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Category Archives: metaphor

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

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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

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

Salon Ninety-Two

How do you know what to teach?

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

“How do you know what to teach?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My Funny Valentine

My Funny Valentine

Wha?? You’re letting it go?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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