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Category Archives: the journey

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

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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

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

Extra Miles

Are you all recovered now?

Six days after I walked the Des Moines Half-Marathon with Seventeen, finishing in a respectable 3 hours 32 minutes and 16 seconds, I was still aware of feeling deep fatigue, the kind that finds me propped in bed with a movie at 8:30. He, of course, rebounded after a long nap. More surprising to me than my recovery time was the fact that I have zero desire to enter any more races. There’s a 5K or better just about every weekend until it’s too cold to exercise outside, many with chocolate at the finish line, but I don’t want any part of them. While I genuinely enjoy shared physical activity—I’m a yoga instructor, after all—and can’t imagine any better community than one devoted to fitness, the aspect of the race culture that doesn’t fit me came as a surprise: the noise. When the going gets tough, I thrive on quiet to recruit the strength I need to keep going.

On race day the noise from the start/finish line reached us several blocks away. By the time we got up close, the announcers and their roaring countdown couldn’t be ignored. They nattered about race times and the elite runners and sponsors and how we could all get back and have a beer. It was incessant. Out on the course I was grateful for the fog, a reminder to keep my attention on the task at hand and dismayed by the well-meaning people pounding pans with wooden spoons. It took a couple of miles for Seventeen and me to find our groove, but once we did we were in it and walked briskly in spite of sticky humidity and a slick course.

There were some joyful highlights. We felt famous when young women at a water station greeted us by name, until we realized that our first names were emblazoned on our race tags. Nonetheless, they provided just the right amount of cheer, water and thirds of banana we needed to boost us between miles 3 and 4.

At mile 7 Seventeen allowed as to he might actually be exercising. And we were both thrilled between miles 8 and 9 when the elite marathoners with their police escort ran by us. Shortly thereafter we were caught for some minutes in the noisy crosswinds of a self-appointed entertainer who surely meant well but was pitchy at best as she strummed and sang top 40 songs and the announcer who would call us in for bacon at their refreshment stop (Seventeen: “Even I don’t think bacon sounds good right now.”). The long hill up to the Capitol building followed and then it was north across the interstate and back south again, passing mile 11. The closer we got to the end, the more people stood on the sidelines cheering, playing, banging, yelling. For the last two miles I felt a little like the Grinch: It was all just noise, noise, noise, noise!

Seventeen took my hand and we crossed the finish line together. A smiling volunteer put a medal around my neck and Fourteen, who had been volunteering at the final water station, was standing there to greet us. Remembering that moment of triumph just now, it’s a tableau without a soundtrack, as though all the noise stopped for a few moments of sweet celebration with my peeps. And then it was back, louder than ever, as we threaded our way through to the food booths where Seventeen replenished all of the calories he had burned. A rock band played, the beer garden beckoned, and happy people with medals around their necks danced with their friends. I could barely move. And suddenly I realized all I wanted was the solace of quiet.

So my half-marathon completion party was just me, submerged in a tub full of warm water and Epsom salt until only my nose broke the surface.

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I’m proud of this medal!

When you’ve been striving for something with dedication—my training took over my summer and fall—it’s particularly interesting when it’s done, a different kind of quiet. Into the space spent thinking about hydration and training advancement, not to mention the time commitment for short and long walks every week, arrives an invitation, an opening. I was pondering just that after I dropped Fourteen at Nutcracker rehearsal, tooling over to get the torque on my recently rotated tires checked at Costco. Into the space walked a woman and man on a journey of their own that just for a few minutes intersected with mine.

I had parked when they approached and I could see they were both looking concerned. I wanted to set them at ease, “May I help you?”

The woman, tall, svelte, a little older than I am, looked relieved, “Yes, actually. We’ve locked our keys in the car and my phone is with them. If we could use your phone to call a cab I guess.”

“Of course.” I lit up my phone and dialed the number she reeled off from memory. As she waited for a dispatcher to answer, she was talking more to herself than to me: “I usually use Uber but the app is on my phone. They’re not answering. We only live about two miles from here.”

“Why don’t you let me drive you?”

If it seemed awkward at all to accept a ride from a stranger in the parking lot, she didn’t hesitate. She handed me my phone. “Really?” A big smile.

“My name’s Robin,” extending my hand.

“Mary,” she replied, shaking it. “And this is Charlie.”

Charlie declared he would go in and do their shopping, sending Mary with me. Truth be told he was looking a little askance at the convertible, even though it was a lovely fall day, bright sunshine and blue skies, a gentle breeze. Mary gamely climbed in, gave me directions, and we were off.

We exchanged information, but mostly Mary talked. They were just back, it turned out, from a celebration of life for the parents of longtime friends. But the real shadow in Mary’s life, it came out just before we arrived at her house, was that her own mother had died about ten days previously. “It’s no wonder,” I soothed, “that you locked your keys in your car. You’ve been through so much.”

Mary had clear social graces and did occasionally ask me a question, but mostly she talked and I encouraged her. It wasn’t long before we were back by her car, key in hand, and there was Charlie pushing out a cart full of wine. By way of thanks Mary said, “I wondered what I was going to do to enjoy this beautiful fall day. I guess it was ride in your convertible.”

“I’m so glad,” I said, and I was.

As I waved goodbye to Mary and Charlie, I felt grateful that there was enough silence when we happened upon one another in the parking lot that I could respond with the kindness they needed. I remembered just then that one of the elite runners, somewhere between miles 10 and 11, had gone tearing past Seventeen and me, no longer accompanied by motorcycle police or the other four runners. Was he running more just for the fun of it? Adding mileage for some Herculean running test ahead? Or was he running on for the joy and freedom he felt for having finished his task? When he zoomed down the street, his back splattered in dirt, his arms and legs moving in wide free form rather than the disciplined lockstep intensity we had seen earlier, all I could wonder is how he could have run a step beyond the finish. But after my ride in the sun with Mary I realized that we each have extra miles in us—they just don’t all look the same.

Wishing you joy-filled extra miles and the start of something big as we slide into the middle of fall under a new moon. xoR

Walk On

How are you doing with your training?

When Seventeen was Five-and-a-Half, we moved kit-n-caboodle a thousand miles west, arriving at the front door to our new Iowa home on a below-zero December day, just shy of Christmas. Earlier that fall, I worked with a realtor to find our big box. She asked me for my “hot button” items. I answered, “Living space. I don’t care if we sleep in closets; we’re all home, all the time. It’s cold there. We need room to move around.”

Some thirty-eight houses later, she showed me the brick-front at the top of a short street with an enormous pantry, morning and afternoon sun, a sizeable yard, and oodles of living space. It was, among other things, a “circle house,” not merely situated atop a suburban circle, but inside you could walk around the main floor in a complete circle, a figure eight even, if you were feeling fancy.

One evening as we were still settling in, figuring out the light switches, and dreaming of living room furniture, I was making dinner too slowly for the children. I remembered that when I was little, my mother would send my brother and me outside to run around our house. That house was ringed in wooden decks, so we could go all the way around without touching the ground. But the ground outside our new house was snow and ice covered, so I reasoned little feet could pound around the inside circle of our house without causing too much disturbance. I tore around the first lap with them and then said, “Keep running. Go! Go!” Off went Five-and-a-Half with Two-and-a-Half pell-mell behind him.

“What are you doing?” Their father asked, arriving home.

“We’re running marathon!” They panted past.

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Running boy then …

The next day I got a tape measure and marked off their course. Then I converted 26.2 miles to feet, divided by the indoor track’s running distance, and wrote 1,946 at the top of a blank sheet of paper. “This,” I told Five-and-a-Half, “is how many times you need to run around the house to run a marathon.” For some time after, every night he would run a few laps and record his progress. When the weather got warm and they could run around outside before dinner, the big backyard became a secret land, a place to dig, a world of adventures. The marathon was perhaps half-completed when it was forgotten.

Today Seventeen’s long legs could stride that same circle in no time. Nonetheless, I like the way our house expands and contracts—I can fill it with people for a party or snuggle in with the peeps for family movie night. With Seventeen away at college, I’m very aware that for most days it’s much too big for his sister, Fourteen, his grandmother, Ninety-Two, and me, but as I commenced training to walk a half-marathon, my treadmill in the basement became too confining and I started to roam.

From my front door I can walk a five-mile loop that touches four towns. I can take the bike path east to do errands like dropping the water bill at City Hall or making a deposit at the bank or west to my friend’s house a whole county over. I can loop a variety of little lakes that front the expansive corporate buildings for the countless banks and insurance companies that make their headquarters here. To mix things up I have added destinations like Trader Joe’s, four miles from home, and endless loops around larger lakes to which I have to drive. No matter where or how far I go, I start and end every walk sitting on second stair lacing or unlacing my shoes. Second stair was another feature of that first house I lived in, the place I would be asked to go and sit when I was naughty. Now it’s a seat of nostalgia and a convenient perch near the door.

Three weeks ago I completed my last long training walk, just shy of a half-marathon at 12.5 miles. Since, I’ve been walking a few days a week, between four and seven miles each time. I feel ready for the challenge even as I have started to feel that Sunday’s event is no longer the point. It’s the training, the feeling strong, the finding out what my body can do, and the connection to the world outside my house that feel like they matter. It’s the stick-to-it-iveness that inspires me, dovetailing nicely with stringing together word after word toward my second novel, learning the art of continuous narrative. It’s not the destination but the journey, as clichéd as this trope may be, that has become the point.

Nonetheless Seventeen, who will be home from college, will join me at the starting line on Sunday. He will finally complete the marathon he started when he was a tiny boy. And I will discover just how much I can accomplish when I set my mind to it.

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…and now.

The moon is full on 10.15, and it’s a full moon by which to leave behind anything that no longer serves you. Happy Full Moon—I promise a post-half update early next week. Thanks for cheering us on, 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

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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