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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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2016’s Big Finish

Why do you call your son Seventeen?

When John Glenn died earlier this month I felt really sad—another light on this planet extinguished in a year that saw the departure of so many points of light: Prince, Glenn Ifill, Gene Wilder, Leonard Cohen, Glenn Frey, Alan Rickman, David Bowe, Natalie Cole, Harper Lee, James Alan McPherson, Gary Marshall, Janet Reno, Sharon Jones. There are still more celebrities, of course, and dear ones much closer to home too.

Soft spots for celebrities are as personal as the movies that speak volumes to us or the song that goes onto a perma-this-is-my-story playlist. John Glenn’s departure was more personal to me still—he was a man I was lucky enough to meet on several occasions as my father covered his presidential campaign. Senator Glenn and his wife Annie were gracious and dazzling in person, the authentic embodiment of the way they appeared in media-ready images.

With care but no hesitation, I crafted a status update for Facebook about Senator Glenn’s death. Sharing the obituary a Facebook friend of mine had posted, I added these words: Another amazing hero departs 2016 … I like thinking of you, Senator Glenn—a man I was fortunate enough to meet during the presidential campaign—up among the stars where you belong. Orbit in Peace. A few of my friends responded to my post, adding their own kind words and memories. Our interaction there doesn’t even qualify as a footnote in Glenn’s life, but he clearly made an impact in each of ours, a part of what it can mean to be famous.

For most of us, there’s no formal notification. My father had a student, author John Yount, who quipped that he wanted to open the mail one day to find he’d received a single-line letter: Congratulations! You are now rich and famous. When I ask Google about Mr. Yount, I’m pleased to see his name and his books come right up and pleasantly surprised to note that at 81 he’s alive, presumably retired from an illustrious career as a professor at the University of New Hampshire, where we visited him when I was quite young. Did he arrive at “rich and famous?” Perhaps in certain circles, allows my mother, Ninety-Two, who remembers him. His books were well received critically and, my search reveals, he was heartily praised as an important influence by John Irving, another student of my father’s, another writer who went on to rock the literary world but I remember as underfoot in our house when I was growing up.

I don’t know if I’ve met more famous people than most—rich and famous both evaded my father, but his literary and political activities certainly brought us into contact with more than a few luminaries. It is this fact that I marvel over as I study the Senator Glenn obituaries. With a slight shock I realize that Senator Glenn died on the anniversary of another important celebrity in my life, John Lennon, shot thirty-six years ago when I was living in Tucson with my father. When I went to find him, to tell him the news, my father was visibly moved, shaking his head sadly, “What a world we live in,” he grieved. “What a world.”

Rich and famous must add layers of challenge in today’s age of over-exposure; celebrities live a hyped-up version of the navigation between private and public we each must explore. When I launched OverneathItAll in 2011, it was designed as a challenge to keep me committed to a regular writing task. With plenty of exceptions, I’ve posted somewhere around the full moon and the new moon ever since. Wanting to provide some thin shield of privacy for my family members, I named my children by their ages, just Eight and Eleven at the blog’s debut. Now Fourteen and Seventeen are living larger; with Facebook, Instagram, and Snapchat accounts of their own, they’re learning to shape their own public images even as they have become characters in the online version of my life.

My blog has made me neither rich nor famous, but it has consistently connected me to a loving and lovely readership and it’s kept me living the questions through an awful lot of drama and adjustment and changes and transitions. Just when I think, as I sometimes do, that it’s time to give it up, a far-away friend writes to me about something I’ve posted or a new connection arises making me want to double-down. And, as a result of posting consistently, owning a yoga studio, publishing a novel, and perhaps most of all having an unusual name, I Google well. Because I do try to keep my posts kind and true, to be generous on Facebook, and to stay away from Internet vitriol, I been mindful but unconcerned about the wide world of the Internet.

So imagine my surprise when a recent flurry of renegotiating my financial realities hit a pothole with one company that first underwrote and then dropped (and has since reinstated, thank you kindly) a policy for me because I am an author and a blogger and I live in the “limelight.” Moonlight and sunlight, certainly. The sparkle of my children, absolutely. Limelight? That was news to me.img_7567

Wednesday, 12.21, Sunrise, 7:39am; Sunset, 4:48pm. At 4:45am (CST), the sun started its long wintery journey back to the north. The moon was silvery and full just a few days ago. With my peeps home and snuggling in for the winter holiday, some year-end business projects to attend to, and a little time off from yoga teaching, I’m going to hit the pause button here just until January. I bid you and yours a joyful holiday season and a wonderful New Year! As always, thank you for our journey together. Love, 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.

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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

 

 

Walk On

How are you doing with your training?

When Seventeen was Five-and-a-Half, we moved kit-n-caboodle a thousand miles west, arriving at the front door to our new Iowa home on a below-zero December day, just shy of Christmas. Earlier that fall, I worked with a realtor to find our big box. She asked me for my “hot button” items. I answered, “Living space. I don’t care if we sleep in closets; we’re all home, all the time. It’s cold there. We need room to move around.”

Some thirty-eight houses later, she showed me the brick-front at the top of a short street with an enormous pantry, morning and afternoon sun, a sizeable yard, and oodles of living space. It was, among other things, a “circle house,” not merely situated atop a suburban circle, but inside you could walk around the main floor in a complete circle, a figure eight even, if you were feeling fancy.

One evening as we were still settling in, figuring out the light switches, and dreaming of living room furniture, I was making dinner too slowly for the children. I remembered that when I was little, my mother would send my brother and me outside to run around our house. That house was ringed in wooden decks, so we could go all the way around without touching the ground. But the ground outside our new house was snow and ice covered, so I reasoned little feet could pound around the inside circle of our house without causing too much disturbance. I tore around the first lap with them and then said, “Keep running. Go! Go!” Off went Five-and-a-Half with Two-and-a-Half pell-mell behind him.

“What are you doing?” Their father asked, arriving home.

“We’re running marathon!” They panted past.

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Running boy then …

The next day I got a tape measure and marked off their course. Then I converted 26.2 miles to feet, divided by the indoor track’s running distance, and wrote 1,946 at the top of a blank sheet of paper. “This,” I told Five-and-a-Half, “is how many times you need to run around the house to run a marathon.” For some time after, every night he would run a few laps and record his progress. When the weather got warm and they could run around outside before dinner, the big backyard became a secret land, a place to dig, a world of adventures. The marathon was perhaps half-completed when it was forgotten.

Today Seventeen’s long legs could stride that same circle in no time. Nonetheless, I like the way our house expands and contracts—I can fill it with people for a party or snuggle in with the peeps for family movie night. With Seventeen away at college, I’m very aware that for most days it’s much too big for his sister, Fourteen, his grandmother, Ninety-Two, and me, but as I commenced training to walk a half-marathon, my treadmill in the basement became too confining and I started to roam.

From my front door I can walk a five-mile loop that touches four towns. I can take the bike path east to do errands like dropping the water bill at City Hall or making a deposit at the bank or west to my friend’s house a whole county over. I can loop a variety of little lakes that front the expansive corporate buildings for the countless banks and insurance companies that make their headquarters here. To mix things up I have added destinations like Trader Joe’s, four miles from home, and endless loops around larger lakes to which I have to drive. No matter where or how far I go, I start and end every walk sitting on second stair lacing or unlacing my shoes. Second stair was another feature of that first house I lived in, the place I would be asked to go and sit when I was naughty. Now it’s a seat of nostalgia and a convenient perch near the door.

Three weeks ago I completed my last long training walk, just shy of a half-marathon at 12.5 miles. Since, I’ve been walking a few days a week, between four and seven miles each time. I feel ready for the challenge even as I have started to feel that Sunday’s event is no longer the point. It’s the training, the feeling strong, the finding out what my body can do, and the connection to the world outside my house that feel like they matter. It’s the stick-to-it-iveness that inspires me, dovetailing nicely with stringing together word after word toward my second novel, learning the art of continuous narrative. It’s not the destination but the journey, as clichéd as this trope may be, that has become the point.

Nonetheless Seventeen, who will be home from college, will join me at the starting line on Sunday. He will finally complete the marathon he started when he was a tiny boy. And I will discover just how much I can accomplish when I set my mind to it.

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…and now.

The moon is full on 10.15, and it’s a full moon by which to leave behind anything that no longer serves you. Happy Full Moon—I promise a post-half update early next week. Thanks for cheering us on, Rxo

#RadiantOmYoga

#RadiantOmYoga

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. 

Digital Immortality

Is this what fifty looks like?

April 28, the day before Fifteen changes his name to Sixteen, four of my father’s books, out of print for many years, will become available in electronic editions. The books, The End of My Life, his first novel published in 1947, The Violated (1958), Confessions of a Spent Youth (1960), and Brill Among the Ruins (1970), are a part of my father’s backlist, a literary bequest of ten novels and three works of nonfiction, one coauthored with my brother. They were written without exception by his two index fingers on a series of typewriters large and small. He would eventually adapt from the hard press of a manual to a more responsive electric typewriter; he never comfortably touched a computer.

In fact, my father’s fantasy writing device was a wall-sized keyboard that he could set to take a full-body punch or a light tap, depending on his mood. The room, as he imagined it to me, would contain a collection of costumes, so that he could dress as a ballet dancer one day, twirling from key to key, a boxer the next, punching the keys hard to get them to imprint letters on the page.

In today’s digitalized world, such a typing room is technologically possible. Perhaps one even already exists. It’s ironic that my father, who loved, read, wrote, and lined our houses with books, now has a chance at being discovered by a whole new readership devoted to their e-readers. I don’t know what he might have made of these re-releases, but since I do remember that he liked to stay abreast of changing times, so long as he himself didn’t have to manage the technology, I suspect he would have been pleased.

I know that I am. Working with the professionals at Open Road Media has been a pleasure. On spring break in New York with Twelve, I took her with me to meet with the editor and media relations team at the publishing company. It was a legacy trip, the kind of trip I went on with my father at about her same age. We took the meeting, enjoyed a tour, and left with new impressions of the publishing world. They asked for a suitable photo of my father for marketing purposes; I promised I would see what I could find.

In my all-time favorite picture of my father, his face is close up and his head is ringed by a laurel wreath. The photo, taken at his fiftieth birthday party by Iowa Writing Workshop director Jack Leggett’s wife Lee, shows my father the way I remember him best, eyes twinkling, fascinated by whatever conversation he is enjoying at the moment. I don’t need a color photo to remember how blue those eyes were.

Vance Bourjaily, 9.17.1972

Vance Bourjaily, 9.17.1972

For the occasion of his fiftieth birthday, in 1972 when I was newly seven, he took out an advertisement in the Iowa City Press Citizen and invited everyone reading the ad to come to our farm for the day, bring picnics and celebrate. My parents’ parties and events were legendary and frequent, but I like to think that the fiftieth is one I remember distinctly. The pasture was dotted with picnickers, the pond full of happy splashing people.

When Twelve and I are back from New York, I find the photo and am relieved to discover it isn’t professionally fixed in its frame. I take it in for scanning, another digitalization of my father. It is only when I’m fitting it safely back into its frame that I realize and remark to my mother:

“Dad was fifty in this picture. My age … or at least the age I’m about to be.”

I’m turning fifty in four months. Unlike forty, I find I’m not the least bit concerned by this milestone birthday. I am intent on celebrating it, although perhaps not with a newspaper ad invitation. But gazing at Dad’s image at fifty gives me pause. Do I look as old at fifty as he always seemed to me? Have I accomplished as much as he had by fifty? How much are we alike, and how much do I live my life on my own terms? What are the important lessons of being my father’s daughter?

My father never got his fancy wall-sized keyboard on which he could pound or prance, but in his most productive writing years, he protected his writing time. We all did. Dad had a room of his own where he could and did write nearly every morning. His afternoons were reserved for his students at the university, tennis, farm projects, and the huge garden he planted every summer. Evenings after dinner he would sit, absent-mindedly chewing on this thumb, reading. My father was a writer his whole life. And I never hesitated, when I was growing up, to say if someone asked what my father did: My father was a writer.

I do hesitate when people ask me what I do. It’s complicated, I tell them, or, I own a yoga studio, but I don’t elaborate. It’ll be some time into the conversation, after I’ve also copped to being an editor and a mother, when being a writer might come up. But I stepped into the digital literary world ahead of my father, launching this blog in 2011, engaging in social media, and publishing my own novel, Throwing Like a Girl (available through Smashwords), earlier this year. I think, perhaps for my fiftieth birthday, it would be a gift to both of us to learn to say upfront: I’m a writer, just like my Dad.

Happy new moon on Saturday—wishing you glorious blooms and soft spring evenings. Thanks for walking along on my journey with me, Rxo

By Appointment

What are you “looking forward” to?

I love the word hiatus, not really because of what it means but because of how I learned what it means. The story recalls one of those moments when I felt my own brain expand, like sitting on the dryer at the age of four, watching the indefatigable Arlene Snyder, a Mennonite woman who did housekeeping and childcare for our family, fold sheets hot out of the dryer. “Hot,” she said to me. “H-O-T spells hot.” “Hot,” I repeated, “H-O-T spells hot.” I spent the rest of the day celebrating, “H-O-T spells hot.” I shouted it. I danced it. I napped to it. H-O-T is the first word I ever learned to spell.

I don’t remember subsequently learning to read, but when I could I devoured the TV Guide each week. As I sometimes remind the ever-astonished Twelve and Fifteen, we had no Internet, no cable, no smart phones, no Netflix, no way of recording shows even—we watched them when they came on or we missed them. Television viewing was by appointment, and in our household it was even more so because my brother and I had television viewing allotments of seven hours each per week. That meant reading the schedule for the entire week and circling the shows we wanted to watch, plus negotiating if we chose shows in the same timeslot. It wasn’t long before I started reading the features that filled the front of the glossy book, maybe six inches wide by nine inches tall, on slippery paper with a square binding. There I read about up-and-coming celebrities, new shows, television in other countries, and shows “on hiatus.”

In graduate school I would learn that our vocabulary expands via frontiers. We can grab a list of words we don’t know and force feed them into our memories, but the words we will really learn and learn to use are the words that we have several exposures to and one day realize are familiar. Then when we look them up we’ll have context for them—a landscape with features that are becoming landmarks. With context, we assimilate a word far better and more completely than if we have no associations for the word. When I studied frontier words, I remembered, oh yes, like “hiatus.”

Because I didn’t know, reading the TV Guide at a young age, what it meant for a show to be on hiatus. I probably ignored it the first few times I read it. Eventually I saw the word enough times that I took notice and thought to look it up in the dictionary. This I remember doing. And then I learned that the word meant not canceled, but not on the schedule either. A hiatus is a pause, a gap, a break or an interruption in a series or sequence. In TV land it logically comes when a network likes a show but it isn’t raising revenue. The network isn’t ready to cancel the show altogether, so it goes on hiatus until its future can be figured out.

In the days leading up to my last real post on 12.5.14, I thought about announcing that I was going to take a hiatus from Overneath It All to focus on enjoying the holidays with my family, rebuilding the studio website and posting my novel on Smashwords. At the last minute, happy with my post “The Rhythm of Life,” I thought to myself—it’s not a huge commitment and I’ve got my writing times set for this month, why let it go? I can do all of the above.

Then along came a plot twist. A huge plot twist.

The blog and the website and a lot more went on hiatus when my heart got broken. Smashed, really. Smithereens. All I wanted to do was spend each day curled up in the fetal position hiding under the covers. I haven’t been able to, of course, with holidays to observe, a family to care for, my business to tend, and the myriad of other issues of modern life that require seemingly endless attention. A couple of times I thought writing might help, and I made a few attempts at starting pieces, but nothing stuck. I find the love I have lost impossible to categorize, but it doesn’t do to categorize such things; what I know is I have dissolved in this heartbreak. At the Solstice new moon and the January full, I looked up and my commitment to post fluttered and I dropped my head again. I let go of a lot of the things that I do professionally and for myself, or really I let them be. Writing, in particular writing blog posts, was one of them.

There have been several major plot twists and a sizable speeding ticket since—none of which, to my dismay, included a rekindling of love lost. Nor have I found a magic lantern to rub, releasing a genie to make my hopes and dreams come true nor fill my bank account, a constant worry. I haven’t even been able to go one whole day without crying, often silent tears as I fall asleep, sometimes noisy ones alone in my car. But this morning when I woke up I thought, I know one thing I can do about this. All of this. I know what I teach—that I need to make and keep appointments with myself, with the world. Writing is one appointment that will make me feel better, stronger, more certain of my voice. When I write and when I put my words out there, it helps me put together what I know and lift my head up just a little bit.

What is it I’m looking forward to? My concerned friend asked me yesterday when we got together for lunch. I don’t really know yet. But I do know that I’m not going to get there if I don’t keep the appointments to do the things that nourish me—writing this blog is one of those things. A big one. And while I’m posting today in between the full moon and the new moon, I’m also declaring that I have writing appointments for next week on my calendar, that I will post again by the light of the February 3rd full moon, and that this is the end of the hiatus.

In between Christmas and New Year's, Twelve, Fifteen and I visited the city I love the best in the whole wide world. Here's my attempt at an art shot, taken near sunset at the Lincoln Memorial. Like a sunflower, I do tend to head into the light ... eventually.

In between Christmas and New Year’s, Twelve, Fifteen and I visited the city I love the best in the whole wide world. Here’s my attempt at an art shot, taken near sunset at the Lincoln Memorial. Like a sunflower, I do tend to head into the light … eventually.

A special thank you to readers Barbara P., who let me know that my experiences and my writing about them are something she looks forward to, Mya N., who said simply, “and I love reading your blog,” and Annemarie C., who has challenged me to find the humor she associates with sitting at the island in my kitchen in my written voice. Not to say that this piece has much to laugh about in it, but learning to write funny is on my frontier. Happy New Year to each and every one of you and thank you, Rxo

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