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For Whom the Bell Tolls

What are your bells?

The semicolon won my heart as my very favorite punctuation mark when I learned, first studying ancient Greek as an undergraduate and then in pithy usage from essayist-physician Lewis Thomas, that it originated as the Greek question mark. “The semicolon,” Mr. Thomas explains in “Notes on Punctuation,” “tells you that there is still some question about the preceding full sentence; something needs to be added; it reminds you sometimes of the Greek usage. It is almost always a greater pleasure to come across a semicolon than a period. The period tells you that that is that; if you didn’t get all the meaning you wanted or expected, anyway you got all the writer intended to parcel out and now you have to move along. But with a semicolon there you get a pleasant little feeling of expectancy; there is more to come; to read on; it will get clearer.” The semicolon invites the reader to pause in anticipation; what’s not to love?

In recent years I became fond, too, of the ampersand. I feared it might edge out the semicolon in the run for favorite; but in a wonderful save it turns out—as savvy readers will already know—that the ampersand is in a league of its own; it’s a logogram or written character understood to have evolved from the handwritten letters “e” and “t,” or et, Latin for and. English has other logograms and, one author argues, is cultivating countless more from the shorthand arising on our mobile devices. However, it’s unlikely any will replace the ampersand in my heart.

As a proofreader, I am often given the opportunity to do far more than pause when I encounter semicolons and ampersands. In spite of my delight in the latter, I do not believe they belong in running text. As a writer, I’m likely to overuse the former; it’s so much fun to craft the phrase following that so nearly always illuminates the phrase in the fore. But whether writing or proofreading, it’s the act of considering that I have set out to address. When I stop to look up a word, consider the usage of a punctuation mark or logogram, check a subject’s name in the photo cutline against the spelling in the text, or rifle through pages checking the table of contents against the page numbers, I am fully present. I can’t do this work and think about something else. (If I get to a point where I realize I don’t know what I’m reading, then I’ve lost touch with the process, the words, line spaces, punctuation marks, and logograms. It’s time to pause and regroup.) As proofreader especially, I am both fully present and not lost in the flow.

Coming back to the present moment resonated for me as the central tenant of life in Buddhist Monk’s Thich Naht Hahn’s Plum Village as its portrayed in the documentary Walk With Me. A fan of Hahn’s writing, when I had a chance to be the captain for a local screening of the film, I thought, “why not?” Sitting in the dark theater with 100 beautiful spirits who chose to spend a rainy Monday night in September experiencing the movie, I was stunned by what is a cinemagraphic meditation. In discussions after, several people said they’re ready to pack their bags for a visit to Plum Village. Did I want to go asked one?

“Not really,” I surprised myself as well as my questioner. “The bells would drive me crazy.”

In the film every time a bell rings—every fifteen minutes and then some—everyone is expected to become still. To come back to the present. To breathe. While I love that idea—we can all use regular timeouts to breathe deeply and with intention—I value flow as well. If the words are pouring out of my fingers onto the keyboard or I’m lost in a drawing or spooning cake batter into a pan, I don’t want to be interrupted because someone else has decided that it’s time for me to pay attention. There’s so much jangly interruption in our world already. That said, I do believe it’s important to pause and pay attention; so I recognize that I have scores of personal bells.IMG_9054

As Eighteen noticed this summer, I brake for butterflies when they flutter past my car. I will pause and be utterly charmed by a flight of grackles, reporting on them later to Ninety-Three. I watch the clouds roll by and change shape. I rarely have a moon sighting without pointing it out to Fifteen. When the sky is drenched in color at sunset, I’m at the window marveling. If I hear the whistle of a train in the distance, I consider hard whatever I was thinking or saying at that moment, certain the whistle is meant as an underscore. There are work bells, too. Along with the aforementioned proofreading pauses to consider usage, a misplaced foot or a knee out of alignment can cause me to shift the entire focus of a yoga practice I’m leading. A room full of beautiful poses can take my breath away. The collection of smiles and hugs after class routinely keeps me from mentally racing on to the next task or worry.

These days, there are serious bells—for most of my life I was discomforted deeply by sirens. News stories of hurricanes, tornadoes, fires, disasters, protests and political upheavals shock and startle. I am learning to take a breath here, too, to send a silent “blessings” in the direction of the retreating ambulance or fire truck, to imagine and honor the light within the individuals whose deeds may seem so very counterproductive to my own philosophy. Being present is only a platform from which to begin; however, it is the platform, the only platform, on which I can safely stand. Some days that’s the best I can do.

What are your bells, dear reader? With gratitude & love & best wishes for the new moon, Rxo

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How do you know when it’s the end?

Kurt Vonnegut opined in his play Happy Birthday Wanda June that heaven is a giant shuffleboard game. I think of my father sending a disc gliding down the court and then leaning on his cue, sipping a heavenly cocktail, and gazing down at us periodically. He would be especially proud of his grandchildren, two Harvard men (my nephews), Fourteen, a budding novelist, and Seventeen, who shows every indication of moving toward finance but who has been writing front-page articles for his school newspaper since the first week of school (Grinnell’s newspaper is The Scarlet and Black).

Seventeen’s grandfather found his early writing roots in journalism. His father, Seventeen’s great grandfather, was a newspaperman. My brother is an editor for Field and Stream. My grandmother wrote children’s stories and women’s fiction before there was chicklit. Writing is in our blood. From his early journalism exposure, my father never finished a manuscript without centering at least one # at the end. I can still see his desk, which is now mine, covered with piles of thin bond, Xs crossing out the mistakes, his unmistakable handwriting annotating his drafts. Somehow, my father always knew when he was at the end. It must have been such a victory to type those pound/number/hashtag signs at the bottom of the page.

I mean to ask Seventeen if he submits his electronic stories replete with ### at the end or if there is a new convention now that submissions present in digital form. It was less conventional for my father to end his novels that way, but he never typed “the end.” For years I copied him, until one of my college professors circled the ### on the last page of my paper and swirled them away as unnecessary with a delete symbol. Curious, I do a little searching. According to the Internet, it was all the way back in 2007 when the # got repurposed by the tech world. It wasn’t on my radar in its hashtag capacity until much more recently, and while I’ve been known to “hashtag” a phrase or two, I’m enough of a traditionalist that I still think of it as the number or pound sign first.

“Punctuation,” I tell my writing mentee, “makes meaning.” I am incredibly fond of punctuation for this reason. Beyond knowing when and how to employ the squiggles and dots that pepper the keyboard, I marvel how in each unique application punctuation eases the workload for words, adding just the right finish to a polished sentence.

Period. The end. But how do you know?

To finish something, we have to anticipate the end. Early this year I met with my accountant: “I don’t think I’m going to renew the studio lease,” I told her. “After five years, this is going to be it.” And after five years of cheering me on, meeting with me at every turn, soothing and comforting me when obstacles threatened to derail my progress, my accountant simply agreed, “It’s time.”

Full of the promise of possibilities, eager to show my children that their mother could create something amazing, ready to give up the life of a road yogi teaching at as many as seven different places in a given week, it was six years ago when I started writing the chapter that would become Radiant Om Yoga. There were lots of firsts on the journey—from legal explorations like becoming the proud owner of an LLC and a trademark to learning QuickBooks and small-business banking to getting the key to my first leased commercial space. What I didn’t know when I started about running a business, in spite of being self-employed for much of my adult life, I learned to the best of my abilities, marveling at just how different each day could be.

On the fifth anniversary of the very first class I ever taught at Radiant Om Yoga, with the help of three women I am lucky to count as friends and supporters of my yoga journey, we picked up the floor, the last big task to closing the space. That night, Wednesday, I taught my first class in a new space, a yoga cooperative where my community kindly followed me, and the yoga that night reminded us that the practice allows us to adapt.

Thursday it took two car trips to load the tiles into my garage. I made a pile so high that, as Fourteen said, “The floor reaches the ceiling.” The rest of my garage looks very much like a jumble sale; somehow the contents of the studio will find new purpose in my house or move on to new homes.

With nothing left but the garbage cans and a couple of resin chairs I was leaving behind (they were there when I got there), the studio felt like a shell. For five years I was the self-appointed steward of the space. Sitting on the floor one last time, I could see vast improvement to the interior of the building in spite of how hard as it often was: how many times did I curse my leasing company (indeed, at one point when they were fully in breach of contract I was one chess move away from rolling up my mat and taking them to court); how often did I arrive to find leakage from the roof, pest infestations, freezing temps because the furnace was out, snow under the door, broken plumbing, or humidity buckling my flooring; how frequently did my heart sink because just as I struggled to keep the place afloat another yoga studio would announce their grand opening in town? But then again, how many times did I teach in that sanctuary and find ease and joy in my whole being?

Sitting on the cruddy subfloor, I lit the candle and some sage and thanked the building, out loud, for the many, many gifts. Beyond everything I learned about business, beyond all of the yoga delights and revelations, beyond all of the healing, beyond the professional approbations and the personal friendships, the space was my sanctuary too, my healing place as I made the transition out of married life, as I forged ahead into and then out of an intense romance, as friendships deepened and I became ever clearer about who I am and what’s important to me. To mark the end, I rang the tingsha, three times, blew out the candle and knew … it was time to go. For the last time ever, I locked the door, patted the building, and got into my car. So much of the good continues with me, but the chapter, the chapter is truly and really over.img_7361

 

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With a new moon, new beginnings. Looking forward to writing the next chapter, xoR

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The keeper of the keys no more … later today I’ll drop this pile at the leasing office. 

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