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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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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

Danger Zone

What’s going on?

Three times a week I drive a few miles north of my yoga studio to the financial branch of John Deere to teach class. There in the bamboo-floored group exercise room administrative assistants unroll their mats next to vice presidents and mid-level managers to stretch and strengthen, invert and relax. I walk in smiling one to three minutes before class begins and walk out, mat bag over my shoulder, within moments of the closing salute. I am Susie Sunshine Yoga Teacher, she who lives in a house lightly scented with lavender and patchouli, who never has a care in the world.

It is one of the ironies of what I do, but it’s not an act. My first yoga teacher trainer made it clear, “You’ve got three breaths to leave your sh!t behind and be in the room, with your students, centered and ready.” These are words I teach by.

Nonetheless, if I’m teaching fifteen hours this week and sleeping thirty-five or forty, there are still 113 hours during which I’m living, and some days are worse than others.

Recently, on a cool, spring Thursday, I had one of those days. There was nothing spectacularly wrong, but pretty much nothing was right, either. The requirements of the day included getting out the door by 5:30 am for an early class, heading to an overdue annual appointment with the gynecologist, racing back to the studio for a noon private session, cleaning the studio thoroughly, and picking up my daughter, Eleven, from school to deliver her to dance. Each week when we get home from dance there are precisely fifteen minutes to figure out dinner before I must light out for the studio again for my evening class.

To say I was blue that Thursday is putting it mildly. I couldn’t have a conversation about what kind of tea I wanted at the bagel shop without getting glassy eyed. The kind manager asked, “Long morning already?”

I just nodded because I didn’t want the tears to drip.

“Well,” he said, “here’s breakfast. Maybe it’ll start to improve now.”

Since it was still before the gynecologist and before I was late to meet my private student and before cleaning the studio toilets and scrubbing scuff marks off of the linoleum floor and before someone asked for yet another day off from teaching and before fifteen new email messages each with their own urgency arrived in my inbox and before there were three new voicemails requiring my attention, breakfast didn’t do the trick. Not that really any of those items was so terrible, but I was terrible. I was in an overwhelmed inconsolable place, wanting nothing more than to crawl into bed and pull the covers over my head.

It happens, even to Susie Sunshine Yoga Teacher. And while some days I can just move through the miasma and come out smiling, that day little was budging my weepy blue mood.

Eleven parked at dance I took myself to Starbucks, my insane sometimes more than daily habit of last year curtailed to once or twice a week and only when I’m staying at the café. It was writing time. Whether or not it makes me feel better, writing is my favorite thing to do. I pulled up my book as I’ve determined this is the year something will become of it and started to read. That’s when the commotion started.

The opening salvo was a phone call from Eleven and Knocking-on-Fifteen’s father, an air traffic manager at Des Moines Tower. He was working a police plane flying low over 86th and Hickman, looking for an escaped convict. It was only a few minutes after we hung up that I saw the plane, right over my head, and the text messages began to fly. More information flowed from the tower, where they were receiving regular updates from the pilot. Details arrived from a friend, who was monitoring the news and had received an automated alert phone call at work. The convict, the story went, had escaped transport near Menards on Hickman Road, about two miles from my house. He had stolen a van (there was a report of a carjacking that turned out to be incorrect) and driven east, last seen in the vicinity of Hickman and 73rd, right about where my yoga studio is located.

It was time to go. I packed up to make sure I was in the ballet parking lot a few minutes early, collected Eleven safely, stopped for noodles for dinner, and deposited nourishment with a very happy home crew at the cusp of their three-day Easter weekend. I called Knocking-on-Fifteen aside:

“I need you to go around and make sure all the doors are locked tight. I’m sorry to do this to you, but there’s an escaped convict on the loose and if I didn’t say something to you I’d be worried the whole time I’m at class. Please don’t alarm Eighty-Nine and Eleven.”

“Okay,” he sprang to action. It’s reassuring to leave a second-degree black belt in charge.

Driving on Hickman I could see that the events were very real and very recent. Blocking one lane were a wrecked car on a flatbed in front of a dented stationwagen and a police car, lights on, just where the convict apparently escaped and fled through traffic. I passed four more law enforcement cars as I drove three miles east on Hickman Road, and then I arrived at my studio driveway.

It is no exaggeration to say that fifteen law enforcement vehicles of various shapes and sizes were parked higgledy piggledy blocking the entrance to my

Behind the studio, the creek we call a ha-ha (a straight British moat) and a glimpse at the culvert the police were peering into.

Behind the studio, the creek we call a ha-ha (a straight British moat) and a glimpse at the culvert the police were peering into.

parking lot and filling the space in front of the building next door. One of my students was pulled right up into the mix, asking the officer how she was going to drive through to her yoga class. He was telling her she couldn’t go back to the studio because they hadn’t checked the building yet. I drove around the back way, across the rattily bridge, and parked in my usual spot.

For the next fifteen minutes, students trailed in, some wondering what was going on, while others already knew and added information to the story. We learned that the van had been discovered in the motel parking lot across the street. Men wearing bulletproof vests and leading search dogs were looking all around. The plane buzzed overhead. An all-terrain vehicle was dispatched into the creek to peer into the causeway that channels the water under Hickman. Text messages continued to pour into my phone.

What could we do? We practiced yoga.

Well, to be fair, my students practiced yoga. I practiced something else, vigilance. As I walked softly, circumnavigating the room at a pace that was a study in meandering, I was peering out the windows while I spoke in the voice of Tamra Twilight, Susie Sunshine’s alter ego. Whereas Susie is upbeat and delighted you’re arriving or departing the studio, Tamra is soothing, a respite from the chaotic world. I watched with alarm as the men with dogs and flak jackets walked up and down outside the studio and a crowd gathered on the bridge over the ravine in the back. I watched with increasing calm as the men put the dogs away, conferred in groups, then climbed in their clutter of cars and drove away, lights on but no sirens.

My formative years in big cities taught me how to be protective of myself. That early training translated, in a

The proximity of the motel across the street to the yoga studio.

The proximity of the motel across the street to the yoga studio.

way that surprises me, when I became a mother bear. Today I’m ever-watchful, perhaps overprotective, of my cubs, my home, the studio. The vigilance means that on a night like that Thursday in April, I took the very best care of everyone I could, right down to making sure that each of my students had someone to walk to her car with and no one got into her car without peering in first. It means that when I got home and told Eighty-Nine and Eleven what had happened, I did so carefully and folded Eleven into my arms to sleep that night. It means that I spent some time soothing Knocking-on-Fifteen, who let me know he had been jumpy the entire time I’d been away. And it means that because I had something else to do, something that felt meaningful and important, the blues chased away.

Twenty-four hours after the drama started, the escapee in question was captured some distance from the studio and my house. Less than twenty-four hours from now, my sweet boy turns Fifteen. A new moon and a solar eclipse seem auspicious starts to launch his new year. Happy early Birthday dearest son. Thanks to you, dear reader, as always, Rxo

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