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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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Yardbird

Yardbird

Did the roses win?

My over-sized house has a super-sized yard, a playground, I imagined, when we moved in nearly fourteen years ago. I didn’t even begin to fathom the yard work required to keep it up—in fact, the former owners showed it off with pride all the while insisting it was fairly self-maintaining. That sounded good to me. Later we learned that they would routinely hire grad students to keep the weeds at bay, the leaves raked, the gardens mulched, and the trees and shrubs trimmed. These are tasks I abhor.

In the time I’ve lived in my house, I’ve—ahem—simplified the overly complicated plantings and let the areas around the trees go quite wild. I’ve hired the trees trimmed and said farewell to four tall beauties, the tree contractor showing me how they were strangled by their own roots having been planted too deep by the property’s developers. Flanked by museum-quality lawns on all sides, my yard is untreated and thus the one with violets and marigolds and, more and more, a carpet of creeping Charlie whose purple flowers I find pleasing.

This year, determined to do what I can, I purchased the “premium” yard waste sticker for the brown bin that’s been languishing in my garage. I set the goal to fill the bin once a week during the yard-waste collection season, about forty-five minutes of yard work, hoping it would be tolerable.

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My weekly challenge completed again!

The first week I cut back the bush that charmingly turns red each fall but less charmingly has grown higher than the outdoor light between the garage doors. It scratched back, leaving a four-inch trail of scarlet dots down my arm. The second week I raked leaves out from around the boxwood hedge that lines the front. I was not wounded, but I was grimy and sweaty when I finished. The third week, on Earth Day, I recruited Fifteen to help me—she cut out volunteer trees while I raked leaves. It was nice to have company. The fourth week I kept working around the side of the house, trimming the honeysuckle that has grown higher than the window line. Per usual, I was completely and utterly miserable. I hate this, I thought. I really hate this. I cut another branch. I don’t want to do this. My brain whined. I’ll never fill this damn bin. I thought, as I often do, of friends who love to work in their yards. I thought in particular of three, each of whom at one point or another has voluntarily worked industriously in my yard. Why do they love it? I thought, shoving more branch trimmings into the bin. What is there to love?

My musings rambled. When I was about nine, Sunshine and Diana, our ne’er do well goats, got out, turned their backs on 500 acres of tasty edibles, crossed the road and ate to the ground new plantings in our neighbors’ yard. My parents, muttering mightily about the costs, replaced the shrubs and trees. I remember thinking the whole thing was funny, even as I wondered why anyone would plant expensive cultivars when the world grew lush all around us.

On our farm we mowed around the barn a few times a summer—the four-acre yard more frequently, but not before it was more like cutting hay than trimming the grass. Tractors cut through the overgrowth in the woods, keeping the long-established paths clear enough for trail rides and nature walks. Occasionally we would plant bulbs in the fall, and these would go wild and spread, popping up in unexpected places. Every summer we put in a huge garden, fenced to keep out the bunnies, the rows three-feet apart so a tiller could detain the weeds.

Stewardship of that land took on a very different feel, with the woods enrolled in forest preserve, the once-cultivated fields turned to pasture, the state’s big machinery brought in to build ponds where runoff washed out culverts. It was these maneuvers that turned the once heavily farmed land into a haven, now public lands administered by the state of Iowa.

Back in the suburbs I stuffed my bin full of trimmings, remembering the farm where I grew up, and I tried on the word steward, a word I really like. Could I be a steward of this yard? Would that help? I looked around mentally cataloging all of the work to be done. Not really, I sighed. I still felt intense resentment for the fact that I am required to spend time pruning and shaping, raking and trimming. And it was then that I realized why: to me, land in Iowa, was meant to be like the land on our farm. We didn’t have to rake up the leaves in the fall—they mulched where they fell. We let trees grow, taking those that eventually toppled over for firewood. We had no need to plant flowers—the woods were full of them. There was natural beauty at every moment of every season anywhere you looked.

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My attempt at adding a little cultivated beauty.

Thinking all of this through helped, a little. At least I now understand where my intense dislike of my required forty-five minutes a week comes from. (Mowing is more tolerable and in summer months can be passed off to my teenagers who enjoy zooming around on the lawn tractor.) Then again, after last week’s wrestling match with the leaves and ivy that converged in and around the back patio, my forearms are covered in the worst case of poison ivy I’ve ever had. I may have killed the roses, but the overgrowth continues to fight back hard.

Every once in a while there’s a product that changes everything. Zanfel changed mine. If you are so unfortunate to get into poison ivy (or oak or sumac) this summer, don’t walk, run to your nearest pharmacy and get a tube of this magic. Made here in the Des Moines area, it will reduce your symptoms and help manage your outbreak swiftly. May you enjoy your gardening chores hundreds of times more than I enjoy mine. I am so much happier pruning words from sentences! With much love, Rxo

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

On the Road Again

On the Road Again

How was your spring break?

Fifteen and I packed our bags, scratched the kitties’ ears, and headed out on the open road for a Spring Break trip. As I said to someone recently, “I’m the kind of poor that means I can pay for a new dishwasher or go traveling with my daughter, and I’ll pick the latter option every time. It’s easy enough to wash the dishes.” It was sweet and easy to leave dish duty behind, too.

The first stop was Grinnell, Iowa, where the recently opened Hotel Grinnell welcomed us to their boutique accommodations fashioned out of an old junior high. Attention to school-oriented details make the hotel whimsical—an apple on the desk, the black metal furnishings reminiscent of lockers, the paper on the pad lined like lettering pages from elementary school. We enjoyed dinner with Eighteen and while Fifteen took her first official college visit of her brother’s school, I spent downtime in the hotel.

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The Hotel Grinnell

Downtime isn’t exactly in my vocabulary. It’s a novel experience. Aside from flooding the single-serve coffee maker trying to heat water for tea, I wasn’t entirely sure what to do with myself. I was reminded that easing out of one’s daily routine and relentless to-do lists and detaching from responsibilities aren’t easy tasks. But they’re important, and I left home looking for the right blend of adventure and relaxation.

Some of our hotels were more mainstream than others. In Chesterfield, Missouri, The Courtyard Marriott was on one of those streets that looks like anywhere USA. The next day, when the admissions officer at Washington University suggested that homesick students go to the mall, I thought about why we like and build these streets of plenty—familiarity. Comfort when we’re outside of our comfort zones. But the true delight of the recently renovated Marriott was the chance to spend the evening with an old friend.

The woman I’ll call “Mimi” and I met in graduate school. She was one of two graduate advisors to my teaching preparation group, and later she and I were on a committee together. After graduate school she would be in a position to hire me for a summer gig at the Iowa Summer Writing Festival; we hadn’t seen each other since. At dinner Friday night I was able to remember for her something she said that I have carried with me ever since about her happiness. It was a lovely reunion.

Saturday started with a perspective look at Washington University, St. Louis, where I was ready to enroll by the time we left the admissions talk and headed out on tour. Fifteen was less enchanted, but we agreed the campus was pretty and the school is appealing. We next enjoyed the orchids at the Missouri Botanical Center and walking the grounds on a warmish day. Then it was time for tea.

The London Teahouse had just one table available at 3pm. Pots of tea and a three-tiered tray of delights in the lovely flower-filled Hyde Park room were just right. We left with full tummies and six ounces of “Naughty Vicar” to brew at home. That evening found us in the Tudor-style Seven Gables Inn, a 1926 Irish Inn with framed art on the walls and dark wooden floors in the rooms. Two steep flights of stairs up, we found a delightful room with a view of the courtyard. The Inn had oodles of charm and is in a lovely, walkable neighborhood in St. Louis. We enjoyed ramen for dinner around the corner and snuggled in for the night.

We opted to make the Arch a drive-by as it was starting to snow. We were headed for Memphis, home of the famous Peabody Hotel, where ducks swim in the lobby fountain from 11am to 5pm, and were in time to witness their march to the elevator that carries them to their penthouse suite. The Peabody is not only whimsical, it’s elegant and stylish and the service is without compare. The concierge spent an hour helping us print and submit scholarship application forms for Fifteen’s summer exploration, even making a trip into the dining room to find us with the confirmation email she received.

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Always four females and a drake–the ducks spend three months thrilling the crowds at the Peabody and then return to the farm. There is no duck on the menu at the Peabody. 

Memphis was a wonderful surprise—a city that is easy to navigate and brimming with energy. We toured Rhodes College, famous for a number of aspects of the education they offer and frequently atop the list of prettiest campuses in America. It lives up to its reputation. The Memphis Zoo is right across the street, so we headed there after the college to marvel at the animals. Our feet tired, it was a treat to return to our hotel where, in perhaps the swiftest scholarship decision in history, Fifteen found an email rewarding our work the day before with a substantial investment in her summer plans. We celebrated with dessert from the hotel bakery—oh were they good!

The next morning we were off to Graceland. One former Memphis resident told me, before we left, “Well, you can skip Graceland.” Another said, “Of course, you’ve got to go to Graceland.” I’ve been in the latter camp ever since Paul Simon released his album of the same name; if Paul Simon wanted to see Graceland, so did I. Fifteen and I had listened to a wonderful collection of Elvis songs between St. Louis and Memphis. She observed that the songs were short and catchy and nice to listen to. We were ready to learn all about Elvis.

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“For reasons I cannot explain/some part of me wants to see Graceland”

And we were truly panicked, for about fifteen minutes, when it seemed we were stuck in the hotel parking garage. And then we were unbearably happy throughout the tour where Fifteen’s favorite room was the jungle room, complete with shag carpet on the ceiling. Looking up at the mirrors on the staircase ceiling, she said, “If Eighteen is an eighties teen-film star, then I’m a seventies girl through and through.”

“Really?” I asked, “Why is that?”

“You raised me on Abba!” Did I mention that we both loved Elvis’ sparkle-studded jumpsuits and his flashy cars?

We left Graceland with sparkling pen key chains and a sense that we were definitely on an adventure. Even as the impetus of our trip was glancing forward, beginning the conversation around Fifteen’s college journey, more than one stop was a glance back. Lambert’s Café (the home of the throwed rolls, where we caught a roll but did not stay for lunch), was a feature from a family car trip when I was six. Hot Springs, Arkansas, has stayed in my mind ever since I saw billboards for it on a graduate school trip to visit a college friend in Little Rock. Every day was just the right combination of travel, hotel, exploration, and, yes, downtime.

Some of our adventures were decidedly less planned. We didn’t plan, for example, to go to the Clinton Presidential Library in Little Rock, but we found that it fit nicely into our itinerary and offered a fascinating look at the history that I lived and came just before Fifteen’s arrival on this planet (the story of how we all met William Jefferson Clinton in our pajamas is family lore). We didn’t plan, until we walked out of our tour of the Clinton library, to find the perfect place for cappuccino and ice cream, but we found that, too. Nor did we plan, between Memphis and Arkansas, to set foot in Mississippi, bringing the total states I have yet to visit in my lifetime down to eight. But after Graceland, we couldn’t resist the opportunity to drive ten minutes south and dine at a surprisingly good rapidly expanding fresh-food chain called Newk’s.

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Hard to photograph but wonderful to explore!

Some of the sweetest moments of travel are those unplanned surprises. Sometimes the surprises are significantly less sweet as when we were headed north from our Mississippi lunch, just slowing to merge onto one highway from another, and suddenly saw a mattress launch from the back of a trailer and flip high into the air heading for our lane. It was one of those moments when everything slows down, and I could categorize the responses in my brain. I watched the mattress lift up and flip, considered its possible landing trajectories, and was able to swerve just enough so that it landed inches to my left and I didn’t collide with the car on my right. The people towing the trailer had reacted swiftly, too, pulling right off the road to retrieve their bed. The people to my right gave way, slowed, and navigated the emergency such that no one was hurt (although I suspect the mattress suffered some road rash). My daughter heard me hurl the F-bomb for the first time in her life, and we shook and nervously chattered for the next ten miles. After that, it became an excellent story—that time we nearly got killed by a mattress—and something of a nightmare as I have rehashed the event and the what-ifs more than once both waking and sleeping.

It was an unplanned event of our trip and life in general that my phone rang one evening with the distressing news that a very good friend’s purse had been stolen. I was distraught that she had been so violated and dismayed to think of the hassles she would have in securing her identity and attempting to replace the contents, both valuable and invaluable. She was distraught because she was on cat duty during our absence and her means of access to our house were in her purse. Oh, yes, that’s a problem.

I wonder now if thieves have any regard for the ripple effect of stealing one woman’s purse? In this (as, I would suspect most) case, police are involved in the crime report, insurance agents in the property claim, the business outside of which the burglary took place in securing their premises for their patrons, the banker officers and credit managers in safeguarding her identity, and on and on. For just my piece of the experience, as we traveled, I had to ask my back-up cat care friend to step in. When it turned out there was no key in my lockbox, I reached out to the neighbor with a house key, but she texted back from her spring break in France. Finally I sent a key overnight via FedEx, all to be certain that my four-footeds would be fed. Again, once the anxiety settled, we ended up with a good story from the road.

As Fifteen read and I drove along, watching for signs of spring, I mused about perspective—maybe it’s an obvious truth that all over the world there are people going about what they do, earnestly, some with bold ambitions and the best of intentions, some with selfish inclinations and the most harmful of results. Travel brings us face-to-face with all of it—the big and the small, the luxurious and the necessary, the markers of the past, the fulfilled intentions and goals, the way our actions reverberate in the world, and the surprises and how we handle them.

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Just the car for our next road trip!

If you’ve read all the way to the end, thank you—we made it home without further incident, with another happy reunion with a dear friend, and without, yet, a college of choice. The laundry done and folded, the cats soothed, Fifteen was ready to pack the car and head out again. The next great family college-search road trip will likely be summer 2018. I, for one, can’t wait! Happy Spring Equinox, with all my love, Rxo

The Lion and the Angel

What does it mean to “hold space”?

In the mid-nineties, I was assigned by my department chair to teach Advanced Expository Writing, a class designated for honors students with perhaps the least alluring title of any class in the curriculum. Each semester I taught that class, I would introduce the syllabus by quoting my thesis advisor who said, “Expository Writing sounds like something you’d purchase at a drug store.” This usually elicited a chuckle from at least a few of the students and launched a discussion of just what we might be up to in the class.

To compliment their extensive writing assignments, the students considered a number of literary models. As a capstone to becoming thoughtful, analytical readers, they were assigned to focus on one of the essayists in our anthology of brilliant writers. Each student would pick a writer and an essay by that writer, assign the essay to the class, and then present information about the author to supplement class discussion about the essay.

Nearly every semester in every class, the speech-like requirements of my syllabus would send a student spiraling into my office hours, panicked. “Professor Robin,” the student, most often a young woman, would say, “I can’t get up in front of your class and talk.”

This particular semester that student was a woman I’ll call “Leona.” Leona had delicate features, a small face, and a trim figure. She wore her long hair in a tight braid down her back. I hadn’t yet seen any writing from students in the class when she arrived at my office hours, hugging her books close to her body and looking scared.

When Leona sat timidly in my conference chair, I could see that she was a non-traditional student, closer to thirty than twenty. I sensed a story; even the most traditional students tended to enroll in community college because of their stories. Leona was no exception—married young to a man from a country where women had few rights, she was in a custody fight for her daughters who, in the same vein as the movie that was popular in the early nineties, were taken from her to live with their father’s family in his homeland.

“You have a lot to write about,” it was an understatement.

Leona looked hopeful, “I really do. But … do I have to speak to the class? I really don’t think I can do that.”

“Have you chosen an author yet?”

Leona had, Nancy Mairs. I smiled in recognition. The poet turned essayist struggled from her twenties on with depression and multiple sclerosis. She was confined to a wheelchair in her thirties, but wrote intense, wry, brilliant essays. “I think that’s a good fit. You’ll like her work.”

That day I struck a bargain with Leona that she’d go ahead and do the research on Mairs, we’d meet again before her date to present, and if she was still anxious about presenting, we’d come up with a solution together.

Leona submitted tightly written essay drafts that scratched the surface of a number of difficult narratives from her life. We had our work cut out for us as I coaxed her to move into and explore the stories more fully. In the class I encouraged peer review with lots of coaching, and Leona slowly opened up to her classmates as she did to me. Her writing started to grow in expression and emotion.

It was mid-semester by the time we were getting close to her Mairs presentation. Leona walked into my office, braid swinging, a huge smile lighting up her face. “I did it.” I looked up, wondering. “I called her.”

“Called who?” Perhaps I was thinking of her daughters.

“I called Nancy Mairs. In Tucson. Last night. I can’t believe it, but I did it! She talked to me for almost an hour.”

Leona’s brave dialing translated into a new willingness to present to her classmates—she had a story to share. When Leona arrived armed with her biographical information, direct from the author herself, she wore her hair in a shining tumble to her waist, the stunning mane of confidence. She spoke effortlessly, with an air of authority, about the author, her work, and the essay she had chosen for her classmates to read. Her presentation assignment was an unqualified success.

The myriad of challenges that Advanced Expository Writing offered to Leona gave her a measure of support combined with room to grow and—in her case—the impetus to take a giant leap toward the kind of academic success she wanted. As Leona’s teacher, it was my honor to create and hold the space where she could thrive. It is a critical component of teaching, but one I wouldn’t have been able to put into words in quite this way when I was an English professor in my twenties. I’ve learned that holding space for personal growth is a large part of what I do—whether on the page or on the yoga mat. More recently, it’s a phrase I’ve come to use in other scenarios as well—I can hold space for someone afar who is grieving. I can invite a friend to stay in my house and hold space for her to rest, to heal. I can hold space for my children to grow as I witness their accomplishments and failures too. When we carve out parameters and then give each other wiggle room, isn’t it possible we nurture and encourage growth into the next, more amazing iterations of ourselves, our talents, our relationships? Holding space for one another—family member, student, friend, stranger—is the best way I know to live organically and respectfully, to ease tension and stress, to sponsor buoyancy and breadth.IMG_9398

Leona’s story has two postscripts. The first is that several years later, after she had gone on to a four-year school and completed her bachelor’s degree, Leona came to see me to tell me that she had, in fact, retrieved her daughters from their father and had them at home with her full time. When she stopped by my office, she wore her hair loose and her mane sparkled. She was happy. The second postscript came when, shortly before I moved away from New York, I attended a conference where Nancy Mairs was the keynote speaker. After her talk, I introduced myself and was then able to tell her what a difference she had made in accepting a phone call from one troubled, scared young woman. She nodded at the memory, the stage lights illuminating a shiny angelic circle in her hair.

Once every twenty years, February has no full moon. Tonight’s new moon launches the Asian year of the Earth Dog, but it has no full counterpart in the western 2018 calendar. Sometimes called a black moon, this new moon in my imagination moves us a little closer to the coming change of seasons. Keeping the faith that spring will spring, as ever, thank you for you, Rxo

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

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

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