RSS Feed

Tag Archives: memory

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

 

Advertisements

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

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

My Funny Valentine

My Funny Valentine

Wha?? You’re letting it go?

When you move, it takes time to find new light switches in the dark. Everything is so new that it’s comforting to cling to the belongings you’ve brought with you. But even the perfect car for your old life might not fit as well with the travel requirements of your new world. Thus it was that I fell distinctly out of love with the Volvo wagon, a tank of a car purchased when my peeps were small to keep us safe in the bustling traffic of Bethesda, MD. I’m something of a serial monogamist when it comes to cars. The Volvo’s replacement?

The sales lady didn’t know it, but it was love at first sight when I saw the cool vanilla PT Cruiser with 12,995 miles on the odometer. The car had been a rental in California, no doubt leased by enthusiastic visitors at LAX who thought it would be fun to drive a convertible down to Mexico. As a result, over the course of the first couple of years I owned it, the car had an array of mysterious mechanical problems we blamed on bad Mexican gas, but they were miraculously covered by the warranty and I didn’t much care. More than a few people commented on the booster seats in the back; my peeps enjoyed tooling around in the car with the top down as much as I. With the upgrade to an auxiliary plug, I stopped constantly listening to classical music, a hold-over I had adopted when pregnant and driving a respectable yuppymobile, and reconnected with the music I loved growing up.

img_7872-1

Our last date in the sun, Valentine’s week 2017

I drove that car more than 100,000 miles, year-around, through more than one challenging winter storm, once getting stranded by slick roads with my daughter on a wintry night when the car desperately needed new tires. I drove it as far east as Athens, Ohio, and as far west as the Omaha zoo. Together we went north to Mankato, MN, for yoga teacher training nine times in every kind of weather and made countless trips south to pick up friends from the airport … but mostly I drove it to and fro, from dropping my son at TaeKwonDo to picking up my daughter from dance, from the grocery store to the yoga studio, from home to the coffee shop for writing time. When the warranty ran out, I found a mechanic who kept it running, who seemed to understand that the car was more than transportation for me.

I retired it for pleasure use only when I bought the Orange Dart in 2013 and hauled it out of retirement when Seventeen became a licensed driver. Sometime around then, my constant spate of car troubles became blog fodder, eye-roll-worthy updates on Facebook, and the source of more than one giggle and many-a grimace when I referenced my fleet of erratic cars in conversation.

The Dart is its own story, a brief fling with an unreliable machine. In its own way it served and the lessons I learned are the stuff of another essay. We said farewell to the Dart in December and hello to the handsome new Beetle named Mercury on the last day of 2016. A new love for a new year meant I had one too-many convertibles. What to do with the Cruiser?

img_7643

With just 1542 miles on it, Mercury rolled right into my heart … our first date: the Starbucks drive through on 12.31.16. And yes, it was warm enough to test it with the top down and the heated seat on!

The weather turned freakishly warm in February. I got the car out, mindful that it needed to be driven, and took it to the full service car wash. Every time I drove that car it felt like my escort, a loyal steed, my chariot of nuts and bolts. As if giving my squire voice, one of the car wash employees opened the passenger door, crawled halfway in, and interrupting himself while inquiring what they might do for me announced, “You are SO beautiful.” I told him he had just made my day as I left my baby in his care.

When the top dried in the sun, I dropped it for the last time and drove, enjoying the sunshine and remembering so many happy trips. Once, after a successful black-belt test, when Seventeen was just Ten, the sun was setting in fiery reds and dark clouds scattered fat raindrops on our victory lap home. I remember Ten testing his voice, yelling “promotion skies,” his celebration the last of his post-test adrenaline. His sister in her cow-spotted booster seat pumped much tinier fists, her fine blonde hair blowing in the breeze.

On this, our last date, I parked the clean Cruiser by the lake near my house and took more pictures of it than I needed. Top up, top down, doors open and closed. My favorite shows water just beyond the dash as though the car might actually be about to launch, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang’s long lost cousin.

img_7876-1

Chitty Chitty Bang Bang’s long-lost cousin–I do believe my Cruiser could take me everywhere!

The next day I posted my car on Craig’s List, photos, TLC needed, and all. Within twenty minutes I had a very interested potential buyer. By the time I went to bed there was a slew of inquiries, but the very interested buyer was scheduled to come the next afternoon and everyone else would have to wait.

In a series of events that underscores my faith in the universe, the buyer, a couple in fact, had lost a PT Cruiser in an accident just a week before. When they arrived in their rental to look at my car, they had just picked up their insurance settlement. My car sat waiting for them, glistening in the sun on my driveway. Although I showed them it’s ailments and infirmities, they were focused on the positives—it was their favorite car, a great color, and they had never owned a convertible. The new tires and a new battery meant they weren’t perturbed by the broken glove box or quirky back hatch. They drove it for about five minutes, arrived back and announced, “sold.” We shook hands on the deal and they went off to procure cash.

While I waited for them, I took the plates off the car and worked on cleaning out my garage. The youngest of four neighboring children arrived, a little girl in her Girl Scout sash, her father trailing her and dragging a wagon full of cookies behind him. I never buy Girl Scout cookies because once I start eating them I can’t stop (what’s in those cookies?), but the day felt like a day for spreading good will, so I bought two. My car’s new owners arrived and they bought four boxes of cookies on the way in the door to sign the paperwork. In a manner of minutes I had a brand new-to-me pile of cash and they drove off, the husband trailing his happy wife in her new-to-her convertible. I wonder if she ate any cookies on her way? A fan of snacking and driving, I certainly would have.

Happy New February Moon—with Valentine’s Day in the rearview mirror and spring glimmering around the corner. May you find that all is well in your world as you launch new explorations. As ever, Namaste, Rxo

La Bella Luna

How do you know when you’ve seen the moon?

All the time I lived on Redbird Farm, there was never any question of seeing the moon. Without lights from the city or even neighboring farms, the night skies dazzled with stars, the milky way ribboned its bright blaze among them, and the moon waxed and waned, sometimes making a snow-covered field nearly as bright as daylight. A full moon meant more restless beasts moving through the fields, a new moon meant much darker skies, and one memorable winter eclipse found my parents and me huddled together watching the mystery outside my bedroom window in the wee hours.

When the moon is full, it’s full for the entire planet—unlike the seasons, for example, that flip-flop depending on which hemisphere you’re in or the constellations that shift and change locations. So the moon I saw when I moved away from the country to cities and suburbs in the east was the same moon shining without question on my childhood home.

After four days of advanced yoga teacher training, a three and a half hour drive home, and the compression of stepping into Monday after not having a weekend to reset, I was afraid I wouldn’t get to see the supermoon. I was concerned there would be clouds spreading along the eastern horizon as it rose; I was fairly certain I would be driving west at moonrise; I was feeling jealous of the reports of its luster and beauty that people were sharing online and in person.

I was, in fact, driving west at moonrise. I had taken my second trip east in just a few days’ time to Seventeen’s college home—Monday’s trip was to deliver the altered suit we had shopped for the week before. Seventeen quite suddenly needed a new suit (his first) in the middle of the semester because he was selected to go on a school-sponsored trek to meet Warren Buffett at the end of this week. To say he’s excited is an understatement: “Everyone else is thinking about Thanksgiving,” he told me after we enjoyed afternoon tea at the local coffee shop, “all I’m thinking about is meeting Warren Buffett.” Meeting Warren Buffett is Seventeen’s super-hero-moon.

img_7493

My Super-Seventeen in his new threads. If you’d like a picture of or more information about the supermoon, visit earthsky.org.

So taking three hours at the end of a long teaching day immediately following four days of yoga immersion to deliver the required suit felt just right. I turned for home in a fiery sunset of orange and deep pink, the stubble of harvested fields stretching out, a surprising amount of green lingering along the roadside thanks to our temperate fall. The electronic road signs flashed warnings about watching for deer—it’s mating season or the rut and the deer tend to lose their heads and run in every direction. As the sky grew dim and the glare from oncoming lights made it hard to see, I thought about that and drove alert, watching. I did see some deer, but they were deep in the fields foraging for corn dropped by the harvesters.

I was all the way back in the lights of Des Moines when I saw it in my rearview mirror. The moon rose, huge and plum-colored, a giant orb. There were indeed clouds, but they were wispy and only heightened the effect. Just at the right moment my route turned south and the moon was on my left, where I could glance between it and the road, marveling. In no time it was up, the plum wash dripping off of it, replaced by a peach sheen. Ten minutes later I pulled into the high school parking lot, turned my car to face east, and watched it ascend, growing more and more luminous.

Fourteen came bouncing out of play rehearsal to the car and we admired the moon together on the drive home. It hung right over our house when we drove up the hill, but from inside it was impossible to see. Ninety-Two was looking for it. She has recently adapted to using her walker, tricked out with a wire basket and a bag, stabilizing her as she roves around the house. But to see the moon just then, she had to abandon the walker, hold on to my arm, navigate two tenuous steps into the three-season room we call the East House, and work her way cautiously across the floor. We were rewarded for our efforts by the now silvery orb that seemed to be playing among the dark, leafless tree branches. On the unheated porch we stood close-by, admiring it’s beauty.

“How do you know when you’ve seen the moon?” My mother asked me.

I think of some of the marvelous things that I’ve seen—Michelangelo’s David in Florence, the Eiffel Tower, the birth of my two babies, the Washington monuments at night, the sun setting over the Pacific, the Redwoods, kittens exploring the grass, a room full of people exploring their practice—there are so many and somehow this supermoon feels like one of them, a confirmation that the natural cycles and order of things continue in spite of a series of events and happenings that left me feeling shredded over the past two weeks (and for the record here, I am referencing not only the election, but also teaching yoga in the wake of the shooting of two police officers here in my community and several personal muddles I am trying to untangle). I don’t want to stop watching the moon, but I need to return my mother to the safety of her walker, to attend to dinner, to write a check for the monthly water bill due the next day. We reluctantly turn, thinking our moon time is over.

Overnight the supermoon and I have several more encounters—it’s shining its light into my bathroom skylight as I brush my teeth and sending light across my bed in the wee hours when Katy comes to purr and celebrate the unlikely event that we’re both awake. And then it’s still up when I take Fourteen to meet her morning bus—it’s a pale orb now, with the sunlight fast arriving in the east and the moon still big in the west. There’s a lake near my house. I drive there to take a last look. Just as I pull in, a great blue heron comes skimming over the water and lands on the shore not twenty feet away. I look at the heron looking at the moon. Together we watch three mallard ducks swim parallel to the shore, their gentle wake rippling the moon’s reflection in the water. A few fluffy clouds reflect the pink of the sunrise—these, too, are a part of the tableau the heron and I regard. The great bird bends its knees a little and lifts off, flying after the ducks. A Midwestern seagull cuts across the sky and I wonder, as I always do when I see them, if it even knows about oceans or if lakes are enough water for the bird I associate with beaches and salt.

It’s time to go home where my morning tea is waiting and I smile then. I am no longer envious of my friends who have taken and posted pictures or comments about this moon on social media. I don’t need to purchase a supermoon tee shirt or even snap a photograph, although I have tried with my inferior phone camera to capture an image. I have enjoyed an entire night of moments with the supermoon, and as these words begin lining up in my imagination, I know that I can write about what happened. For me, it is in capturing the experience in words, in telling my story, that I know I have indeed seen the moon.

Thank you for witnessing with me. As ever and always, Rxo

 

 

Family Matters

How do you find out about your ancestors?

Thirteen asked me a few days ago about her heritage. How would she, she wanted to know, go about drawing a family tree? We talked a little bit about the family members who have completed genealogy studies—and then I asked her: what’s your interest? “I just want to know where I come from.”

Hers is a good and fundamental need to know. In part, I’m certain, she’s hoping there’s an exotic ancestor or a drop or two of royal blood in our past. And I suppose, if just about anyone traced back far enough, there would be both princes and pirates in some part of the family bloodline.

Our ancestry is mostly European, mostly western, with one significant branch of the family arriving just about the turn of the last century from Lebanon. My light-haired, blue-eyed children don’t look it, but they are one-eighth Lebanese.

My extended family isn’t awfully close and those drops of blood meant little when I was growing up. I had no bloodline connection to my most interactive grandparent, Norma Bourjaily, nor to my Aunt Eileen, married to my father’s younger brother—my Unca Paul (https://overneathitall.com/2014/06/)—for sixty-six years. But this remarkable woman, a tiny dynamo, was a relative life force in my world. It is her life I remember today, celebrating her memory in light of her death late last month.

Unca Paul & Aunt Eileen, taken by another wonderful relative, Uncle Hale.

Unca Paul & Aunt Eileen, taken by another wonderful relative, Uncle Hale.

My Aunt was 96 when she died—the math reveals that I met her for the first time when she was my age today, 50. It was my first visit to their big house full of treasures in Yellow Springs, Ohio, but it would not be nearly the last. My Aunt and Uncle lived halfway from our Iowa home to the East Coast; so, they were the logical stopover any time we drove East. As a college student I was guilty of calling just a day or two before I would be arriving, of bringing friends or—once—a springer spaniel with me with even less notice, and of arriving late and leaving early. Nonetheless, with steadfast good humor, my Aunt always had a freshly made bed, clean towels, and a delicious meal awaiting my arrival. In the mornings, after our visit and breakfast, she would bustle around her kitchen in order to send me off with extras—a banana and a muffin, a bottle of water, a baggie of trail mix. If my adult cousins were in town, they would be summoned for my visit. Each time I would promise that the next time I’d stay longer or arrive at a decent hour. And off I would go, destined to repeat the pattern over and over.

My Aunt’s care packages sometimes included treasures: family photos; gifts for the folks at home; and once, the Pre-Columbian figure my blood paternal grandmother, a woman I never met but from whom I inherited both writing and yoga, wore around her neck for years. In my current mood of clearing out, I ponder especially the items that I will keep for my children. The most important, I believe, are the things that will connect them to their history, a sense of who they are. So although it’s not a piece I can picture myself wearing, the stone woman sticks alongside copies for each of them of my grandmother’s book. I am especially grateful to my Aunt for sharing this little figure with me.

Remembering—the kind of time travel our minds allow—is another gift. My Aunt, long before her mental acuity was compromised, had memory slips when she talked. Stretching for a word but not wanting to stall in the middle of a thought, she would replace the word with a charming little hmmm or the phrase “kind of thing.” If the word truly escaped her, she would put these together, “It’s a hmmm kind of thing.” And somehow, I like to think because we were related, I would always know precisely what she was talking about.

It felt odd to me to miss posting on the last full super moon, when there was a lunar eclipse no less. Driving my mother in the convertible to see easily the eclipse, conveniently timed in the 9pm hour, I saw neighbors out watching. The moon is my favorite rock, and that night it felt really good to celebrate its majesty in community with so many people. And somehow it was okay skipping that particular post, just as it feels really good now to sit across from Sixteen at a coffee shop, writing in celebration of my dear departed Aunt and a whole new cycle of the moon. Happy new moon—on our way to the Hunter’s or Travel moon. Thanks, as ever, for sharing the journey with me, Rxo

Make/Shift Memories

Make/Shift Memories

Will I remember when I’m forty-eight what I remember now when I’m fourteen?

Fourteen is in bed on a school night; the clock has inched past ten. He’s called me away from the editing I’m doing with “Tuck,” neither question nor demand. The voice that might be low one moment and squeaky the next, carries through our quiet house without ruffling the other sleepers, Eleven and Eighty-Nine. “I’ll be right there,” I call-whisper back.

On his bed are a wedge-shaped reading pillow, a body pillow, a large square pillow, two sleeping pillows, the nearly four-foot stuffed bear he received when he had heart surgery at nine months old, and about 10 other stuffed animals we call, in family-lingo, “rodents.” The most well-loved of these is Tigee, a gift from a playgroup pal on his third birthday right before his sister arrived.

Big White Bear & Tigee, resting during the afternoon while Fourteen makes memories at high school.

Big White Bear & Tigee, resting during the afternoon while Fourteen makes memories at high school.

I ruffle then settle the covers and think again that this single bed no longer fits him and all of his sleeping companions, but he snuggles in against them and claims he likes it this way. He looks up at me, arms around Tigee, sleep lowering his lashes against his cheeks, “Story?”

“Story,” I reply. “About what?”

He’s been asking me for the last few nights for stories from specific times in my past. A high school friend story, one night, something from college another. “Something you remember from teaching English?”

I tell him about teaching Rivethead, a memoir by Ben Hamper, to a particularly lively, bright group of journalism students at Suffolk Community College on Long Island. The class was required—Contemporary Nonfiction Literature—for everyone in the journalism program. It had been taught by the same professor for a number of years, but somehow ended up on my teaching schedule my second semester there. I took one look at the existing syllabus and knew I was going to teach it completely differently, selecting my favorite nonfiction novels and memoirs from my recent graduate school days. The set-up of the class was simple: the students would read a stack of these books, would write twice-weekly journal entries, would write four out-of-class assignments, and would take the best final I ever constructed.

Rivethead is about working in a car factory in Detroit. The author is the son of a factory worker who sees working on the line as his destiny, and yet it ruins him, physically, emotionally, mentally. There are pills and alcoholic stints and injuries leading to time off, reassignments, and layoffs. In spite of apparently hating what he does, each time Hamper goes back to work on the line, he schemes to get back to the rivet gun. He is once and forever a “rivethead.”

In spite of the fact that many of my students were first-generation college students, the children of factory workers and service people, and that some had picked up summer jobs in Long Island institutions like the Estée Lauder factory and the IRS, they professed not to connect to Hamper and how he felt about factory work. Why is it so hard? What makes it boring? And if it is those things, why does he care about getting back to it? They were mired, in our discussion, in their critique of his resistance to his job and it was keeping them from understanding the the way the story portrays identity.

Searching for a lesson plan just before class, I seized the recycling bin and carried it with me. I asked the students create two lines of desks. Each seated student was responsible for one fold of a paper airplane. The line anchors had to start a new airplane down the line every few seconds. Students at the end of the line quality-tested the products, zooming paper airplanes around the room, many faulty and crashing to the floor. More students were supposed to try to fix these. Students in control walked the line to keep the whole thing moving.

Our paper airplane factory only ran for fifteen or twenty minutes, was rowdy, and netted very few truly functional planes. But it made the point that line work is demanding, boring, and somehow a fellowship and exhilarating all at the same time. Fresh from their experience, the students bought new understanding to the book and our discussion.

“Would I like Rivethead?” Fourteen brings me back to his room.

“You would,” I hesitate a little. There are a lot of drugs in the book, violence, bad language. It was a younger, non-parental me that didn’t flinch when I taught the book. Sharing it with my son? It’s still surprising what he knows about the world … “Yes,” I decide, “you should read it.”

It’s his next question that truly unsettles my brain, “Will I remember when I’m forty-eight what I remember now when I’m fourteen?”

He’s recently finished a book review for his English teacher of Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything by Joshua Foer, a book on my to-read list because of the wonderful truth he told me from the book: Rather than be frustrated by what we don’t remember, we should be amazed by all of the things our brains do remember—to make and eat breakfast, how to get home, what to purchase at the grocery store. I love this idea—a celebration of our strengths rather than a castigation for forgetting an appointment or another lapse.

“I think,” I tell Fourteen standing, kissing his forehead, and smoothing his hair, “that different things will sift to the fore of your memory—we don’t readily remember all at forty-eight that we do at fourteen. But I believe it’s all in there—you can access those memories if you grow quiet enough or if something triggers them.” He nods then, sleep overtaking and I switch off the light and step into the hall.

Sometimes memory triggers will start a whole swirl. I hadn’t thought about the airplane assembly line in years, but just a day or so before Fourteen asked for a teaching story, a student from that very class reached out over the Internet to find me. She was hoping that I would remember her and a paper she wrote—to my surprise I remembered both. A trip to the basement to see if by any chance I did still have the paper, brought forth a tumble of names and memories and a look back at who I was at twenty-five. My first response—I was a naïve kid who had no business playing with people’s lives—softened as I thought about the writers I taught and the help I gave, part academic, part moral support, part life coaching. I didn’t have all of the answers, but I started thinking I was on the right course more often than not. The night I told the airplane story, back at my editing, I read another email response from the former student that confirmed my thought-memory process: If you ever wonder if you’ve made a positive change in someone’s life, please believe you do because you were the one who really got the ball rolling for me!

It’s then that I want to wake Fourteen and answer his question differently: The most important memories are not necessarily memories of the actual events in your life, but memories that come from knowing that each moment of every day you did the best you could with what you had.

March 26 marked the third anniversary of Overneath It All, and March 30 is the new pink moon, one of my favorites. Today I post right in-between these Overneath It All touchstones on another important-to-me day, the two-and-a-half year birthday of the yoga studio. I like the fact that my so-called youngest baby gave me the gift of breathing room to write. Thank you, as ever & always, for coming along with me on this journey, Rxo

%d bloggers like this: