Wednesday, June 30, 2010


Summer is here. Saturday night, a “Full Strawberry Moon,” according to the Farmer’s Almanac: "This name was universal to every Algonquin tribe. In Europe they called it the Rose Moon." Earlier in the week, the Summer Solstice, always a favorite in my household.

The heat and humidity are overpowering. Reluctantly, we retreat into our air-conditioned house, with the thermostat set to a guilty 82 °F. most of the time. We had a cold winter here, for south central Indiana, with six blessed “snow days” extending the school year to a palatable June 1 release. Now, we are having an early, hot summer. The contrasts are stark. (Thoughts of global warming are inescapable, and the BP disaster continues to pump unprecedented quantities of spilled oil into the Gulf of Mexico.)

Every year, I approach summer thinking it will be a blessed contrast to the school year, relaxed, giving rise to a completely different frame of mind for a good 6 weeks. This habitual misapprehension is, in part, a ruse to distract myself from the accrued losses of departing students, friends, and hard-won routine at the end of each academic year. I have always, from a young age, found myself reluctant to move beyond the comfort I have achieved (not always easily), with teachers, classmates, living situations, by the end of the spring semester. 
Having lived my whole life in academic communities (to my utter surprise), I still have not come to terms with this sense of loss, and the corresponding anxiety that accompanies the peeling off each spring of certain friends and acquaintances into other communities, other destinies, distinctly “other” paths of life.

I remember my childhood summers as endless, in a mostly positive way, allowing for a gradual accretion of sameness and satiation of my own direction of my own activities, preparing me to once again subordinate myself to the tutelage of teachers, music instructors, and peers. I miss this sense of vacillation between structure and non-structure. The divisions seem sadly blurred in modern life.

So far, this summer has brought extreme fragmentation, between the various pursuits of my 10- and 14-year-old daughters, the international travel of my husband to various conferences, visits to our aging parents (from whom we have strayed geographically about as far as possible within the continent), and my attempts to hold a work life together.

As I drove my youngest to yet another violin engagement the other day, she commented on how, with the trees all in full leaf, it is almost impossible to imagine how bare and stark they were not long ago. The contrasts are hard to process, yet one has almost to work to not acknowledge them. Indeed.
In celebration of this celestial, if not always as in-the-flesh-as-one-would-like turning of the seasons, I offer companion poems on Winter and Summer Solstice. To help us appreciate the miraculous contrast.

Summer Solstice
My girls, twisted in ropes of sheets,
Toss and turn, long
Illuminating thoughts
That usually turn easily
Toward sleep.
They can’t sleep, can’t sleep, cannotsleep.

Nor can the grownups sleep.
Near 3, when I doze at last,
Light streams in again, from the kitchen,
Where my husband, alone, in briefs,
Spoons slow ice cream from the carton.
I retreat to a far corner of the house,
Unconscious for a desperate few hours.

I remember nights
In a white frame house on Center Avenue.
Hearing from my low bed below the windows,
Later, luckier children than I,
Calling out, the clatter of a coffee can
Kicked to end the game,
Jangling buzz of cicadas,
The neighbors’ dog eagerly barking,
My sister’s restless thoughts
From the next bed,
The seductive tinkle of an ice cream bell
One street over.

Let me store up this sleeplessness,
Allow this suffusion of luminescence,
Of hot energy to fill me,
Fuel me, into days and nights
Of oncoming darkness.

These last days draw down
Toward the solstice.
Sun at its lowest slant
Deep in the horizon, the light,
Thin and pale, concentrates
Itself into a few bare hours,
Creates what intensity it can
From scant essentials.

I would do the same. In this season
Of every excess,
We ward off darkness
With gathering and celebration,
As our ancestors
Scattered across the northern landscapes
Hoarded light and company at the table.

Let me, too, cling to essentials:
Breath, life, love.
Let me treasure my treasures:
Faithful partner, children, dog,
That walk in bleak light,
Stripped trees reaching toward
The waning glow,
A warm cup cradled in chill hands.
Soon enough, the turn will come, the days
Incrementally lengthen out to contain
An abundance of brightness and soft fruits,
The easy dilution of slow hours
By darkness outlasted.

Mary, for the Poplar Grove Muse

Monday, June 21, 2010

What Comforts Us

Recently I’ve been thinking about comfort and what that means to me. Amy mentioned in her last blog post that Steph has moved to Portland; to say she will be missed in our writing community and in our lives is the very definition of understatement. Steph had a difficult decision to make and leaving Bloomington was hard for her so I wanted to do something to help her transition. I sent her this quote in an email to be opened when she arrived: “Whenever I go on a trip, I think about all the homes I’ve had and I remember how little has changed about what comforts me." Brian Andreas Mostly True Collected Stories & Drawings.

After sending the quote to Steph, I began thinking about what brought me comfort. This led me to question the definition of comfort, so I looked it up. Thank you Merriam-Webster Online!

Main Entry: 1 com·fort
Pronunciation: \ˈkəm(p)-fərt\
Function: transitive verb
Etymology: Middle English, from Anglo-French cunforter, comforter, from Late Latin confortare to strengthen greatly, from Latin com- + fortis strong
Date: 13th century

1 : to give strength and hope to : CHEER 2 : to ease the grief or trouble of : CONSOLE

I realized that the thing that has brought me comfort consistently throughout my life fits both definitions. That thing for me is coffee.

I grew up in a chaotic, shifting environment. The only constant in my life was my maternal grandfather an inveterate coffee drinker. One of my first solid memories is of sitting on his lap at Grandma & Grandpa’s kitchen table. He’s drinking coffee and has made me a cup of my own, mostly milk with a little coffee and a lot of sugar. I remember feeling very grown up having my own cup of coffee. Their kitchen table was small and covered in a red checkered oil cloth. Grandpa used an ivory colored mug, its surface paint crackled like the lines on the back of his neck. I used one of Grandma’s tea cups because it wasn’t too heavy for my tiny hands. Coffee is forever bound to the feelings of safety, hope, strength and ease that I associated with Grandpa. He was a man who always had time for each of his ten grandchildren; a man who somehow knew what each of us needed and made us each secretly feel that we were his favorite. For me, he had patience. He knew that I needed downtime from my household of drama. He would take me to Miller’s Dairy for ice cream and never once tell me to hurry up no matter how long it took me to choose chocolate every time.

When I was twelve, Mother taught me how to make a great pot of coffee in our Pyrex glass stove top percolator. It felt like a rite of passage. I know I was twelve because that was the year Grandpa died. I can close my eyes and still smell the difference between that brewed coffee and Grandpa’s instant Sanka.

I always feel immediately at home when I walk into someone’s house and they offer me a cup of coffee. It feels very congenial. My surrogate mother, Dorothy Young, always had her stainless steel Hamilton Beach percolator going, the coffee inside the glass knob on the lid bubbling away happily. That coffee pot produced its own unique aroma that I remember well also. Her home and her coffee always brought me comfort.
There is a coffee concoction that Grandpa taught me how to make: Coffee Bread. In a shallow bowl you place two slices of buttered bread (in those days it was Wonder Bread and what Grandma called oleo), sprinkle a little sugar on them, then pour about a half mug of milky coffee over it, and eat with a big
spoon. That recipe probably sounds weird to most people, but about twice a year I make Coffee Bread for myself. I sit with it and savor it and am comforted by it. Some times when I make it I wonder what inspired this concoction and I think it was probably a poor man’s dessert for someone who raised four children during the Great Depression.

Rituals are very important in my life and I love the ritual of making the coffee, preparing my own cup with just the right balance of milk and sweetener, and sitting with the cup in both hands, savoring the aroma. It feels very luxurious just to take the time to sit with my coffee. It takes me back to the days when Grandpa had all the time in the world to sit on his front porch swing with a little girl, watching the lightening bugs in the garden and listening to the katydids.

Rebekah for the Poplar Grove Muse

Monday, June 14, 2010

Who's Your Gaga?

Dennis Hopper’s death a couple of weeks ago got me thinking about Lady Gaga. Not that the 20-something pop diva and the 70-something film star are similar—I can’t picture the steely-eyed Hopper wearing latex and hula hoops, nor can I imagine the hyper-styled Gaga straddling a Harley (her outfits wouldn’t allow it). No, the two luminaries are not alike … or are they?

In 1969, when Easy Rider hit the theaters, I was a young teenager. Hopper played a chopper-riding, drug-smuggling hippie named Billy. My slightly older brother was a bona fide hippie at the time, with the long hair and fringed jackets to prove it, but I was still a wannabe, making good grades and saving my babysitting money while I secretly yearned for everything my brother and Dennis Hopper stood for. All that hell-raising and rebellion and youthful defiance. All that edginess and ballsy courage. All that independence. All that freakin’ freedom on the open road riding those ridiculously long motorcycles.

I’m sure my parents hated Dennis Hopper for the very same reasons that I glorified him—instead of defiance, they saw contempt; instead of courage, rudeness; instead of independence, self-indulgence.

I know, because all these years later, as the parent of two teenage girls, that’s how I see Lady Gaga.

If you’ve been living under the proverbial rock recently, you may have missed Gaga’s music video sensations. These 8 or 9-minute productions are hardly the music videos of yore. They are epic statements, replete with… well, replete, that’s all I can say. I hate them, the videos, that is. Poker Face, Bad Romance, Telephone, and the newest blockbuster Alejandro (replete with machine-gun boobs)—to me, they are dark, garbled messages about bad sex, violence, intentionally inflicted pain and abuse.

But my daughters think these videos are “amazing.” Where I see degradation, they see defiance. Where I see humiliation, they see guts. Where I see pornography, they see power. Where I see gratuitous grotesqueness, they see independence and courage and, yes, all that freakin’ freedom to sing and dance very nearly naked on the World Wide Web.

I can’t like Lady Gaga. Actually, I do like her music, and when the songs come on the radio (or the kids’ iPods), I hum along. But much to my daughters’ dismay, I can’ t like her twisted, death-obsessed, violence-mongering videos, just as I am sure my parents never liked the drugs and violence and rock-n-roll of Easy Rider.

I have tried to express my opinion to my kids, but they long ago shut out my rants about the Gaga videos’ “bad messages.” Dennis Hopper’s death has helped though—I am now trying to hold on to the realization that 30 or 40 years from now, my own children will be shaking their heads over the excess of who knows what kind of musical genre. They, too, will face their Gaga.

In one of Dennis Hopper’s obits, I read a comment Hopper made about his days of directing and starring in films such as Easy Rider. In those days, he told the New York Times in 2002, “I thought the crazier you behaved, the better artist you would be.”

Maybe Lady Gaga will grow up like Dennis Hopper. And maybe I’ll grow up too, enough at least to shut up and let my kids love something I hate, for the sake of feeling that rush of freedom we all crave.

Meanwhile, rest in peace, Billy.


Sunday, June 6, 2010

A year in the life...

Dear Readers,

It has been not quite a year since we launched The Poplar Grove Muse, but we have had a recent change in our writing team, and we wanted to give readers a quick update, take our blog temperature, so to speak.

When we launched back in August of 2009 our intent was to:

"present a community profile the writing life and the poetics of daily living especially as it pertains to Bloomington, southern Indiana and the WWf(a)C community."

We had a team of 4 regular writers and invited anyone who was part of our community to participate by joining the team, guest blogging, or offering writing suggestions. We will even take poetry submissions.

We managed to post at least once a week, and we heard from a number of you, either on the blog, on facebook or in person about various posts and ideas. We feel the blog has been a positive addition to our writing community and would like to continue to urge fellow women writing for (a) change community members to contact us about ideas or post responses to our blog or to facebook. We welcome the conversation.

We would especially like to urge you to become a part of the team. We will make room for your regular contribution OR if you would prefer, we can put you in a pool of guest bloggers and you would be asked to contribute on the occaision that a regular blogger cannot post. We really value the diversity of writing and ideas in our community. Please email to volunteer to write or suggest ideas.

We would like to pause here to say farewell to regular Poplar Grove Muse blogger and fellow writer Steph who has moved to Portland, Oregon. You can continue to follow her adventures on her regular blog. Thanks for the gift of your words, and we'll look forward to hearing about WWf(a)C happenings in Portland.

Rebekah has kindly agreed to step in and begin regular blogging for us. She posted just last week on the PGM, and you can also catch her at her wee blog about Scotland, a place that has captured her heart.

So let me say again, this blog is for our community, and we would like you to take part. It is meant to be an ongoing gift of words and writing and is open to anyone who is familiar with the ethos of presuming good will.

We look forward to hearing from you!

Amy, for the PGM