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Before and After and After That

What are you painting now?

One of the appeals of my house when I first saw it was the guest suite. Up the stairs, around the railing, past the doors to the family bedrooms, and tucked back in the corner is a large square room with two windows and a small full bathroom. Nineteen and Very-Nearly Sixteen were Two and Five when we moved into the house. With five bedrooms to choose from, they each had their own room—they shared in Bethesda—with a Jack-n-Jill bathroom in between. Over the years Two asked for her room to be painted first ballet pink and then, when she was a pre-teen, teal. Five chose an ocean blue for his room. I painted their bathroom butter yellow.

After her brother had been at college for a year, Very-Nearly Sixteen and I had gotten used to each having our own space. I considered the squabbles over bathroom time and the guest room mostly idling on its own. After consulting with his sister, I offered Nineteen the option of the guest room for his summer home. He accepted readily.

If that sounds like a no brainer, consider the room’s décor:

 

Other than a tedious hour spent sitting on the floor of the bathroom rubbing the spots of nail polish that speckled the tile everywhere with remover, I had never done anything to the room. My theory was that it was reasonably cheerful for a guest room. Once my son was installed in the room, I felt bad about the flowers but knew nothing would happen during his summer stay.

He lived in the room again for five weeks at Christmas, taking video conference meetings with his employer and never once mentioning the backdrop. When his summer internship appointment promised he’d be home this summer, I resolved it was time to make some changes.

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During … after the prime coat, featuring Katy, who is not yet sitting on the wet paint can lid, but would soon after this.

After spring break, without breathing a word to Nineteen, I launched my covert redecorating operation. It took a day to prep the room, including fixing some rather large drywall blemishes. The next workday was a prime coat and two more days went to painting two coats of paint. A well-timed visit from Nineteen and Very-Nearly Sixteen’s father meant that we were able to update all of the fixtures—the overhead fan, the towel bars, even the doorknobs. During it all I had a terrible time not telling Nineteen, or texting him a photo of the cat with paint in her fur, or explaining why I was sore and tired after consecutive days of going up and down my stepladder. But I kept my excitement to myself until his birthday.

Gone are the days when the first thing a friend who comes to the house wants to do is see one of my teenager’s rooms. So when Nineteen brought eleven friends from college home for his birthday dinner, even though I had hidden his gifts on the bookshelf in his “new” room, he didn’t have any reason to lope upstairs. After dinner, I asked Very-Nearly Sixteen to tell him he had to get his gifts from his room. Finally, it was time for the big reveal.54794275878__85C83B44-B86E-45A1-9FC8-C8A07136BEE7

Nineteen found the door closed and recognized immediately that the knob was different. Opening the door he was amazed and delighted. “You managed,” he said to me, “to give me a new room two years in a row!” And later, when he was leaving, his car packed full of friends, “I’m now really looking forward to summer. It’s so nice here.”

He moved home after finals and almost immediately launched into his summer internship. From somewhere in the three carloads of rubble that landed on the floor of his room, he extracted his suit and set off for his first day. During the first getting settled week he forgot his badge once, fell asleep after work before dinner, slept through his alarm, and didn’t seem to mind at all if his mommy packed his lunch. It’s a big lunch, far more food than I used to send with him to high school, but I’m glad to do it.

A few days late for the full moon, instead I’ll wish you Happy June! With much love, Rxo

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On his way to his first day

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On the Road Again

On the Road Again

How was your spring break?

Fifteen and I packed our bags, scratched the kitties’ ears, and headed out on the open road for a Spring Break trip. As I said to someone recently, “I’m the kind of poor that means I can pay for a new dishwasher or go traveling with my daughter, and I’ll pick the latter option every time. It’s easy enough to wash the dishes.” It was sweet and easy to leave dish duty behind, too.

The first stop was Grinnell, Iowa, where the recently opened Hotel Grinnell welcomed us to their boutique accommodations fashioned out of an old junior high. Attention to school-oriented details make the hotel whimsical—an apple on the desk, the black metal furnishings reminiscent of lockers, the paper on the pad lined like lettering pages from elementary school. We enjoyed dinner with Eighteen and while Fifteen took her first official college visit of her brother’s school, I spent downtime in the hotel.

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The Hotel Grinnell

Downtime isn’t exactly in my vocabulary. It’s a novel experience. Aside from flooding the single-serve coffee maker trying to heat water for tea, I wasn’t entirely sure what to do with myself. I was reminded that easing out of one’s daily routine and relentless to-do lists and detaching from responsibilities aren’t easy tasks. But they’re important, and I left home looking for the right blend of adventure and relaxation.

Some of our hotels were more mainstream than others. In Chesterfield, Missouri, The Courtyard Marriott was on one of those streets that looks like anywhere USA. The next day, when the admissions officer at Washington University suggested that homesick students go to the mall, I thought about why we like and build these streets of plenty—familiarity. Comfort when we’re outside of our comfort zones. But the true delight of the recently renovated Marriott was the chance to spend the evening with an old friend.

The woman I’ll call “Mimi” and I met in graduate school. She was one of two graduate advisors to my teaching preparation group, and later she and I were on a committee together. After graduate school she would be in a position to hire me for a summer gig at the Iowa Summer Writing Festival; we hadn’t seen each other since. At dinner Friday night I was able to remember for her something she said that I have carried with me ever since about her happiness. It was a lovely reunion.

Saturday started with a perspective look at Washington University, St. Louis, where I was ready to enroll by the time we left the admissions talk and headed out on tour. Fifteen was less enchanted, but we agreed the campus was pretty and the school is appealing. We next enjoyed the orchids at the Missouri Botanical Center and walking the grounds on a warmish day. Then it was time for tea.

The London Teahouse had just one table available at 3pm. Pots of tea and a three-tiered tray of delights in the lovely flower-filled Hyde Park room were just right. We left with full tummies and six ounces of “Naughty Vicar” to brew at home. That evening found us in the Tudor-style Seven Gables Inn, a 1926 Irish Inn with framed art on the walls and dark wooden floors in the rooms. Two steep flights of stairs up, we found a delightful room with a view of the courtyard. The Inn had oodles of charm and is in a lovely, walkable neighborhood in St. Louis. We enjoyed ramen for dinner around the corner and snuggled in for the night.

We opted to make the Arch a drive-by as it was starting to snow. We were headed for Memphis, home of the famous Peabody Hotel, where ducks swim in the lobby fountain from 11am to 5pm, and were in time to witness their march to the elevator that carries them to their penthouse suite. The Peabody is not only whimsical, it’s elegant and stylish and the service is without compare. The concierge spent an hour helping us print and submit scholarship application forms for Fifteen’s summer exploration, even making a trip into the dining room to find us with the confirmation email she received.

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Always four females and a drake–the ducks spend three months thrilling the crowds at the Peabody and then return to the farm. There is no duck on the menu at the Peabody. 

Memphis was a wonderful surprise—a city that is easy to navigate and brimming with energy. We toured Rhodes College, famous for a number of aspects of the education they offer and frequently atop the list of prettiest campuses in America. It lives up to its reputation. The Memphis Zoo is right across the street, so we headed there after the college to marvel at the animals. Our feet tired, it was a treat to return to our hotel where, in perhaps the swiftest scholarship decision in history, Fifteen found an email rewarding our work the day before with a substantial investment in her summer plans. We celebrated with dessert from the hotel bakery—oh were they good!

The next morning we were off to Graceland. One former Memphis resident told me, before we left, “Well, you can skip Graceland.” Another said, “Of course, you’ve got to go to Graceland.” I’ve been in the latter camp ever since Paul Simon released his album of the same name; if Paul Simon wanted to see Graceland, so did I. Fifteen and I had listened to a wonderful collection of Elvis songs between St. Louis and Memphis. She observed that the songs were short and catchy and nice to listen to. We were ready to learn all about Elvis.

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“For reasons I cannot explain/some part of me wants to see Graceland”

And we were truly panicked, for about fifteen minutes, when it seemed we were stuck in the hotel parking garage. And then we were unbearably happy throughout the tour where Fifteen’s favorite room was the jungle room, complete with shag carpet on the ceiling. Looking up at the mirrors on the staircase ceiling, she said, “If Eighteen is an eighties teen-film star, then I’m a seventies girl through and through.”

“Really?” I asked, “Why is that?”

“You raised me on Abba!” Did I mention that we both loved Elvis’ sparkle-studded jumpsuits and his flashy cars?

We left Graceland with sparkling pen key chains and a sense that we were definitely on an adventure. Even as the impetus of our trip was glancing forward, beginning the conversation around Fifteen’s college journey, more than one stop was a glance back. Lambert’s Café (the home of the throwed rolls, where we caught a roll but did not stay for lunch), was a feature from a family car trip when I was six. Hot Springs, Arkansas, has stayed in my mind ever since I saw billboards for it on a graduate school trip to visit a college friend in Little Rock. Every day was just the right combination of travel, hotel, exploration, and, yes, downtime.

Some of our adventures were decidedly less planned. We didn’t plan, for example, to go to the Clinton Presidential Library in Little Rock, but we found that it fit nicely into our itinerary and offered a fascinating look at the history that I lived and came just before Fifteen’s arrival on this planet (the story of how we all met William Jefferson Clinton in our pajamas is family lore). We didn’t plan, until we walked out of our tour of the Clinton library, to find the perfect place for cappuccino and ice cream, but we found that, too. Nor did we plan, between Memphis and Arkansas, to set foot in Mississippi, bringing the total states I have yet to visit in my lifetime down to eight. But after Graceland, we couldn’t resist the opportunity to drive ten minutes south and dine at a surprisingly good rapidly expanding fresh-food chain called Newk’s.

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Hard to photograph but wonderful to explore!

Some of the sweetest moments of travel are those unplanned surprises. Sometimes the surprises are significantly less sweet as when we were headed north from our Mississippi lunch, just slowing to merge onto one highway from another, and suddenly saw a mattress launch from the back of a trailer and flip high into the air heading for our lane. It was one of those moments when everything slows down, and I could categorize the responses in my brain. I watched the mattress lift up and flip, considered its possible landing trajectories, and was able to swerve just enough so that it landed inches to my left and I didn’t collide with the car on my right. The people towing the trailer had reacted swiftly, too, pulling right off the road to retrieve their bed. The people to my right gave way, slowed, and navigated the emergency such that no one was hurt (although I suspect the mattress suffered some road rash). My daughter heard me hurl the F-bomb for the first time in her life, and we shook and nervously chattered for the next ten miles. After that, it became an excellent story—that time we nearly got killed by a mattress—and something of a nightmare as I have rehashed the event and the what-ifs more than once both waking and sleeping.

It was an unplanned event of our trip and life in general that my phone rang one evening with the distressing news that a very good friend’s purse had been stolen. I was distraught that she had been so violated and dismayed to think of the hassles she would have in securing her identity and attempting to replace the contents, both valuable and invaluable. She was distraught because she was on cat duty during our absence and her means of access to our house were in her purse. Oh, yes, that’s a problem.

I wonder now if thieves have any regard for the ripple effect of stealing one woman’s purse? In this (as, I would suspect most) case, police are involved in the crime report, insurance agents in the property claim, the business outside of which the burglary took place in securing their premises for their patrons, the banker officers and credit managers in safeguarding her identity, and on and on. For just my piece of the experience, as we traveled, I had to ask my back-up cat care friend to step in. When it turned out there was no key in my lockbox, I reached out to the neighbor with a house key, but she texted back from her spring break in France. Finally I sent a key overnight via FedEx, all to be certain that my four-footeds would be fed. Again, once the anxiety settled, we ended up with a good story from the road.

As Fifteen read and I drove along, watching for signs of spring, I mused about perspective—maybe it’s an obvious truth that all over the world there are people going about what they do, earnestly, some with bold ambitions and the best of intentions, some with selfish inclinations and the most harmful of results. Travel brings us face-to-face with all of it—the big and the small, the luxurious and the necessary, the markers of the past, the fulfilled intentions and goals, the way our actions reverberate in the world, and the surprises and how we handle them.

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Just the car for our next road trip!

If you’ve read all the way to the end, thank you—we made it home without further incident, with another happy reunion with a dear friend, and without, yet, a college of choice. The laundry done and folded, the cats soothed, Fifteen was ready to pack the car and head out again. The next great family college-search road trip will likely be summer 2018. I, for one, can’t wait! Happy Spring Equinox, with all my love, Rxo

During the Between

During the Between

What did KatyDid?

After the before and before the after, there’s between. There’s during, too, but during doesn’t pinch the way between does. During is easy to miss, caught up in the doing of it all; between is easy to mess up and a place it’s all too possible to get stuck.

In a world of hurricane travesties, political miasma, raging wildfires, and terrible disease, whining about being wedged in the between isn’t an option. Nevertheless, like Anaïs Nin, I write to “taste life twice.” Even when the moments are bitter, it’s through the retrospective that I can begin to learn something that maybe just maybe makes the next between a little sweeter.

Mid-summer, my Craig’s List ad finally netted a customer for the gorgeous china cabinet in the dining room. I so liked the people who disassembled the whole thing carefully and, with great padding and not inconsiderate effort, loaded it into their truck and drove it away. In the wake of another large item’s exodus from our household, Fifteen opined that it was time to paint the dining room.

Painting the dining room was top of my list when we moved into the house a dozen years ago. The color palate throughout the house made me feel old, but the dining room was by far the worst, beige above the chair rail, mottled deep blue below. We are a family that sits together in the dining room to eat, that hosts small and large dinners, that pushes the table to the side of the room and invites people in for a buffet. Through every occasion, the colors I loathed remained.

Fifteen enjoys removing wallpaper, and that’s where we started, stripping the painted paper that was more plastic than paper from the thirty-inch span below the chair rail. To our dismay, removing the deep blue revealed a hideous bright blue paint that wasn’t fully applied, as though someone thought better of the color only after it was mostly slathered on the wall. To our further dismay, not one but two showing requests beeped onto my phone when we were in the midst of removing the paper, the torn curls all over the floor and sticking to our pants.

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Yikes … during we found blue. Starling (pictured) thought nothing of the open air-return duct. 

During the dining room renovation: Fifteen left for a week away at the National Scholars Institute; Eighteen went to and arrived home from work and took his first solo road trip; I left for a weekend of yoga teacher training; and groups viewing our house were greeted by a “Please pardon the mess” sign.

Our smallest cat, Katy, was fascinated by the air-return opening where I had removed the grill. I blocked it variously with a box, paper, the drop cloth. She pawed at these, determined to inspect the mysterious hole in the wall. A couple of times I scolded her away from it, in the same “angry mommacat tone” that detours her from going into my closet. Then I was painting. The cats paraded through—Leo playing slip-n-slide in the drop cloth plastic, Starling running her usual commentary about all of the unfamiliar activity, and Katy finding any kind of trouble she could, jumping onto the table, inspecting the open paint can, and tearing at the paper covering the air return. I scolded her, turned back to my paint, and wouldn’t have even heard her as she quietly slipped under the paper and into the dark beyond, but turned to look just in time to see her tail disappear.

Just like that, we arrived in the between.

Eighteen’s response, even as I was shining a flashlight into the hole, wondering how far it might go, was to race to the basement to figure out where we could take the ductwork apart. Then he brought a dangle toy, something we use to lure kitties out of the garage. Katy, looking miffed, haughty, and scared as only a not-quite seven-pound cat who thinks she’s in charge can look, reappeared briefly but slipped away when I reached for her. I discovered then the air-return duct dropped down more than a foot, and the pathway in and down was not as large as the opening suggested. As I sat quietly and watched, fishing with the toy and waiting to see if she would get herself out, it became clear to me that she both wanted back out, badly, and hadn’t yet figured out the maneuver that would allow her to escape. Occasionally coming close enough so she was illuminated by the light of the flashlight, she blinked up at me.

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That’s my arm disappearing down the hole to above the elbow.

This cat arrived in our lives a tiny kitten, one of a pair of litters of barn kitties of very young mothers. Early on one mother stopped nursing and the other was making a gallant attempt to feed both broods. We had picked Katy out just a couple of weeks before, but I wasn’t yet expecting the phone call to bring her home until she was eight weeks. “Come get her,” urged the landowner’s voice on the phone, “one died of starvation and an owl got another. I’m worried your kitten won’t survive.”

Armed with kitten formula and kitten litter, we brought her home with trepidation. We named her KatyDid, both because she was as tiny as a bug and because that way when she was naughty we could say, “Who did?” “KatyDid.” Over the years we’ve added the ungrammatical but fun to say, “What did KatyDid?”

And while she only grew up to be tiny in stature, she is large in personality and adventure. Thus it wasn’t a surprise to find myself looking at her delicate face peering up at me, the haughty turned all worry and struggle, especially when the air-conditioning cycled on.

Outwardly I was saying soothing things, to Katy, to Eighteen. Inwardly I was calculating the options—which professional to call, whether to try taking things apart myself, how long she could stay there. I watched her attempt to climb out a couple of times and realized that she needed leverage. “Go to work,” I told Eighteen, who was still contemplating disassembling the ductwork, “I’ve got this.”

“Okay,” he said, his relief at not having to call-in for a feline emergency was palpable. “I was wondering how I was going to explain being late.”

In spite of intense minimalizing, I’ve held on to the children’s building blocks, a wonderful wooden set that gave rise to all manner of temples and sculptures when they were little. I went to the basement and selected enough to build a staircase, remembering that when we had the ductwork cleaned, it had been full of twenty-year-old chunks of wood and other construction debris. I worked each block through the narrow opening and set them up in what I hoped was a staircase for Katy. Soon, I saw her face at the return. And then she was higher, her back paws standing on the block stairs, her front paws clambering for a foothold. She got the paw nearest me up and over the ledge, back into the room. Her other front paw seemed stuck, and after several attempts to squeeze her shoulders through, pushing as if to jump with her back paws, she instead opted to roll her spine out of the opening toward me, freeing her front paw just in time to turn, gain purchase on the floor and struggle her hips and hind legs out of the opening. I reached for her and she ran, so I left her alone, cleared out the blocks and quickly screwed the air return grill back into place. I knew Katy would want to “talk” about her trauma, so I finished painting for the day and took my lunch up stairs. Katy, nearly always affectionate on her own terms, immediately curled up in my lap and stayed for nearly an hour.

The between was over but the during went on longer, through painting above the chair rail and then painting the chair rail itself. With the only very recent arrival of a new rug and a tablecloth, the dining room is finally in the after.

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Ta-dah! After!

The larger between—the one in which we are waiting for the right buyers to walk in and realize that their family’s stories can bloom in the space so that our stories may move elsewhere—carries on.

Living so very much in the large between has been a challenge in many ways, not the least of which is to writing regularly. This story has been waiting for a couple of months, but then again, maybe it was waiting until the rug and tablecloth arrived, just this past weekend. Thank you for connecting with me, with the corn moon that was full recently, and with your own betweens. My favorite part of posting to overneathitall is the way that it closes those gaps between us some. With much love, Rxo

Zen & the Art of Litter Box Maintenance

Did you ever watch Dr. Who?

Fourteen is a fan girl. She hunches (in cringe-inducing posture) over her laptop watching episode after episode of Dr. Who. With her friends she discusses episode features and the different doctors, speculating on who might assume the role next. Recently she produced a “cosplay” outfit from her closet, prancing off to school as Rose, the Doctor’s associate. Knowing full well I am not a science fiction fan, she asks anyway, maybe hoping to uncover some affinity to my past. I can only offer that my friend in junior high was an intrepid fan of the Doctor with the scarf. “Ah, the Fourth Doctor,” she nods with absolute certainty.

As I ferry Fourteen from point A to point B, she often talks dreamily about the wonders of time travel, outer space, and swift saves for the planet. Her talk challenges the notion of staying present, something I teach as a part of yoga practice. Our breath and our bodies are in the present moment; our minds are time travelers. The mind’s abilities to race ahead—anticipating the worst or stressing about events to come—and linger behind in hurtful past happenings lead to tension and stress. On the mat we can call the mind to be present, staying with the breath and connecting through movement, relaxation and meditation with the body here and now.

But naturally it’s more complicated than that. While time may be a construct of the rational brain, life’s progressions imprint throughout the body. Our bodies carry the stories within of everything they’ve experienced and—I would suggest—anticipate changes to come. But what I want to tell Fourteen is that we do travel through time; however, it happens in one continuous narrative rather than dramatic leaps into the future and back to the past.

What, then, do time travel and yoga have to do with cleaning the litter box? How is a task so mundane but vital to life with felines in any way a practice, let alone an art?

Cats have been a part of my whole life. Our farm cats went in and out freely, and I can’t remember if we ever had a litter box inside, perhaps a little-used one in the basement. But ever since petite, longhaired Tillie adopted me in graduate school, I’ve had at least one cat and one or more litter boxes under my roof. That’s about thirty years of cleaning up litter.

The most significant break came when Seventeen was around Ten and started cleaning the cat boxes for a dime a day. Later, the cats would subscribe to Time magazine for him, a satisfactory arrangement for all. So when he left last month for college, I was dismayed to find that the task reverted to me. At first I dreaded it, the clay dust, the scooping, the carrying … if you’ve ever done it, you know. I still can’t say that I like it, but I have learned a few things.

The first is obvious: once it’s done for the day, it’s done. But less obvious is that I can tell myself, in the morning for example, that if I take five minutes to clean the litter boxes (there are two in the basement and one upstairs), then the afternoon me won’t have to anticipate the unpleasant task. The present me takes care of the future me. And, inversely, later in the day when the job is already completed, the present me thinks back fondly on the actions of the past me—and it feels like a kind of time traveling, even if it has little to do with saving the world.

Cleaning the boxes takes little more time than walking down the stairs to the basement, up two flights to the laundry room, and out to the garage. In that short time, I ponder this notion of caring for my future self. It makes putting money away for a rainy day, for example, or making a phone call right now that I’ve been dreading, a bit easier. More logical. Sweet, even. It makes me feel a little bit braver in the present moment, knowing some unpleasantness may be avoided in the future.

And then there’s this. Regular litter box maintenance is having another interesting effect. Seventeen wasn’t as habitual about the task as I am, meaning the boxes sometimes got, shall we say, over-filled. When that happened, the cats were known to “think outside the box” or at best leave the boxes messy. I determined to clean them nearly daily and in doing so, I’ve been feeling—this sounds almost ridiculous as I write these words—a bit of pride. But here’s the most remarkable part—the litter box users seem to have noticed. They aren’t throwing litter out of the box, using the sides or even the outside, or leaving their eliminations uncovered. It’s a behavior change I never could have anticipated, but one that leaves our present selves purring.

Shine on Harvest Moon! And Shine on YOU, in whatever present self you find yourself. Thanks for witnessing my journey, Rxo

The Count

How’re your cats?

Our black kitty, Leo, has one essential job: loving Sixteen. He does it willingly and well, sleeping on his bed or in his doorway when Sixteen is asleep, curled on his favorite perch atop Sixteen’s desk when he’s doing schoolwork. He seems to know about when Sixteen will arrive home and emerges from his afternoon nap ten or fifteen minutes ahead of time to sit by the front window and watch.

With Sixteen at the center of Leo’s world, Leo is merely observant of the rest of us. He almost never makes a noise, so somewhere along the line family stories about Leo’s limited vocabulary have evolved. Leo does count everyone in the household, but since he clearly cannot count very high, we decided it goes like this: Sixteen is One. Ninety-One, Thirteen, and I are each Not One. Starling, whom Leo tolerates and who idolizes Leo like he’s the captain of the football team, is White-Like-Me. Katy, who once was Leo’s bestie but is now most certainly a mouse-like beasty, to be tolerated some days and hunted with vengeance on others, is Gray-Not-Like-Me. (That said, considerable gains have been achieved in the overall peace among the three in our household, a far cry from where we were a little over a year ago when we were at an all-time unharmonious low.)

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Starling gazing at Leo, both kitties looking just a little like the calendar we enjoyed last year.

Like Leo, I have an affection for counting, reckoning. Unlike Leo, I have considerably more numbers at my disposal and I thoroughly enjoy rifling through them. As a words person, I am not expected, perhaps, to love numbers, but I do. I like the way they quantify things; I like the way they help me know where I stand. I often think in numbers and patterns, perhaps the reason I am good at puzzles and proofreading (negative space, negative numbers, and vast quantities, however, can undo me mentally faster than about anything).

I’ve been thinking about numbers recently—trying to figure out their appeal. It may have something to do with the way the brain can feel so settled if the numbers are right. A simple example: In my dryer, there are three wool balls that tumble with the wet clothes, cutting down on static, softening the clothes, and eliminating the need for softener or dryer sheets. When I pull clothes out of the dryer, there’s satisfaction in seeing all three balls resting in the empty dryer, awaiting the next load. When one gets tangled inside a sheet or works its way up the leg of a pair of pajamas, which happens quite often, it takes a little extra work to paw through the clean clothes and find the dryer ball. Sometimes only two stay, the third hiding successfully enough so I won’t find it until I’m folding the pile of laundry on my bed. And then there’s that feeling that something is amiss, until the third dryer ball is returned to its place with the others. Click. Something moves into place in my brain and—this may be part of the magic of knowing the right number—I don’t have to think about it any more.

I also like numbers when they do quirky things, like palindromes on my car’s odometer and that moment when there are 2 minutes 34 second (234) left in the walk on my treadmill and I’ve journeyed 2.34 miles. These moments don’t last with the satisfying thunk of the third dryer ball returning home, but they sweeten the breath of the moment when I take time to notice them.

I thought I might celebrate last year’s big birthday, 50, by writing a Fifty Things I’ve Learned in Fifty Years blog post. I know people who have celebrated such big birthdays by playing 50 holes of golf or riding 50 miles on their bicycle. Sixteen wisely talked me out of the Fifty Lesson list, and I’m glad he did. Because just as I appreciate knowing numbers, I appreciate the mutable quality of not counting. So fifty came and went, was celebrated variously, but it took considerable pressure off not to mark it fifty ways.

So it is with the reset in seasons. The New Year may start on January 1, but isn’t it nicer, for example, to take a transitional period from around the Solstice to around the Chinese New Year to move into the messages and lessons of winter? Spring seems to turn a little more quickly, but there aren’t many places that will flip from winter to spring on the equinox. At such times, the number becomes a benchmark, a reminder to stop and notice where you are and what you’re doing rather than a directive to make a distinct and abrupt change.

And so it seems with numbers, as with so many things, there is a balance. The checkbook, balanced to the penny. The budget? Rounder numbers with wiggle room, ideally based on less so that there will be more. Three hundred sixty-five days in a year? All good. But it takes 365.24 days for the earth to travel around the sun. It’s fascinating to me that the roman calendar, lunar based, simply left off any counting of the days in between December and March. When Julius Cesar proposed the Julian/sun-based calendar, he addressed several issues, including the problem of leap year. Today’s calendar not only has months and days for every day, but once every four years we add a day to align the calendar with the seasons. Elegant or clumsy, this year we get an extra day—and isn’t this a gift—to count on.

Happy New Moon! It’s a bright cold beginning to great things. Thanks for being a reader I can count on! love, Rxo

Break-Through

Break-Through

What did the crazy cat family do this time?

When I was a little girl, we had sheep that roamed the fields of Redbird Farm. To keep them safe from wild dogs and other predators, we would round them up, especially during lambing season, and bring them into the fold. Along the way we acquired a gorgeous white goat named Cauliflower, who took her charge so purposefully that bringing the sheep in at night ceased to be a strenuous human task. After a while, my parents thought it would be a good idea to breed Cauliflower and in the casual way that animals arrive and depart in the country, we acquired Billy, a shaggy orangy-brown goat with wide horns and an impish attitude. Cauliflower wanted nothing to do with Billy and hated being penned up with him. She tried every way she could to escape and return to her sheep scattered on the hillside, but she found herself stuck in a pen with him.

One day, a single ewe—something one hardly ever sees—came scurrying past the house on her way to the barn. A few minutes later she returned with Cauliflower—the message that the goat was needed by the flock somehow urgently communicated. My parents went out to investigate and found a wild dog stalking the sheep.

From then on, Cauliflower and Billy were allowed to work the sheep together, but one impish goat plus one very good one means that the sheep will be kept in a flock, but they’ll also be shown how to escape every pen, every enclosure, every field. Neighbors called from all around to let us know, “your sheep are over here eating my lawn; your goats are eating my shrubs,” and off my mother would go, often as not on horseback, to herd the animals home again.

Cauliflower and Billy were eventually replaced by Sunshine and Diane, pretty dark brown goats with white blazes who were worthless as herders but specialized in costing us money by eating specialty shrubs across the road at the neighbors’. We gave up goats, after that, opting instead for a capable if slightly insane border collie named Moss.

What I didn’t understand as a child that I know painfully well now is that as the person making the decisions about the animals, there is a tremendous responsibility involved. And when it all goes wrong, it’s awful. When I was little the farm animals came and went, some tragically, some to the table, some without ever becoming part of the family or pet-like. Even then, some of pets that lived in our houses and cuddled with us and relied on us to bring them food and attention felt far more like members of the family. Today that is even more true. The situation when the family members aren’t getting along feels significantly more dire: you can’t so easily farm them out elsewhere.

In “Fur Flurry,” https://overneathitall.com/2014/08/09/fur-flurry/, I wrote about the catastrophe in our household. We attempted to resolve it, with heavy, heavy hearts, by delivering Charcoal back to the shelter from whence he came. Brave Twelve, who felt she had discovered and chosen the magnificent beast as a tiny kitten, went with me to return him. I kept thinking “no deposit, no return,” but I was encouraged by a number of voices that let me know that they, too, had at one time or another had to part with a beloved pet because animals or animals and people in their households hadn’t been living in harmony.

It was with considerable, albeit perhaps short-sighted, surprise that we found the problems didn’t end with Charcoal’s departure. Our two older kitties, companions for six years, had discovered each other’s weaknesses and continued to bait each other, hissing and chasing. The smaller kitty, Katy, who had been persecuted by Charcoal for her position as Alpha kitty, got to the point where she would not go to the basement to use the litter boxes, where she would not pass one of the other two kitties without hissing or growling, and where she was spending as much time as she could curled up in a tight knot on Ninety’s bed, where she wasn’t entirely welcome. Neither feline nor human could approach her easily and the more cross she became, the more times she broke training, the more cat fights erupted in the middle of the night, the more crazed I felt by the stress of it all.

Isolation for Katy was the most logical solution: Back to the laundry room with litter box, cat tree, food and water she went.pjk breaks %22ground%22

And then I had an idea. Katy used to be in my room at night, long before all of the chaos began, behind the door she exclusively was allowed through (https://overneathitall.com/2014/01/14/the-door-to-everywhere-2/). She would come in during the evening, sleep on my bed, and asked to be let out in the morning. Before the troubles began, she was totally trustworthy. I have never wanted to keep her there all the time; however, because I didn’t want a litter box in my bedroom. And once Katy felt imperiled, she could no longer be trusted. But the laundry room and my bedroom share a wall. What if she had a cat access through the wall, could keep her kitty accouterments in the laundry room and come for socialization with me at night as she used to? It still wouldn’t be perfect solution, but, I reasoned, it would stem the stress and Katy wouldn’t be as lonely. All it meant was we would have to break the house a little … and with high hopes that we were
building a passageway to peace, that’s exactly what we did.Katy 2 Katy framed peek-a-boo breakthroughpassage other side

 

 

 

 

 

Ninety often says, “People don’t stay done.” I’m thinking animals (pets) don’t seem to either, but I hope this is a solution of sorts. Certainly my stress level over the issue has diminished … for now. Katy’s been sleeping on my bed, purring and cuddling a lot, and the other two cats stop at my door and look in. I hope one day we’ll be able to reunite the felines. Maybe a full moon in the spring? Meanwhile, happy full November moon … with love & gratitude for the journey, Rxo

Fur Flurry

Fur Flurry

Can you write about it?

Whenever I mention my cats, invariably the person I’m talking to asks: how many do you have? I’ve been told if you have to hold up fingers rather than announce out loud how many cats you own, you have too many. Even so, I’ll always hold my fingers straight up when asked, my thumb clearly crossing my palm so there’s no mistake. Four. Up until recently it didn’t really feel like we had too many.

Our alpha cat was born in a barn and full-grown weighs all of six pounds. She’s a clever cat, springy and swift. She arrived in our lives in early June, six years ago following the March death of Max, a beautiful black boy who found refuge in my mother’s garage from the flood water of 1993. I believe that cats appear energetically, filling a vacuum left by another’s departure. Keep your eyes and ears open, and your kitty will appear. So it was that I knew exactly what to do just a few days after Max’s companion Molly died of a broken heart at the end of the same summer (she was only five). I took the vet up on his invitation—we have kittens in the back when you’re ready—and we welcomed Leo to the family.

With considerable more thought and purpose, we adopted the kittens, Charcoal and Starling, four years later. They are now, of course, full-grown, but as with all young things, they seem somehow newer and fresher than Katy and Leo. The idea was that cats taken two at a time meant there wouldn’t be an odd-cat out. And with four laps in the house, everyone would have someone to snuggle.

And for a while it was the best of plans and all was well. Fifteen and Twelve were in kitty heaven. The kitties more or less sorted themselves out—Leo has always loved Fifteen the most. The females bonded with me but made the rounds, even enchanting my dog-person mother, Eighty-Nine. Charcoal was something of a floater and he bewildered us, bloating terribly for a while, but at last growing into a sleek large blue-grey cat with the smug look of a feline who has swallowed a delicious mouse.

As it turns out, not one of the four is an automatic lap cat, leaping up to curl on your thighs the moment you sit down. But any one of them might settle in close while we’re reading or working, and they provide plenty of entertainment.

During the darkest days of this past winter, Charcoal realized what neither Starling nor Leo knew: he was more than twice the size of alpha-girl Katy. And he began to stalk her. Katy took to sleeping high on Twelve’s dresser or hiding in my room with me, where she was the only cat allowed because she is smart enough to ask when she needs to go out. In spite of calming collars, liberal doses of herbal relaxing drops, and infusing the air with happy kitty pheromones, the stalking turned into chasing. As winter melted, the trouble between the two grew more and more tempestuous, such that one day I followed the flying fur into the laundry room and found Katy treed up the window screen, blood dripping from her chin where Charcoal’s claw had caught it, her urine streaking the window.

A bad situation became worse when Leo, who had always been a loving companion toward Katy, sleeping hip-to-hip especially when the temperatures dipped, joined the chase and took a chunk out of Katy’s ankle. Katy resorted to cowering in the laundry room, rarely venturing out, and crawling behind the washer to relieve herself.

Putting all of this down on paper makes me wonder how we let the situation go this far. When you’re a practicing writer, more than one person will ask, when things are dim, whether you’re writing about them. “I will,” I usually reply. However, I don’t keep a journal, and in truth writing this story now only makes me cringe. If someone sat at my desk at the studio and poured out such a horror to me, I’d gently say, “You can’t live like that. Can you find a new home for one of the kitties?”

But, of course, our own problems are never so easily resolved. In my family, we all love all four of these beasts. I am determined to involve my children in deciding the outcome, just as I did in the adoptions of Charcoal and Starling. Thus when Leo attacked Katy while the peeps were at camp, I did what I had been loathe to do: I bought a litter box and a purr pad and moved Katy into the laundry room in comfort, her door shut to the other cats. I took her to the vet to have her wound and stress levels evaluated. The vet was clear—keeping them separate was the only option besides getting rid of the principal aggressor. She also counseled making sure Katy had plenty of love and attention so she wouldn’t feel she was being punished and suggested after a while we try putting Charcoal away to see if Katy could reintroduce to the other two.

The peeps and I added one more piece—when they got home from camp, we built an outdoor kitty pen, a little larger than 7’ by 12’, out of chicken wire and fence posts and lots and lots of zipties. It has a roof to keep the cats from climbing out, stones lining the bottom so they won’t dig under, and a cat door installed through the aging screen in the sunroom we have always called “the East House.”leo pen

Leo (all black) and Starling investigate their little corner of the great outdoors.

Leo (all black) and Starling investigate their little corner of the great outdoors.

So far, the boys adore the pen, asking to go out first thing in the morning and staying there much of the day. Starling stands two feet out, two feet in, watching. One recent morning Katy had her first turn in the pen, co-existing mostly peacefully with Leo, although she made it clear she has not forgiven him and hissed if he got too close. After time with dirt under their paws and fresh air in their noses, everyone has been sleeping soundly at night.

As I ponder the options and watch the situation unfold, I recall reading once that pets teach us unconditional love—not just how to receive it, but how to give it. Unconditional love sometimes requires the hardest choices, as I have experienced over and over again when I’ve taken pets to the vet to be euthanized. I’m beginning to see that such incredibly hard lessons of love and loss may also include separation, and the anticipation of giving up a cat—although I intellectually admit it is the logical next step—brings up the hurt of lost friends, lost loves, lost places, lost talents and enthusiasms, lost times, lost opportunities. Perhaps experiencing separation from a pet—someone we’ve taken on to love, care for and protect—preps us for the separations we must face from other humans, breakups, empty nests, loss of friendship. Learning to live through such losses in our lives may well be another of the generosities that our pets give us, but it is one I am having a terrible time receiving.

I just now learned from the wilds of the Internet that today, August 8, is International Cat Day. The full moon shines on Sunday. This post goes out in honor of both—with my gratitude, as ever, for this forum in which I keep living the questions in poses & prose. Namaste, Rxo 

Napping together, Leo & Charcoal.

Napping together, Leo & Charcoal.

Katy in happier times ...

Katy in happier times …

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