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Itsy Bitsy

Itsy Bitsy

What is your spider’s name?

In the novel I’m writing, perhaps more slowly than I’d like, naming the characters as they arrive is both a pleasure and a challenge. Like T. S. Eliot, I believe that the “naming of cats is a difficult matter,” and it doesn’t end with cats. Anyone with a presence in my life, real or imagined, generally ends up with a nickname, or perhaps a slew of them, and my characters complicate matters by changing their names or the spelling of their names, assuring a messy, messy draft.

Among the pages of this blog I have nicknamed a squirrel, Cooper, a deer, Peter, my children and mother, by their ages, and several partners-in-crime. In naming the people who appear here, my intent is to offer them some slight shield of privacy. Perhaps, given the wide-open world of the web, vague anonymity is a more operative phrase; by now those who live with me know they’re likely to end up among my stories, but that I’ll be kind.

So what was my resistance to naming my spider?

She first caught my eye outside my front door in September. Just below eye level in the long narrow window to the side of the door, she had spun a web, her abdomen swollen and ready to fill the egg sac she next meticulously created. Over the next few days I studied her progress, her web a scant tangle of threads, not the artistic creation of the more precise wolf spider whose web glistened just beyond the kitchen window.

As the weeks marched along, the spider went from one egg sac to three. Then one day, the first and largest was suddenly surrounded by tiny specks, as though it had spilled its contents. The all-knowing Internet informed me that these were, in fact, tiny spiders, existing in a kind of in-between stage. Born with hard exoskeletons, they grow and molt, grow and molt, not immediately leaving the protection and food source of their initial nest until they are large enough to manage on their own. Soon enough, the specks in my window went from tiny translucent blobs to tiny spider-shaped spots to slightly larger spider-shaped beings with legs and dark abdomens. As they grew, their watchful mother made two more egg sacs, her own abdomen newly swollen. When she was skinny again, she rested, her babies nearby.

Watching turned to worry that the web would tear or frost would kill the spider. Checking in with her became a daily event, although when I would stop to see her at night, I would see her in a more active state. As I watched her one night working her web, waiting patiently for a tiny fly to get stuck, I understood the brilliance of her location—with the lights on in the house and the dimming skies without, her prey was drawn toward the light and caught in the web on its way. She was a well-fed spider.

I learned from the (other) web that a spider with more than one egg sac is constructing a nursery, with some spider babies hatching in the fall and others wintering over. My spider certainly seemed to be playing all odds with a total of five egg sacs scattered about her web. Then in early November a remarkable thing happened: a fall leaf blew into her web. About two inches long and an inch wide, the leaf curled and dried tangled in her threads. And the spider? The spider spent two or three chilly nights carefully moving each of the egg sacs into the protection of the leaf. Since then, she’s been curled up in her nursery, clinging to life as the calendar turns toward winter. Our mild fall seems to have given her an unusually long lease on life—as recently as last week I observed her changing positions and active at night.

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The sheltering leaf

Thanksgiving week. Much more welcome than the malfunctioning refrigerator and several other complications of modern life, my dear friend from New York, Daana in these pages, arrived and then my son and a fellow first-year student from Russia who had never before experienced an American Thanksgiving. It was a joy to introduce our foreign guest to charades, black Friday madness, Des Moines, a lavish meal with friends and family, and the opportunity the long weekend provides to eat and sleep and relax. The boys played hard, skinning their knuckles on the basement punching bag and staying up late battling it out on the chessboard, Fourteen an ever-present and welcome witness. A random quip, a sashay on our Russian guest’s name, launched an ongoing joke morphing English words that rhymed with his first syllable onto the second syllable given different situations. When Fourteen suggested that perhaps he might grow tired of our jokes, our affable guest replied that no one had ever played with his name in that way in Russian, so he rather liked it.

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Seventeen and his brother from another motherland.

At night when the teenagers finally snuggled into their beds, sleep descended on the house like a soft blanket. Blinking to stay awake, I catalogued all of the slumbering bodies in my house—Daana (the Sanskrit word for Generosity), Seventeen in his childhood big boy bed, his Russian doppelgänger curled on a spare bed wedged into the room, Fourteen in her nest, the kitties in their customary resting spots, my mother in her room. My nursery and my heart were full.

My mind roamed outside the house to the spider. She worked so diligently in spite of the obstacles. How could I not identify with the stoic mother? Her last few days had been a heroic effort to strengthen the web that held the leaf that sheltered her egg sacs from the wind. She is still visible, curled in her nursery, vigilant to the end. She is so mighty and yet when I stop to see her now and it’s clearer and clearer to me that she’s no longer moving, all I can think is how little she is in this big world so fraught with dangers and obstacles. “Aw, Itsy,” because after all, what else could I call the little spider in the sanctuary, “It’s never easy. But you inspire me. And I’m really, really going to miss you.”

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Itsy in her nursery during warmer times.

A few days beyond the new moon, welcoming a festive December and wishing you the warmth and joys of the season. Thanks, as ever, for reading, Rxo

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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.

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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

 

 

Feed Me!

Feed Me!

Are parent birds stressed by their duties or anxious to be done with their fledgling peeps?

IMG_6252One Saturday morning this June, during yoga, my second class of the day, over the heads—or rumps actually as they were in downward facing dog—of my students I saw a small songbird perched on the streetlamp outside the studio. The fact that the bird was on the streetlamp at eye-level to my second-floor studio meant both that it was two stories in the air and that it flew there under its own power. Nonetheless, every time a bird that looked to be the same variety swept by, the bird I was watching flapped its wings. Was it frantic or hopeful? “Feed me,” it seemed to be saying, as were so many of the fledglings spotted about on the grass in my back yard. They were in that perilous moment between being taken care of and birdy adulthood when they will fend for themselves.

Hunting for food is not, in birds, a straight-up instinct. I learned this from a man wearing a Department of Natural Resources (DNR) shirt and a photographer stationed on the bike path not far from the studio a couple of summers ago. They were watching and taking video of a young great horned owl, wide awake in the early evening, who was taking swipes at a much smaller bird that was swooping around the owl. “They almost look like they’re playing,” I whispered.

“In a way, they are,” explained the man from the DNR in hushed tones. “The owl isn’t disturbed by the bird; he’s just intrigued. And he probably isn’t too hungry yet … his parents will have fed him enough so that he can survive for days eating nothing.”

“So, he’s not trying to catch the little bird?”

“Not yet. He doesn’t yet know he can. He’ll learn to, though. Play becomes prey.”

It’s different, I think, from the way humans learn to provide food for ourselves. Much of what we do is imitate the caregivers who raise and feed us. And, too, we are often driven by hunger to seek food, sometimes any food. But playing with it is the providence of toddlers who are learning how to eat, not how to obtain food.

Even so, the parallels from the bird world to my own fledglings are impossible to ignore. Recently graduated Seventeen has a bright future ahead, the college of his choice to begin in the fall, and a kind of invincibility that I envy. His sister, newly Fourteen, doesn’t seem far behind to me. Each of them is fully capable of building a meal from the contents of the refrigerator and pantry, and Seventeen is working this summer at our favorite grocery store. Instead of making my weekly treks to stock up, I hand him a list and he brings home every single thing on it with a gratifying attention to detail and one mystery item he’s excited to share.

Still, when they’re really hungry they look straight to me. Seventeen has perfected a kind of big-eyed look that we both know is a put on and nevertheless melts my heart into scrambling eggs for his breakfast or heating up leftovers at lunchtime. Fourteen takes a different tact: “There’s nothing for lunch,” she’ll assert, often around three or four on a summer afternoon. Reminding her that lunchtime has long since passed does little. Instead I leave off what I’m doing, cut up an apple, get out other things I know she likes, and point out options.

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A junior falcon improbably perched on a car. When I got closer, I saw the bird was watching a squirrel run out from under the car, shake its tail, and then run back under. I didn’t stick around long enough to find out, but I suspected it wouldn’t be too long before the squirrel became supper.

I wonder, at such moments, how the bird parents feel. I know that I am impossibly torn. Celebrating Seventeen’s high school graduation and watching him get ready for his next chapter, I could not be more proud. Giving in with a smile to his pathetic feed-me face, I’m not-so-secretly glad I can keep him close a little while longer. Lying on Fourteen’s bed while she figures out just how to register for Silver Cord hours (her high school’s program to encourage volunteerism), I’m happy for her to lead the way, but glad too when I can show her she’s flown by the pertinent screen. Are parent birds stressed by their duties or anxious to be done with their fledgling peeps? When mine were really little, I did find feeding them somewhat stressful. But we outgrew that together. Today their physical care is a kind of pleasure I’m not yet ready to relinquish.

 

In between the new moon and the full, I’m playing a little catch-up here at OverneathItAll. The end of the school year, graduation, and the Great American Road Trip all meant I put writing largely aside for a bit. Even the most compelling of activities require breaks now and then. I’m happy to be opening my computer again and looking forward to sharing the journey with you. With gratitude and big love as ever, Rxo

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