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Following Instructions

Following Instructions

What are we writing today?

Instructions for living a life.
Pay attention.
Be astonished.
Tell about it. – Mary Oliver

It’s a rainy Friday in May, cool outside the coffee shop. The line for the drive-through wraps around the building and winds through the parking lot. Most of the tables are full. My writing partner and I are nestled in our customary spot, the twin chairs in front of the picture windows just beyond which the cars edge forward, their drivers anticipating coffee for their morning commute. “Perseverance,” my writing partner counsels wisely, “we just need to sit in the chair.”

My tea tastes more like the cream I impulsively added to it than black tea. I’m shifting and fidgeting in my chair, balancing my laptop on my knees, wondering if I can get into the creative flow that I came here looking for. For some time Mary Oliver’s quote has been on my desktop, at times mocking me, at times simply calling to me. I want to explain to her that I’ve been paying attention and plenty astonished by the last two months. I’ve been failing at telling about it.

In the big picture the pieces have shifted and shifted again, like one of those puzzles where you keep sliding the tiles around to make a pattern or organize the numbers. Seventeen is now Eighteen and finishing his first year of college in a blaze of excellent grades, new friendships, wonderful memories, and age-appropriate frustrations in pointing his car toward home where he understandably feels his life goes on hold for the summer. IMG_8170Fourteen will be Fifteen shortly—the past four months together have been a wonderful exploration of our mother-daughter duo—and she is excitedly headed toward summer through the end-of-the-year obstacle course of finals, projects, recitals and concerts.IMG_8173 Ninety-Two has come back stronger than before from a health crisis in April, astounding us all. My house is on the market, creating a combination of uncertainty about where we’ll live next and requiring the constant upkeep of living in a “Pinterest house.” Each of these is a story unto itself, full of little and big astonishments; spring, though, is about mushrooms and rainbows. So it is these I shall tell about:

Mushroom Soup

Ninety-Two’s health crumbled in early April. Another hospitalization landed her back in skilled nursing, where a team of physical and occupational therapists helped her get back on her feet. The fabric of support from friends and family for both of us was truly astonishing. From meals delivered to rides for Fourteen to flowers on my doorstep to kind words via email, phone, and text, we felt the love from near, far and wide. One email arrived with this welcome news: Morels … Found a bunch and I’d like to share them with you. Might make your mom happy.

My mother and I delighted in morel season on our farm, going out into the woods to look together, squealing when we found a mushroom. They are undeniably delicious, but also a herald of the spring with summer to follow, seasons of ease and abundance, of heat and leisure, of a shift away from the arduous slog that was winter life in the country. Disappearing as quickly as they appear, morel mushrooms are earth-magic, little wonders like four-leaf clovers and rainbows that you will only see if you pay attention.

Our morel benefactress zoomed up to the yoga studio in her black car and handed me a paper bag through the window. I hopped from one bare foot to the other on cool pavement in my bare feet, telling her I had devised an entire plan since her email the evening before. At home with the morels, I started diced onions in oil, the beginning to any good recipe and one that used to bring my mother out of her room when the scent of sizzling onions wafted around the corner. To these I added garlic and chopped crimini, then mushroom broth, simmering the flavors together. IMG_8153With the immersion blender on its last legs, the motor whining as much as it smooths, I puréed the soup in the pot and added thick cream from a local dairy.

Leaving the soup on low, I turned my attention to the paper bag bearing the most perfect morels. Lifting them one-by-one, I carefully sliced them the long way into quarters while my pan heated on the stove. Cooking them the French way meant tossing them into the hot pan without oil or butter, turning them rapidly and waiting for their liquor to release. When they were just right—cooked through with their edges and flavors intensified by heat—I tossed them into a thermos and trapped their heat with the lid. The soup went into a second thermos, and both went into a bag with a bowl, a cream-soup spoon from our farm days, and a kitchen towel. Defying the Pinterest house, I left a mess in the kitchen and went to deliver spring to Ninety-Two.

Whatever the results, there is something life affirming about knowing the impact of our actions. I’ve gotten things completely wrong plenty; sitting with the feelings of regret or dismay or despair is the surest way to forge through and rebound, but it isn’t the least bit pleasant. On occasion, I’ve gotten things completely right. Delivering morel mushroom soup to my convalescing mother was one of those occasions, worth everything I put aside to make the soup while the mushrooms were fresh, worth every dish I zoomed home to scrub in my otherwise barely used for-sale kitchen. I watched her exclaim and spoon up every bite, adding more broth so that each spoonful was a silky mixture of soup and mushroom. Later, while Fourteen and I were enjoying morels with eggs and asparagus, Ninety-Two’s email arrived, celebrating the soup and, in hindsight, heralding the turn toward her remarkable recovery.IMG_8154

Which leaves just rainbows to tell about—if you live in the Midwest you’ve seen some amazing ones recently. One morning I woke up in the yellow glow of morning and realized I had woken up inside of one (pictured below with May hail and the rainbow that followed). If mushrooms are earth-magic, then rainbows are the generous gifts of sky and wind and rain and sun, heralds of changing skies and astonishing times to come. But we won’t even notice them if we don’t pay attention and we won’t receive their gifts if we aren’t willing to be astonished. With intense gratitude for your presence on my journey and for letting me tell you about it, Rxo

Salon Ninety-Two

How do you know what to teach?

I am lying on my mother’s bed, a deceptively bright triangle of blue sky visible from the window to my left. It’s cold outside, but in the warm cocoon of her respite apartment I’ve shed all of my outer layers. My eyes play between the sky and the nubbly stucco ceiling. She’s stretched out, too, under a fuzzy blanket. We’ve been exchanging news—she of the curiosities of finding herself living a new chapter at ninety-two, me of my peeps and my own comings and goings, including the day’s yoga classes. I look over at Mom and I can see she’s forming a question, her own eyes reviewing the texture of the ceiling.

“How do you know what to teach?”

I stall my answer a bit, taking time to roll up onto my elbow to face her, realizing that’s distinctly uncomfortable, bunching a pillow under my ear, and finally giving up and sitting all the way up. On the way, I’ve found the analogy I needed.

“It’s like teaching someone to ride a horse.”

Ninety-Two grew up in western Nebraska, her family moving to California in the thirties. She rode her pony to high school, moved a horse across the country to Washington, DC, in her early twenties, and kept as many as five horses at any given time on the farm where I grew up. She preferred English to Western, did jumping, dressage, and trail riding. She put lots of people, from the writers filtering through the workshop in Iowa City to neighboring children on horseback for the very first time. Nobody learned from a book—whether they came outfitted in designer riding duds or jeans and sneakers—she showed them how to catch the horse with a piece of a carrot extended on a flat hand, place a halter gently around the horses nose to lead it to the barn, clean its hooves, curry its hair, add a saddle and bridle, lead the horse out, step into the stirrup, and swing a leg up and over.

My mother is nodding as I say these steps, “And then sometimes you’d have to make them go before they were ready—trot before they learned to walk, canter before they’d learned to trot.”

We smile, complicitous. “Yes, sometimes that’s true in yoga, too.”

I remember, then, a student who walked into the door of my studio, a referral from another teacher suspending her classes for the summer. “I love yoga,” she told me, filling in her registration form, “but I don’t ever want to go upside down. No headstand for me.”

“Okay,” I assured her—in all likelihood a smile playing on my face—and we chatted about her practice and the class she was joining. She went inside and unrolled her mat front and center, a position she would occupy each Wednesday morning for at least a year.

What the curly haired beauty in front of me couldn’t have known is that each yoga community and every class becomes a Sangha—even as people come and go—and has an energy of its own. That Wednesday group, whose numbers included any number of women living with multiple joint-replacements, loved headstand. So it was inevitable that the pose would arise in our rotation. The woman, I’ll call her Shakti, after the female principle of divine energy and power, would smile contentedly and settle back, taking whatever alternate pose I offered in lieu of standing on her head or even working on headstand prep. Chairs set up against the wall offered yoginis who didn’t want to take weight on their heads the opportunity to invert in “headless” headstand.

One day I noticed her watching the line of women using the chairs. I invited her to try and her community quickly chorused, “Come on over, Shakti.” “It’s easy.” “You’ll love it.” “But,” I assured her, remembering the ferocity with which she had declared she wouldn’t invert, “no pressure.” Sometimes you can see someone considering the possibilities, the thoughts playing in the air over their heads—this was one of those moments and the whole room went still as Shakti considered her options. She stood, a tiny powerhouse, “Okay? Maybe I’ll try it.”

Those waiting to use the chairs cleared a path and Shakti walked over. I showed her where to put her hands, adjusted the chairs closer to fit her, and invited her to settle her shoulders onto the blankets cushioning the chairs. That’s really the scariest part of the pose because the first time out it feels a little like you’re putting your neck in a guillotine (headless headstand is a perfect Halloween pose). “Which leg feels like it wants to go up first?”

Shakti lifted her leg and I positioned myself to guide that leg to the wall. “When you’re ready, push into your hands and give a little kick.”

She backed off, lifting her head and looking at me, nervous. “It’s okay. If not today, another time.” Again, I could see her considering the matter. Then she fitted her head back into the space between the chairs and started to swing her leg. Before either of us knew what happened, she kicked up and stuck a beautifully aligned headless headstand. The burst of cheer on her face was met with applause from the watching crowd. As so often happens, the surprise of it all brought her down sooner and more quickly than she intended. To my delight, she lifted right back up. “This. Is. Amazing.”

It wasn’t long before Shakti put weight on her head in headstand prep, stood fully in the pose against the wall, and then asked me how to balance in the middle of the room. She became one of the regulars who requested headstand in class, and she practiced it on her own at home. We often joked about the first thing she had ever said to me as her headstand practice evolved.

A short time later she walked in on a Wednesday morning with the bittersweet news that she was moving back east. “At least you’re taking your headstand with you!” I hugged her hard.

“You’ll always be the one who taught me to stand on my head when I didn’t want to.”

“You did that yourself,” I told her, not for the first time.

“I couldn’t have done it without you,” she said simply.

I roll back onto my back, once again considering the ceiling of my mother’s room. The summer I was ten, a young woman taught riding on our farm and we were up and on horseback each morning before the heat of the day. At the end of the season, we held an exhibition for our parents and my mother awarded us trophies, a statue of a horse with a plaque showing our names and the phrase, “Riding According to Susie Farrell.” Maybe it’s only now that I begin to understand that phrase. Yoga isn’t mine, but the way I share the practice is. If I could, I might give Shakti a trophy of herself in headstand according to Robin Bourjaily. This is how I might best define the oral tradition of teaching the practice that I love.IMG_7912

So many memories of horses and riders on our farm seem to be swirling through the air around my mother and me. I know my yoga life is an oddity to her, in spite of her insistence I go out the door to practice when my peeps were really little, but maybe the comparison to riding has helped her align her passion just a little more closely with mine. I stretch, shifting my attention back to the sky outside her window. “You know,” I tell her, “I think it’s probably really good for me to come lie on your bed for an hour every day. It’s relaxing.” This sentiment is mirrored by my dear friend who comes to visit often, leaving behind her burgeoning real estate practice to spend a little time chatting pleasantly. In finding this space, a place where Mom’s care requirements have shifted to the people who work in the facility, I have received an incomparable gift—these are precious moments where we are simply together, mother and daughter.

May this March full moon find you getting ready to welcome spring, in spite of the cold and snow. Thank you for the journey, Rxo

My Funny Valentine

My Funny Valentine

Wha?? You’re letting it go?

When you move, it takes time to find new light switches in the dark. Everything is so new that it’s comforting to cling to the belongings you’ve brought with you. But even the perfect car for your old life might not fit as well with the travel requirements of your new world. Thus it was that I fell distinctly out of love with the Volvo wagon, a tank of a car purchased when my peeps were small to keep us safe in the bustling traffic of Bethesda, MD. I’m something of a serial monogamist when it comes to cars. The Volvo’s replacement?

The sales lady didn’t know it, but it was love at first sight when I saw the cool vanilla PT Cruiser with 12,995 miles on the odometer. The car had been a rental in California, no doubt leased by enthusiastic visitors at LAX who thought it would be fun to drive a convertible down to Mexico. As a result, over the course of the first couple of years I owned it, the car had an array of mysterious mechanical problems we blamed on bad Mexican gas, but they were miraculously covered by the warranty and I didn’t much care. More than a few people commented on the booster seats in the back; my peeps enjoyed tooling around in the car with the top down as much as I. With the upgrade to an auxiliary plug, I stopped constantly listening to classical music, a hold-over I had adopted when pregnant and driving a respectable yuppymobile, and reconnected with the music I loved growing up.

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Our last date in the sun, Valentine’s week 2017

I drove that car more than 100,000 miles, year-around, through more than one challenging winter storm, once getting stranded by slick roads with my daughter on a wintry night when the car desperately needed new tires. I drove it as far east as Athens, Ohio, and as far west as the Omaha zoo. Together we went north to Mankato, MN, for yoga teacher training nine times in every kind of weather and made countless trips south to pick up friends from the airport … but mostly I drove it to and fro, from dropping my son at TaeKwonDo to picking up my daughter from dance, from the grocery store to the yoga studio, from home to the coffee shop for writing time. When the warranty ran out, I found a mechanic who kept it running, who seemed to understand that the car was more than transportation for me.

I retired it for pleasure use only when I bought the Orange Dart in 2013 and hauled it out of retirement when Seventeen became a licensed driver. Sometime around then, my constant spate of car troubles became blog fodder, eye-roll-worthy updates on Facebook, and the source of more than one giggle and many-a grimace when I referenced my fleet of erratic cars in conversation.

The Dart is its own story, a brief fling with an unreliable machine. In its own way it served and the lessons I learned are the stuff of another essay. We said farewell to the Dart in December and hello to the handsome new Beetle named Mercury on the last day of 2016. A new love for a new year meant I had one too-many convertibles. What to do with the Cruiser?

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With just 1542 miles on it, Mercury rolled right into my heart … our first date: the Starbucks drive through on 12.31.16. And yes, it was warm enough to test it with the top down and the heated seat on!

The weather turned freakishly warm in February. I got the car out, mindful that it needed to be driven, and took it to the full service car wash. Every time I drove that car it felt like my escort, a loyal steed, my chariot of nuts and bolts. As if giving my squire voice, one of the car wash employees opened the passenger door, crawled halfway in, and interrupting himself while inquiring what they might do for me announced, “You are SO beautiful.” I told him he had just made my day as I left my baby in his care.

When the top dried in the sun, I dropped it for the last time and drove, enjoying the sunshine and remembering so many happy trips. Once, after a successful black-belt test, when Seventeen was just Ten, the sun was setting in fiery reds and dark clouds scattered fat raindrops on our victory lap home. I remember Ten testing his voice, yelling “promotion skies,” his celebration the last of his post-test adrenaline. His sister in her cow-spotted booster seat pumped much tinier fists, her fine blonde hair blowing in the breeze.

On this, our last date, I parked the clean Cruiser by the lake near my house and took more pictures of it than I needed. Top up, top down, doors open and closed. My favorite shows water just beyond the dash as though the car might actually be about to launch, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang’s long lost cousin.

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Chitty Chitty Bang Bang’s long-lost cousin–I do believe my Cruiser could take me everywhere!

The next day I posted my car on Craig’s List, photos, TLC needed, and all. Within twenty minutes I had a very interested potential buyer. By the time I went to bed there was a slew of inquiries, but the very interested buyer was scheduled to come the next afternoon and everyone else would have to wait.

In a series of events that underscores my faith in the universe, the buyer, a couple in fact, had lost a PT Cruiser in an accident just a week before. When they arrived in their rental to look at my car, they had just picked up their insurance settlement. My car sat waiting for them, glistening in the sun on my driveway. Although I showed them it’s ailments and infirmities, they were focused on the positives—it was their favorite car, a great color, and they had never owned a convertible. The new tires and a new battery meant they weren’t perturbed by the broken glove box or quirky back hatch. They drove it for about five minutes, arrived back and announced, “sold.” We shook hands on the deal and they went off to procure cash.

While I waited for them, I took the plates off the car and worked on cleaning out my garage. The youngest of four neighboring children arrived, a little girl in her Girl Scout sash, her father trailing her and dragging a wagon full of cookies behind him. I never buy Girl Scout cookies because once I start eating them I can’t stop (what’s in those cookies?), but the day felt like a day for spreading good will, so I bought two. My car’s new owners arrived and they bought four boxes of cookies on the way in the door to sign the paperwork. In a manner of minutes I had a brand new-to-me pile of cash and they drove off, the husband trailing his happy wife in her new-to-her convertible. I wonder if she ate any cookies on her way? A fan of snacking and driving, I certainly would have.

Happy New February Moon—with Valentine’s Day in the rearview mirror and spring glimmering around the corner. May you find that all is well in your world as you launch new explorations. As ever, Namaste, Rxo

Before There Are Questions …

What questions are you living in 2017?

There’s a stillness early in January, when the clutter of the holidays—real and figurative—is cleared away, when it’s too cold to worry about much outside, when the routine returns post winter break. Into that stillness I stepped willingly this year, feeling like the huge transitions of the 2016—relocating my teaching practice, settling Seventeen in college, adjusting to life with him away—were managed. Indeed each of the questions that launched 2016—whether I should close Radiant Om Yoga; what life might look like after; what it would be like for Ninety-Two, Fourteen and me in our house without the bright, vibrant center of energy that is Seventeen, had found their way to reasonable new realities, if not precise answers. And I thought—Okay. I can take a little time now, in this space, to figure out next steps, next questions.

One morning geese flooded our neighborhood lake where above-normal temps meant there was open water, and just as I was watching them an eagle soared over their midst, causing the geese to dip their heads and squawk. I watched the eagle gain elevation and circle over first the lake, then the trees. And I thought—I’m so glad I got to see that.

Another day a shaggy young coyote was standing at the street corner, looking for all the world like he was waiting to cross with the walk light. Fourteen in the passenger seat pointed to him, “I saw that doggy in our backyard the other day.” When I explained he was a coyote, she said, “I didn’t think he was anyone’s pet. He’s beautiful.” I was glad I got to see that, too.

A fat squirrel does acrobatic tricks among the crab apple trees in our backyard, nibbling at dried fruits and then leaping onto branches that look like they’ll snap under her weight. She’s red and fluffed up against the cold. I see her most mornings and I think how wonderful she is to watch.

I leapt at an invitation to teach yoga at our local science center, where a projection on the domed ceiling of the glittering Milky Way lent an intergalactic quality to one practice and the full moon surrounded by sparkling stars felt like a dream come true in another. These were moments I felt nothing short of awe.

And more recently, there are the hints of the coming season—small birds flying in pairs, the return of the cardinals flashing red against the snow, the chick-a-dee adding an extra dee to its song. Spring with its racing forward energy is a promise, beckoning and reminding; the early-year stillness that lets me look around doesn’t last.

In fact, what happened in January and spilled into February became so much more, so rife with emotion and energy requirements that life ran me full tilt and question posing time in particular fell entirely away. Those close to the epicenter know the details: Ninety-Two’s health took a dive, a not-entirely unexpected event for someone who has graced this planet for so long. But no matter how prepared one might be for such eventual circumstances, moving through it is big and complicated and challenging. While so much—writing and eating well and sleeping regular hours and walking—went by the wayside, as I think back over these days, it is the moments of stillness with wildlife and stars and most particularly the people whom I love that I see gave me strength.

And so just tonight, under an actual full moon, I am finding my way back from being overwhelmed by it all to overneath it all. Ninety-Two, Seventeen, Fourteen and I are all okay—the good kind of okay—at this very moment. For the first time in weeks I feel like there’s a little breathing room; nevertheless, I’m aware that the opportunity for stillness has slipped away with the calendar pages of January. The new normal will take some getting used to, but at least there promises to be plenty to write about.

Here’s to the launch of a slightly delayed new year of OverneathItAll. I’ve missed marking two of my favorite holidays with you—the Chinese New Year welcomed in the Fire Rooster and the Ground Hog saw his shadow (six more weeks of stillness might be good for me). I celebrated eleven years of being a yoga educator as well. And as ever, I’m extraordinarily lucky to journey with you. Much love & happy full Snow Moon. Namaste, Rxo

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The full moon over my shoulder at the Science Center of Iowa

2016’s Big Finish

Why do you call your son Seventeen?

When John Glenn died earlier this month I felt really sad—another light on this planet extinguished in a year that saw the departure of so many points of light: Prince, Glenn Ifill, Gene Wilder, Leonard Cohen, Glenn Frey, Alan Rickman, David Bowe, Natalie Cole, Harper Lee, James Alan McPherson, Gary Marshall, Janet Reno, Sharon Jones. There are still more celebrities, of course, and dear ones much closer to home too.

Soft spots for celebrities are as personal as the movies that speak volumes to us or the song that goes onto a perma-this-is-my-story playlist. John Glenn’s departure was more personal to me still—he was a man I was lucky enough to meet on several occasions as my father covered his presidential campaign. Senator Glenn and his wife Annie were gracious and dazzling in person, the authentic embodiment of the way they appeared in media-ready images.

With care but no hesitation, I crafted a status update for Facebook about Senator Glenn’s death. Sharing the obituary a Facebook friend of mine had posted, I added these words: Another amazing hero departs 2016 … I like thinking of you, Senator Glenn—a man I was fortunate enough to meet during the presidential campaign—up among the stars where you belong. Orbit in Peace. A few of my friends responded to my post, adding their own kind words and memories. Our interaction there doesn’t even qualify as a footnote in Glenn’s life, but he clearly made an impact in each of ours, a part of what it can mean to be famous.

For most of us, there’s no formal notification. My father had a student, author John Yount, who quipped that he wanted to open the mail one day to find he’d received a single-line letter: Congratulations! You are now rich and famous. When I ask Google about Mr. Yount, I’m pleased to see his name and his books come right up and pleasantly surprised to note that at 81 he’s alive, presumably retired from an illustrious career as a professor at the University of New Hampshire, where we visited him when I was quite young. Did he arrive at “rich and famous?” Perhaps in certain circles, allows my mother, Ninety-Two, who remembers him. His books were well received critically and, my search reveals, he was heartily praised as an important influence by John Irving, another student of my father’s, another writer who went on to rock the literary world but I remember as underfoot in our house when I was growing up.

I don’t know if I’ve met more famous people than most—rich and famous both evaded my father, but his literary and political activities certainly brought us into contact with more than a few luminaries. It is this fact that I marvel over as I study the Senator Glenn obituaries. With a slight shock I realize that Senator Glenn died on the anniversary of another important celebrity in my life, John Lennon, shot thirty-six years ago when I was living in Tucson with my father. When I went to find him, to tell him the news, my father was visibly moved, shaking his head sadly, “What a world we live in,” he grieved. “What a world.”

Rich and famous must add layers of challenge in today’s age of over-exposure; celebrities live a hyped-up version of the navigation between private and public we each must explore. When I launched OverneathItAll in 2011, it was designed as a challenge to keep me committed to a regular writing task. With plenty of exceptions, I’ve posted somewhere around the full moon and the new moon ever since. Wanting to provide some thin shield of privacy for my family members, I named my children by their ages, just Eight and Eleven at the blog’s debut. Now Fourteen and Seventeen are living larger; with Facebook, Instagram, and Snapchat accounts of their own, they’re learning to shape their own public images even as they have become characters in the online version of my life.

My blog has made me neither rich nor famous, but it has consistently connected me to a loving and lovely readership and it’s kept me living the questions through an awful lot of drama and adjustment and changes and transitions. Just when I think, as I sometimes do, that it’s time to give it up, a far-away friend writes to me about something I’ve posted or a new connection arises making me want to double-down. And, as a result of posting consistently, owning a yoga studio, publishing a novel, and perhaps most of all having an unusual name, I Google well. Because I do try to keep my posts kind and true, to be generous on Facebook, and to stay away from Internet vitriol, I been mindful but unconcerned about the wide world of the Internet.

So imagine my surprise when a recent flurry of renegotiating my financial realities hit a pothole with one company that first underwrote and then dropped (and has since reinstated, thank you kindly) a policy for me because I am an author and a blogger and I live in the “limelight.” Moonlight and sunlight, certainly. The sparkle of my children, absolutely. Limelight? That was news to me.img_7567

Wednesday, 12.21, Sunrise, 7:39am; Sunset, 4:48pm. At 4:45am (CST), the sun started its long wintery journey back to the north. The moon was silvery and full just a few days ago. With my peeps home and snuggling in for the winter holiday, some year-end business projects to attend to, and a little time off from yoga teaching, I’m going to hit the pause button here just until January. I bid you and yours a joyful holiday season and a wonderful New Year! As always, thank you for our journey together. Love, Rxo

Itsy Bitsy

Itsy Bitsy

What is your spider’s name?

In the novel I’m writing, perhaps more slowly than I’d like, naming the characters as they arrive is both a pleasure and a challenge. Like T. S. Eliot, I believe that the “naming of cats is a difficult matter,” and it doesn’t end with cats. Anyone with a presence in my life, real or imagined, generally ends up with a nickname, or perhaps a slew of them, and my characters complicate matters by changing their names or the spelling of their names, assuring a messy, messy draft.

Among the pages of this blog I have nicknamed a squirrel, Cooper, a deer, Peter, my children and mother, by their ages, and several partners-in-crime. In naming the people who appear here, my intent is to offer them some slight shield of privacy. Perhaps, given the wide-open world of the web, vague anonymity is a more operative phrase; by now those who live with me know they’re likely to end up among my stories, but that I’ll be kind.

So what was my resistance to naming my spider?

She first caught my eye outside my front door in September. Just below eye level in the long narrow window to the side of the door, she had spun a web, her abdomen swollen and ready to fill the egg sac she next meticulously created. Over the next few days I studied her progress, her web a scant tangle of threads, not the artistic creation of the more precise wolf spider whose web glistened just beyond the kitchen window.

As the weeks marched along, the spider went from one egg sac to three. Then one day, the first and largest was suddenly surrounded by tiny specks, as though it had spilled its contents. The all-knowing Internet informed me that these were, in fact, tiny spiders, existing in a kind of in-between stage. Born with hard exoskeletons, they grow and molt, grow and molt, not immediately leaving the protection and food source of their initial nest until they are large enough to manage on their own. Soon enough, the specks in my window went from tiny translucent blobs to tiny spider-shaped spots to slightly larger spider-shaped beings with legs and dark abdomens. As they grew, their watchful mother made two more egg sacs, her own abdomen newly swollen. When she was skinny again, she rested, her babies nearby.

Watching turned to worry that the web would tear or frost would kill the spider. Checking in with her became a daily event, although when I would stop to see her at night, I would see her in a more active state. As I watched her one night working her web, waiting patiently for a tiny fly to get stuck, I understood the brilliance of her location—with the lights on in the house and the dimming skies without, her prey was drawn toward the light and caught in the web on its way. She was a well-fed spider.

I learned from the (other) web that a spider with more than one egg sac is constructing a nursery, with some spider babies hatching in the fall and others wintering over. My spider certainly seemed to be playing all odds with a total of five egg sacs scattered about her web. Then in early November a remarkable thing happened: a fall leaf blew into her web. About two inches long and an inch wide, the leaf curled and dried tangled in her threads. And the spider? The spider spent two or three chilly nights carefully moving each of the egg sacs into the protection of the leaf. Since then, she’s been curled up in her nursery, clinging to life as the calendar turns toward winter. Our mild fall seems to have given her an unusually long lease on life—as recently as last week I observed her changing positions and active at night.

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The sheltering leaf

Thanksgiving week. Much more welcome than the malfunctioning refrigerator and several other complications of modern life, my dear friend from New York, Daana in these pages, arrived and then my son and a fellow first-year student from Russia who had never before experienced an American Thanksgiving. It was a joy to introduce our foreign guest to charades, black Friday madness, Des Moines, a lavish meal with friends and family, and the opportunity the long weekend provides to eat and sleep and relax. The boys played hard, skinning their knuckles on the basement punching bag and staying up late battling it out on the chessboard, Fourteen an ever-present and welcome witness. A random quip, a sashay on our Russian guest’s name, launched an ongoing joke morphing English words that rhymed with his first syllable onto the second syllable given different situations. When Fourteen suggested that perhaps he might grow tired of our jokes, our affable guest replied that no one had ever played with his name in that way in Russian, so he rather liked it.

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Seventeen and his brother from another motherland.

At night when the teenagers finally snuggled into their beds, sleep descended on the house like a soft blanket. Blinking to stay awake, I catalogued all of the slumbering bodies in my house—Daana (the Sanskrit word for Generosity), Seventeen in his childhood big boy bed, his Russian doppelgänger curled on a spare bed wedged into the room, Fourteen in her nest, the kitties in their customary resting spots, my mother in her room. My nursery and my heart were full.

My mind roamed outside the house to the spider. She worked so diligently in spite of the obstacles. How could I not identify with the stoic mother? Her last few days had been a heroic effort to strengthen the web that held the leaf that sheltered her egg sacs from the wind. She is still visible, curled in her nursery, vigilant to the end. She is so mighty and yet when I stop to see her now and it’s clearer and clearer to me that she’s no longer moving, all I can think is how little she is in this big world so fraught with dangers and obstacles. “Aw, Itsy,” because after all, what else could I call the little spider in the sanctuary, “It’s never easy. But you inspire me. And I’m really, really going to miss you.”

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Itsy in her nursery during warmer times.

A few days beyond the new moon, welcoming a festive December and wishing you the warmth and joys of the season. Thanks, as ever, for reading, Rxo

La Bella Luna

How do you know when you’ve seen the moon?

All the time I lived on Redbird Farm, there was never any question of seeing the moon. Without lights from the city or even neighboring farms, the night skies dazzled with stars, the milky way ribboned its bright blaze among them, and the moon waxed and waned, sometimes making a snow-covered field nearly as bright as daylight. A full moon meant more restless beasts moving through the fields, a new moon meant much darker skies, and one memorable winter eclipse found my parents and me huddled together watching the mystery outside my bedroom window in the wee hours.

When the moon is full, it’s full for the entire planet—unlike the seasons, for example, that flip-flop depending on which hemisphere you’re in or the constellations that shift and change locations. So the moon I saw when I moved away from the country to cities and suburbs in the east was the same moon shining without question on my childhood home.

After four days of advanced yoga teacher training, a three and a half hour drive home, and the compression of stepping into Monday after not having a weekend to reset, I was afraid I wouldn’t get to see the supermoon. I was concerned there would be clouds spreading along the eastern horizon as it rose; I was fairly certain I would be driving west at moonrise; I was feeling jealous of the reports of its luster and beauty that people were sharing online and in person.

I was, in fact, driving west at moonrise. I had taken my second trip east in just a few days’ time to Seventeen’s college home—Monday’s trip was to deliver the altered suit we had shopped for the week before. Seventeen quite suddenly needed a new suit (his first) in the middle of the semester because he was selected to go on a school-sponsored trek to meet Warren Buffett at the end of this week. To say he’s excited is an understatement: “Everyone else is thinking about Thanksgiving,” he told me after we enjoyed afternoon tea at the local coffee shop, “all I’m thinking about is meeting Warren Buffett.” Meeting Warren Buffett is Seventeen’s super-hero-moon.

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My Super-Seventeen in his new threads. If you’d like a picture of or more information about the supermoon, visit earthsky.org.

So taking three hours at the end of a long teaching day immediately following four days of yoga immersion to deliver the required suit felt just right. I turned for home in a fiery sunset of orange and deep pink, the stubble of harvested fields stretching out, a surprising amount of green lingering along the roadside thanks to our temperate fall. The electronic road signs flashed warnings about watching for deer—it’s mating season or the rut and the deer tend to lose their heads and run in every direction. As the sky grew dim and the glare from oncoming lights made it hard to see, I thought about that and drove alert, watching. I did see some deer, but they were deep in the fields foraging for corn dropped by the harvesters.

I was all the way back in the lights of Des Moines when I saw it in my rearview mirror. The moon rose, huge and plum-colored, a giant orb. There were indeed clouds, but they were wispy and only heightened the effect. Just at the right moment my route turned south and the moon was on my left, where I could glance between it and the road, marveling. In no time it was up, the plum wash dripping off of it, replaced by a peach sheen. Ten minutes later I pulled into the high school parking lot, turned my car to face east, and watched it ascend, growing more and more luminous.

Fourteen came bouncing out of play rehearsal to the car and we admired the moon together on the drive home. It hung right over our house when we drove up the hill, but from inside it was impossible to see. Ninety-Two was looking for it. She has recently adapted to using her walker, tricked out with a wire basket and a bag, stabilizing her as she roves around the house. But to see the moon just then, she had to abandon the walker, hold on to my arm, navigate two tenuous steps into the three-season room we call the East House, and work her way cautiously across the floor. We were rewarded for our efforts by the now silvery orb that seemed to be playing among the dark, leafless tree branches. On the unheated porch we stood close-by, admiring it’s beauty.

“How do you know when you’ve seen the moon?” My mother asked me.

I think of some of the marvelous things that I’ve seen—Michelangelo’s David in Florence, the Eiffel Tower, the birth of my two babies, the Washington monuments at night, the sun setting over the Pacific, the Redwoods, kittens exploring the grass, a room full of people exploring their practice—there are so many and somehow this supermoon feels like one of them, a confirmation that the natural cycles and order of things continue in spite of a series of events and happenings that left me feeling shredded over the past two weeks (and for the record here, I am referencing not only the election, but also teaching yoga in the wake of the shooting of two police officers here in my community and several personal muddles I am trying to untangle). I don’t want to stop watching the moon, but I need to return my mother to the safety of her walker, to attend to dinner, to write a check for the monthly water bill due the next day. We reluctantly turn, thinking our moon time is over.

Overnight the supermoon and I have several more encounters—it’s shining its light into my bathroom skylight as I brush my teeth and sending light across my bed in the wee hours when Katy comes to purr and celebrate the unlikely event that we’re both awake. And then it’s still up when I take Fourteen to meet her morning bus—it’s a pale orb now, with the sunlight fast arriving in the east and the moon still big in the west. There’s a lake near my house. I drive there to take a last look. Just as I pull in, a great blue heron comes skimming over the water and lands on the shore not twenty feet away. I look at the heron looking at the moon. Together we watch three mallard ducks swim parallel to the shore, their gentle wake rippling the moon’s reflection in the water. A few fluffy clouds reflect the pink of the sunrise—these, too, are a part of the tableau the heron and I regard. The great bird bends its knees a little and lifts off, flying after the ducks. A Midwestern seagull cuts across the sky and I wonder, as I always do when I see them, if it even knows about oceans or if lakes are enough water for the bird I associate with beaches and salt.

It’s time to go home where my morning tea is waiting and I smile then. I am no longer envious of my friends who have taken and posted pictures or comments about this moon on social media. I don’t need to purchase a supermoon tee shirt or even snap a photograph, although I have tried with my inferior phone camera to capture an image. I have enjoyed an entire night of moments with the supermoon, and as these words begin lining up in my imagination, I know that I can write about what happened. For me, it is in capturing the experience in words, in telling my story, that I know I have indeed seen the moon.

Thank you for witnessing with me. As ever and always, Rxo

 

 

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