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Natural Phenomena

What is that smell?

In late July, the greater Des Moines community fell in love with a flower, a stinky flower. The unbelievable Titum arum (aka the Corpse Flower) thriving under the tender care of curatorial horticulturist Derek Carwood at the Greater Des Moines Botanical Garden defied expectations and settled in to bloom several years ahead of schedule. En masse people visited, people watched the live feed, people talked all over town about the advent of the bloom’s arrival.

Having watched the live feed with (now) Ninety-Three, having thought I would be out of town during the twenty-four hours or so when the plant was actually in bloom, having woken up one morning to discover that I had the time to zip downtown and see the plant for myself on the very day that it finally burst (okay, unfurled achingly slowly) into bloom, and having the opportunity to smell it for myself, I, too, fell in love. I went to see it twice.

The first visit I dropped Fifteen at Driver’s Ed and went solo. With extended hours, the Botanical Garden was open at seven that morning. By a little after eight, the parking lot was already busy. I bounced in with a crowd stopping through on their way to work, camp, and a hot summer day.

I had seen the flower that morning on the live feed and very beautiful pictures of it on Facebook trumpeting its arrival. As I followed the winding path through gorgeous banana trees and fantastic blooms, like everyone else I had eyes only for the whimsically named Carrion My Wayward Son, Carrie for short. My first glimpse, I confess, was slightly disappointing. Set down below the grade, it looked small and lost in the other foliage—hard to distinguish from the rest of the lush garden. But as the path wound around and we edged closer, I could see that the plant was indeed every bit as remarkable in person as it was on camera, made more so by the undeniable odor.

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Carrie in full & stinky bloom

The plant’s flowering structure looks nothing like the plant, a tree-like stem with small leaves at the top. When it gets ready to bloom, an enormous heavy bulb sends up what’s called the inflorescence, a stem of sorts that spouts flowers revealed for just a short time when the gorgeous outer spathe—green on the outside—finally unfurls revealing its lush purple lining. In the wild, these can be nine feet in diameter. Whatever the size, it’s a stunning and unusual sight; but what everyone was talking about was the smell: “Like raw chicken gone off,” said one lady, nailing it. “Like a mouse died,” said another. I saw children walking in, wrinkling their noses and covering them with their shirt collars before they got close enough to actually smell the thing.

It was not, however, overpowering. In my experience the Corpse Flower earns its stinky reputation, but it’s not horrid. At least under the great glass dome of the botanical center where thousands of plants filter the air, Carrie’s wasn’t a fresh smell, but it was a naturally rotten one. Carpet glue, fresh tar, and garbage trucks in the hot summer sun all smell far worse to me.

My “I saw Titum arum” sticker granted me repeat admission, so when I picked up Fifteen from her class, I asked her if she’d like to see Carrie. “Sure,” she said merrily. “Let’s go see the smelly flower.”

In August the whole nation fell in love with the solar eclipse, making elaborate plans to witness totality in a path that striped the country. Fifteen, Eighteen and I took the day, making our pilgrimage south to find ourselves in Plattsburg, MO, where the eclipse viewing party in the town’s City Park offered free parking on a wet, muddy field. We arrived in time to don our glasses and check in with the sun, watching the curved shadow block progressively more and more of the sun even as the show dipped in and out of the clouds. We ate our snacks and marveled at the size of the gathering, so many people lured out of their Monday routines to experience the lining up of our brightest star directly behind our moon. At totality, the cloud cover was significant and we weren’t treated to the corona or the diamond ring, but we experienced darkness at just past one in the afternoon, darkness that fell from west to east and light that returned along the same unreasoned path.

Witnessing the eclipse, we decided, was an intellectual exercise. We had to keep talking about how it was the sun that looked like a waning then waxing moon. But when darkness fell it was straight-up cool. Our biology knew it wasn’t normal. And we weren’t the only ones. As we navigated the winding side roads home, seeking paths at a remove from the intense traffic, we marveled at how the cows were all lying down, pointed in the direction where the sun had disappeared.

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Darkness an hour past noon.

In September a smell we did not love moved into our garage. It wasn’t Carrie, but it could have been, about as strong and about as dead smelling. At first I thought it was something in the garbage (“broccoli,” opined Fifteen), so I moved the bin outside. But the smell continued, occasionally ebbing, but getting really pronounced when the afternoon sun warmed the garage.

“I’m afraid we have something dead in here,” I said one afternoon as we arrived home and were greeting by a particularly strong waft of rot.

“Ewwww,” said Fifteen, racing inside.

Baking soda in open containers seemed to help. Cooler temps arrived and the smell abated some. Eventually, and fortunately, the smell became significantly less intense—more of an occasional waft than a full-on assault. Only lately did I find her, a small bunny that had for whatever reason crawled between a fold-up table and a stack of flooring to die. There was very little left of her, but cleaning up the remains was unpleasant work. After, I cried in the shower.

I could float some theories but the truth is, I’m not certain why bunny’s death has hit me so hard. Several days post clean-up I’m still oddly searching for what became a not unfamiliar smell in the garage when I arrive home. Bunny is gone, the eclipse is over, Carrie’s fifteen minutes have ended. And with their collective departures, the summer of 2017 is waning. As sad as Bunny’s death makes me feel, the great eclipse escape and Carrie’s bloom made me so happy. As a collection, they are reminders to me that as we walk on this earth, it is vital to be astonished.

The new moon launches at 12:29am CT 9.20.17, and with this post I’m a wee bit closer to being back on track here at overneathitall. Thanks, as ever, for being astonished along the journey with me. Namaste & big love, Rxo

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2016’s Big Finish

Why do you call your son Seventeen?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

La Bella Luna

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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