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Birthday Mala

Birthday Mala
What's better than a question mark!?

What’s better than a question mark!?

Who’s sending you all of these?

My first Adho Mukha Svanasana (downward facing dog) in nearly three months was Sunday, July 12, eight weeks after hand surgery on the index finger knuckle of my left hand (please see and I was warm from thirty easy minutes on my treadmill, my hand tender and still puffy. I took myself through Surya Namaskar (a salute to the sun), ten straightforward poses that might be taught in an intro to yoga class. I took myself through a second. When I completed the third, I thought of BKS Iyengar, who told my teacher: three poses make a practice. Three rounds of Surya Namaskar. In spite of the uncertainty and pain in my hand, I felt really good, ready for my day.

(In English, a basic sun salutation starts standing tall. Lift your arms and fold all the way forward, lift your torso to a flat back, your hands sliding up your shins, bring your hands back to the floor and step or hop back to plank (top of a pushup), then lower your heart to the floor. Lift that heart in a small backbend. Soften out and lift your hips to an upside down V, that’s downward facing dog, the pose from which I was restricted both pre- and post surgery (no weight-bearing on my hand). Step or hop forward, create the half lift, soften back to forward fold and sweep your hands to the sky, coming back to mountain pose standing straight and tall, hands at your sides.)

The next day, I walked again on my treadmill, and then again I did three more sun salutations. And three more the day after that. I was feeling shaky in my plank, lowering my heart to the floor meant dropping to my knees first, and I could barely hold downward facing dog, the pain making my hand wobble. But I couldn’t get over how good this simple practice made me feel—centered and thoughtful, able to scoop my cat onto my shoulders (she waits for me right outside the door of the room where my treadmill is) and head up to cheerfully greet the day.

I consulted the calendar and realized I had gotten lucky. By the time I had started it was less than fifty days before my fiftieth birthday, so I couldn’t complete a challenge like fifty yoga poses in fifty days. But with the right math, there was enough time for a Mala. Mala is the Sanskrit for garland, and the traditional practice is 108 rounds of Surya Namaskar (albeit with more jumping and ramped up versions of my plank and backbend). My calendar showed that three-per-day six-days-a-week would get me to the Friday before my birthday. It seemed an auspicious way to move toward that big five-oh and rehabilitate my hand all at the same time.

What started out choppy and challenging became smoother. I added in a hop. I lowered down more easily each day. I was re-gathering strength and flexibility. I started to practice more fully with my yoga classes, too, encouraging my body to move in ways that were at once familiar and refreshing. I felt, too, some of the benefits of the “yoga marathon,” what we sometimes call the 108 practice when it’s performed all at once time. My daily practice was connecting my days, which often feel disjointed, giving them a comforting unity. The challenge to complete the Mala was all that kept me going at first, but soon I found the practice so compelling that the few times I did not get up and go right to my treadmill, I made the time later in the day.

At the end of the fourth week, four postcards arrived in my mailbox. They were each different, colorful and wonderful art, each addressed in lively different colored markers, each decorated in the part where you’d write a note with a two-inch letter. H, A, P, and P arrived all in a clump, and I set them next to my bed with an unconfirmed suspicion about who the sender might be.

The next day came Y, and it was time to share the goodness. I arrayed the postcards, picture side up, for each of my family members. Then I flipped them one by one, spelling out H-A-P-P-Y. Indeed, this gift was making me exceedingly happy. I posed with the Y for my Facebook profile picture, sharing my excitement with my online world.

When 5 and –th appeared next, Thirteen helped me put up a string in our kitchen where I attached the letters that had come so far. Each day I got excited about checking the mail; each day there was a new delight or a new mystery—where was T, what would come after the comma—unfolded.

In the basement in the mornings, I kept to my Mala; upstairs in the afternoons I hung more postcards on my garland.

The last week of my Surya Namaskar practice I started counting down in my head—only eighteen more, then fifteen, twelve, nine … I thought at nine about polishing them off in one go—I have done 108 in one session a number of times—but decided it was more important to stick to the pattern I had set for myself. After not quite six weeks I could reliably lower down from my toes, jump into plank, and lift from my backbend to downward facing dog without lowering through the middle. Still, three sun salutations felt measured and right, a practice I had and could sustain, even if afterwards I sometimes worked in another pose.

The final N of my name arrived two days before my birthday. A package came, too, from the number one suspect. The N postcard announced that it wasn’t the end, in tiny letters scrunched to the side of my address. What could be left?

My fiftieth birthday was a Sunday. I woke at nearly my normal too-early time; the house was dark and quiet. I thought about turning over and going back to sleep, but something urged me out of bed. I soft-footed my way down to the treadmill, realized that I couldn’t lie to it and punched in 50 when it asked my age, walked for 35 minutes at 3.8 mph and a 1.5% grade, walked my cool down, peeled off my socks and stepped onto my mat. Lifting my hands over my head, I folded to the earth. Three rounds of Surya Namaskar and I was on my way upstairs, a new garland and a new half-century ahead of me.

The complete garland--so beautiful I can't bear to take it down!

The complete garland–so beautiful I can’t bear to take it down!

The day after my birthday, the final postcard, an exclamation mark composed of books, arrived. In tiny print on two of the books, the masterpiece is signed, “Love from, Diana.” Thank you, thank you to the Lady with the Magic Van—your magic extends far beyond your vehicle. I love the way my birthday Malas linked the time before and the time after. Just like the phases of the moon bring me back to you, dear reader, at the same time they move us all forward. Happy full sturgeon moon, Rxo


Birthday Twins

Birthday Twins

Who was born on August 23?

Their house was a magical place. A long, low ranch, whose owners had a musical doorbell that would always bring the wife running, wiping her hands on her apron, full of warmth and hustling us through the door of the house that invariably smelled of whatever delicious feast she was busily preparing. Her husband would be right behind her, echoing the welcome, taking drink orders, and holding onto the collar of his latest hunting dog.

These lovely friends of my parents were fixtures in my early years, a couple with whom we celebrated holidays and enjoyed tennis picnics. We always looked forward to seeing them and we always had such a festive and delicious time when we did.

One chilly evening when I was eleven, we were invited over for dinner to meet our hostess’s sister. I remember sitting on the step down into the lush living room, where more than once I had fallen asleep on the sofa waiting for the revelry to end, with the sister. She was telling me she had a little girl in California, just my age.

“You do? What’s her name? When’s her birthday?”

The next thing I knew she told me the most startling fact: our birthdays were the same day. By the time we were summoned to dinner, we had figured out that Christine and I had been born just about twenty minutes apart. I announced it all at dinner and in her ever-accommodating way, our hostess squealed that it would be wonderful to celebrate our birthdays together.

We would meet during the summer we turned Twelve (this picture is Christine visiting my room in our farmhouse) and become Christinepen pals. That summer she was making a short visit and returned to California before we could celebrate our birthday.

The next summer turned out to be much better. The summer of our thirteenth birthday, Christine came for an extended stay with her aunt and uncle. To my delight, we spent a lot of time together that summer, helping Christine’s aunt around the house, listening to music, swimming, having picnics and dinners, and even taking a memorable road trip to attend an opera and stay at a hotel. I was so ever-present in the household that summer, that I soon begin echoing Christine and calling my parents’ friends, who had always been Dr. and Mrs. to me, Uncle and Aunt. In this way, these wonderful people became my life-long extended family.

On our thirteenth birthday, we did indeed celebrate together. I feel certain Aunt made her famous multi-step fried chicken and I remember a bakery cake lavish with frosting flowers. Treating us like twins meant we got many of the same gifts, including Swiss Army knives and the Beatles’ Sargent Pepper’s Lonely Hearts’ Club Band LP. Remarkably, I still have both of these, albeit the LP collects dust in the basement as I don’t have a turntable and the Swiss Army knife is stiff with the detritus of years of misuse.

I also still have my friend. The fact that I haven’t seen her in nearly twenty years doesn’t diminish the pleasure with which I have watched from afar as she has found her calling and raised her family. It seems to me no accident that our children are nearly the same ages, and even if our communications are limited to Christmas greetings and “can you believe we’re (fill in the age)” birthday cards, I am honored to share a birthday with this beautiful, laughter-filled woman.

As with just about any day, there are plenty of famous people born on August 23, Shelley Long and Gene Kelly being two of my favorites. Fifty years ago this country was in turmoil at home and abroad, the Rolling Stones were touring and the Grateful Dead played their first concert with Jerry Garcia, the historic voting rights act passed into law, and a gallon of gas cost thirty-one cents. And fifty years ago on August 23 in two different families, two bundles of joy arrived within a few minutes of each other but miles and miles apart. One day I hope we can celebrate our birthday together in person, but I will always treasure sharing Christine’s with her. With all my love and gratitude for sharing this important day with me, Happy Fiftieth Birthday to a woman who comes from a long line of remarkable women, each of whom knows how to celebrate in style, and whom I am honored to count as one of my dearest friends. And no, Christine, I can’t believe we’re (almost) fifty!

With my love and thanks, as ever, for sharing my journey. Happy New Moon! Next time I “see” you here, I’ll be Fifty, or the Writer Formerly Known as Forty-Nine. Embracing the next chapter, Rxo

Cool Vanilla

Were you driving on Douglas yesterday? I thought I saw your car …

There’s no drive-through at my regular Starbucks. Nonetheless, one day I’m sitting in my car before going in, doing a little work on my phone, when the manager, Bret, comes across the parking lot and knocks on my window. I roll it down and he hands me my usual chai, hot, foamy, spicy, just the way I like it.

“And here all this time I thought you didn’t have a drive-through.”

Bret just laughed and I told him I’d be inside in a few.

After I pay, I sit for a few sips with Nora. We’ve become friends through several connections, but mostly because she telecommutes from my Starbucks any weekday morning she’s not traveling. We take a break many mornings for a mutual “download.” I’ve said before, making a new friend as an adult is one of life’s greatest gifts. Nora is such a good friend that she’s helping me brainstorm shopping for my next car.

I’ve had six cars in thirty-four years of driving. That averages out to one new (or new-to-me) car just under every six years. In actual fact, I drove several of those cars far longer—the exception is the first one, the red CJ-7 Jeep my parents made available for me to cruise in, back and forth to high school. Without significant injury but totaling the vehicle, I rolled it shortly after graduation on a gravel road. My driving record since, including four years as a bus driver in the greater DC area, has risen above less-than auspicious beginnings.

The current wheels, my dream convertible, are certainly recognizable—thus it was from across the lot and inside the café that Bret spotted me and delivered my chai. People tell me frequently that they saw me driving here or there. The Chrysler PT Cruiser is the first American-brand, automatic car I’ve ever purchased. Mechanically it has never been particularly sound and today the number of things wrong with it list a repair bill larger than the value of the car. It’s time to buy something new.

Nora gives me a list, inside my budget, of new cars and suggests she’ll look into the area used market. Nora, Egyptian, American-born, loves to shop for cars; I’m part Lebanese and never give up those last $200 in price haggling. Somehow I think there’s a joke there—our peoples have been trading camels and magic carpet transport for centuries. I’m predicting that between the two of us, we’ll get a good deal on the next car.

But the right car? The right car is the one that I’m driving. I think about the way the cars I’ve owned have been essential to and reflective of the life period in which I drove them. Junior & senior years in high school, I drove that Jeep. During the summer I took off the hard top and drove it under the sun, through the moonlight and in the rain. More than once I stuffed eight or nine teenagers in the back to make the trek across town from the football stadium to the pizza parlor. I learned to turn doughnuts in a snowy parking lot in that vehicle—it was always good for an adventure, as when the clutch let go in the middle of an intersection and I was rescued by four beefy members of the University of Iowa football team who leapt from their car and pushed mine to safety.

In the mid-eighties there was little extra money for airplane trips to and from college. So my parents gave me a scarlet Superbeetle, at least ten years old, that I hid like a forbidden pet on the streets around my college campus where I was not permitted to have a car. I drove it until junior year when it started to scare me—I don’t remember what ended up being wrong with it, but that winter break I made it a thousand miles home to Iowa and told my mother that I didn’t think it was safe for the drive back to school. We went to the VW dealership and drove out in a brand new 1986 Titan red VW Golf diesel, sunroof, no air-conditioning. I would drive that car for nearly a decade. Through the balance of college, grad school, and my early years on a tiny salary as an English professor, I scraped together every payment and then enjoyed the bliss of no car payment for some time. It got great mileage, too, at a time when diesel was still cheaper than regular gas. And I made more than one person laugh carrying my extension cord with me in the winter—most notably when visiting in Massachusetts and plugging it in to a dorm room outlet that required dropping the cord out the window and down from the second floor to plug in the little battery that warmed the motor overnight as February temps dropped below zero.

A luxury car followed, a used Saab 9000. The day I test-drove the car, it was as if the dealer called central casting for a little old lady in tennis shoes to show up claiming to be the original owner. She was driving a newer, automatic red model, and they told me the reason she traded in was the stick shift. The car hugged the road in a way that made driving, one of my favorite pastimes, irresistible. That the little old lady in tennis shoes was also a fierce smoker who lived on a gravel road would not become apparent until I was on the way from Iowa to New York in my Saab. In the closed car, the smoke smell blended nauseatingly with the pine air freshener my mother had bought me. The dust from the gravel road leached out of the tail light fixtures in the rain for years. I constructed an entire fantasy about the car being regularly purloined by a family of bears who drove it out into the woods to smoke. Eventually the smell would go away, although the accumulation of dust never really did. And I loved that car, black, powerful and sleek, in spite of intense repair bills.

It was replaced with the perfect family car, a dark blue Volvo V-70 that made me feel old. In spite of saving my precious babies and me more than once, I never loved the Volvo. Surrounded by SUVs in preschool pick-up lines and parked at the grocery store, its low-slung body made me feel somehow invisible. In stop and go traffic the engine that preferred to race down the highway was sluggish and the car lumbered. I told my children

The Cruiser after I first bought it, and a recent palindrome.

A recent palindrome


The Cruiser shortly after I bought it, October 2006.

I would be driving a convertible by the time one of them was old enough for the front seat. The day came sooner, when I bought the Cruiser in 2006. It is creamy white, black roof, grey interior, auxiliary plug for the iPod. The turbo engine makes it surprisingly zippy, and it’s been far warmer and steadier in adverse weather than I ever expected.

On the first 40-degree day in March, I come out of a yoga class, drop the top, turn up the heat and blast “When I Write the Book,” by Rockpile. The sun shines on me and the sky whips past. Some days I drive over 100 miles, ferrying my peeps to and fro, driving to teach, to the studio, and running the errands that keep the home fires burning and the studio stocked. My car is an extension of who I am—a bit battered, in need of new shoes, one fog-light short. The next car will surely too become a part of my story, as each of the others has, but finding it—not the dealing for it, not the financing of it, not the first few miles we share—finding that right fit will not be easy.

The March new moon (3.11.13) promises new beginnings in spite of one more swirling snowstorm. Wishing you joy, fresh starts and reliable engines, Rxo

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