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The Lion and the Angel

What does it mean to “hold space”?

In the mid-nineties, I was assigned by my department chair to teach Advanced Expository Writing, a class designated for honors students with perhaps the least alluring title of any class in the curriculum. Each semester I taught that class, I would introduce the syllabus by quoting my thesis advisor who said, “Expository Writing sounds like something you’d purchase at a drug store.” This usually elicited a chuckle from at least a few of the students and launched a discussion of just what we might be up to in the class.

To compliment their extensive writing assignments, the students considered a number of literary models. As a capstone to becoming thoughtful, analytical readers, they were assigned to focus on one of the essayists in our anthology of brilliant writers. Each student would pick a writer and an essay by that writer, assign the essay to the class, and then present information about the author to supplement class discussion about the essay.

Nearly every semester in every class, the speech-like requirements of my syllabus would send a student spiraling into my office hours, panicked. “Professor Robin,” the student, most often a young woman, would say, “I can’t get up in front of your class and talk.”

This particular semester that student was a woman I’ll call “Leona.” Leona had delicate features, a small face, and a trim figure. She wore her long hair in a tight braid down her back. I hadn’t yet seen any writing from students in the class when she arrived at my office hours, hugging her books close to her body and looking scared.

When Leona sat timidly in my conference chair, I could see that she was a non-traditional student, closer to thirty than twenty. I sensed a story; even the most traditional students tended to enroll in community college because of their stories. Leona was no exception—married young to a man from a country where women had few rights, she was in a custody fight for her daughters who, in the same vein as the movie that was popular in the early nineties, were taken from her to live with their father’s family in his homeland.

“You have a lot to write about,” it was an understatement.

Leona looked hopeful, “I really do. But … do I have to speak to the class? I really don’t think I can do that.”

“Have you chosen an author yet?”

Leona had, Nancy Mairs. I smiled in recognition. The poet turned essayist struggled from her twenties on with depression and multiple sclerosis. She was confined to a wheelchair in her thirties, but wrote intense, wry, brilliant essays. “I think that’s a good fit. You’ll like her work.”

That day I struck a bargain with Leona that she’d go ahead and do the research on Mairs, we’d meet again before her date to present, and if she was still anxious about presenting, we’d come up with a solution together.

Leona submitted tightly written essay drafts that scratched the surface of a number of difficult narratives from her life. We had our work cut out for us as I coaxed her to move into and explore the stories more fully. In the class I encouraged peer review with lots of coaching, and Leona slowly opened up to her classmates as she did to me. Her writing started to grow in expression and emotion.

It was mid-semester by the time we were getting close to her Mairs presentation. Leona walked into my office, braid swinging, a huge smile lighting up her face. “I did it.” I looked up, wondering. “I called her.”

“Called who?” Perhaps I was thinking of her daughters.

“I called Nancy Mairs. In Tucson. Last night. I can’t believe it, but I did it! She talked to me for almost an hour.”

Leona’s brave dialing translated into a new willingness to present to her classmates—she had a story to share. When Leona arrived armed with her biographical information, direct from the author herself, she wore her hair in a shining tumble to her waist, the stunning mane of confidence. She spoke effortlessly, with an air of authority, about the author, her work, and the essay she had chosen for her classmates to read. Her presentation assignment was an unqualified success.

The myriad of challenges that Advanced Expository Writing offered to Leona gave her a measure of support combined with room to grow and—in her case—the impetus to take a giant leap toward the kind of academic success she wanted. As Leona’s teacher, it was my honor to create and hold the space where she could thrive. It is a critical component of teaching, but one I wouldn’t have been able to put into words in quite this way when I was an English professor in my twenties. I’ve learned that holding space for personal growth is a large part of what I do—whether on the page or on the yoga mat. More recently, it’s a phrase I’ve come to use in other scenarios as well—I can hold space for someone afar who is grieving. I can invite a friend to stay in my house and hold space for her to rest, to heal. I can hold space for my children to grow as I witness their accomplishments and failures too. When we carve out parameters and then give each other wiggle room, isn’t it possible we nurture and encourage growth into the next, more amazing iterations of ourselves, our talents, our relationships? Holding space for one another—family member, student, friend, stranger—is the best way I know to live organically and respectfully, to ease tension and stress, to sponsor buoyancy and breadth.IMG_9398

Leona’s story has two postscripts. The first is that several years later, after she had gone on to a four-year school and completed her bachelor’s degree, Leona came to see me to tell me that she had, in fact, retrieved her daughters from their father and had them at home with her full time. When she stopped by my office, she wore her hair loose and her mane sparkled. She was happy. The second postscript came when, shortly before I moved away from New York, I attended a conference where Nancy Mairs was the keynote speaker. After her talk, I introduced myself and was then able to tell her what a difference she had made in accepting a phone call from one troubled, scared young woman. She nodded at the memory, the stage lights illuminating a shiny angelic circle in her hair.

Once every twenty years, February has no full moon. Tonight’s new moon launches the Asian year of the Earth Dog, but it has no full counterpart in the western 2018 calendar. Sometimes called a black moon, this new moon in my imagination moves us a little closer to the coming change of seasons. Keeping the faith that spring will spring, as ever, thank you for you, Rxo

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Natural Phenomena

What is that smell?

In late July, the greater Des Moines community fell in love with a flower, a stinky flower. The unbelievable Titum arum (aka the Corpse Flower) thriving under the tender care of curatorial horticulturist Derek Carwood at the Greater Des Moines Botanical Garden defied expectations and settled in to bloom several years ahead of schedule. En masse people visited, people watched the live feed, people talked all over town about the advent of the bloom’s arrival.

Having watched the live feed with (now) Ninety-Three, having thought I would be out of town during the twenty-four hours or so when the plant was actually in bloom, having woken up one morning to discover that I had the time to zip downtown and see the plant for myself on the very day that it finally burst (okay, unfurled achingly slowly) into bloom, and having the opportunity to smell it for myself, I, too, fell in love. I went to see it twice.

The first visit I dropped Fifteen at Driver’s Ed and went solo. With extended hours, the Botanical Garden was open at seven that morning. By a little after eight, the parking lot was already busy. I bounced in with a crowd stopping through on their way to work, camp, and a hot summer day.

I had seen the flower that morning on the live feed and very beautiful pictures of it on Facebook trumpeting its arrival. As I followed the winding path through gorgeous banana trees and fantastic blooms, like everyone else I had eyes only for the whimsically named Carrion My Wayward Son, Carrie for short. My first glimpse, I confess, was slightly disappointing. Set down below the grade, it looked small and lost in the other foliage—hard to distinguish from the rest of the lush garden. But as the path wound around and we edged closer, I could see that the plant was indeed every bit as remarkable in person as it was on camera, made more so by the undeniable odor.

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Carrie in full & stinky bloom

The plant’s flowering structure looks nothing like the plant, a tree-like stem with small leaves at the top. When it gets ready to bloom, an enormous heavy bulb sends up what’s called the inflorescence, a stem of sorts that spouts flowers revealed for just a short time when the gorgeous outer spathe—green on the outside—finally unfurls revealing its lush purple lining. In the wild, these can be nine feet in diameter. Whatever the size, it’s a stunning and unusual sight; but what everyone was talking about was the smell: “Like raw chicken gone off,” said one lady, nailing it. “Like a mouse died,” said another. I saw children walking in, wrinkling their noses and covering them with their shirt collars before they got close enough to actually smell the thing.

It was not, however, overpowering. In my experience the Corpse Flower earns its stinky reputation, but it’s not horrid. At least under the great glass dome of the botanical center where thousands of plants filter the air, Carrie’s wasn’t a fresh smell, but it was a naturally rotten one. Carpet glue, fresh tar, and garbage trucks in the hot summer sun all smell far worse to me.

My “I saw Titum arum” sticker granted me repeat admission, so when I picked up Fifteen from her class, I asked her if she’d like to see Carrie. “Sure,” she said merrily. “Let’s go see the smelly flower.”

In August the whole nation fell in love with the solar eclipse, making elaborate plans to witness totality in a path that striped the country. Fifteen, Eighteen and I took the day, making our pilgrimage south to find ourselves in Plattsburg, MO, where the eclipse viewing party in the town’s City Park offered free parking on a wet, muddy field. We arrived in time to don our glasses and check in with the sun, watching the curved shadow block progressively more and more of the sun even as the show dipped in and out of the clouds. We ate our snacks and marveled at the size of the gathering, so many people lured out of their Monday routines to experience the lining up of our brightest star directly behind our moon. At totality, the cloud cover was significant and we weren’t treated to the corona or the diamond ring, but we experienced darkness at just past one in the afternoon, darkness that fell from west to east and light that returned along the same unreasoned path.

Witnessing the eclipse, we decided, was an intellectual exercise. We had to keep talking about how it was the sun that looked like a waning then waxing moon. But when darkness fell it was straight-up cool. Our biology knew it wasn’t normal. And we weren’t the only ones. As we navigated the winding side roads home, seeking paths at a remove from the intense traffic, we marveled at how the cows were all lying down, pointed in the direction where the sun had disappeared.

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Darkness an hour past noon.

In September a smell we did not love moved into our garage. It wasn’t Carrie, but it could have been, about as strong and about as dead smelling. At first I thought it was something in the garbage (“broccoli,” opined Fifteen), so I moved the bin outside. But the smell continued, occasionally ebbing, but getting really pronounced when the afternoon sun warmed the garage.

“I’m afraid we have something dead in here,” I said one afternoon as we arrived home and were greeting by a particularly strong waft of rot.

“Ewwww,” said Fifteen, racing inside.

Baking soda in open containers seemed to help. Cooler temps arrived and the smell abated some. Eventually, and fortunately, the smell became significantly less intense—more of an occasional waft than a full-on assault. Only lately did I find her, a small bunny that had for whatever reason crawled between a fold-up table and a stack of flooring to die. There was very little left of her, but cleaning up the remains was unpleasant work. After, I cried in the shower.

I could float some theories but the truth is, I’m not certain why bunny’s death has hit me so hard. Several days post clean-up I’m still oddly searching for what became a not unfamiliar smell in the garage when I arrive home. Bunny is gone, the eclipse is over, Carrie’s fifteen minutes have ended. And with their collective departures, the summer of 2017 is waning. As sad as Bunny’s death makes me feel, the great eclipse escape and Carrie’s bloom made me so happy. As a collection, they are reminders to me that as we walk on this earth, it is vital to be astonished.

The new moon launches at 12:29am CT 9.20.17, and with this post I’m a wee bit closer to being back on track here at overneathitall. Thanks, as ever, for being astonished along the journey with me. Namaste & big love, Rxo

Unca Paul

For this blog there is no question; there are memories …

“It’s hot in here,” Eleven–Twelve-in-Four-Days mentions as we get into the car after an errand on one of the first really warm days in May.

“Yes,” I reply, waiting to turn the key and feeling the heat soak deep into my joints, “isn’t it wonderful?”

“Naoooow,” she draws out and shifts the vowel sounds, “let’s go, Mama, start the car!”

I welcome the heat, but we are off and running as usual, so I rev the engine and turn up the A/C.

I love getting into a sun-baked car, I always have, but never more than after my Uncle Paul stopped by for a visit on his way from a consulting gig in Florida. Uncle Paul, my father’s younger brother, was a doctor and a research scientist specializing in the heating and cooling of our bodies. He literally wrote the book on human calorimeters, the machine by which we can measure how the human body heats and cools and burns energy. He invented a space suit that doesn’t require pressurization and is still undergoing development and applied the technology to cool people living with MS. He conducted research in sleep studies, changing the understanding of how we sleep and why.

The army put Uncle Paul through med school, and after he finished his tour of duty and associated research stints, he and his bride settled in Yellow Springs, OH, where they raised their family and Paul opened his lab, Webb Associates, in 1959. They welcomed me to their home there, putting me up on my many long drives between Iowa and the East Coast, their house just about the half-way point.

In the mid-eighties Uncle Paul closed his lab to travel and work and teach worldwide, and my mother fearlessly picked up the table and chairs from the lab and drove our ancient pickup to my college apartment in Virginia. The chairs didn’t match each other, but they were designed for a work group to sit together for some time, and I hosted many wonderful dinner parties where people gathered around my table and lingered in those chairs.

The warm car information arrived with him after one of his consulting trips. I collected Uncle Paul from the airport, a DC stop-over on his way to the next gig. His tall frame folded neatly into the passenger seat, he told me about the work he had been doing.

An hour north of Tampa, FL, there’s a state park where natural springs feed a pool so deep no one has ever been to the bottom. In the forties, an enterprising mayor submerged a theater six feet below the surface so that dry viewers could watch a live mermaid show. The mermaids would swim through the water reaching out for oxygen hoses, performing their stories for captivated audiences. When my Uncle Paul was called in to consult, this unusual roadside attraction was having a terrible time keeping its mermaids healthy. Four or five shows a day left them bitterly chilled and since performances need performers, the management hoped my uncle could offer them a solution.

He told me about interviewing one of the mermaids who said that the best moment of her day came after her shift when she got to her car that had been parked all day in the hot Florida sun. She would open the door as quickly as she could, hop in, and then slam the door to trap the heat. In the warmth of her car she would begin to reverse the deep-seated chill of working for hours under water.

Paul’s solution for the management was to build the mermaids a between-show hot tub such that the performers could bring their body temperatures back to normal. When I asked him if they would take his advice he shrugged, “I hope so.”

If there is anything I associate with my Uncle Paul, it’s warmth. He was the Uncle who came and took my college self to dinner at the fanciest French restaurant in Maryland, La MIche, complimenting me for dipping my bread in my wine. He was the Uncle who came to Spain during my father’s sabbatical there, and together we celebrated his fiftieth birthday. He was the Uncle who found me in the very back row of the chapel at my grandmother’s funeral and brought me to the front with the rest of the family I had never met. He was the Uncle who could belt out a patter song from Gilbert and Sullivan in a beautiful voice he honed all the way to the end of his life.

When I was very little, before I understood even a bit of the radical, intellectual mind of my Uncle, whom I called Unca, I used to sit on his lap and examine the moles and skin tags he had on his forehead. He never admonished me or even gently lifted me down; instead, he issued a kind of low chuckle that made his whole body shake. Sometime later he would have those blemishes removed, and while it might truly have improved his appearance not to mention eased a health risk for a man who spent several hours outdoors gardening and playing tennis each summer day, I missed them immensely.

Unca Paul Now, under the full June moon, I miss
Uncle Paul. I don’t know if he ever aspired
to go to the moon himself, but he certainly
intended for his space suit to make
traveling the universe easier. Each time I
saw him on earth, his warmth and big spirit
made my life easier, better. I am grateful to
have had him in this world.

 In loving memory, Rxo

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