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Category Archives: holidays

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

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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.

 

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

Rabbit Reset

Which way shall I turn next?

On the first day of July, tomorrow morning as I’m writing these words, I’ll wake as I usually do, sorting and ordering the activities of the day ahead and filtering out the already dones of yesterday. The small grey kitty that somehow manages to simultaneously curl up into a tight, tiny ball and sprawl across the lion’s share of my bed will stretch and demand attention. At some point the reality that it’s first of the month will swim into focus and I’ll say, out loud, “Rabbit, rabbit.” Thus guaranteed good luck for the coming month, I’ll spring up to face the day.

Of course, there are no guarantees.

But just as finding a penny heads up, as I did yesterday on my own front step, and making a wish when returning the clasp on a necklace to the back of my neck, feel like opportune moments, sticking to the tradition I learned at nine in England feels like it can’t hurt. I rarely miss a month and, having spoken the words out loud, will generally go so far as to post “rabbit, rabbit” as my status on Facebook.

When they were really little, I taught my kids. They think nothing of “Rabbit, rabbit,” as a greeting when they wake. They’ll sleepily say it back. At one point—they were about Four and Seven—I researched the tradition and wrote a theatrical, the script for which surfaced this spring as I was cleaning out boxes in the basement. The scant theories about origins for the practice (and its many variations) wove through a princess tale in which we and every stuffed rabbit in our house all had roles to play. Like a faded old snapshot, the script brought back memories and connection to a sweet long ago.

Saying “Rabbit, rabbit” on July 1st will usher in not just a new month, but the second half of 2017. Just then, I almost wrote the second side, a phrase my yoga students will connect to practice, when a series of poses is complete on the left side, for example, and we get ready to begin the sequence again on the right. There is a balance to it—working the body equally—and there’s a marvel as well, how different one side can be from the other.

For much of the first half of 2017 I felt like I was on a water ride, sliding across a cascade of changes that included Ninety-Two’s health challenges and associated changing care needs and launching my house onto the spring real estate market. In the swirl of May, Eighteen docked at the end of his first year of college and shortly thereafter Fifteen powered through finals and flowed into summer. Whereas I’d been paddling hard, struggling to keep the boat afloat across white water and despite strong undertows, quite suddenly I landed, the oar feeling a little like it was broken off in my hands. The constant, unpredictable motion of the spring stilled.

Honestly, it took a little while for me to recognize and stop padding. I’m still puzzling about where I am. I don’t know if I’m sitting on the beach, my suit itchy with sand, or floating in a gently swirling hot tub. And while there’s always a next storm, I don’t really know if the hatches are securely battened and we’ll be fine or if there’s a ton of shoring up to do to prevent disaster. What I do know is that this is both entirely new and somewhere I’ve been before: at the end of a series of events and plans that were so consuming I couldn’t take time to consider what my world would look like after or precisely what to do next. I may not truly be in the aftermath, maybe we never really are. Yet, there’s a stillness, a chance to reconsider and relaunch. It’s a great time to clean house, physically, metaphorically, metaphysically. And with that in mind, I welcome the opportunity to reset—both for a new month and the second side of this adventure-filled year—and I’ll take all the luck with that I can get. Rabbit, Rabbit!!

Much of my world is on sale, including these lilies that bloom faithfully each June. They’re on sale because the house they’re in front of is for sale. In that spirit, for the month of July my novel is also on sale, over at Smashwords (https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/516628). If you haven’t enjoyed it yet, maybe some summer reading (half off 7.1–7.31)? xoxo

As serendipity would have it, my twice-rescheduled colonoscopy is Monday. Rather than dreading it, I see it as a part of the overall reset. As we celebrate our nation’s birthday and many have a few days off, it’s not unlike the turn of a new year—a big party with bright lights and lots of festivities, followed by a chance to begin anew. Have you thought about it? Which direction will you turn now? Rxoxo

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

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

Quality Assurance

How are you celebrating the long weekend?

The last few hours of 2015 find me in a sixth-floor triangular hotel room with an urban view of snowy rooftops, plumes of furnace exhaust animating the scene. In the distance a clock tower indicates that the morning is well underway. I’m still in my pajamas and fuzzy socks thinking the hands of that clock can move as swiftly or as slowly as they will—today is a rare day with no agenda.

triangle

Triangles are definitely appealing to me right now—spending some time considering what the shape will mean in 2016.

I’m thinking too that at the end of the calendar year, we stack the deck against our own intended successes—celebrating with what are often excesses of food, drink, décor, and gifts. January first arrives with its resolutions and we’re starting at more of a disadvantage than usual.

view

Cityscape out of my window.

And even though I gave up making resolutions several years ago (https://overneathitall.com/2011/12/), I want to push that big reset button at the end of one year and the beginning of the next, just like anyone else.

 

There are several logical beginnings in the seasonal year—the fall brings the start of the school year, which will always feel like a new year to me. Spring, when we emerge from the cold to the fresh sight of new growth, is another bright beginning. But I’ve come to appreciate the gift of turning the page on a new calendar in January. Whatever holiday(s) we celebrate from Thanksgiving to the end of the old year, they encourage gathering together, lighting the dark, and sharing tokens of love. We feast to celebrate the harvest and festoon trees and mantles and houses with lights and baubles. Cards and letters connect us to friends and relations, and if there’s an urgency to hurry-up to finish the last of the old year’s work, it soon gets lost in the swirl of it all.

This year I’m fortunate to be marking the end of that period and 2015 with a pause: four days without a plan a little under two hours away from home. In an un-formed difficult-to-track way, my thoughts are riffling through my memories of 2015, looking for the meaning and lessons therein. I keep coming back to paper towels.

In my bustling household of peeps and pets, paper towels are a constant, even as I opt for more environmental choices when I can. At Costco I purchase twelve rolls at a time, complete with the select-a-size feature, and the package lasts for months. In the last dozen, more than a few of the rolls have been misaligned, with one ply bearing a fold to match it up with the other. As the roll unspools, the fold travels up or down the spiral of the towels, thickening and thinning and spiraling up and down the roll, sometimes right off the edge. I’ve never seen this before, but now when I make my children’s lunches in the morning or clean up at the end of the day, the extra fold of paper towel catches my attention—a bemusing curiosity.

Paper towels will forever remind me of a student paper written in response to a narrative essay I used to assign routinely to my developmental writing students. Frustrated by their retelling of stories they relied upon for writing assignments, I challenged my students to do something they had never done before and write about it. They had a week to come up with an experience, something all new to them. The assignment turned out to contain a little magic and generated some of the liveliest writing I read as a professor. Over the years answers to the challenge included wearing shoes of two different colors for an entire day, going to a new restaurant, and exploring a few extreme sports. One woman, a returning adult student, elected to investigate whether a roll of paper towels actually contained the number of sheets it claimed on the package. To conduct her experiment she gathered together several volunteer children from her neighborhood and together they unrolled the entire roll down the length of her street. They each counted the paper towels to be certain they had a reliable number and gathered quite a crowd of spectators in the process. There were a few more paper towels than the package claimed, and the inventive narrative that the student wrote was a breakthrough in her writing, the marvel of it staying with me more than twenty years.

Paper towels might not often be surprising or delightful or infused with magic. They might feel instead like a necessity for cleaning up life’s messes. But watching my paper towels with their running misaligned folds unspool gives my household chores a kind of whimsy that connects me to the spirit of doing something I’ve never done before. Twenty-fifteen indeed included some enormous “never-done-before” moments—like taking my children to Spain—but just now it is for this modest lesson that I am most thankful: When there is whimsy in the same-old, there is a spirit of adventure available even if I’m simply navigating the work of cleaning up. The New Year promises opportunity for lots of change and transition, shiny initiatives that we believe will change everything for the better. But lunches still need to be made and studio floors still need to be swept—if I can bring to these chores a sense of sparkle and delight, then maybe just maybe each moment I step into will have a little of the magic of something I have never done before.

Happy New Year with my love & best wishes for 2016, Rxo

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