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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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Post Blog

How is a blog like a sonnet?

One hundred fifty-five times, as of this post, I’ve answered a line-item on my to-do list and sent my musings out into the world. If that doesn’t sound so creative, but rather more like an imperative, I might echo the wisdom of Mrs. Whatsit in A Wrinkle in Time: “[The sonnet] is a very strict form of poetry… There are fourteen lines, I believe, all in iambic pentameter. That’s a very strict rhythm or meter… And each line has to end with a rigid rhyme pattern. And if the poet does not do it exactly this way, it is not a sonnet… But within this strict form the poet has complete freedom to say whatever he wants, doesn’t he?”

My blog isn’t a poem, but the parameters have offered me the delight and freedom to live my sonnet and write about it.

I set my own constraints—post on the full moon and the new moon. With input from my Writing Circle, I added the tagline “Living the Questions in Poses & Prose” and each post title is followed by a question. That tagline references both my all-time favorite quote, from Rilke, and what I like to believe is my very own savvy/soulful blend of living as a writer and yoga educator.

In the beginning, I heeded the cautions: Ninety-five percent of bloggers begin and give up on their blogs within three months. Most launch headlong into keeping a blog without a clear focus or an end-goal firmly in mind. I tried to address this by writing three full posts, a triumverate that would circumscribe the confines of my subject matter, before I posted one. With six weeks mapped out, I thought I would be able to write ahead. Sometimes this has been true.

We’ve all got sayings we’ve thought, or said aloud, should be on a tee shirt or a bumpersticker (or more recently a hashtag); knowing that something is a story for Overneathitall is a similar feeling. It’s been a pleasant surprise to find that more often than not, sometime after the last post and before the next is due, I have a “this could be a blog post” moment and the material begins to knit together in words, first in my mind, next on the page. Recently, with this year—when keeping on task has been complicated at best—winding to a close, I’ve been thinking about OverneathItAll.

  • I started my blog because I wanted an assignment. I’ve always produced when I’ve had a task to write set in front of me. Launching a blog meant I had an assignment to write, and that made me do it. How could I call myself a writer, I challenged myself almost seven years ago, if I wasn’t writing? So I wrote those entries and somewhere along the line published my novel and I stopped questioning whether or not I could call myself a writer. Mission accomplished.
  • I started my blog because in a teeny, tiny corner of my heart, I hoped I’d be that one-in-a-million writer discovered by an agent or a publisher trolling the Internet for undiscovered talent. That hasn’t happened … yet. Hope springs eternal, but it certainly can’t happen if my blog doesn’t exist.
  • I started my blog because I wanted to hear my voice, to let it get stronger and more certain. I wanted to navigate the distance between public and private life, making sense of things that happened in my world in a way that might resonate out in the world.

But here’s the real gift: I have kept writing my blog, even after some long unscheduled breaks, even when I haven’t always wanted to, even though I haven’t made a cent from it, been discovered, or figured out where it’s going, because the unexpected delight of keeping my blog has been connection. Among my regular readers are an editor I’ve only met once, an aunt I haven’t been fortunate enough to see since I was in college, friends who live abroad, and my own mother, who sometimes prints out these posts and sends them to people.

By standard metrics, a blog with less than 1,000 visitors per post (mine averages 48) is nowhere near a success. If you see ads here, WordPress is making that money. Many of my readers are most likely to comment in person, via email, or on Facebook, meaning my blog nets little accidental traffic. In a search for “overneath,” my wee blog shows up on page two. But none of that matters. Friends from junior high read and respond, new acquaintances learn a little something about my life and feel more comfortable sharing in return, one regular reader quotes me back to myself. Every blog post, each sometimes hard-wrought word, all 170,000-plus of them, has made a connection to someone. I can’t imagine a better outcome to living the questions here on these pages. Thank you.

One hundred forty-two years ago on December 4, Rainer Maria Rilke was born. His birthday ought to be National Live the Questions Day. The moon is a full frosty supermoon on December 3; while there’s a little mischief in play from Mercury, which dips into retrograde eight hours ahead of the moon’s apex. These alongside the raft of holidays and all of the joys and obligations that come with them make December a complicated month to live questions or find answers. Be kind to yourself and hug those who love you—thanks for being a part of my journey, RxoRilke Moon

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.

IMG_8588

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

 

Baklava Ballet

What nationality is that, French?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Almost there.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Following Instructions

Following Instructions

What are we writing today?

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

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

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

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

Mushroom Soup

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

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

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

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

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

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

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