On Remembering Trees


On Remembering Trees –My current favorite tree is the beech that grows outside my bedroom window. I love that it keeps its leaves all winter, albeit, no, especially because, they are brown. When the late afternoon sun shines through them, it infuses the room with a soft, golden patina. A romantic glow, I think, that takes me to an earlier time, an earlier century, for the late 1800s, the early 1900s are, for me, sepia-toned. My wonderful beech seems to understand this, and does all it can to bring that time to me.

Now it is coming abloom with that light green tint that communicates Spring without words. The gold finches are once again gold, and it is impossible to keep the feeders filled.

And watching this season unfold brought to mind other trees that I have loved, some without even realizing that love it was. A towering oak that sat in a clear meadow at the end of Oella Avenue and Frederick Road just east of Ellicott City. Riding with my mother, for it seemed that riding in a car was the only time I spent with her, we would see that lone tree, a sentinel in a country setting. Sometime in the 1970s or 80s, we knew that it was dying, though it took years for this to come to pass. My mother commented that “maybe it’s just had enough,” and I was surprised at her dispassionate response, that she did not seem distressed about it, as I was. Perhaps the knowledge and acceptance of life’s seasons comes easier with age and loss. And so that tree is gone, and I’m sure that whatever farm might have been there has now been replaced by mega-mansions or a gated town-home development.

I think of the maple tree that stood outside my bedroom window in the house where I grew up. I paid no attention to it, except in autumn, when, once again, the setting sun transformed it ablaze with leaves. Two evergreen trees stood sentinel in the front of that house, and I thought that it was silly that my mother noted their growth every year. Of course, they would get taller. That’s what trees did, and I was unconscious of her awareness of the passing of time.

There was a walnut tree in our woods, one that I never saw or knew about, until I learned that she had sold it for the value of its wood, to help pay the taxes and expenses of the house. It was time for her to leave, I said, full of efficiency and competence. I ignored what this would mean to her, and what destroying a tree, for money, meant, what leaving her home meant. But now I understand, and I regret that I was not more sympathetic, more kind.

Trees, and remembering them.

Another Sunday, www.cynthiastrauff.com

On Grieving for a Place that Never Was

On Grieving for a Place that Never Was

1910 baltimore

I remain in a state of heartbreak after my trip to Baltimore last week. Not for the wonderful, warm reception I received from friends, family and readers, but for the city itself. And I realize that my fantasy, of a Baltimore now long gone, is sepia-toned, all rough edges, cruelties airbrushed away. The Baltimore of the 1910s. For it has to be a fantasy to hold on to a past I never knew.

And I am brought to Alexander McCall Smith’s poetic hymn to Scotland. I could not say it more eloquently. To me, it speaks of Baltimore.

From The Revolving Door of Life
(44 Scotland Street Series                                                                                                     Alexander McCall Smith

When I was a boy, not yesterday of course,

When life, I thought, was a whole lot

More certain than it is today,

I made a list of those I thought

Liked me as much as I liked them –

For at that age we’re loved

By just about everybody

Whom we care to love; how different

It is in later years, when affection

Has no guarantee of reciprocation,

When we may spend so very long

Yearning for one who cannot

Love us back, or cares not to,

Or who lives somewhere else

And has forgotten our address

And the way we looked or spoke.

The remarkable thing about love

Is that it is freely available,

Is as plentiful as oxygen,

Is as joyous as a burn in spate

And need never run out.

And yet, for all its plentitude,

We ration it so strictly and forget

Its curative properties, its subtle

Ability to make the soul-injured

Whole again, to make the lonely

Somehow assured that their solitude

Will not last forever; its promise

That if we open our heart

It is joy and resolution

That will march in triumphant

Through the gates we create.

When I look at Scotland,

At this country that possesses me,

I wonder what work love

Has still to do; and find the answer

Closer at hand than I thought –

In the images of contempt and disdain,

That are still there, as stubborn

As human imperfections can be;

In the coldness of heart

That sees nothing wrong

In indifference to want, to dislike

Of those who are different,

In the cutting, dismissive

Turn of phrase, in the sneer.

Love is not there, in all those places,

But it will be; love cannot solve

Every human problem, but it makes

A start on a solution; love

Is the only compass-point

We need to learn; we need not

Be clever to know it, nor endowed

With unusual vision, love

Comes free, at least in those forms

Worth having, lasts as long

As anything human may last.

May Scotland, when it looks

Into its heart tomorrow

If not today, see the fingerprints

Of love, its signature, its presence,

Its promise of healing.

Another Sunday,  www.cynthiastrauff.com


On Another Sunday in Baltimore


On Another Sunday in Baltimore

I was in Baltimore this past weekend to launch Another Sunday there. It was an extraordinary experience for me. First, that this book is really here; second, that people actually want to read it. And then being back in the city where Another Sunday takes place, albeit the Baltimore of the early 20th Century, was intensely emotional.

We stayed at the Johns Hopkins Mt. Washington Conference Center, which just happens to be the site of a major scene in the book, The Mt. Washington Country School for Boys. The Octagon Building, a pivotal location, is now lovingly restored to its former glory. Thank you, Johns Hopkins University, for that. How poignant to actually enter its foyer, to see where little boys, dressed in their military school uniforms, learned Greek and Latin and the history and geography of a century past.

The launch was held at the Baltimore Streetcar Museum, for streetcars play a major part throughout the book. The volunteers there could not have been more helpful, nor more enthusiastic, and all who attended, in addition to the “pleasure” of hearing me read, were treated to a ride on a 1900 streetcar. The actual streetcar, not a replica.

This journey back to Baltimore was also filled with sadness, as we visited streets and neighborhoods that are featured so prominently throughout the book, and which have not fared as well as the beautifully and lovingly restored Octagon Building. Time and circumstances have not been good to North Avenue, the Baltimore Cemetery, St. Paul Street, Maryland Avenue. Those areas, indeed Baltimore itself, have as central a role as do the human characters. And, like the protagonist Celeste, who starts the 20th Century with hopes and dreams and assurances, and who finds life’s challenges sometimes unwinnable, so too does Baltimore, the real Baltimore, not the ersatz posturing of million-dollar harbor-view condominiums and restaurants featuring hundred-dollar plates of spaghetti.

And I realize that for my Baltimore, its time is past. Jobs have vanished, thousands upon thousands of vacant and derelict houses remain, hidden to the visitor’s eye behind the harbor’s Potemkin façade. It is almost impossible not to despair. My Baltimore is gone.

I write of a time in the early 20th Century, a time when the city thought it faced a bright future. For me, it’s better that way.


Another Sunday, www. cynthiastrauff.com

On Music and Singing


On Music and Singing

“Let us sing now, not in order to enjoy a life of leisure, but in order to lighten your labors. You should sing as wayfarers do – sing, but continue your journey. Do not be lazy, but sing to make your journey more enjoyable. Sing, but keep going.”  St. Augustine

As I read this, I realized that I used to sing more – just to myself, singing along with records, then tapes, then CDs. Carole King, Judy Collins, every Broadway musical through Cats, Evita –  well, maybe not Evita.

So when, why did I stop singing? Music changed; I changed – a few good years of re-singing when Rod Stewart came out with his Great American Songbook series.

And for the past several years I have included “more music” on my annual list of resolutions. Somehow music had almost disappeared from my life, and I missed it.

In my teens, my radio dial was set to Baltimore’s WCAO, a station that allowed me to learn lyrics to just about every rock-and-roll song played. I did my homework with that 4/4 beat pounding in my ears, brain and soul. Once I got to college, I found that I needed silence to study – I could not grasp  difficult concepts with the Beach Boys competing.

I moved to Detroit when Mo’town was at its peak, the Beatles were fading, and both had a place in my heart. These were soon, not replaced, rather superseded, by Carole King, James Taylor, and, my god, the Moody Blues.

But music, there was always music.

In Chicago I became fascinated with Baroque, so Vivaldi, Beethoven vied with Astrid Gilberto and Stan Getz, the bossa nova rhythm discovered early and always fancied.

And then, and then…. what happened?

My precious vinyl replaced by tapes; my tapes replaced by CDs; and stereos, which one could turn on with a button, replaced by sound systems, which you now need to hook up via a TV set. (My husband actually had to go out and buy one to install an upgrade.) Too complex; too complicated. And I have long been in the cohort who doesn’t like the music of the day.

Ah, well…. there is still my car CD player – that, I can handle. A choice between NPR and CDs of music that takes me to my past. Well, which would you choose?

So thanks, St. Augustine, for your advice. I’m even singing as I write this!