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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

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The Tao of Dishes

What are you going to do about your dishwasher?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Natural Phenomena

What is that smell?

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

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

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

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

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Carrie in full & stinky bloom

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

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

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

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

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

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Darkness an hour past noon.

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

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

“Ewwww,” said Fifteen, racing inside.

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

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

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

During the Between

During the Between

What did KatyDid?

After the before and before the after, there’s between. There’s during, too, but during doesn’t pinch the way between does. During is easy to miss, caught up in the doing of it all; between is easy to mess up and a place it’s all too possible to get stuck.

In a world of hurricane travesties, political miasma, raging wildfires, and terrible disease, whining about being wedged in the between isn’t an option. Nevertheless, like Anaïs Nin, I write to “taste life twice.” Even when the moments are bitter, it’s through the retrospective that I can begin to learn something that maybe just maybe makes the next between a little sweeter.

Mid-summer, my Craig’s List ad finally netted a customer for the gorgeous china cabinet in the dining room. I so liked the people who disassembled the whole thing carefully and, with great padding and not inconsiderate effort, loaded it into their truck and drove it away. In the wake of another large item’s exodus from our household, Fifteen opined that it was time to paint the dining room.

Painting the dining room was top of my list when we moved into the house a dozen years ago. The color palate throughout the house made me feel old, but the dining room was by far the worst, beige above the chair rail, mottled deep blue below. We are a family that sits together in the dining room to eat, that hosts small and large dinners, that pushes the table to the side of the room and invites people in for a buffet. Through every occasion, the colors I loathed remained.

Fifteen enjoys removing wallpaper, and that’s where we started, stripping the painted paper that was more plastic than paper from the thirty-inch span below the chair rail. To our dismay, removing the deep blue revealed a hideous bright blue paint that wasn’t fully applied, as though someone thought better of the color only after it was mostly slathered on the wall. To our further dismay, not one but two showing requests beeped onto my phone when we were in the midst of removing the paper, the torn curls all over the floor and sticking to our pants.

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Yikes … during we found blue. Starling (pictured) thought nothing of the open air-return duct. 

During the dining room renovation: Fifteen left for a week away at the National Scholars Institute; Eighteen went to and arrived home from work and took his first solo road trip; I left for a weekend of yoga teacher training; and groups viewing our house were greeted by a “Please pardon the mess” sign.

Our smallest cat, Katy, was fascinated by the air-return opening where I had removed the grill. I blocked it variously with a box, paper, the drop cloth. She pawed at these, determined to inspect the mysterious hole in the wall. A couple of times I scolded her away from it, in the same “angry mommacat tone” that detours her from going into my closet. Then I was painting. The cats paraded through—Leo playing slip-n-slide in the drop cloth plastic, Starling running her usual commentary about all of the unfamiliar activity, and Katy finding any kind of trouble she could, jumping onto the table, inspecting the open paint can, and tearing at the paper covering the air return. I scolded her, turned back to my paint, and wouldn’t have even heard her as she quietly slipped under the paper and into the dark beyond, but turned to look just in time to see her tail disappear.

Just like that, we arrived in the between.

Eighteen’s response, even as I was shining a flashlight into the hole, wondering how far it might go, was to race to the basement to figure out where we could take the ductwork apart. Then he brought a dangle toy, something we use to lure kitties out of the garage. Katy, looking miffed, haughty, and scared as only a not-quite seven-pound cat who thinks she’s in charge can look, reappeared briefly but slipped away when I reached for her. I discovered then the air-return duct dropped down more than a foot, and the pathway in and down was not as large as the opening suggested. As I sat quietly and watched, fishing with the toy and waiting to see if she would get herself out, it became clear to me that she both wanted back out, badly, and hadn’t yet figured out the maneuver that would allow her to escape. Occasionally coming close enough so she was illuminated by the light of the flashlight, she blinked up at me.

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That’s my arm disappearing down the hole to above the elbow.

This cat arrived in our lives a tiny kitten, one of a pair of litters of barn kitties of very young mothers. Early on one mother stopped nursing and the other was making a gallant attempt to feed both broods. We had picked Katy out just a couple of weeks before, but I wasn’t yet expecting the phone call to bring her home until she was eight weeks. “Come get her,” urged the landowner’s voice on the phone, “one died of starvation and an owl got another. I’m worried your kitten won’t survive.”

Armed with kitten formula and kitten litter, we brought her home with trepidation. We named her KatyDid, both because she was as tiny as a bug and because that way when she was naughty we could say, “Who did?” “KatyDid.” Over the years we’ve added the ungrammatical but fun to say, “What did KatyDid?”

And while she only grew up to be tiny in stature, she is large in personality and adventure. Thus it wasn’t a surprise to find myself looking at her delicate face peering up at me, the haughty turned all worry and struggle, especially when the air-conditioning cycled on.

Outwardly I was saying soothing things, to Katy, to Eighteen. Inwardly I was calculating the options—which professional to call, whether to try taking things apart myself, how long she could stay there. I watched her attempt to climb out a couple of times and realized that she needed leverage. “Go to work,” I told Eighteen, who was still contemplating disassembling the ductwork, “I’ve got this.”

“Okay,” he said, his relief at not having to call-in for a feline emergency was palpable. “I was wondering how I was going to explain being late.”

In spite of intense minimalizing, I’ve held on to the children’s building blocks, a wonderful wooden set that gave rise to all manner of temples and sculptures when they were little. I went to the basement and selected enough to build a staircase, remembering that when we had the ductwork cleaned, it had been full of twenty-year-old chunks of wood and other construction debris. I worked each block through the narrow opening and set them up in what I hoped was a staircase for Katy. Soon, I saw her face at the return. And then she was higher, her back paws standing on the block stairs, her front paws clambering for a foothold. She got the paw nearest me up and over the ledge, back into the room. Her other front paw seemed stuck, and after several attempts to squeeze her shoulders through, pushing as if to jump with her back paws, she instead opted to roll her spine out of the opening toward me, freeing her front paw just in time to turn, gain purchase on the floor and struggle her hips and hind legs out of the opening. I reached for her and she ran, so I left her alone, cleared out the blocks and quickly screwed the air return grill back into place. I knew Katy would want to “talk” about her trauma, so I finished painting for the day and took my lunch up stairs. Katy, nearly always affectionate on her own terms, immediately curled up in my lap and stayed for nearly an hour.

The between was over but the during went on longer, through painting above the chair rail and then painting the chair rail itself. With the only very recent arrival of a new rug and a tablecloth, the dining room is finally in the after.

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Ta-dah! After!

The larger between—the one in which we are waiting for the right buyers to walk in and realize that their family’s stories can bloom in the space so that our stories may move elsewhere—carries on.

Living so very much in the large between has been a challenge in many ways, not the least of which is to writing regularly. This story has been waiting for a couple of months, but then again, maybe it was waiting until the rug and tablecloth arrived, just this past weekend. Thank you for connecting with me, with the corn moon that was full recently, and with your own betweens. My favorite part of posting to overneathitall is the way that it closes those gaps between us some. With much love, Rxo

Remembering Redbird

Remembering Redbird

Have I been here before?

The weather Friday was an unexpected gift, a perfect summer day neither too hot nor too humid, in the midst of a slew of days with temps in the 90s and nights that never cool off. I jumped through an open window, turned south from the interstate ahead of my Iowa City destination to collect Fifteen from her summer writing institute, and carved out thirty minutes to walk on the farm where I grew up, ten miles southeast of town.

I had wanted to go the weekend before, when Fifteen and I converted the two-hour trip to drop her off into a girls’ night replete with shopping, dining out, people watching, and crashing in a hotel room. But the heat held me back—there’s a very real discomfort that I remember from growing up on the farm. In summer we got up with the sun to ride and groom the horses, garden, and complete other chores before the heat set in. Our afternoon cooling system was floating in an inner tube on the pond or, on special days, retreating to a movie theater in town for a matinee. At night we slept directly in front of fans, the whirr of the motor playing with a background chorus of crickets and cicadas, occasionally punctuated by the hoot of an owl. Day or night in July, it was rarely cool.

There was more to the discomfort—summer meant briars tore at bare legs and arms and bugs bit and stung. The first sunburn peeled, but then our skin became dark and leathery, itchy and scabbed. When I was young, I never minded—it was simply the way of it all.

I’ll just stop and say hello, I told myself. The drive from the interstate to the farm revealed Iowa at its best—rolling green hills dotted with bustling farmsteads. The roads and the views are as familiar to me as the back of my hand, even as a new house or shed has sprouted over the years, I can picture the way every turn will look before I arrive.

The farmland now belongs to the state of Iowa, managed by the DNR. An official government sign marks the turn and more signs instruct users as to regulations. I park and register as I always do, the absence of the buildings I expect to see. There is no more welcoming mailbox, no garden fence or pole barn. I even miss the failed hydroponic unit that was a misguided business venture in the mid-seventies. The little house across the road and all its outbuildings I once spent a whole summer painting are gone, as is the one-room schoolhouse, the last place I lived on the farm. The hillsides are overgrown with no domesticated animals to mow the grass, but there’s a path I follow, walking toward the pond where we used to float just down the hill from where the schoolhouse once stood.

In no time briars indeed tear at my legs and I am dive-bombed by more than one bug. I’m picking my way along the path, pushing brambles aside, but to my delight it’s edged in ripe blackberries. For berry picking we used to have buckets made from olive oil cans on strings around our necks so we could pick with both hands. I regret having no way to carry the berries now as I tentatively nibble on first one and then another and another. They are crunchy with seeds and taste like sunshine and dirt, not excessively sweet, nothing like the enormous plump berries in the market. My path all the way past the first pond to the second is lined with these treats.

The patterns I learned on this farm are still very much in play, such that I prefer to travel in a circle rather than go out and back the same way. I’d like to make the big loop, going west to the very top of the farm through the woods and back through the pasture, but I only have a little time before parents are invited to a presentation about the institute week, so having threaded my way through the overgrowth past the Schoolhouse Pond and the Woods Pond, I cut right to cross the dam of the Lower Pond. Here I catch my breath at the vibrant green duckweed that grows virtually shore-to-shore. More than one bullfrog croaks its displeasure at having to leave its log perch, casting ripples from its departure as I pass. The breeze catches the Queen Ann’s Lace and Black-Eyed Susans and an orange flower I don’t recognize. Mixed in the tall grasses is a carpet of Trefoil and Crown Vetch, the former I remember used to founder the horses when they ate too much and the latter my mother encouraged to slow erosion of the hillside.

Passing the spit that once used to be covered in sand my parents had trucked in, I can almost see a toddler me sitting at the water’s edge with a swimsuit full of sand, happy voices around me. I hear the joyful calls of my brother and his friends out in the middle playing a game they called “mudball,” the objectives of which involved covering each other and the ball with as much of the soft black mud from the bottom of the pond as possible. Far up the neck of the pond, my father casts and recasts his fishing rod. On the beach my mother passes grapes and watermelon to sunbathing friends. The memories preserved here come alive.

I’ve been thinking about memory this week, concerned, actually, that I’m forgetting important things. Fifteen has been visiting my hometown of Iowa City since she was ten months old, and though she claims not to remember the town much, everywhere we went on our girls’ night we were both startled by sudden memories: a hair scrunchy she bought herself at Iowa Book & Supply, playing on the downtown jungle gym, a meal neither of us remember liking very much at a restaurant on the Coralville strip. Maybe none of these are much more than incidental, but it’s a mental scramble to put them into a chronology, and these small memories make me wonder what I might be forgetting.

Walking down the pasture hill from the former beach, I come to a tiny pond engineered in what was once a washed out low spot. IMG_8576I like the way the prairie grasses and flowers frame the little watershed, and I stop to take a couple of pictures. Suddenly there’s a great commotion. A little wood duck hustles her brood away from me as fast as she can go. In her haste, she has left two behind and she calls them so urgently that they run across the water to her, peeping, peeping, peeping. I stay still until the family is reunited at the far end of the pond from me, apologizing to the little mama in what I hope is a soothing voice.IMG_8580 (1)

Still downy, her ducklings are months from leaving her side, but my fledgling is expecting me to collect her. Reluctant to leave yet eager to hear stories of Fifteen’s adventures, I pick my way back to the car. My legs are scratched and several bug bites are already itching and swelling; weed seeds are in my shoes and clinging to my pants. Even on this temperate day, I’m looking forward to cranking the air conditioning in my car for drive into town I’ve made thousands of times. Before I go, I walk into the embrace of the weeping willow that still stands sentry at the bottom of the hill. There are no buildings anywhere on the property any longer, but the birds and the flowers and the trees and the ponds and even the summer discomfort assure me that this is and always has been and always will be … my home.

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Among the branches of my favorite tree.

I heard recently that it helps to look down when you’re trying to remember something, look up when you want inspiration and to feel more joyful. Redbird Farm is a place where I don’t have to try to remember—the memories are everywhere alongside the new experiences. Who knew that ducklings could run on water? xoR

 

Salon Ninety-Two

How do you know what to teach?

I am lying on my mother’s bed, a deceptively bright triangle of blue sky visible from the window to my left. It’s cold outside, but in the warm cocoon of her respite apartment I’ve shed all of my outer layers. My eyes play between the sky and the nubbly stucco ceiling. She’s stretched out, too, under a fuzzy blanket. We’ve been exchanging news—she of the curiosities of finding herself living a new chapter at ninety-two, me of my peeps and my own comings and goings, including the day’s yoga classes. I look over at Mom and I can see she’s forming a question, her own eyes reviewing the texture of the ceiling.

“How do you know what to teach?”

I stall my answer a bit, taking time to roll up onto my elbow to face her, realizing that’s distinctly uncomfortable, bunching a pillow under my ear, and finally giving up and sitting all the way up. On the way, I’ve found the analogy I needed.

“It’s like teaching someone to ride a horse.”

Ninety-Two grew up in western Nebraska, her family moving to California in the thirties. She rode her pony to high school, moved a horse across the country to Washington, DC, in her early twenties, and kept as many as five horses at any given time on the farm where I grew up. She preferred English to Western, did jumping, dressage, and trail riding. She put lots of people, from the writers filtering through the workshop in Iowa City to neighboring children on horseback for the very first time. Nobody learned from a book—whether they came outfitted in designer riding duds or jeans and sneakers—she showed them how to catch the horse with a piece of a carrot extended on a flat hand, place a halter gently around the horses nose to lead it to the barn, clean its hooves, curry its hair, add a saddle and bridle, lead the horse out, step into the stirrup, and swing a leg up and over.

My mother is nodding as I say these steps, “And then sometimes you’d have to make them go before they were ready—trot before they learned to walk, canter before they’d learned to trot.”

We smile, complicitous. “Yes, sometimes that’s true in yoga, too.”

I remember, then, a student who walked into the door of my studio, a referral from another teacher suspending her classes for the summer. “I love yoga,” she told me, filling in her registration form, “but I don’t ever want to go upside down. No headstand for me.”

“Okay,” I assured her—in all likelihood a smile playing on my face—and we chatted about her practice and the class she was joining. She went inside and unrolled her mat front and center, a position she would occupy each Wednesday morning for at least a year.

What the curly haired beauty in front of me couldn’t have known is that each yoga community and every class becomes a Sangha—even as people come and go—and has an energy of its own. That Wednesday group, whose numbers included any number of women living with multiple joint-replacements, loved headstand. So it was inevitable that the pose would arise in our rotation. The woman, I’ll call her Shakti, after the female principle of divine energy and power, would smile contentedly and settle back, taking whatever alternate pose I offered in lieu of standing on her head or even working on headstand prep. Chairs set up against the wall offered yoginis who didn’t want to take weight on their heads the opportunity to invert in “headless” headstand.

One day I noticed her watching the line of women using the chairs. I invited her to try and her community quickly chorused, “Come on over, Shakti.” “It’s easy.” “You’ll love it.” “But,” I assured her, remembering the ferocity with which she had declared she wouldn’t invert, “no pressure.” Sometimes you can see someone considering the possibilities, the thoughts playing in the air over their heads—this was one of those moments and the whole room went still as Shakti considered her options. She stood, a tiny powerhouse, “Okay? Maybe I’ll try it.”

Those waiting to use the chairs cleared a path and Shakti walked over. I showed her where to put her hands, adjusted the chairs closer to fit her, and invited her to settle her shoulders onto the blankets cushioning the chairs. That’s really the scariest part of the pose because the first time out it feels a little like you’re putting your neck in a guillotine (headless headstand is a perfect Halloween pose). “Which leg feels like it wants to go up first?”

Shakti lifted her leg and I positioned myself to guide that leg to the wall. “When you’re ready, push into your hands and give a little kick.”

She backed off, lifting her head and looking at me, nervous. “It’s okay. If not today, another time.” Again, I could see her considering the matter. Then she fitted her head back into the space between the chairs and started to swing her leg. Before either of us knew what happened, she kicked up and stuck a beautifully aligned headless headstand. The burst of cheer on her face was met with applause from the watching crowd. As so often happens, the surprise of it all brought her down sooner and more quickly than she intended. To my delight, she lifted right back up. “This. Is. Amazing.”

It wasn’t long before Shakti put weight on her head in headstand prep, stood fully in the pose against the wall, and then asked me how to balance in the middle of the room. She became one of the regulars who requested headstand in class, and she practiced it on her own at home. We often joked about the first thing she had ever said to me as her headstand practice evolved.

A short time later she walked in on a Wednesday morning with the bittersweet news that she was moving back east. “At least you’re taking your headstand with you!” I hugged her hard.

“You’ll always be the one who taught me to stand on my head when I didn’t want to.”

“You did that yourself,” I told her, not for the first time.

“I couldn’t have done it without you,” she said simply.

I roll back onto my back, once again considering the ceiling of my mother’s room. The summer I was ten, a young woman taught riding on our farm and we were up and on horseback each morning before the heat of the day. At the end of the season, we held an exhibition for our parents and my mother awarded us trophies, a statue of a horse with a plaque showing our names and the phrase, “Riding According to Susie Farrell.” Maybe it’s only now that I begin to understand that phrase. Yoga isn’t mine, but the way I share the practice is. If I could, I might give Shakti a trophy of herself in headstand according to Robin Bourjaily. This is how I might best define the oral tradition of teaching the practice that I love.IMG_7912

So many memories of horses and riders on our farm seem to be swirling through the air around my mother and me. I know my yoga life is an oddity to her, in spite of her insistence I go out the door to practice when my peeps were really little, but maybe the comparison to riding has helped her align her passion just a little more closely with mine. I stretch, shifting my attention back to the sky outside her window. “You know,” I tell her, “I think it’s probably really good for me to come lie on your bed for an hour every day. It’s relaxing.” This sentiment is mirrored by my dear friend who comes to visit often, leaving behind her burgeoning real estate practice to spend a little time chatting pleasantly. In finding this space, a place where Mom’s care requirements have shifted to the people who work in the facility, I have received an incomparable gift—these are precious moments where we are simply together, mother and daughter.

May this March full moon find you getting ready to welcome spring, in spite of the cold and snow. Thank you for the journey, 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

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