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Category Archives: teenagers

Before and After and After That

What are you painting now?

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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On his way to his first day

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My Number One Son

What did you serve?

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Nineteen!!

Between us, my son and I never acknowledge that there is, in fact, only one son. The boy formerly known as Eighteen, now Nineteen, goes by many terms of endearment. He was certainly my Number One Son when we planned that he and some college friends would come to the house for dinner to celebrate on his birthday.

 

Although most of the time I pretend he’s five or six hours away from home, it’s incredibly convenient that his college is just sixty-three miles door-to-door. The hungry hoards would arrive in three cars before six. Anticipating the crowd, Fifteen and I prepped the dining room ahead. It took my table on a slant across the room, both of the extension leaves, and two six-foot folding tables to get enough chairs—dining and folding—arrayed around for all of the guests to have a place. We decorated with BB-8 paraphernalia from the party store—hats, blowers, and cutouts. The Lego BB-8 Nineteen received and built on Christmas Day was the centerpiece. In the brass goblets my mother purchased in Mexico fifty years ago, goblets that have been making party memories ever since, we placed “light saber” party favors—Quasr bars from Trader Joe’s.IMG_9948

 

Decorating wasn’t nearly as challenging as menu planning. What do you make for fourteen? Consider that among the guests there was one nut allergy, one lactose intolerant, two vegetarians who eat fish, one meat lover who doesn’t think much of vegetables, and one young man who believes potatoes are not just a food group of their own, but food sent from the gods above. Midweek before the party, I got a call. The vegan friend could come too. Toss into the mix that I was working out of town the two days before, so the shopping had to be done in advance, with last-minute items added on Sunday, cutting down on cooking time. For inspiration, I borrowed heavily from Thanksgiving.

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Snacks:
Deviled Eggs
Olives, Pickles, Cheese Cubes, and Cherry Tomatoes with toothpicks

 

 

 

Dinner:
Salmon Stuffed with (nut-free) Spinach Pesto and Roasted Red Peppers
Quinoa and Black Bean Salad
Roasted Chickens (from Costco)
Scalloped Yukon Gold and Sweet Potato Gratin with Fresh Herbs
(A recipe that was a “let’s try it this year” Thanksgiving addition years ago and immediately earned a permanent spot: https://www.bonappetit.com/recipe/scalloped-yukon-gold-and-sweet-potato-gratin-with-fresh-herbs)
Roasted Carrots, Green Beans, and Asparagus
Fruit Salad
Bread and Butter and “Butter”

IMG_9914Dessert:
Chocolate Chip Oatmeal Cookies (a Cook’s Illustrated recipe)
Cheesecake with Fruit (made in a crowd-accommodating tart pan)
An Assortment of Frozen Vegan Treats from Trader Joe’s

Beverages:
Water infused with Lemon, Cucumber and Blackberries
Sparkling Berry Lemonade and Sparkling Limeade

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BB-8 is Nineteen’s Spirit Droid

When they arrived, I rather wished I’d thought of a piñata or created a pin-the-tail type game as they aren’t yet a cocktails before dinner crowd. But when invited, they stopped standing awkwardly around in the kitchen and lined my sectional, making pre-dinner chatter. Their spring semester is rapidly drawing to a close, their summer plans and finals anxiety making up a large part of the conversation.

These young women and men are undoubtedly heading toward remarkable lives. They’re talented, articulate, attractive, opinionated, loving, grateful, and sparkly brilliant. They hail from parts far and near—my son’s roommate comes from Russia, but in every other way is his brother from another mother. All together, they made this mother’s heart happy by eating nearly every last bite, enjoying all of the details, and wearing their hats all the way through dinner.

The full moon shone on the carloads as they drove back east to their ivy-covered oasis. I’m told the dinner is a capital T topic of conversation. I couldn’t have pulled it off alone and am grateful to Fifteen and her father for all of their help.

In honor of Star Wars Day, May the Fourth be with you! Much love, RxoIMG_9927

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

Baklava Ballet

What nationality is that, French?

This morning I watched my leggy daughter, just a couple of weeks shy of her fifteenth birthday, climb on the school bus, her jam-packed backpack tugging at her shoulders, a rolled poster for geometry under her arm, and a Rubbermaid cake box balanced between her hands. Her hair, the natural tawny growing out from under henna red, tumbles down her back. Blue eyes and pale skin that burns even in the late afternoon sun divulge her Irish heritage. Today she is wearing her lucky shirt. “Why is it lucky?” I asked her last night when she announced her wardrobe choice for today. “Well, not so much lucky,” she relents. “But good things happen to me when I am wearing this shirt. Ollivander picked me in the wand shop.”

Waiting for the bus this morning, she recounts the wand shop incident—we were one of first groups ushered into Ollivander’s wand experience at the Wizarding World of Harry Potter in Orlando, where one young person is selected by Ollivander himself to be fitted for a wand. Fourteen was that wizard and she gamely waved one wand and then another, as Ollivander sorted and muttered, the spells she cast wrecking havoc on the shop. Flowers wilted, lights flashed, and the chandelier threatened to fall on the watching crowd. When at last a wand cast the desired spell, Ollivander declared: “The wand has chosen the wizard!” We were ushered into the next room where the wizard’s father plunked down significant cash for the wand. The wizard twirled with glee.

She was just remembering the magic of being chosen when the bus screeched to her stop and she climbed out of my car. “Keep the baklava upright,” I reminded her. She tried to bump the car door closed with her foot and I waved to let her know I’d get it. It’s a good thing, I thought, watching her juggle the box to show the driver her pass, that her viola was already at school.

The baklava will net Fourteen extra credit points in Global Understanding. I wanted to kiss her this morning when she expressed compassion for students who might not have access to the extra credit because they wouldn’t be able to make food from a region of the world the class has studied this year. I was far more skeptical a week ago when she told me she’d like to make baklava together. She had even looked up recipes and talked it over with her teacher. “I didn’t realize you’d been studying the Middle East,” I stalled.

“Oh yes,” she enthused. “Plus, it’s my heritage. I’d really like to try. Can we? Please?”

I had a dim memory of making baklava years ago, of it being a lot of work and of winding up with a drippy sticky overcooked mess. The flaky nutty pastry—the very mention of which used to send my father’s visage into spasms of imagined delight—is a culinary treat I had relegated to something someone else makes, like choux pastry, sushi, and fondant. “Send me the link to the recipe you found. I’ll have a look.”

I end up countering with a different recipe and scheduling “make baklava” on the family calendar.

Dinner finished, dishes done (we are, after all, living in the Pinterest House—see “Following Instructions”), Fourteen and I set to work assembling ingredients. We first created the syrup, and while I watched the needle on the candy thermometer work its way line-by-line to 225°, Fourteen did barre routines, her otherwise intense ballet schedule on a brief hiatus between sessions. “How’s the chemistry going?” she asked between pliés.

“Almost there.”

“Great, great grandmother Turkman wouldn’t have had a candy thermometer.”

I realize I don’t actually know if Fourteen’s great, great grandmother was even a cook, let alone a baking whiz. But it doesn’t matter—she was with us in spirit as we tried to tap into what I believe to be a family legacy. “She probably made her own filo, too.”

“Ugh,” Fourteen had already retrieved the filo out of the freezer and seen that even pre-made, it’s tricky to work with. “That would be really hard.”

Syrup made and cooled, filling nuts ground with sugar (in the food processor, another huge convenience I know I didn’t have the last time I tried), butter melted, filo at just the right temperature, Fourteen was at my side and we were ready to begin our assembly project. I made a last minute pan switch and she diligently brushed each filo sheet with butter before I layered on the next. Eight sheets with butter between, half of the filling, eight more sheets buttered, the second half of the nuts and sugar, eight more sheets. The only place the recipe let us down was in the cutting directions—I soon wished I was working in squares instead of diamonds, but as directed I gently sliced through the top layer of filo, we sprinkled the baklava with water, and into the oven it went.

“It’s so interesting that so many cultures claim baklava,” Fourteen remarked.

“You’re right,” I agreed. “But I feel intensely that it’s ours, and we’re making your great, great grandmother and your grandfather very proud.”

The flaky, gently browned pastry that came out of the oven 35 minutes later took on a generous amount of the syrup. Eighteen joined us in the kitchen looking disappointed that the recipe now specified, “cool for four hours.” We didn’t wait, but tasted the edge pieces and scooped up the filling in spoons. Flaky, crispy, sweet, and nutty, our baklava is beyond delicious. “Your great, great grandmother Turkman could be nothing but very proud,” I said of the woman I never met, but whose surname I proudly have kept as my own all these years.IMG_8304

“She really would be, wouldn’t she?” Fourteen was elated.

My first slightly panicked thought upon waking this morning was how on earth would we transport honey-soaked baklava to school. I hadn’t even opened my eyes when something about cupcake papers swam into focus and I had a plan. Cut through on the pan last night, the baklava was even easier to divide in the morning, and I successfully transferred many pieces into the container for school. I also set aside baklava for my Greek friend, whom I would see shortly at the coffee shop for our writing time, for my Egyptian friend with whom I planned to connect later in the day, for my mother, who isn’t the least bit Lebanese but took on the food heritage of her married name with enthusiasm, and for Eighteen, who, like his sister, is just one-eighth Lebanese. And me? I enjoyed baklava and strawberries for breakfast, before heading out the door.

If you’ve ever thought Bourjaily is French, you’re not alone. But it’s Lebanese, as I’ve told the many people who’ve inquired over the years. Sometime when we’re having a drink together, or enjoying tea and baklava, I’ll tell you the story of how great, great grandmother Turkman came to America, as told by my father. Meanwhile, with the intention of getting back on the IMG_8182posting track, here’s a picture from teaching Yoga under the Stars at the Science Center earlier this spring in celebration of yesterday’s new moon. As ever & with so much love, Rxo

Following Instructions

Following Instructions

What are we writing today?

Instructions for living a life.
Pay attention.
Be astonished.
Tell about it. – Mary Oliver

It’s a rainy Friday in May, cool outside the coffee shop. The line for the drive-through wraps around the building and winds through the parking lot. Most of the tables are full. My writing partner and I are nestled in our customary spot, the twin chairs in front of the picture windows just beyond which the cars edge forward, their drivers anticipating coffee for their morning commute. “Perseverance,” my writing partner counsels wisely, “we just need to sit in the chair.”

My tea tastes more like the cream I impulsively added to it than black tea. I’m shifting and fidgeting in my chair, balancing my laptop on my knees, wondering if I can get into the creative flow that I came here looking for. For some time Mary Oliver’s quote has been on my desktop, at times mocking me, at times simply calling to me. I want to explain to her that I’ve been paying attention and plenty astonished by the last two months. I’ve been failing at telling about it.

In the big picture the pieces have shifted and shifted again, like one of those puzzles where you keep sliding the tiles around to make a pattern or organize the numbers. Seventeen is now Eighteen and finishing his first year of college in a blaze of excellent grades, new friendships, wonderful memories, and age-appropriate frustrations in pointing his car toward home where he understandably feels his life goes on hold for the summer. IMG_8170Fourteen will be Fifteen shortly—the past four months together have been a wonderful exploration of our mother-daughter duo—and she is excitedly headed toward summer through the end-of-the-year obstacle course of finals, projects, recitals and concerts.IMG_8173 Ninety-Two has come back stronger than before from a health crisis in April, astounding us all. My house is on the market, creating a combination of uncertainty about where we’ll live next and requiring the constant upkeep of living in a “Pinterest house.” Each of these is a story unto itself, full of little and big astonishments; spring, though, is about mushrooms and rainbows. So it is these I shall tell about:

Mushroom Soup

Ninety-Two’s health crumbled in early April. Another hospitalization landed her back in skilled nursing, where a team of physical and occupational therapists helped her get back on her feet. The fabric of support from friends and family for both of us was truly astonishing. From meals delivered to rides for Fourteen to flowers on my doorstep to kind words via email, phone, and text, we felt the love from near, far and wide. One email arrived with this welcome news: Morels … Found a bunch and I’d like to share them with you. Might make your mom happy.

My mother and I delighted in morel season on our farm, going out into the woods to look together, squealing when we found a mushroom. They are undeniably delicious, but also a herald of the spring with summer to follow, seasons of ease and abundance, of heat and leisure, of a shift away from the arduous slog that was winter life in the country. Disappearing as quickly as they appear, morel mushrooms are earth-magic, little wonders like four-leaf clovers and rainbows that you will only see if you pay attention.

Our morel benefactress zoomed up to the yoga studio in her black car and handed me a paper bag through the window. I hopped from one bare foot to the other on cool pavement in my bare feet, telling her I had devised an entire plan since her email the evening before. At home with the morels, I started diced onions in oil, the beginning to any good recipe and one that used to bring my mother out of her room when the scent of sizzling onions wafted around the corner. To these I added garlic and chopped crimini, then mushroom broth, simmering the flavors together. IMG_8153With the immersion blender on its last legs, the motor whining as much as it smooths, I puréed the soup in the pot and added thick cream from a local dairy.

Leaving the soup on low, I turned my attention to the paper bag bearing the most perfect morels. Lifting them one-by-one, I carefully sliced them the long way into quarters while my pan heated on the stove. Cooking them the French way meant tossing them into the hot pan without oil or butter, turning them rapidly and waiting for their liquor to release. When they were just right—cooked through with their edges and flavors intensified by heat—I tossed them into a thermos and trapped their heat with the lid. The soup went into a second thermos, and both went into a bag with a bowl, a cream-soup spoon from our farm days, and a kitchen towel. Defying the Pinterest house, I left a mess in the kitchen and went to deliver spring to Ninety-Two.

Whatever the results, there is something life affirming about knowing the impact of our actions. I’ve gotten things completely wrong plenty; sitting with the feelings of regret or dismay or despair is the surest way to forge through and rebound, but it isn’t the least bit pleasant. On occasion, I’ve gotten things completely right. Delivering morel mushroom soup to my convalescing mother was one of those occasions, worth everything I put aside to make the soup while the mushrooms were fresh, worth every dish I zoomed home to scrub in my otherwise barely used for-sale kitchen. I watched her exclaim and spoon up every bite, adding more broth so that each spoonful was a silky mixture of soup and mushroom. Later, while Fourteen and I were enjoying morels with eggs and asparagus, Ninety-Two’s email arrived, celebrating the soup and, in hindsight, heralding the turn toward her remarkable recovery.IMG_8154

Which leaves just rainbows to tell about—if you live in the Midwest you’ve seen some amazing ones recently. One morning I woke up in the yellow glow of morning and realized I had woken up inside of one (pictured below with May hail and the rainbow that followed). If mushrooms are earth-magic, then rainbows are the generous gifts of sky and wind and rain and sun, heralds of changing skies and astonishing times to come. But we won’t even notice them if we don’t pay attention and we won’t receive their gifts if we aren’t willing to be astonished. With intense gratitude for your presence on my journey and for letting me tell you about it, 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

In Which Seventeen Has Flown the Nest (and I remember when we used to read Winnie the Pooh together)

In Which Seventeen Has Flown the Nest (and I remember when we used to read Winnie the Pooh together)

How’s your half-empty nest?

Oh, then he’s not far away … This is the sweetness most people offer after asking about my Seventeen. And it’s true. His first-year college dorm is just sixty-three miles from my door. It is another mother who shares my hometown and whose son is at the same school who best understands: Sure, he didn’t fly far from the nest, but he’s gone. And the nest will never be the same.

The daily reminders come thick and fast. Our dishwasher doesn’t fill up as quickly, the laundry piles are smaller, and leftovers don’t disappear from the refrigerator. By contrast, my chore list has grown: it’s once again my job to shop for groceries, carry them in and put them away; mow the yard; fill up the yard-waste bin; and clean the cat litter boxes. (I’m working on striking a deal with Fourteen for this last task, the one chore that I will pay someone else to do.) Since Seventeen’s departure was followed by the beginning of Fourteen’s high school journey, we’re in that wobbly transitional time between summer’s ebb and flow and fall’s established routine.

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Fourteen on the first day of high school

I walked into Seventeen’s room the other day and was startled to see that before he left he unplugged his alarm clock. It was a thoughtful thing to do and a clear example of his attention to detail. But it struck my heart as so final. He’s made this move fully, with barely a backward glance, divesting of his childhood and heading off with only what he needs for his new life. Looking at the dark face of his alarm clock, I felt especially glad for the togetherness we had in August before he moved, not only because I felt needed and included in his process, but because making lists and preparing for this enormous change grounded me.

Change gets a bad rap. I’ve been one of those people who say I’m not good at change. But I’m amending that. I’m really good at change. External change requires action. When it’s upcoming, there are lists to be made, errands to run, letters to write. When it’s sudden, be it plot twist or emergency, I’m your go-to gal. A change in circumstances requires calculated response. I can do that.

Emotional transition, before, during and after the change has happened, is another story. I can pre-process, yes. I can muscle through the actual change (I didn’t cry once during the drop-off overnight) reasonably well. But the aftermath? I’m wandering around my big, empty-feeling house this week, and I’m struck by this. Things are so different and yet they’re not. I look for the constants. What I find is that I’m the same person even though my to-do list, our grocery needs, and my parenting time all look different. And so, I’m beginning to understand that successfully navigating change requires staying open and curious in order to adjust to both anticipated and unintentional consequences.

The best changes, both big and little, are the ones we choose with joy, anticipate with excitement, and delight in the results. Fourteen made just such a change this weekend, hennaing her blonde-brown hair to a spectacular red. Neither of us was quite prepared for the effort it would take, but it was a lively joint project for a Saturday night and she is thrilled with the stunning results.

In the grand scheme of things, changing one’s hair color isn’t generally fraught with problems or rife with unexpected ramifications. But the discrete nature of the shift lets me review what I’m learning about change. Whether elective or not, change is logically the one, true constant. I’m good at creating an action plan around change and that process keeps me grounded. I’m less adept at knowing how I’ll respond emotionally to any change until the action swirls away and I begin to consider the new normal. Recognizing that I don’t know what I don’t know and being open and curious until I do know—this strikes me as the solution to navigating the emotional piece. These are not such simple notations to add to the to-do list—stay grounded, open, and curious—but I’m beginning to think they should have a permanent place in indelible ink, right at the top.

It’s a few days after the new month launched under a new moon. Perhaps instead of a new normal, every shift brings a new beginning. Wishing you the best possible even-if-it-is-all-new fall—with love, as ever, Rxo

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