Archive for Baltimore

Love in the Library, Part I

This post originally appeared on Murder Is Everywhere.

The Magic Hour by Dirk Joseph in the Pratt window

Back in Grade One—about the time I stopped having to use my finger to read word by word—I fell in love with stories. I could not get enough of reading, and thank goodness there were libraries to sate my appetite.

Libraries were the place I, as an elementary school student, could make my own choices about what I wanted to take home. It wasn’t like going to a department store, where my mom ultimately decided if she would pay for the sweater I wanted. I didn’t have to get permission; and it didn’t cost any more for me to take out nine books or one. It was all free.

Baltimore’s Pratt Street Central Library today

Entrance to the business and science section

This aged etching on second floor celebrates poet Lizette Woodworth Reese

Baltimore’s Poe-inspired football team, the Ravens, inspired the color for the renovated Poe Room

I read so fast in those days I rarely was served with an overdue fine. My library in childhood was the Roseville Library in the Ramsey County, Minnesota, public library system. I still half-remember the kind librarian who thought I was lost because I was a ten-year-old walking very slowly the shelves teen section. I was glad she let me stay, because I really wanted to get my hands on every Rosamond Du Jardin romance on the shelf.

Almost all of us have public library branches in our towns, but this concept wasn’t an automatic right granted by city governments in the way that streets and schools and fire stations were.

Setting up a library was an expensive process, and in the seventeenth, eighteenth and nineteenth centuries gentlemen of means put in money to build libraries and stock them—and the borrowers were people of means who paid a subscription fee.

One of the most successful businessmen in 19th century Baltimore, Enoch Pratt, believed the city needed a “free, circulating library open to all, regardless of property or color.” His massive donation established a grand library that opened in 1886 with 32,000 volumes and an endowment of more than a million dollars.

The first batch of librarians at the Pratt

I got my library card here after I finished college and began writing for the Evening Sun newspaper, which was only four blocks away. I spent countless hours here on research in the Maryland Room, or browsing old books for sale at the annual benefit, and often losing myself in the fiction section.


Did I ever imagine I’d have my own book in the Pratt?

No way. I thought I would always be a reader, not a reader-writer.

For the last twenty-two years, I’ve had the honor of being in the Pratt Library’s fiction section, in the M’s. I was there today and discovered the Pratt library has a book by me I didn’t know existed. No, it’s not pirated. The unusual edition of The Satapur Moonstone with striking blue hardcover is the LARGE PRINT EDITION.

Over the last forty years or so, the library’s grandeur slowly wore down. By that I mean the brass on all the doors dulled, the painted frieze going around the grand hall faded, and antique wooden furniture on the second and third floor became scuffed and dull. Due to increasingly limited funds from the state and city, such restoration was not in the cards for a library system struggling to stay open six days a week with enough money to pay workers and computer stations for users. Not to mention, the increasing costs of paper books, ebooks, and audiobooks.

A massive campaign to fund the library’s physician revitalization began under the visionary hand of the Pratt’s former CEO Carla Hayden (our current Librarian of Congress!). Heidi Daniel assumed the CEO role and is here to preside over the grand-reopening. I haven’t met Heidi yet, but I sense through her actions a commitment to making the Pratt Library a place where everyone feels welcome. We have another first—the Pratt is now one of the country’s first “fine free” libraries.

It is gratifying to see that in this restoration, the Pratt Central Library has not become a mausoleum or museum, but has revisioned some of the gracious spaces as special areas for people working on projects together. I saw doorways leading to large, open areas  for teen-only activities and for fine arts creation.

A major focus of today’s library is assisting people in bettering their lives, primarily through finding work. There are daily workshops around the Pratt’s 22 branches to help Baltimoreans with job hunting, resume writing and issues of justice.

Recently, Baltimore Style Magazine asked me some questions about my work. They wanted a suggestion of where to take my photo, and the Pratt Central Library sprang to mind right away. The picture that appeared in the magazine has me virtually dancing through stacks. If you follow the link to Baltimore Style, look for the digital magazine and start flipping: I’m on page 54.

Here is how this fashionable escapade unfolded on the mezzanine level of a large city library. The Pratt’s PR, Meghan McCorkell, did a very professional job with these two photos she snapped.

What an unnatural pose!

Modeling is as exhausting as writing!

I was back at the Pratt again today to renew my library card. The windows were full of gorgeous paper art commissioned for the opening. I hope these works are up for a long time, they are so gorgeous.

Sarah Jung’s Open Door shows a beautiful, bustling Pratt

Papercut art by Annie Howe celebrates the Pratt’s stance in the city

Up to the mezzanine and more novels

Street door detail in brass

Once my card was in hand, I tooled around the building looking at an old world made new. I also needed a book for my writing, so I asked a  social sciences librarian to bring up a particular book on police history that I’ve borrowed a few times. it’s not on the regular shelves, but in an underground (I think) archive.

There are some libraries that offer browsers access to the archive stacks—the Pratt is not one of them. I harbor fantasies of being allowed to wallow in these secret stacks, to see what other volumes on India I might fall in love with.

Do you have a library love story?

A Writer’s Garden

This post originally appeared on Murder Is Everywhere.

I was home for a short week between book tour traveling, and the main thing I realized was how delicious it felt to be home for spring.

The more common wish in America is to be “home for Christmas.” But Maryland’s shining moment is spring. It is a long, fruitful, blossoming season. It starts in February with crocuses, continues with daffodils and forsythia and hellebores in March, rises to tulips, azaleas, plum and cherry trees in April, and rioting roses everywhere in May and June. Maryland is not one of those places that suddenly switches to summer—it’s a very slow, enjoyable process, whether the plants are native or adopted.

It is fun for a garden enthusiast to spot gardens in  Arizona, California, Wisconsin and Washington, but I feel an urgency to get back to my ragged garden, which is only growing more outspoken every day. My husband only has so many hours in his day, so I sent out an SOS for help. I was very lucky to find a local gardener to take care of the six or so old rose bushes in the back and also attack the weeds. So when I come home, I feel pleased, rather than defeated.

During my time home I also did a lot of daily writing. It’s inevitable that these two loves, garden and book, coincide in the spring.

I believe a lot of writers like to garden. Tending flowers and writing books are quiet, meditative processes that each involve creation and reshaping. Both are hard and take years to get results. And often, an interest in gardens can begin no matter what kind of place you grew up in, because of books.

Did you read The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett? I read this famous 1910 serial-turned-novel set in Yorkshire when I was a third grader living in snowy Minnesota. My mother had not yet started her odyssey into passionate gardening, so I knew nothing about gardens except for being charmed by the wildflowers that edged our paths, and climbing the sprawling old apple tree with bird-pecked fruit to read a book. I probably read The Secret Garden in that tree.

Many years later, I live in my own old house on almost an acre, which is a big lot for a house inside the city. In a few ways, it is similar to the garden experience of the fictional Mary Lennox. One certainly has to chop, tear and pull what is overgrown, but then come surprising discoveries.

Here’s one. Under a rectangular expanse of weeds that rise to happy heights every summer, there is an actual cement floor about twenty feet long by ten feet wide. It’s likely that it once was the foundation for a garage. And there are neatly paved paths throughout the garden, mostly covered by a thin layer of earth and lovely moss.

I love the moss and plants that belong to Maryland. The native plant garden I put in three years ago in the front of the house is growing so vigorously that birds have decided to secret themselves in a thicket of four-foot-high black-eyed Susans (which won’t flower until August). Daisy, the little Yorkie-Cairn terrier who lives with us, realizes the birds like to go there, so the rudbeckia forest has become her number one spot for exploration every time she goes out. As Daisy charges in, there is an explosion of feathery action. So far, nobody’s been caught!

During the brief time I was home, I worked on Perveen 3 in fresh air with the sun on my face. This is entirely possible because we have an outdoor sort of room on two sides of our houses: screened porches attached to bedrooms, in the event it is too hot to sleep inside.

I have seen photos of old sleeping porches fitted out with enough cots so the whole family could sleep in air that finally turned cool. I imagine all the story telling that went on, finally quieting down so the go-to-bed soundtrack would be left to the crickets. In those days, there might have been a nighttime call from a train, not drag-racing cars. And the wake-up alarm would have been birds.

Writing on our second floor porch is a sacrosanct ritual starting every May that lasts through September. I’ve set my porch with a vintage wicker chaise for reading and sleeping, a table for eating and writing, and a cheap old desk that faces tall trees where I stare at squirrels when I’m bored. The dogs stay with me, looking down two stories to the lane behind the house. They enjoy the power that comes with being high up and feel invincible from the wrath of those they bark at.

When I first moved into my Baltimore home, a few people suggested glassing in the sleeping porches in order to have more bathrooms. The suggestion was never taken seriously. I would never want to lose the joy of being outside-in that the porch provides. I hope whoever takes over the house after I’m gone feels the same.

A Pink Moment

This post originally appeared on Murder Is Everywhere.

My baby cherry tree!

These days, pink is everywhere. Millennial Pink is the official name of the soft hue that now colors chairs from Target, rose-gold phones from Apple, and yes, pink clothing for both genders. Why this soft shade now? Is it because treatment of people has become so hard? Pink is a color of childhood, whether you call it blush, petal, nude or cherry.

Cherry is a pink that simply gives me joy. The Baltimore-Washington area has a long, mild spring, and the crowning glory of our area from March through April are the cherry trees, which bloom in waves, depending on their age and variety. I grew up in snowy Minnesota reading Japanese fairytales with cherry blossom themes and books about dolls from Japan such as Rumer Godden’s 1961 delight, Miss Happiness and Miss Flower. Did that set me on a lifetime love of sakura trees?

One of the old-friend cherries nearing end of bloom

My street in North Baltimore has some very large, sprawling flowering cherry trees that might be older than the 40 years I’ve been told is the average cherry tree lifespan. But how old are they?

Sakura trees were brought into the United States by an American food explorer working for the US Department of Agriculture called David Fairchild. Mr. Fairchild first shipped them from Japan to his garden in Chevy Chase, MD in 1902.

President Taft’s wife, Nellie, took to heart his idea of beautifying Washington with cherry trees. It was also a difficult time in the country, when there was popular agitation over immigration of Asians. This idea was a variation of an olive branch. Could Americans see something good about Japan?

Mr. Fairchild was tasked with brokering a deal for cherry trees in the nation’s capital with the Mayor of Tokyo, who then offered them free. The first cherry trees were shipped to Washington DC in 1909; however, their roots were found to be heavily infested with insects that could have wreaked havoc across many agricultural species in the United States. These trees were burned in 1910. The Japanese who heard about it were not angry—they were sorry to have sent a defective gift and insisted on sending more. In 1912, healthy trees were planted in Washington and celebrated ever since.

I have been to the Tidal Basin to admire this sweep of cherries and see the excitement of Washington DC’s annual Cherry Blossom Festival. I’ve also seen the blossoms celebrated this year in Vancouver, Canada. Cherry blossoms create a kind of worldwide party where we all stop and pay attention to nature. And in the 1990s when I lived near Yokohama, I’ve participated in Hanami parties, enjoying not just the trees but the special decorations throughout Japan and cherry-themed foods that go with the fleeting blooms.

Cherry blossom fans in downtown Vancouver

Entering their second century of life in the United States, the cherry blossom tree is no longer a fragile, exotic beauty. The City of Baltimore’s tree program donates all kinds of trees to neighborhoods where residents want them; not just cherry, but serviceberry, redbud, and others that are beautiful, yet support native insects. My street had suffered the death of several aged giant cherry trees, so an enterprising neighbor put together a plea for more cherries to go on any street in our neighborhood five years ago.

The green-leafed cherry in background is one of our grand dames

One early spring day, trained gardeners planted four seven-foot-tall trunks with bare limbs in front of my house. I bought water-bags and tucked them around the young trees, so they would have a slow release of water all the time during our hot summers. Now the trees are approaching 30 feet high and don’t need their waterbags, except in extremely prolonged heat waves. They flower several weeks after the street’s grand dame cherries, so we are fully blooming two weeks long.

I am grateful to our block’s seven new children, and four senior citizens, for showering me in pink every spring regardless of politics and fashion.

Summer in the City

This post originally appeared on Murder Is Everywhere.


In Spring of 2017, I hired a man to dig out the grass in front of my Baltimore, Maryland house. He thought I was crazy to pay him for that, but I had the idea of replacing the grass with a lot of perennials that are native to Maryland and Virginia. I wanted to plant food for the local bees and bugs (the good bugs, of course) and have the feeling of a full, lively cottage garden. Native gardening guru friends told me this kind of garden doesn’t need much water, because the plants are used to the climate, and such laid-back flora grows happily without special attention.

I also heard a saying that was meant to encourage me: the first year plants sleep—the second year they creep—the third year they leap!

I was pleasantly surprised to see plants getting a nice, full shape the first year. But this year, WOW. I don’t really think we can pretend anyone is creeping. The mountain mint is a monster stalking the entire space!

Lots of rain made these plants really grow, and it’s amusing to see my short dogs wandering through their personal jungle while bees buzz gently overhead.

Another thing that surprised me about my impromptu native cottage garden is how long it is taking everything to flower. With these natives, varying shades of green are what I’m stuck with for a long time. I will have to wait till August to see yellow petals on these Black-eyed Susans below, and they are already approaching 6 feet tall.

One of my goals this summer was to “be in the garden” most mornings while it’s still cool. An overdue book turned my mornings into writing sessions on the screened porch until today—July 17.

The middle of July is usually when most people stop gardening. But it’s my start date. I had a bunch of weeds to pull.

But they easily gave way. Today I did a spot-check on a Virginia Sweetspire bush advertised as “good for poor soil” that I’d planted this May. I watered it a couple of days in the beginning and then I started writing overtime and let it go without extra watering.

I think the Sweetspire, below, got mad about that.

Can I make things better for the poor shrub this late in the season? And is there any point in planting anything more in the bare dry spots…or is that insane with the 90 degree heat that lies ahead?

If you ask me, is easier to plant a garden than to write a novel; but it’s more tempting to disappear in a rewrite than to pull ivy.

Knocked Off Their Pedestals in Baltimore

This post originally appeared on Murder Is Everywhere.

I cannot call myself a native Baltimorean. However, I’ve spent almost two-thirds of my life in this so-called “Charm City,” so I call myself one by conversion. I love my town.

When I arrived here fresh off the plane for college, I believed I was going to a Southern city—but I quickly reversed my thoughts, as I realized I was 3 hours from New York, 1 hour from Philadelphia and Washington DC, and almost everyone at school was from the Northeast. Yes, there were crabs that came from an amazing microclimate on Maryland’s Eastern shore, but the accents were nothing like true Southern accents. But evidence remained. Before the Civil War, Maryland was a slave-holding state—although its proximity to Washington DC put it on the Union side during the Civil War. 65,000 Marylanders fought for the Union while 22,000 joined the Confederate troops.

The Civil War ended with President Lincoln issuing the Emancipation Proclamation freeing all people in the US from slavery. For some, that was a hard pill to swallow. All across the South, efforts were made to keep blacks from living free and dignified lives. Jim Crow laws established boundaries between blacks and whites. In Baltimore in the early through mid-1900s, Confederate organizations raised funds and got permits to put up four monuments to their past on public land.

But statues aren’t just placeholders in parks.

Earlier this month, a heavily-armed white supremacist rally gathered to carry torches and shout messages of hate at a Confederate monument in Charlottesville, Virginia, that the city had voted to remove. “Unite the Right” brought together Nazis, the Klan, and new white supremacy groups. And then they turned on the peaceful counter protestors who’d come. One woman died and 33 people were injured during hours of violence where the police stood by. Although President Trump took it in stride, many people in the country were aghast.  And mayors and governors of Southern states realized that the monuments on their streets could very likely bring the supremacists to visit them.

Within days of the Charlottesville rally,  Baltimore’s recently-elected mayor Catherine Pugh ordered the monuments removed. Her action was received with relief by many Baltimoreans, including myself.

Supreme Court Chief Justice Roger Taney’s statue stood at Mt. Vernon Place

This monument’s base has bloody-looking trickles of red paint

To the outside, the action to remove might have looked like a quick reaction, but it was a long time coming. Many activists in recent years have showed up to protest the Confederate sympathizers who chose to gather at the Robert E. Lee/Stonewall Jackson monument during Martin Luther King weekend. As my friend who organized a silent vigil there over many years said, it was stressful for her children to see the people come to mourn the loss of slavery. It seemed like a slap in the face to do it during the King holiday, although the Confederates explained to the protestors they were doing it at the time of both Lee’s and Jackson’s birthdays.

Some people have suggested that removing the Confederate statues is an act comparable to the what the Taliban or Isis has done when they’ve conquered places. But these statues were erected many decades after the Civil War. They are not part of the city’s slave history. The organizations that erected them were shrewd to place them in the city’s most beautiful and prestigious locations, near museums and colleges where visitors to Baltimore would have to see them. The monuments were put up during times that whites were intent on pushing back civil liberties for racial minorities.

Baltimore tried to deal with the statues gently. They experimented with placing plaques next to the statues explaining this provenance—but the statues were still upsetting to people. A commission of Baltimoreans appointed by the previous mayor, Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, studied the issue and recommended removal of two statues, but to leave two in place with plaques of explanation. The two the commission decided to leave were the ones relating to Confederate soldiers who perished—rather than Roger Taney, the former Supreme Court chief justice who affirmed the right of slave owners, and Stonewall Jackson and Robert E. Lee, the Confederacy’s most famous generals.

Why shouldn’t the statues remain with plaques of explanation? My mind was changed after I heard Baltimore City Councilman Brandon Scott speak. He said that slavery is a 9-11 for African-Americans. Allowing the statues of those who loved slavery is tantamount to putting up statues of the hijackers who hit New York’s World Trade Center in 2001. And these statues weren’t destroyed. Right now the removed statues are safely covered up and waiting on an undisclosed city lot. They have a future, somewhere.

I drove around last weekend to look at what was left of the monuments. The bases were still standing. Some of them had been hit with red paint that looked like blood, and others with graffiti.

On right, Cellis; to left are members of UXU, the multi-media organization that produces his videos

When I arrived at the site of the former Robert E. Lee-Stonewall Jackson monument, I was intrigued to find a cluster of young men there. Several had cameras out, a boombox was playing, and one man sat atop the statue performing a rap song.

After the song was done, I met the rapper/songwriter, Cellis, who is a well-known artist activist. Cellis comes from Baltimore and has recorded strong songs outspoken on police brutality and gay rights. His new song will be a proclamation of resistance to white supremacy.

The Baltimore Sun’s photographers have photographed the statues and their sites before and after. See whether you think we suffered a devastating cultural loss. The Baltimore Office of Promotion and Arts is inviting artists to create sculptures to stand where the old monuments were. A beautiful future, which we can’t yet imagine.

Baltimore’s Rap Sheet Grows

This post originally appeared on Murder Is Everywhere.

I was as eager as anyone to see Netflix new television miniseries, The Keepers. The program, which investigates an unsolved murder in 1969 Baltimore, has received admiring reviews. It’s the story of former Keough School students—now women in their sixties—trying to identify the killer of their beloved teacher, Sister Catherine Ann Cesnik.

The Keepers is a sensitive, well-produced show which gives proper gravity to the crime and its lifelong impact on family and friends. I was sad at the end of the first episode, but for reasons that go beyond what I’d watched.

You see, The Keepers is just the latest Baltimore crime story.

It follows a wildly successful podcast called Serial that re-investigates the prosecution of Adnan Syed, a young Baltimore man for the 1999 murder of his girlfriend, Hae Min Lee. Sarah Koenig, the investigative reporter who wrote the podcast, discover many pieces of suppressed evidence that might have kept Adnan from jail. After the podcast, a series of legal challenges were made, and Adnan was granted a second trial, which will be held next year.

Serial made its splash following David Simon’s The Wire, an internationally celebrated HBO series focusing on Baltimore police’s battle against crime, and before that Homicide, another Simon series with crime on Baltimore’s streets.

Homicide: Life on the Streets

Interestingly, each of these crime dramas involves the hand of an alumnus or alumna of the Baltimore Sun—the great daily newspaper where I began my own writing career. When I was a college intern working at the paper, I had Sunday duty on the “crime desk.” It meant calling the various police stations to learn how many people had died and by what means. What I did was the very opposite of hardboiled beat reporting.

David Simon of Homicide and The Wire, Sarah Koenig of Serial, and Bob Erlandson, who’s interviewed in The Keepers, were highly seasoned Sun writers who followed some homicides for months—or even years.  A freelance journalist, Tom Nugent, collected research on Sister Cathy for years and wrote a 6000-word article about her for the Baltimore City Paper in 2005.

I greatly admire the reporting and editing that went into all of these programs. But the rise of this genre disturbs me. It makes me concerned that Baltimore’s image around the world is nothing but murder.

It would be cool if network executives were interested in a parallel track: dramatic programming about Baltimore that weren’t so deadly. The only non-murder show that comes to mind is Ace of Cakes, a reality show on the Food Network.

Just thirty years ago, the city’s image was charmingly quirky. In the late 1980s, films like The Accidental Tourist, Hairspray, and Diner served up a historic East Coast city short on glamour, but full of characters. People fretted that Baltimore was always typecast as the home of cheerful, blue collar people who spoke with long Os. We all wanted to get beyond that stereotype and diversify.

I wouldn’t mind a few Os, if I could get some back.

In Minneapolis, Purple Still Reigns

This post originally appeared on Murder Is Everywhere.

dem atlas covers Prince this past weekend

Last weekend, when I was visiting the “Twin Cities” of Minneapolis and St. Paul, I was hit with an unexpected surge of purple.

Purple was the favorite color of Prince, a Minnesota funk-rock star—and April 21 was the one-year anniversary of his untimely death in 2016 by overdose. I grew up in St. Paul and was just a few years younger than the man born Prince Rogers Nelson. Prince released his first album, Soft and Wet, at the age of 17, and I avidly followed his every move over the next several decades, as did my sisters.  Like Prince, we were young people of color living in a state that was predominantly white. There were no black musicians played on the radio except for on our sole “black” station, KMOJ-FM.

Scene outside First Avenue at Prince Memorial

It was hard to make friends, or find someone willing to date you, when you were a few shades darker than the majority or had an unpronounceable name. It was exhilarating to see Prince—a small, light-skinned black man who wore lace and satin and high heels—fearlessly be himself.

Artists who perform at First Ave are celebrated in stars. Only Prince’s is golden

Prince’s biggest local shows were at a large nightclub called First Avenue at the downtown Minneapolis. First Avenue remains one of the top national nightclubs that still showcases local performers. Prince’s first film, Purple Rain, is a fictitious story in which he plays “The Kid,” someone very much like himself, trying to make it in show business, get the girl, and deal with some hard family issues. The 1984 movie was a hit, with Prince’s artistry stealing the show. Watching it later, I notice how mixed-race his audience appeared. People seemed to forget about traditional boundaries and fell in love with his hypnotic beats and daring lyrics. I mark this as the start of a new Minnesota.

Purple Rain, best film score ever

Prince shot to stardom shortly after I’d become 18, the legal age to go to First Avenue’s night shows. When he came to Baltimore’s Civic Center, I was a college student and bought a ticket to his show. I pushed my way to the edge of backstage and gave one of the roadies a note addressed to my high school friend, Susan Moonsie, who’d become a singer in one of his custom-made opening bands: Vanity 6. I was gloriously lucky to find myself escorted backstage, where I hung out with Susan all night and met the other Vanity 6 singers and the men of The Time. However, I didn’t get to exchange words with Prince. Susan didn’t want to introduce me because the two of them were in an argument.

Brenda, Vanity and Susan of Vanity 6

Despite his superstar status, Prince never abandoned Minnesota. He built a massive home and recording studio in the suburb of Chanhassen named Paisley Park, after one of his songs, and often opened it to friends and fans who came for private parties with performances. Prince sometimes showed up to play at Minneapolis’s Dakota jazz club or First Avenue.

Paisley Park is now open to tourists

During Prince’s adult years, Minnesota diversified. The state became the chief home of refugees from Somalia. It became a leader in families with international adoptions and was said to be “the gayest city after San Francisco.”

Last weekend St. Paul, Minneapolis and Edina lit their buildings and bridges purple honoring Prince

Was Prince a symbol of civic change—or was he an agent of change?

I wondered about this as I walked through the Twin Cities last weekend listening to the top favorite 89 Prince Songs on The Current, a Minnesota Public Radio station that, like KMOJ, had a special relationship with the artist. Spring comes late in the upper Midwest—while the grass was green, the tulips were just popping and the trees were taking on a light haze of leaves. In many neighborhoods, the gardens sprouted yard signs: “Black Lives Matter,” and “Falcon Heights: The World is Watching,” a reference to the fatal police shooting of Philando Castile in my own neighborhood that came a few months after Prince’s death.

The most popular sign was in rainbow hues, with the state of Minnesota on one sign and on the other, the phrase, “All Are Welcome Here.” The overt activism reminded me of the growing political and spiritual content of Prince’s work in the years just before his death. He had his eyes on the world, and he wanted to keep building bridges.

In April 2015, I was living in Baltimore during a period that it seemed one black male after another was killed by police. In Baltimore, a young man named Freddie Gray was arrested on suspicion of carrying drugs; he died after a short ride to jail in a police van. During a two-day period after Freddie’s funeral, areas of Baltimore were filled with destructive protestors and hundreds of fires were set. We endured almost a week of curfew and a city takeover by soldiers with the National Guard.

We never dreamed that Prince’s career would end a year later

As the city was stilling itself, the city had stilled—but hardly returned to normal—Prince announced he was coming to Baltimore to perform a free “Rally 4 Peace.” He booked the Royal Farms Arena at his own expense. He wrote a song called “Baltimore” that was compassionate yet had a happy, bopping beat. The song will never be his greatest hit, but it seems a perfectly distilled essence of his style and dogged determination to share joy as the way forward.

A Tale of Two City Festivals

This post originally appeared on Murder Is Everywhere.

Thousands of cherry trees blossom every spring in Washington DC, a tradition spanning 105 years. At the same time, brilliant light sculptures and art installations glow along the port promenade in Baltimore. Two festivals I’d never experienced drew me away from my work. Which festival first?

I started out on a gray Thursday morning toward Washington DC, hoping rain wouldn’t come. It was my wedding anniversary, and my husband Tony and I had taken the day off. The traffic gods were kind and the car reached the cherry blossom zone just an hour after leaving Baltimore. We strolled from the parking garage to eat ceviche and amazing tacos at a fine Mexican restaurant, Oyamel, owned by chef Jose Andres. We visited the Building Museum and National Portrait Gallery, spending not enough time because we wanted to reach the nearby cherry blossom trail.

The DC cherry blossom festival has quite a history. The trees would never be there, if it weren’t for a woman’s persistence. Bringing Japanese trees to Washington DC was the idea of a globe-trotting journalist, Eliza Ruhamah Scidmore, who fell in love with Japan’s signature tree when she was touring the East. Starting in the 1880s, Mrs. Scidmore lobbied the US government for 24 years with her idea of a mass transplantation of Japanese trees to beautify the new parkland in the city that had been reclaimed from the Potomac.

She had no luck until 1909, when she found a fellow cherry blossom enthusiast in David Fairchild, an Agriculture Department official who’d transplanted Japanese cherries to his own home. However, the government only agreed after Eliza reconnected with an American lady she’d once met in Japan. As the nation’s new First Lady, Helen Herren Taft got the cherry tree plan in motion.

However, the first 3000 trees sent from Japan in 1911 were never planted During their shipment, they fell  victim to insect infestation. The only thing that could be done to keep the environment safe was to burn them all. Still, the Tokyo government, and a Japanese chemist named Jokichi Takamine, were willing to send 3020 more trees the next year. This group of healthy trees took root and flourished, even through World War II, when Japan was an enemy and the trees were referred to as “Oriental cherry trees” in the hopes of avoiding their destruction.

Cherry trees typically live 40 to 45 years, so the trees one sees today are not Eliza’s trees. But they are splendid indeed and provide a fairyland feeling when you stand underneath. It was delightful to be walking in the cherry fairyland, rather than being trapped inside one of the many giant tour buses circling around. I was also pleased that the parkland hadn’t been overtaken with more sales vendors than usual. The photo-snapping crowds made me recall Japan’s “Hanami,” a special cherry-blossom viewing time that inspired The Flower Master, my mystery novel set in Tokyo’s flower arranging world.

The day after our DC excursion, the rains came. And this slowed the beginning of Baltimore’s Light City Festival, which was set to run for 9 days for the second year in a row at Baltimore’s Inner Harbor. Brooke Hall and Justin Allen, a married arts-and-marketing couple, came up with the idea of a new festival that would bring the arts to the heart of the city. They did their research and crafted a proposal for a spectacular walk filled with lighted sculptures and entertainment. Fortunately, it did not take 24 years to get the Baltimore Office of Promotion to agree to fund Light City Baltimore.

Then the fun began. Artists from many states and countries vied for placement in a very challenging venue—as several of the electric installations are in the harbor’s waters, and all the pieces were subject to high winds and rain at various times during the nine-day festival period. It’s one thing to have your art in an international show—it’s another to realize doing this outdoors could cause its destruction.

The Saturday night we went to Light City Baltimore was the rain date for the delayed opening celebration, with a full line-up of musicians, dancers and magicians. The harbor promenade was edged with vendors selling food and drink, and harbor restaurants and bars were packed. There was a great sense of energy and happiness. Some artists were on hand to explain their work, and other art works were open for exploration, including a field of bright dots, an illuminated see-saw, and a lighted rickshaw with a glamorous Chinese lantern. Among my favorites were a floating installation of 400 umbrellas and an illuminated honeycomb. I’ve been to a lot of festivals over 25 years in Baltimore, and this was the most spectacular.

As I came away from the festivals, I had two thoughts. The Japanese cherry trees were brought to beautify a fledgling city that has subsequently prospered. And the lighted art walk illuminates an old city trying to recast itself in its fourth century.

The East Coast’s Steamy Springtime

This post originally appeared on Murder Is Everywhere.

T-shirt weather in February!

“Want to go for a walk?”

My daughter surprised me with this request last week. During the Baltimore winter, nobody in the family walks together—even the dog doesn’t want to be out more than five minutes.

While Maryland winters are not fierce like the seasons I spent in Minnesota, they are still cold. There are always a few snowfalls and a cold wind blowing off the Atlantic. The difference between winter in Maryland and other places is that the damp wind can chill you to the bones. February is a good month for making soup.

It certainly hasn’t been the usual kind of February. Last December, meteorologists predicted this would be another warm winter, just like 2016. The forces at work were an especially strong El Nino wind and an Arctic Oscillation, a stream of winds above Canada and Alaska that has chosen to trap the cold weather far to the north of us. The US Geological Survey says spring arrived to the Washington DC area 22 days early.

I’m not ready to say that we are in spring (official date of Spring Equinox is March 20). In Baltimore—an hour’s drive from DC—this winter brought only a slight, powdered-sugar style dusting of snow: less than an inch. The mountainous areas in Western Maryland where people ski had a tremendous melt of the small amount of snow that fell.  The ski resorts are all but closed up for the season, when they ordinarily would have had business for at least another month. It’s weird. Just like the active calls of birds to each other, seeking mates, just a little bit too early.

When I say this is a hot winter, I mean that it’s been like California on many days. My husband, perhaps out of loyalty to his birthplace, says it’s a “New Orleans winter.” Instead of the typical temperatures in the 30s, it’s been in the 60s and 70s Fahrenheit for many days in the past weeks. It reached 77 last Friday when I went walking with the dog and my daughter. At Johns Hopkins, the school set up signs encouraging students to practice mindfulness while outdoors. The staff arranged beach chairs to encourage meditating in nature, but the Hopkins students seemed more intent on getting to class.

No time to sit and sun oneself at Hopkins!

Daffodils springing up at Johns Hopkins Homewood campus

For me, the national news has been so chilling, that the warm weather gives me a sort of fragile happiness—the feeling that life still is good. Walking in nature is good for mental health, as well as physical.

I invited my husband to walk with me last Sunday afternoon and we took a 45 minute stroll through the neighborhood. Crocus in February are par for the course. However, we saw sights we would normally not see for a month: magnolia trees in bud, and pink hellebores in bloom. I planted a few hundred bulbs in my own garden around Thanksgiving week, and they are starting to show their faces. That seems hardly enough time underground to get their roots established.

Magnolia buds

Hellebores

Apparently Japanese apricot trees and some early-blooming cherry trees are already in flower. I’m worried that a cold snap will kill the display; just as I feel nervous for any birds laying eggs. I also wonder what might happen if birds and rabbits decide to procreate early. Could their eggs survive a freeze?

Well-naturalized crocuses

My fingers are crossed that the steamy early spring will not lead to a silent spring later on.

Why Fall is a Writer’s Best Season

This post originally appeared on Murder Is Everywhere.

Rudbeckia

Sometimes it seems our population has two types of people: those who hate to see summer end, and those who can’t wait.

Last week, school started in Maryland, and I began experiencing the most time for my work than I’ve had in the last 18 years. Chalk it up to one of my children starting college, and the other joining a terrific high school carpool group that departs at 7:15 a.m. and doesn’t return until 6 p.m.

In the last ten years, my lament has always been: if only the day had 27 hours, not 24. Despite loving my children very much, the demands of driving back and forth left me with less than six hours per day to write and do everything else.

Now I’be been given 10.5 hours, five days a week. That is a ton of writing time—and some me time, too.

dog photo

The weather is still balmy enough to write in the “summer office,” as I call the west-facing screened porch on the second floor of our Victorian cottage. This is the very best place I’ve found to create—and only will feel comfortable for a few more weeks, at which time my muse (Charlie the beagle) will become broken hearted.

It feels vacation-like to settle into work at a natural temperature and in dappled shade. The whispering of trees and chattering of squirrels that makes the space seem sacred. That is—until Charlie sees another dog walk the lane fifty feet underneath us and reads him the riot act.

snoozing dog

If it’s rainy, I go to my real office on the third floor, where I’ve got a desk tucked under the eaves. It’s easy to forget time and write, write, write.

There are times that I’m working on a manuscript and just can’t find the right word. Then I step away and do a short household chore. It’s important to remember to stretch. When I come back, I usually know the words that had evaded me earlier.

house in trees

Walking is another delight of a writing routine. It’s easy to get wrapped up in a story and decide not to go to a gym class—but I can’t find an excuse not to walk for thirty minutes or an hour.

The North Baltimore neighborhood where I live is a walker’s paradise. Roland Park was laid out between 1890 and 1920 by the Olmsted Company, a landscape architecture firm that designed parks, college campuses, zoos and residential suburbs. The naturalistic, wild approach to neighborhood design made it a refuge.

hilltop path sign

In less than an hour, I can walk up hills and ridges, traverse curving streets, enjoy the shade of towering native trees, and explore the secret staircases in a network of paths and lanes designed for people and horse-drawn cart traffic. I love to meander off on these mysterious paths that take me to a peaceful place.

walking path

lane stairs

Lately, I’ve been counting monarch butterflies on my walks. In the 1970s, suburban gardens were filled with dozens. As a child, I thought they were as common as flies.

butterfly photo

These days, I rarely spot more than a single monarch on my walks. I know that it’s a matter of not enough milkweed homes around for their caterpillars.

But I’m cheered by the solo flyer doing its daily job, just as I enjoy coming back to the house, taking off my shoes, and getting back to my own work in a silent old house.