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Author Archives: Robin Bourjaily

The Tao of Dishes

What are you going to do about your dishwasher?

One night not too long ago, we tidied up after dinner and I set the dishwasher running. I was tired and meaning to go to bed, but something on my computer monitor lead me down a rabbit hole, and I ended up perched on a kitchen stool in one of those “I’m on my way to something else” poses that ends up causing unidentifiable aches the next day. I wish I could say I was drawn into an intricate plot point in the novel I’m writing or sending words of comfort to any one of the people I know who are dealing with big life pains right now. But I was—as I often am—mouth agape at the newest, weirdest, still-might-be-outdone moment of news coverage of the current American administration. So I know I sat there quite a while, through most of the dishwasher’s cycle, when I finally stretched and groaned and decided that going to bed was the logical thing to do.

In the morning, Eighteen hustled through unloading the dishes and packing them back on their shelves. He does this at considerable speed, twirling and not infrequently launching the plastic storage containers onto their shelf. It was not until a more staid moment a bit later in the morning when I was starting to put a breakfast plate into the dishwasher and I realized it had no lights on the control panel. My heart sunk a little. Pick any day recently and I can pretty much guarantee it was cold and snowy, but in spite of the cold I padded in my slippers out into the garage to check the circuit breaker. It was fine. My heart sunk a little more. I went back inside and pushed every button on the control panel. Nothing.

Looking more closely I could see that the bottom held about two inches of water that should have drained.

When you tell people that your dishwasher has expired, their reaction is gratifying—that’s awful. What will you do? Oh no! Didn’t you just have it repaired? These are also words and expressions of concern by which you can measure your own response. Mine has been calm—if something had to go wrong, a broken dishwasher isn’t such a big deal. There’s another dishwasher out there—a really inexpensive one if I need one immediately; a mid-line like the one I bought, this one that’s been repaired at least three times and no longer seems worth it to me; the state-of-the-art showpiece I can fantasize about. In the meantime? In the meantime we’re washing the dishes.

Fifteen, in particular, has discovered an affinity for washing up. She likes the way the soapy sponge plays on the nonstick surface of the egg pan, the way the dishes steam a little in the drying rack, the satisfaction of hanging a wet dishtowel to dry when the last dish is wiped and stowed. After family dinners, all three of us congregate—I wash and Fifteen and Eighteen dry, jostling around each other cracking jokes and making observations. With just a few days between the time the dishwasher expired and Eighteen’s departure, I cherished even washing the dishes because I was with them.

A week or so after the dishwasher’s demise, I realized I had better siphon out the standing water so that it wouldn’t get smelly. My actions were arrested by the bird and squirrel show outside the kitchen window. IMG_9319On a day when the temps weren’t expected to climb above zero, I had made a tray of pantry items we hadn’t eaten and set them where I could see who might come to dine. First was a cautious crow, who warily hopped about the tray, flew up to perch and consider the situation, called for backup, and finally flew down, selected a parsnip chip (low salt, all natural—how bad could it be for the crow?) and flew away. His family, five in all, made similar forays, attracting the attention of a squirrel whose approach was a casual sneak, making a run for the food the second all of the birds had flown away.IMG_9326

Our attention thus focused out of the window, as we stand at the sink, over the past few days we’ve seen the crows and squirrels, a brave bunny racing the length of the fence, and—most recently—a gorgeous red fox with a fluffy tail in no apparent hurry whatsoever.

Outside my mother’s window that looks into the courtyard of her assisted living apartment, there’s also just recently been a lively show—a knot of twenty or twenty-five sparrows that have picked up stragglers including a pair of chickadees, a pair of cardinals, a pair of juncos, a dove, a redwing blackbird, and a starling. These last three look especially out of place, larger than the other birds and given to roosting higher. But when the sparrows take flight, the others go too. And when they settle in to eat around the feeder, all of the birds take turns.IMG_9331

Inside we are warm, fed, and have clean dishes. The whole thing is, for me, the message of winter: watch and wait, feed and assist where I can, and seek safety and comfort in the numbers of my fellow travelers, regardless of which feathers they wear.

Happy New Moon–fluff your beautiful feathers and stay warm, xoR

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2018: Happy New Year

What does the New Year hold for you?

Ancient peoples tracked the sun and the moon, noted the seasons for planting and harvest, and lived their way into a construct for time that predates but informs our modern calendar. Drawing on a number of organizational creations, Julius Caesar implemented much of the calendar we still live today, including adding his own signature: the New Year would begin January first, the day two high officials began their year-long governing positions. More than a few since have attempted to change that start-date—to March to coincide with the spring or to September to coincide with the harvest. Through all the political tugging and pulling, Julius Caesar’s stamp on when we begin the New Year has prevailed. And so it is that we arrive at the end of one calendar year and launch the next.

And with that brand new calendar full of possibilities, it’s irrepressibly human to want to implement life-improving change.

During the holiday season my gift list took me to the Container Store. It’s one of the happiest shopping places I’ve been because each object makes a promise that if put to use under just the right circumstances, life will be more organized and thus infinitely better. It’s 19,000 square feet of countless mini-resolutions. I came home with, among other things, a magic silicone computer keyboard cleaner that helped me de-stick the keys on the left edge of my laptop where I had, alas, spilled coffee. To be honest, I came home with three of them—one for my immediate use and one each as stocking stuffers for Eighteen and Fifteen.

The reminder of that heart-stopping moment when I tipped the cup onto my computer (it was a lidded cup without much in it, a candy coffee I was treating myself to while writing) lingers in the dimmed segment of lighting behind my keyboard. I was swift in my response, inverting the computer and then racing for napkins to wipe away the spill. For a few days my computer smelled faintly of coffee, not an unwelcome fragrance for a writer, and the impacted keys were sticky. Today it’s an object lesson—my computer turns five this month, is long out of warranty, and makes it possible for me to connect with the world and earn a living. If something disables it, even if that something is me, I’m going to need a replacement immediately. Mental note for the accounting department: start a new computer fund.

And so it begins … it’s easy for the mental notes to turn into life-improving resolutions around money, health, friends, travel, employment, getting rid of stuff, cleaning and fixing the house, losing weight, getting fit, finding a boyfriend. Like the unbroken snow in the backyard or the shiny allure of just the right organizational box at the Container Store, the crisp clean calendar beckons. This is the year I might just get it all right.

Looking for the lessons of 2017, and there were many, I light on a few. I set out to study and learn a lot more about yoga, and I did, completing my 500-hour yoga teacher training and implementing a new kind of preparatory approach to my classes that has been well received. In the course of the hours spent reading, researching, and producing, the travel to trainings, and the workshops I attended and developed, I learned something in my own practice that I am still exploring. It’s a tiny adjustment in my hands in strength-requiring poses like plank (the top of a push-up) wherein I press into the floor using my hand-wrist joints like levers. I don’t yet know the full extent of the strength the maneuver allows me to access, but I know that it changes the experience of the pose in my entire body. It’s a tiny, valuable truth, and I look forward to discovering where it might lead.

I learned, too, that my beloved yoga practice, while it opens all sorts of possibilities for self-improvement and advancement (yoga really is, as my teacher Mona always says, an ancient self-improvement practice for body, mind and spirit), is so comfortable for me in a large part because it allows me to embrace and strengthen my strengths. I am patient; yoga makes me more so. I am flexible; yoga celebrates my range of motion. I am a teacher; I’m so grateful that people come to learn yoga with me.

In writing those practices for my classes, I stumbled into understanding, in 2017, why it’s okay that for years when I’ve started writing in a blank book, I’ve left the first few pages unsullied. I always thought it was to take the pressure off—indeed, as I’ve been cleaning my bookshelves over the past week or so, I’ve discovered a number of blank books starting with three or eight or fifteen pages covered in childish scrawl, the beginning of a novel one of my children sat down to write in a fit of creative passion and abandoned shortly thereafter. I can’t bear to throw these books away—loving the intensity of the resolution it took to start a novel. Nor do I want to use these books, even though they have pages and pages that are unmarked, leaving me uncertain as to what to do with them. So they go on the shelf for now. But in my own favorite blank books, spiral-bound so they sit flat on the desk, especially the ones I use for planning yoga practices, I find that the skipped pages at the beginning are perfect for creating a table of contents. Thus, when the books fill up, I have a way of finding the information therein. And something about leaving those early pages blank does indeed make it much easier to fill up the books—with class plans, lists, notes for my novel, and every other project-launching whim or frenzy that takes over.

I believe fervently that it’s important to set resolutions with kindness—intentions or visualizations for the new chapter seem healthier than the often critical messages of resolutions. However, I’m learning for this New Year that the impulse to make sweeping changes in our lives offers many gifts. We may or may not live our way to the intended goal, but if we stay both grounded and open to the possibilities, we will learn lessons from our inclination to leap into projects and transformations for the better that range from merely fascinating to life changing.

Today’s full super moon feels, to me, like a spot on a transitional timeline that starts with the winter solstice and skips like a stone across the water with stops at Christmas, New Year’s Day, the Chinese New Year, and Groundhog’s Day. Rather than set sights on changes that will revolutionize all of 2018, I’m focusing on this period, giving myself some interesting challenges, and staying open to the discoveries that I don’t even know are possible. Wishing you and yours a safe, happy, healthy, and revealing New Year, that you might discover your own wisdom pebbles and skip them farther over the water than you ever dreamed possible. With all my love, Namaste, Rxo

I Believe

I Believe

So, who is Santa?

The first time the toddler who is now Eighteen encountered Santa Claus, he was wary at best. In the over-decorated mall near our Maryland home, my little boy more or less consented to be seated on the big man’s knee, only to promptly reach for me. He didn’t stay long enough to snap a photo.

A year later at his preschool, we waited until every other child who wanted to visit Santa had climbed up on the stage, sat on the sage’s lap, posed for adorable pictures, and been gifted with a candy cane. Eighteen was not entirely certain he wanted a turn, but he finally consented to go see Santa. Next thing I knew, he was snuggled deep in the crook of Santa’s arm grinning and looking like he might just stay there until Christmas. Maybe it was because that Santa smelled just right—the man in the red suit at the preschool holiday fair was Eighteen’s father.

If Eighteen at two-and-a-half had any inkling, he didn’t let on. Five years later when he was moments from losing his second tooth and I suggested the tooth fairy might be visiting soon, he leveled his gaze at me and said, wiggling the tooth the whole time, “I think the tooth fairy might be sitting right across from me.” I’m pretty sure my face fell, because the next words he said were in a rush, “but it’s okay, Mommy, for the adults to pretend about the tooth fairy and the Easter bunny and Santa—it makes it more fun.”

In contrast, Fifteen’s only fear about Santa when she was small was that the Christmas Eve fire might not be cool enough for Santa’s arrival, so she often insisted that we not build one at all. But last year, still gleefully anticipated their Christmas morning stockings, my peeps played cards with me in front of a roaring fire and at bedtime, they didn’t leave any cookies on the hearth. I didn’t remind them.1917186_1301412100329_1554404_n

From the beginning, we held to the tradition that while Santa filled the stockings, the gifts under the tree were from people. Close to Christmas we would go to Target, a place where they could each find something for everyone. We made lists, checked them twice and they even had gift budgets. When they were a little older, I’d take them to the winter farmers’ market to do their shopping. One of my all-time favorite gifts is a blown emu egg from my son. Their creative gift giving continues and today they are not only generous, they relish shopping for other people.

I found myself remarkably sentimental when a photo of my peeps with Santa from eight years ago popped up in my Facebook newsfeed. Reposting offered me the opportunity to think about Santa. Commercial symbol, wise saint, jolly elf—Santa may mean many things to many a person, but to me he’s the spirit of generosity and joy and childhood delights and a reminder that we learn not only to give graciously but to receive gifts from unexpected sources.

That’s what I thought about on a Tuesday. The very next day when I stopped to pick up a stocking stuffer for Eighteen at Bed, Bath & Beyond, I smiled at a man singing along to the Christmas carols while flattening myself so he could push his cart past me. “I love Christmas music,” he smiled, his cart already full.

“Don’t stop singing on my account,” I smiled and moved along.

“Hey,” he called back to me. “The other day I was in here and I bought the best little gadget … ah, here it is.” He had stooped down to the bottom shelf and was holding an apple peeler. “Do you have one of these? It’s terrific.”

“I don’t,” I had turned back around to see the box in his hand. “But I believe you.”

“Well, I’ll tell you what. If you’re up at the checkout when I’m there, I’m going to buy you one.”

I laughed, “You don’t have to do that.”

His friend was starting to say, “Don’t tell him not to, he will. You can’t stop him.”

By the time the words were out of the friend’s mouth, my sort-of secret Santa was already on to the next iteration of his plan, “No, you know what? Take this one, and here’s $20 to cover the cost.” He waved away any objection I might make, “the spirit of Christmas!”

What could I do? I offered Santa and his companion each a hug and wished them Merry Christmas. We’re pressing the peeler to use, making chunky applesauce per Fifteen’s request and contemplating a pie.

With these words I ripple out my festive wishes to you & yours, dear Readers, whether you are near or far. It’s a new moon (12.18), nearly the Winter Solstice, and almost Christmas. Yesterday Fifteen added “and a half” to her age, tomorrow you can celebrate National Oatmeal Muffin Day, and Mercury slides out of retrograde on 12.22. Whatever you celebrate this month, may Santa’s spirit fill your hearts as it has mine, and may your festivities be wondrous. See you early in 2018 when we’ve got blue moons and many more adventures to look forward to. All my love & best wishes, Rxo

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Here’s another magical creature we believe in—Fifteen met a dragon at the Renaissance Faire this year.

 

Post Blog

How is a blog like a sonnet?

One hundred fifty-five times, as of this post, I’ve answered a line-item on my to-do list and sent my musings out into the world. If that doesn’t sound so creative, but rather more like an imperative, I might echo the wisdom of Mrs. Whatsit in A Wrinkle in Time: “[The sonnet] is a very strict form of poetry… There are fourteen lines, I believe, all in iambic pentameter. That’s a very strict rhythm or meter… And each line has to end with a rigid rhyme pattern. And if the poet does not do it exactly this way, it is not a sonnet… But within this strict form the poet has complete freedom to say whatever he wants, doesn’t he?”

My blog isn’t a poem, but the parameters have offered me the delight and freedom to live my sonnet and write about it.

I set my own constraints—post on the full moon and the new moon. With input from my Writing Circle, I added the tagline “Living the Questions in Poses & Prose” and each post title is followed by a question. That tagline references both my all-time favorite quote, from Rilke, and what I like to believe is my very own savvy/soulful blend of living as a writer and yoga educator.

In the beginning, I heeded the cautions: Ninety-five percent of bloggers begin and give up on their blogs within three months. Most launch headlong into keeping a blog without a clear focus or an end-goal firmly in mind. I tried to address this by writing three full posts, a triumverate that would circumscribe the confines of my subject matter, before I posted one. With six weeks mapped out, I thought I would be able to write ahead. Sometimes this has been true.

We’ve all got sayings we’ve thought, or said aloud, should be on a tee shirt or a bumpersticker (or more recently a hashtag); knowing that something is a story for Overneathitall is a similar feeling. It’s been a pleasant surprise to find that more often than not, sometime after the last post and before the next is due, I have a “this could be a blog post” moment and the material begins to knit together in words, first in my mind, next on the page. Recently, with this year—when keeping on task has been complicated at best—winding to a close, I’ve been thinking about OverneathItAll.

  • I started my blog because I wanted an assignment. I’ve always produced when I’ve had a task to write set in front of me. Launching a blog meant I had an assignment to write, and that made me do it. How could I call myself a writer, I challenged myself almost seven years ago, if I wasn’t writing? So I wrote those entries and somewhere along the line published my novel and I stopped questioning whether or not I could call myself a writer. Mission accomplished.
  • I started my blog because in a teeny, tiny corner of my heart, I hoped I’d be that one-in-a-million writer discovered by an agent or a publisher trolling the Internet for undiscovered talent. That hasn’t happened … yet. Hope springs eternal, but it certainly can’t happen if my blog doesn’t exist.
  • I started my blog because I wanted to hear my voice, to let it get stronger and more certain. I wanted to navigate the distance between public and private life, making sense of things that happened in my world in a way that might resonate out in the world.

But here’s the real gift: I have kept writing my blog, even after some long unscheduled breaks, even when I haven’t always wanted to, even though I haven’t made a cent from it, been discovered, or figured out where it’s going, because the unexpected delight of keeping my blog has been connection. Among my regular readers are an editor I’ve only met once, an aunt I haven’t been fortunate enough to see since I was in college, friends who live abroad, and my own mother, who sometimes prints out these posts and sends them to people.

By standard metrics, a blog with less than 1,000 visitors per post (mine averages 48) is nowhere near a success. If you see ads here, WordPress is making that money. Many of my readers are most likely to comment in person, via email, or on Facebook, meaning my blog nets little accidental traffic. In a search for “overneath,” my wee blog shows up on page two. But none of that matters. Friends from junior high read and respond, new acquaintances learn a little something about my life and feel more comfortable sharing in return, one regular reader quotes me back to myself. Every blog post, each sometimes hard-wrought word, all 170,000-plus of them, has made a connection to someone. I can’t imagine a better outcome to living the questions here on these pages. Thank you.

One hundred forty-two years ago on December 4, Rainer Maria Rilke was born. His birthday ought to be National Live the Questions Day. The moon is a full frosty supermoon on December 3; while there’s a little mischief in play from Mercury, which dips into retrograde eight hours ahead of the moon’s apex. These alongside the raft of holidays and all of the joys and obligations that come with them make December a complicated month to live questions or find answers. Be kind to yourself and hug those who love you—thanks for being a part of my journey, RxoRilke Moon

Stirring the Pot

What’s for dinner?

Thanksgiving is just a few days away. Tweaking the menu from last year in anticipation of a crowd, I’ve printed out recipes, made multiple shopping lists, and started to stock pantry items. The swirl of definite maybe guests is sifting into a group of college students arriving Wednesday night with Eighteen, repeat guests from last year who know how to make a party, and relatives flying in on the day itself. I will shop for two days, cook for the two more, iron the linens and fret over the table settings, and I will love every minute of it. Thanksgiving, a holiday about gathering together, making and enjoying great food, and expressing gratitude, is among my very favorites.

Preparing an elaborate holiday meal is the kind of cooking I relish. From my early days, though, I’ve always been drawn to cooking. When I was little and I noticed my mother starting to pull out equipment in the kitchen, I would stop whatever I was doing, find a chair, and drag it to stand next to her, ready to help. I learned early to follow a recipe, readily ate a wide variety of foods, and found a love for the science of baking as soon as I was old enough to manage the oven on my own. By fifteen I made noodles and bread from scratch, mastered buttery chicken Kiev, plated a lovely salade niçoise, and annually crafted the family holiday favorite, bûsch de noël.

Flash forward twenty-some years and I found myself a very different kind of cook. Both of my children were specific eaters, but of specifically very different tastes. The daily grind of producing supper felt like a complicated dance of trying to please everyone that generally resulted in settling on a lowest common denominator, boring for both diners and cook. To complicate matters, while my peeps were still new on their gastronomic journeys, their mother shifted into vegetarianism (technically lacto-ovo-pescatarianism). To this day I honor my omnivores and try to address their tastes. The daily grind of putting healthy, balanced meals on the table and in their lunchboxes often feels relentless.

When Eighteen was still in elementary school, the honors program held a “Night of the Notables” event. Students learned about and then portrayed a variety of important historical and living people—dressing in costume and talking about the people whose lives and work they admired. Eighteen chose author Michael Pollan.

In those days, journalist, lecturer, and academic Pollan had hit one out of the park with publication of The Omnivore’s Dilemma, not, perhaps, standard reading for an elementary student. Having inhaled the young reader’s edition, my son co-opted my full version and read it cover-to-cover more than once. My memory falters a bit, but I think we made stuffed mushrooms to serve at his station—like his choice of Pollan, they were unusual and met with surprise by more than one in attendance.

Pollan’s star has continued to rise with good reason. He writes with vigor and conviction about the plates we put in front of ourselves and our families. Given the fandom in our household, I keep an eye on his work with affection. Recently I read an interview designed to generate publicity for a Netflix series tied into his most recent publication, Cooking. Pollan said: Aside from the many health benefits, cooking is also “one of the most interesting things humans know how to do and have done for a very long time…. There is something fascinating about it. But it’s even more fascinating when you do it yourself.”

Huh, I thought, captivated. He’s right. Other animals prepare their food, present it to one another, and have rituals around it, but no other animal cooks what it eats. Thus, whether creating a meal for one or a feast for a crowd, the act of cooking is truly a human one, something unique to the species. I’ve been so nourished by Pollan’s words that even simple weeknight dinners have become more absorbing for me.

A week before Thanksgiving, on Thursday afternoon, I chopped celery, carrot, garlic, and yellow pepper, turning them in pre-heated avocado oil in my soup pot. When they were tender, I added one of my favorite ingredients, a no-chicken chicken stock that somehow satisfies the rich warmth of chicken broth, the only thing I missed when I stopped eating poultry. That pan was on the stove waiting for the burner underneath it to click, click, click to a flame. When I returned home in the evening, I heated the broth gently and set to boil water in the pan on the next burner over, adding rice-ramen noodles that were be done in a matter of minutes. While the noodles drained, I reused the noodle pan to braise some escarole, my hands-down favorite green. Into warm broth went trimmed snow peas and then the cooked noodles. Fifteen enjoyed her weeknight ramen without greens; I piled them into mine.

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Leftover ramen, delicious on night two!

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Prep for one of Fifteen’s favorite weeknight meals: Eggies with asparagus and cheese. 

 

Fifteen and I are nearly always dashing in to a dark kitchen after dance, but with a little forethought and some pre-assigned leftovers, I’ve been setting our places with healthy, warm plates and no sense of drudgery. Incrementally Fifteen’s palate is expanding—and our dinner table conversations can’t be beat.

Under the energy of the new moon, may I wish you and yours the most wondrous Thanksgiving. I’m ever so grateful to each and every one of you who stops by to read these words. With all my love, Rxo

Romantic Notions

What’s not to love about an unexpected turn of phrase?

The wee hours in the hospital are at once serene and riddled with noise. Machines whirl and beep, fans blow, alerts sound summoning help, feet scurry in the hallway, beds and chairs wheel by, televisions drone. At the same time, now that our emergency has been addressed and the bustle of professionals slowed, the lights dimmed in the room where my mother, Ninety-Three, has been admitted, and the pulsing adrenaline in both of our systems quieting, calm begins to descend. Ninety-Three’s night nurse comes through to check and make sure her patient is settled—in fact, Mom is already dozing, no doubt exhausted by the six hours we’ve been in the ER—when I ask my question about anticipated length of stay. I don’t really absorb the full answer, because I’m struck by the nurse’s timeframe:

“Two midnights.”

A memory from another night like this swims into my sleep-deprived brain. That time it was explained to me that Ninety-Three would need to stay at least three midnights to qualify for a rehabilitation stay. Then as now I ignored the calculated feel of satisfying some insurance requirement and found myself drawn to the poetic romance of counting by midnights.

Recently, kindly, a woman I admire called me a “collector of words.” Like a contestant bowing to receive a silk sash declaring her title, I’m honored by this beautiful designation. Aside from friendships, I can’t think of anything I’d rather collect.

“Three midnights” goes into a category of romantic notions that are highlighted for me by their unexpected appearance. In the sewing world, a notion is a button or a sequin, a zipper or a specialized tool, something that enhances the garment to which it is applied or the sewing process. Notion comes from the Latin noscere, to know or to learn. Every time I’ve heard a phrase I might call a romantic notion, it’s been a learning moment for me, often in the midst of enormous change. Is it any wonder that I hang on to the phrase that stands out?

Long before John Green made Paper Towns a well-known phrase, at least among the young people in my house, I was standing in a county office pouring over the plat map for Bethesda, MD, steeped in the go-go of purchasing a house. I traced the outline around our intended yard, a postage-stamp sized lot I would later mow with an old-fashioned reel mower, and queried the gap running from the street along the short end of the property, between the house I was already in love with and the neighbors to the south. Parallel lines ran the length of the block.

“What’s this?”

The bored clerk leaned over to look, “A paper street.”

“A what?”

A paper street is precisely what its name says, a street on paper that isn’t an actual street. The county, it seemed, reserved the right to carve an alley between our lot and the neighbors.

Maybe the clerk was chewing gum. She answered my concern with, “I really wouldn’t worry about it too much. These maps were made in the thirties. Nobody’s building any alleyways. What you wanna be concerned with is the light rail right-of-way.”

I would have welcomed the light rail, albeit the intended track was more than a mile from the house. I remember the fights over it, pro and con. Nearly twenty years after that moment in the property office, and thirteen years after we moved away, the official groundbreaking ceremony for the purple line was late last summer. It is a paper rail no longer.

Romantic notions are imbued with a sense of possibility. Whether it’s the chance that something planned for might be realized or the opening of care transitions after a length of stay, there’s a generosity of spirit I associate with these phrases that pop up at moments otherwise fraught or at least paint-splattered. Perhaps my favorite of all time was delivered by a friend of the family, a talented homebuilder who can fix anything. He was inspecting our handiwork; we had painted just about every surface of the new house.

“What do you think?”

He looked thoughtful and then smiled playfully, “It looks good, a few holidays, but good.”

“What’s a ‘holiday?’”

“You know, when your mind kind of goes on holiday while you’re working, and the brush slips a little, or you miss a spot, like behind the door.”

I knew exactly, and I spent the next hour shining a light on the newly painted walls, searching the house for holidays, my brush ready to touch up the mistakes.

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Starling and Leo enjoy a Sunday cuddle under the laundry drying rack, a visual romantic notion. I love the way Leo looks like Starling’s shadow.

The full moon finds Ninety-Three multiple midnights later through rehab, stronger, and back home in her apartment. Phew. May all be also righting itself in your world, and may you find phrases like flowers blooming between the cracks of otherwise unforgiving cement that somehow make you smile in spite of the circumstances. Thanks, as ever, for sharing. Love, Rxo

For Whom the Bell Tolls

What are your bells?

The semicolon won my heart as my very favorite punctuation mark when I learned, first studying ancient Greek as an undergraduate and then in pithy usage from essayist-physician Lewis Thomas, that it originated as the Greek question mark. “The semicolon,” Mr. Thomas explains in “Notes on Punctuation,” “tells you that there is still some question about the preceding full sentence; something needs to be added; it reminds you sometimes of the Greek usage. It is almost always a greater pleasure to come across a semicolon than a period. The period tells you that that is that; if you didn’t get all the meaning you wanted or expected, anyway you got all the writer intended to parcel out and now you have to move along. But with a semicolon there you get a pleasant little feeling of expectancy; there is more to come; to read on; it will get clearer.” The semicolon invites the reader to pause in anticipation; what’s not to love?

In recent years I became fond, too, of the ampersand. I feared it might edge out the semicolon in the run for favorite; but in a wonderful save it turns out—as savvy readers will already know—that the ampersand is in a league of its own; it’s a logogram or written character understood to have evolved from the handwritten letters “e” and “t,” or et, Latin for and. English has other logograms and, one author argues, is cultivating countless more from the shorthand arising on our mobile devices. However, it’s unlikely any will replace the ampersand in my heart.

As a proofreader, I am often given the opportunity to do far more than pause when I encounter semicolons and ampersands. In spite of my delight in the latter, I do not believe they belong in running text. As a writer, I’m likely to overuse the former; it’s so much fun to craft the phrase following that so nearly always illuminates the phrase in the fore. But whether writing or proofreading, it’s the act of considering that I have set out to address. When I stop to look up a word, consider the usage of a punctuation mark or logogram, check a subject’s name in the photo cutline against the spelling in the text, or rifle through pages checking the table of contents against the page numbers, I am fully present. I can’t do this work and think about something else. (If I get to a point where I realize I don’t know what I’m reading, then I’ve lost touch with the process, the words, line spaces, punctuation marks, and logograms. It’s time to pause and regroup.) As proofreader especially, I am both fully present and not lost in the flow.

Coming back to the present moment resonated for me as the central tenant of life in Buddhist Monk’s Thich Naht Hahn’s Plum Village as its portrayed in the documentary Walk With Me. A fan of Hahn’s writing, when I had a chance to be the captain for a local screening of the film, I thought, “why not?” Sitting in the dark theater with 100 beautiful spirits who chose to spend a rainy Monday night in September experiencing the movie, I was stunned by what is a cinemagraphic meditation. In discussions after, several people said they’re ready to pack their bags for a visit to Plum Village. Did I want to go asked one?

“Not really,” I surprised myself as well as my questioner. “The bells would drive me crazy.”

In the film every time a bell rings—every fifteen minutes and then some—everyone is expected to become still. To come back to the present. To breathe. While I love that idea—we can all use regular timeouts to breathe deeply and with intention—I value flow as well. If the words are pouring out of my fingers onto the keyboard or I’m lost in a drawing or spooning cake batter into a pan, I don’t want to be interrupted because someone else has decided that it’s time for me to pay attention. There’s so much jangly interruption in our world already. That said, I do believe it’s important to pause and pay attention; so I recognize that I have scores of personal bells.IMG_9054

As Eighteen noticed this summer, I brake for butterflies when they flutter past my car. I will pause and be utterly charmed by a flight of grackles, reporting on them later to Ninety-Three. I watch the clouds roll by and change shape. I rarely have a moon sighting without pointing it out to Fifteen. When the sky is drenched in color at sunset, I’m at the window marveling. If I hear the whistle of a train in the distance, I consider hard whatever I was thinking or saying at that moment, certain the whistle is meant as an underscore. There are work bells, too. Along with the aforementioned proofreading pauses to consider usage, a misplaced foot or a knee out of alignment can cause me to shift the entire focus of a yoga practice I’m leading. A room full of beautiful poses can take my breath away. The collection of smiles and hugs after class routinely keeps me from mentally racing on to the next task or worry.

These days, there are serious bells—for most of my life I was discomforted deeply by sirens. News stories of hurricanes, tornadoes, fires, disasters, protests and political upheavals shock and startle. I am learning to take a breath here, too, to send a silent “blessings” in the direction of the retreating ambulance or fire truck, to imagine and honor the light within the individuals whose deeds may seem so very counterproductive to my own philosophy. Being present is only a platform from which to begin; however, it is the platform, the only platform, on which I can safely stand. Some days that’s the best I can do.

What are your bells, dear reader? With gratitude & love & best wishes for the new moon, Rxo

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