossed) escape without a blizzard. I'll be content if a few small pretty snows are all we have. Just a soupçon of winter this year, thank you very much.

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Friday, January 27, 2017

Keep Climbing

What I continue to think of as my new job (though I've been here for nine months) has put me in touch with a fine set of stairs, so when I have a few minutes I trudge from the fifth to the 11th floor and back down again.

It amazes me that no matter how often I do this it still winds me. I think sometimes about what's going on in my body, how the muscles are moving, using oxygen, how my breath comes faster the higher I climb, trying to stoke the furnace, that marvelous furnace that fuels us all.

Yes, mine are old (older!) bones and muscles, but I expect them to keep up. I want at least a couple more decades of walking in the suburbs.

So to forget about the pain, I ponder as I clamber.  How can I make this easier? How can I stay in shape? Only one answer: Keep climbing.

(These are not the stairs I climb, but they are very special stairs.)

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Thursday, January 26, 2017

Hats Off!

Reading today's obituary of Mary Tyler Moore (the only front-page story I could stomach in today's Washington Post), I thought about what set this actress apart.

She called herself a "funny straight woman," and that was part of it. There was her spunkiness, her niceness, her grace under pressure. But there was more.

A decade younger than my parents she was still part of that generation, a generation that's vanishing and that I miss more every day. And one of the things I miss most about them is their self-deprecation. They just didn't take themselves as seriously as we do.

Moore said she was reluctant to be a symbol of women's liberation, and tried not to think about the 50 million people watching her on TV. A photo that accompanied the obit showed her mimicking a statue of herself, hand upraised, right before she doffed her hat and threw it into the air.  

(Photo: People.com)

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Wednesday, January 25, 2017

The Nominations

The nominations are in and movie-goers have their marching orders. The Academy nominated nine films for best picture this year, and, in a departure, I'm going to try and not compulsively see every one!

But a few, like LaLa Land, Moonlight and Arrival, are on the list. And last weekend I caught Fantastic Beasts and Hidden Figures.

It had been a while (maybe since last Oscar season) since I'd been in a theater, and I'd forgotten how expansive it feels to slump down into a comfy seat, train my eyes on the big screen and lose myself in a film.

It's about the best thing you can do this time of year.


Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Pre-Dawn Haul

Today I woke up early. Was it the rain? Was it a dream? Does it matter?

So I came downstairs and started looking through old file folders. This was not a completely random exercise. I needed notes I'd kept in one of them.

I found much more. There were two pieces I'd forgotten I'd written, a letter from a former student telling me that one of her essays was about to be published, and a solicitation for an author to write a book on creative praise programs across the top of which I'd scribbled, "For the 'Can you believe it?' file. "

The solicitation went something like this: Smart managers are learning that to keep Gen X and Gen Y workers happy requires celebration mailboxes, applause notes, prize packages, even balloons and confetti. A potential author would be familiar with these kind of programs and able to write a book about them. My question: Would a person familiar with such programs have not already slit his or her wrist?

Still, not a bad pre-dawn haul for a unrepentant packrat. How glad I am that I looked through those files and found what I did. I start the day a little more cheerfully now. Not praised but amused, which is much better.

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Monday, January 23, 2017

Living With Place

I'm finishing up a book I bought a few weeks ago at the Reston Used Bookstore. Landscapes of the Heart: Narratives of Nature and Self (NeWest Press) is a collection of essays on place. The editors, Michael Aleksiuk and Thomas Nelson, have included everything from a powerful story of a drowning that forever changed the way one author came to see wild rivers to a piece about how changes to laws and landscape have robbed native Arctic peoples of community and self-sufficiency.

This morning I read an essay by M. Michael M'Gonigle in which he describes a book that he and his wife, Wendy Wickwire, wrote called Stein: The Way of the River. It describes their time of living  in a wild place, living lightly on the land, learning its rhythms and the rhythms of the people who lived on it for generations.

"The Stein may never be logged," M'Gonigle  wrote of the book, "but now, fifteen years later, the elders that we spent time with are all dead. Here, as elsewhere in the world, with their deaths, the language of local peoples is being silenced to a whisper, and is about to disappear entirely. Here, as elsewhere, the experiences of local places, when there is yet wild spaces and spirits in those spaces, is eroding away. Here, as elsewhere, the strength and diversity and skills of a community living long with its place, and functioning together, is becoming a romantic memory. ... Thus does the BIG consume the PLACE."

"Living long with its place" — not "on," not "beside," not "in spite of." But with.

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Saturday, January 21, 2017

The Fine Print

The Catholics are at it again. I love them, of course. I'm one of them. But their pronouncements can make me cringe. One of the latest is about cremation.

It used to be verboten. The resurrection of the body and all of that. But now, for reasons I don't completely understand but which may have to do with the number of people on this earth and the popularity of the practice, it's allowed as long as the cremains are buried respectfully. No scattering the ashes about in woods and fields and mountain tops. No keeping them in jars on mantels.

I read a letter in our diocesan newspaper last night. Can I be buried at sea? was the question. And the answer: Yes, if your ashes are in a special container.

For some reason this morning all of this makes me smile. I mean, if the good Lord is capable of raising us on the Last Day, is it really going to matter if we're in a jar or the ground or scattered across the Appalachian Trail?

I have to hand it to Catholics, though, because we care about these things. And that's the point, isn't it?

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Friday, January 20, 2017


The peaceful transfer of power is a hallmark of our nation. That will happen in less two hours — and about 36 miles from where I'm sitting.

It's not the transfer of power that I was hoping for, but that's not the point. It's a transfer, and it's happening. After it's complete, we can move forward, doing what we must to protect the nation, which has weathered wars and riots and a near-fatal split. 

I remind myself that eight years ago others were as worried and disappointed as I am now. I might think I have more cause for concern (and I do!), but I imagine those folks would disagree with me. 

Perspective — I'm working on it today. And I will be for quite some time.

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Thursday, January 19, 2017

Listing Creative

I usually write blog posts early in the day, and that's for a reason. They take advantage of my first blurry minutes in the world — sometimes good for musing. By this time of the day, I'm like most other folks — going in scads of directions and about as creative as a wood post.

Which reminds me of something I often think about: the divide between creativity and  efficiency.

Efficiency is brisk, a snap of the fingers and click of the heels. It thrives on lists and crossing tasks off of them.

Creativity is slow and sinuous. It doesn't like lists and it doesn't like timetables. It will not be hurried.

Most of us have a little of both tendencies, and how we behave depends upon what is being asked of us. For me today, it's efficiency. So you'll have to excuse me now. It's time to cross "write blog post" off the list.


Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Spanning Worlds

It was still light when I drove home yesterday, and as I made my way along the parkway the planes rumbled, soared and landed, and the river flowed by as it always does, with the cars flowing beside it, a liquid line of red lights and exhaust fumes.

Still a novice car-commuter, especially on this route, I marveled at the sights before me, as clogged and crowded as they were, marveled because, for all the bother of living here, there is sometimes something so right about it.

I feel it when I drive along the parkway and see Memorial Bridge, its stone arches and masonry as hospitable a welcome as any city could provide.

I think it is the southerness of Washington that speaks to me through this bridge. Or perhaps the in-betweenness. Spanning two worlds.

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Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Dim and Quiet

It's taken a while for the morning to gather itself. Clouds linger; fog does, too. Only a few lights are on in the building across the street.

A train chugs by and sounds its low, mournful horn. Air moves through the building with a presence less notable than its absence.

Inside, the overhead lights remain off for a few more blessed minutes.  

It's a dim, quiet start to the day.


Monday, January 16, 2017

Armchair Amble

A quiet morning here, made possible by cloudy skies and sleepy parakeets. (It helps that I haven't uncovered their cage yet, poor things.)

A cold has kept me inside for days, and I'm feeling the psychic effects of it. Time for an armchair amble.

I walk out the door, slip between the houses across the street and find a familiar path. It's almost overgrown now but I pick my way along until I come to the road. There I find the familiar landmarks: the horses and the stream, the big house on the hill, the pasture that (if viewed from the right angle) almost seems rural.

Air fills my lungs and my stride lengthens. I'm in the groove now, moving quickly in the chill. How good it feels to be alive and in the world. When I'm in it I often don't appreciate it. But now that I'm not ... well, it's good to have a reminder.


Friday, January 13, 2017

Mind Picture

No time to snap a photo of last night's full moon, so I tried to snap a "mind picture," as Suzanne would call it.

I remember when she first talked about mind pictures. It was on one of our family vacations, can't remember which one. I'd smiled, reminding her that she couldn't share mind pictures the way she could real ones and that her mind wouldn't always be as clear as it was then. That there might come a time when it would be as jumbled as mine — mind pictures tangled up with old phone numbers, Associated Press Stylebook comma rules and all the other bits of information and trivia I've remembered through the years.

But I have come around a bit. As long as you don't take too many, as long as you are mindful when you snap that lens open and closed ... who's to say that, in the end, mind pictures aren't better.

I can still remember with great detail a mind picture I took more than two decades ago. I was visiting Kay in Paris, and had forgotten my camera. It was April, early evening, and as I walked along the Seine, the towers and spires of Notre Dame were set off against a perfect late-day sky.

I've taken tens of thousands of photographs since then. But that's the one — without film or any other form of capture — I remember best.

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Thursday, January 12, 2017

Tick Tock

The house is as quiet as my house can be, which means that in addition to the blood rushing through my ears I'm also listening to the twitter of parakeets and the steady tick-tock of the cuckoo clock.

The "cuckoo" part of the clock has been long since been disabled, but the ticking mechanism remains. The metronomic beat of this timepiece is the soundtrack of my life.

On the rare day when the clock's not wound, the stillness is deafening. I can hardly hear myself think.

Which raises the question: What has all this ticking done to my brain? Has it weathered it with pockmarks? Or has it smoothed and polished it, eroding those pesky irregularities that often stand in for real thought?

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Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Trees' Company

I recall a line from a poem by James Clarence Harvey: "Oh, the saddest of sights in this world of sin/Is a little lost pup with his tail tucked in."

Not that my heart wouldn't melt at the sight of a little lost pup, but a sad sight all too common this time of year are Christmas trees beside the road. There they are, the once-proud bearers of bright lights and family ornaments — now reduced to so much yard waste.

These two have the right idea, though. A stiff northwest wind rolled them together the other day, and now they're partners in crime/shame/escape. May they live forever in mulch heaven. 

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Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Shadow Commuters

Since Friday, we have been in the deep freeze, with temperatures in the teens or lower. I'm remembering all over again why I no longer live in Chicago. There, the deep freeze was the norm. Here it's the exception.

Working in Crystal City, though, I have a secret weapon: the Underground. One of its passageways leads from Metro to the building across the street from my office. It's a little longer as the crow flies, but ever so much warmer.

I notice now a definite uptick in the number of Underground pedestrians, people like me, scampering in the warmth, eschewing the wind and cold.

There we were, dressed for the chill in boots, scarves and gloves — walking down what is essentially a hallway. Are we shadow commuters, or the real thing?

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Monday, January 9, 2017

After Downton

It would have happened last night, had it happened. But there was no seventh season of "Downton Abby" — and so I start this week without Lady Mary and Bates and Anna and all the crew.

Instead, I begin the week with "The People Vs. O.J. Simpson," an excellent mini-series that just won a Golden Globe. But it did not take me out of myself and plop me down in the English countryside. It did not transport me to a place of elegance and ease.

For six years, there was Christmas, there was New Year's — and there was Downton Abby. I don't know if the scheduling was intentional, but it always seemed the perfect show for easing into the new year. It took the sting out of reentry.

Luckily, we live in an era of such television bounty that I couldn't even be bothered to leave the house for a first-run film like "La La Land." I needed screen therapy, and I got it — without venturing outdoors. But I didn't have Downton. And that's what I needed.

(Photo: PBS.org)


Friday, January 6, 2017

Around the Corner

Last year's Epiphany I came across a bevy of colorful scarves draped on trees and banisters and railings. It was a "scarf bombing," part of an organized effort to help those who have no way to come in from the cold.

It was, I thought, the perfect expression of the day, a moment of revelation in wool and worsted.

Today, nothing so epiphanous. Today, a typical work-at-home day, the views and contours familiar and unsurprising.

By definition, though, sudden revelations can happen at any time. So while I may not be cleansed by clarity now, I may be later today or tomorrow or sometime next week.

In other words, I'm trying to live as if inspiration is just around the corner.

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Thursday, January 5, 2017

Airing Out

There are days in D.C. that bring a bright sun and mild feel to our winter, that air it out like an open window on a chilly night.

Yesterday was such a day, when a 30-minute walk took on grand proportions in the landscape of the hours, and made my afternoon significantly peppier than my morning.

There were bicyclists on the path and runners shedding layers. There were the familiar take-offs and landings at National Airport. There was the monument ahead of me and all the promise of a new year.

I was on a path, moving forward.

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Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Walking in Silence

I'm thinking back to last week's trip to colonial America. In eighteenth-century Williamsburg, most people walked. They walked to the fields to work, they walked to the Capitol to debate the Stamp Act. They walked to the tavern and the milliner and the tinsmith.

Yes, they had wagons and carriages, and sometimes they rode in them. But mostly, they walked.

I think about the walking and the silence, the combination of the two. Then I think about my own noisy, clattery world.

Yes, I enjoy antibiotics and flush toilets and central heating. But oh what I would give for the walking and the silence, for the time it would give to collect thoughts and mull over the future.

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Tuesday, January 3, 2017

Back to ...

I was going to say "the grind." But my job is too new to be a grind, and the commute is so variable these days that it can be called many things (many of them unprintable) but grind doesn't quite capture that either.

It's more accurate today to say back to...  the routine. I've not been in the office since December 22, and what a luscious time it's been: sleeping late, writing long, spending a couple of days away from home and century.

I'm not a big fan of routine, don't move easily in its placid waters, would rather be done with it. Even though I'll admit that routine is necessary and sometimes my salvation. But it is more anchor than prod — and today I re-enter it willingly ... but not eagerly.

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Sunday, January 1, 2017

Into the Future

Yes, we counted down the seconds last night. A room full of people with noisemakers and champagne and funny hats.  Out with the old and in with the new.

But for me, 2017 started with this winter morning, with the run I just took along familiar routes, waves to neighbors, music and talking in my ear.

And it started even earlier, with a cup of tea and my journal, reading last year's entries, pondering resolutions, writing my way into the future.

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