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Category Archives: nature

Once in a Blue Moon

Once in a Blue Moon

Who says “Pookie?”

Over the course of three days, in conversation, I hear three riveting lines:

“The only way out is through,” says the wise, compassionate woman who has hired me to teach a workshop in her yoga teacher training. We are curled up on her sofa sipping tea after the workshop and dinner, talking about yoga and business, next steps and life’s knots. It was, she tells me, something she herself heard from three different sources in just one week’s time. I play the phrase over a few times, liking how it sounds as I say the words aloud, “the only way out is through.” My hostess nods.

“Repetition is the only form of permanence nature can achieve.” This one rocks me back on my heels, in part because it’s delivered with alacrity by a woman I’ve been lucky enough to practice with for years. She’s just coming in for class on Monday morning.

“Run that by me again?”

“Repetition is the only form of permanence nature can achieve,” she says more slowly. I write it down.

“Is that original?”

“No,” she says easily—it’s from a group to which she belongs where it’s said with such regularity that she’s not used to it being received with surprise. “I say it all the time there,” her soulful voice intones, “but I guess I have never said it to you.”

“I’m glad you did today. I’m going to think about that.”

A few minutes later the pre-practice chatter has shifted to songbirds. We are weary of the winter cold, and the first bird sightings suggest the spring may not be so impossible to believe in. I realize this is a group with a depth of knowledge in local birdlife and, trying my hardest to sound like a bird, I pose a question to them I’ve been living with for years, “Who says ‘Pooookieeee’?”

There are a few bewildered looks, a tentative suggestion that it’s a mourning dove, and then comes the certain voice of a newer student in the class, “It’s the Black-capped Chickadee saying, ‘Sweet Day’.”

“Pookie” is one of the first birdcalls I hear in January. Even with the blast of the furnace fan and the windows closed against the winter winds, “Pookie” whistles through, the call beginning before the sun is fully up and sounding periodically through the day. In the spring the call sounds perky to me, full of promise. As the summer wears on, it begins to seem a little doleful. Once a friend and I made up a clichéd story that she was on the nest and he had flown off across the lake to hang with the boys, leaving her with all of the nestling care. “Pooooookie,” she called and called, “Poooookie.” She was using his pet name, we decided, when what she really wanted to say is, “Where are you?”

Pookie’s call while I’m proofreading a few mornings later reminds me to search for a sound file. I google “Black-capped Chickadee” and sure enough, the “typical” song on allaboutbirds.org is precisely what I’ve been hearing. Now I know that Pookie is a charming little bird named for one of its other songs, it’s mating call chickadee dee that my mother says changes to Chickadee dee dee when the weather warms. (The website suggests more dees mean danger, but I like my mother’s version better.)

I learn, too, that the Chickadee survives the cold by lowering its body temperature. That it enjoys peanuts and sunflower seeds and doesn’t mind if a feeder or food source is moving in the wind. The nestlings hiss and slap the side of their nest if an intruder looks in, and Chickadees in general aren’t afraid of birds and predators much larger than they. Airborne, the Chickadee is one of the most curious of songbirds, some even consenting to land on an outstretched human hand.

In Animal Speak, Ted Andrews guides me to the energetic implications of the courageous, joyful bird. Chickadees inspire cheerfulness, gentle truth, balance, and open perception to the world at large as well as the inner mind. These are attributes worth cultivating.

Mostly, though, I am happy all day because the bird has been identified. It is, I think, one of those “once in a blue moon” moments, when something you’ve wondered about for a long time resolves. When you have a solid answer rather than a question. It’s comfortable to know something, to know the truth of the dear little Chickadee who greets me and the world each morning.

Dear Chickadee

Chickadee1

Poem & sketch by me … Once in a blue moon I enjoy trying alternate means of expression. 


You sing it’s a “Sweet Day,”
I hear “Pookie.”
Brave, curious, a teller of truth,
Distinctive, tiny, tough,
You remind:
The only way out of winter,
of any bind,
is through.
Resilient bird,
as mysterious as any,
You return, each year, and
spring replenishes your song.

Wishing you a wonderful full-blue-eclipse moon and the unraveling of one or more mysteries. Namaste, Rxo

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The Tao of Dishes

What are you going to do about your dishwasher?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

IMG_8662

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.

IMG_8787

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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