Tuesday, December 27, 2011

The Spirit of Birds

When I entered the small living room of my host on the Solstice day, my eyes were drawn immediately to the Christmas tree, flocked in white and covered in birds: clear glass birds, traditional ornament birds, felted birds, birds made of bells and pinecones.  The tree was magical, and it drew me once again to a story I have been trying to write for months, well years really: a story of birds on a Christmas tree.

My auntie, long deceased, gave bird ornaments.  She believed that birds should hang on Christmas trees. Every year she bought a new bird to hang on the tree in her home, and gave it to her son, her only child, to fill him with the magic of birds.

After Auntie died I picked my cousin up at the airport to spend the holiday with our family, his first Christmas without his mother.  He told me sadly that he would miss getting a bird from his mother.  At her death, I hadn’t thought of this detail, as I am sure he hadn’t until this season came around.  I asked him what he did with all the birds from past Christmases.  “Gone,” he said.  “She sold them in a garage sale when I was in college.”

I remember the sale.  Auntie was tired of moving, tired of schlepping her things from apartment to apartment, tired of fighting with her only son, and tired of the pain that comes with divorce. She sold it all: childhood toys, jewelry, family antiques, clothing, and Christmas decorations.

For many years now, I have been reliving that garage sale.  Wishing I had the presence of mind to stop it or to at least stop the sale of those birds.  I wished I could have bought them and presented them to my cousin in some grand gesture of family love and loyalty.  I even pictured myself going door to door on the street where Auntie lived asking people if they had bought any bird ornaments at a garage sale, oh so many years ago.  Every year at about this time I can picture the event: bird ornaments being lifted out of a dusty card board box as they were sold one by one on a hot July day while my cousin waited tables in a far away town, trying to save enough money to buy books for college, unaware that they were disappearing.

The story has a happy ending, I told my host, whose tree I stood there and admired.  A few years later my cousin married a woman who gives him a bird ornament every year for Christmas. He has 10 now. 

Legend says that birds are the carriers of spirit: taking the soul with them as they fly high above treetops or perch on branches to sing their song, and so I bask in the glow of my hosts bird filled Christmas tree in the waning light of this solstice day.  All those years I had pictured the fateful garage sale when really this special bird filled tree is what I should have been dreaming about. I finally understand what Auntie always knew. At last, I am comforted by birds. 

Amy C for the PGM

Monday, December 19, 2011

The Light Behind the Window

A long time ago, I used to love night-walking the streets of the New England town where I lived.  These were wandering years, 20-something, learning-to-pay-the-bills-years.  Drafty apartment, year-long lease years, when most of what I owned fit in the back of a blue Toyota station wagon.   I’d been living away from the comfy mid-western home I’d grown up in and was struggling to figure out what home meant to me.  I didn’t know it then, but in retrospect, I’m certain I roamed the dim lamp-lit streets of that Connecticut river valley town in search of a life that felt like what could be mine at a time I simply had no idea where I was headed.  This searching impulse overrode much of the common sense of the time that warned young women against walking alone in darkness anywhere. 

 Victorian house after house beckoned from the sidewalk.  I’d peer into warmly lit interiors for country farmhouse tables, shabby chic arm chairs, upright pianos, and the humans who played them.  Occasionally, I’d see a family in animated dinner conversation, an old couple at rest in the blue tv screen light, or a teenager–just a few years younger than I was at the time, but still so young, illuminated by a reading light, encircled in the hug of what I presumed to be her favorite chair in a wood-paneled nook.  I imagined her solidly planted.  At the same time, I granted she could be yearning for escape just as I had been not many years before.

 I didn’t own a tv, so those night time walks were my entertainment, my mediation, as well as good exercise.  At the time, I worked long days helping people live more independent lives after years lived in state institutions. I spent a good deal of the daylight hours in places most people would consider dingy, sometimes dangerous, if not catastrophically depressing. As the “light seeker” I suppose I was, I looked for what was wonderful-in human imperfection and in the complex world people who’d lived most of their lives shut away from were learning to negotiate. Then, under cover of darkness, I walked nights trying to sort out the murkiness inside of me:  who was I and what mattered enough to me to support a light I sought to manifest in the world?  I took unapologetic comfort in what I saw illuminated in the darkness: laughing faces around a table, a cello in a corner, a comfy chair and a good book to read—simple pleasures that came to mean much more to me as I lived in the world and provided an antidote to many grey days.   

To this day, I carry the exquisite tug of the ways light and dark play with and serve one another.  Even all these years later I continue to enjoy walking in darkness.  This, for me, feels enveloping and protected. I am forever drawn to the light behind the windows of strangers.

The winter solstice is nearly upon us.  The long nights will be getting shorter and the light will return.  I’d like to celebrate the complexity, the paradox, the dance of light and dark in our lives and in this world.  Each is necessary to bring clarity to the other.  Enjoy the season.  I bring you tidings of comfort and joy!

BLR for the Poplar Grove Muse

Monday, December 12, 2011


The holidays are a time of journeys for many of us. Fortunately, I only have a two hour journey to reach my dad and step mom’s house. I have been blessed with another chance to spend Christmas Eve with them in their cozy home that has the true spirit of Christmas in it every day of the year. My son is on duty this Christmas, so I will journey to my life-long friend Sharon’s house on Christmas Day and spend the day with her and her family. I love her family and I am grateful to be a part of that family. There will be lots of food and laughter. It’s a day I treasure.
As my thoughts turn to journeys, I think of our WWfaC winter retreat at St. Mary of the Woods in January. I love the coziness that wintry canvas provides, a warm place to reflect and write with no worldly distractions.
The journey that is really on my mind is the journey WWfaC is taking to the Isle of Iona in May 2012. We are holding a writing retreat on that amazing island off the west coast of Scotland, but it is more than just an opportunity to write in a foreign country. For me, it is a journey that eases my soul. Beth Lodge-Rigal has asked those of us who are attending to begin a journal about this trip, so this is my beginning of that process.  We will travel by planes, trains, ferries and coaches.  I have made this journey many times and each time I experience an internal change as I gaze out the windows of these various conveyances and watch the changing landscape and light. The metamorphosis is beginning.
As soon as I settle on the train for the three hour journey from Glasgow to Oban I can feel my muscles begin to release the internal stresses of every day life. There is happy chatter on the train as it begins it assent into the highlands.  When I step off the train in Oban, the sea air clears my head as I breathe in its freshness. And the sounds and sights of this Victorian seaport envelope me and my transformation toward peacefulness is nearly complete. This country is a place where I’m utterly at home and content.
When I board the huge ferry to the Isle of Mull on the next leg of my journey, I climb to the top deck, weather permitting, and let the salty wind blow the last of the cobwebs from my heart and spirit. The gulls' cries as they follow the ferry welcome me and my fellow travelers.
By the time my feet touch the ground in Craignure on the Isle of Mull, my step is lighter and I practically bounce to the waiting coach to take that beautiful journey across Mull and one last ferry ride to that little gem of Iona in the glittering bay. I smile. I’m home. I’m home.

Rebekah for the Poplar Grove Muse

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Light in Darkness

It is better to light a candle than to curse the darkness. Chinese Proverb

As the days darken down, I find myself in a transitional space. I have lived almost my entire life in northern regions, where a first hint of winter enters on the wind while fall is still in full swing, and darkness bleeds into daylight well before anyone is ready to face the inevitable reduction in exposure to the sun.

For me, this transition to a dimmed existence is deeply familiar, yet tinged with familiar comforts. My emergence into this bleak, wintry world is simultaneously colored by glimpses of extraordinary luminescence, made visible in contrast to darkness: the stark illumination of an icy moon and the miraculous, mirrored radiance from fields of snow; the warm glow of simple, brown-bag luminaria on a  dark path; the reflected glimmer of a Christmas tree in beloved ornaments; flickering candlelight highlighting family faces at my dinner table.

I grew up in a relatively small town, in a relatively simpler time, and experienced the freedoms (as well as the limitations) that existence offered.  One freedom was a less vigilant attitude about the movements of young girls in the waning hours of daylight. I remember walking home from a friend’s house or school in darkness, feeling covered by darkness in an empowering way, captivated by my own breath visible in the night, buoyed by the ambient brightness of snow blanketing roofs and yards, animated by cold and the brisk walking pace it encouraged.

As I age, the cold seems colder (although Bloomington is the most southerly home I have ever had), and the darkness often seems too dark, an inconvenience at best and a serious threat to harmony and mental health on the worst days.

This year, I’m making a winter resolution, to recall the feelings of aliveness and comfort that early dark and cold can spark, and to create light and warmth wherever and whenever I can for myself and those around me. I’m lighting the Christmas tree as long as possible, and this morning, I put fresh candles in the kitchen candleholders. I’m offering mugs of cocoa daily to my girls, topped with airy clouds of whipped cream, and planning frequent  evening baking.

May you surround yourself and yours with warmth and light to last into the now-unimaginable heat of summer.

Mary for the Poplar Grove Muse

Monday, November 28, 2011

The Beaver, the Lie and the Dentist's Office

The Beaver, the Lie and the Dentist’s Office

As she noticed people starting to glance their way, Nan hissed, “Would you please keep your voice down?  I can’t believe you are so upset about this, it’s not like I did it on purpose.”  Ted, ignoring her request, shrugged his shoulders and thrust his hands out palms up, asking sarcastically, “So, that makes it okay, you didn’t do it on purpose?”   
Nan and her husband Ted had arrived at their dentist, Dr. Trimble’s office for their six-month checkups.   She had arrived just a few minutes after Ted and had slipped into her seat next to him. The large waiting room was full of people and as she began to explain what had happened, more and more of them flicked covert glances their way.

She was stunned to see Ted’s familiar face morph from its usual open and friendly contours to a warped red glowering face with bulging eyes.  Through clinched teeth Ted ground out, “Are you blind? Did you not see it behind you when you backed out? It’s been setting there for two months, how could you not remember it was there?” His voice was incredulous as he said, “You know how long I worked on that beaver, how much it means to me. How could you be so careless?  How bad is it?”
At these words the people in the waiting room, who had valiantly tried to disregard Nan and Ted’s conversation, began to titter and glance at each other with compressed grins. 

Nan, in a state of shock, could do no more than stare at him open mouthed and speechless.  Ted, usually the calmest and quietest of people, had never in their ten years of marriage spoken to her with such venom.

When she finally found her voice she said, “Ted, Honey, please calm down, it’s just cracked a little and the head is missing, but other than that it’s fine. I’m so, so sorry, really. It was an accident, really!” Ted, finally realizing people were listening and commenting, began taking deep calming breaths to regain his composure.  He couldn’t believe Boris--he had always secretly thought of the beaver as Boris--was gone.  He had loved that beaver.
Three months ago Ted’s college football team, the Clark University Beavers, had won the Gladiola bowl, beating their arch rivals the Dover University Jackals by a decisive 35-0 victory. The last time they had beaten the Jackals had been twenty years ago.  To commemorate the momentous occasion Ted had constructed, in his garage, his homage to the Beavers.  With a zealot’s fervor Ted had constructed a seven-foot-tall paper Mache beaver.  Its broad flat paddle of a tail and its ample haunches served to steady the towering, snarling rodent.  It was posed rearing, its mighty front paws raking the air and its grizzled muzzle gaped wide.  Between its enormous incisors it held a flailing jackal desperately trying to free itself.  Ted dotingly painted the beaver in realistic shades of brown and black and of course added a bright Clark University orange “C” in the center of its massive chest. It had been a labor of love for Ted and as nicely done as a seven-foot-tall beaver can be done. With bursting pride Ted had placed the enormous beaver at the end of their driveway where it had set until today.  

Nan, feeling guilty, made one last attempt to explain what had happened. “I am sorry Ted!” but even as Nan reaffirmed this she knew it wasn’t true.  She had deliberately backed into the brown monstrosity, not once but twice.  She had hated that beaver from the moment she had seen its beady little eyes.  Her hatred had only increased when she drove home from work one day to find her driveway full of people.  Ted was proudly standing next to the thing; arm wrapped around its wide butt as people with cameras and camera phones snapped pictures of the crazy man and his giant beaver.

 It was then she knew that something had to be done.  The beaver had to go, but how?  She had thought of hiring someone to steal it away in the night. Then she remembered what her Mother had always told her,” simple is always best”.   She would run over the beaver as she was leaving the house today. It would be an accident; he couldn’t be upset if it had been an accident, could he? She now knew the answer to that question.  Yes, he could.

So they sat waiting, not speaking, trying to ignore the glances and hushed whispers of their fellow dental waiters. Each of them deep in thought, remembering the seven-foot-tall paper Mache beaver with a jackal clamped in its teeth who was secretly known as Boris. 

Diana for the Poplar Grove Muse 

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Three Thanksgiving Haiku


Thanksgiving dinner
Missing ones not in their places
Turkey of secondary importance

In woods filled with nut droppings
Wild turkeys look like little old  men
Happy to survive another holiday

Giblets yearly bow
Loud pause hushes all before grace
The white food awaits


Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Poetry Corner

Some poetry treats for this gloomy November day.

Becoming Separate

I've become someone you used to love,
You've become someone I thought I knew.
I've become a relief from obligation,
You've become an ache I can't find relief from.
I've become the one who can't just be your friend,
You've become not a friend at all.
I've become the one you have hurt and can no longer face,
You've become the one I won't let hurt me anymore.
I've become the one who won't accept the secret part of you,
You've become the one I used to believe in.
I've become a reminder of the man you tried to be,
You've become a reminder to be true to myself.
--Amy L.

Saying Goodbye to the Downtown P.O.

I had no reason to trust in this frumpy
building , its turquoise-tinted windows broken,
speckled linoleum smelling of Lysol,
most-wanted flyers scotch-taped to the walls.
But I did, offering up envelopes
and brown paper packages with the hope
of a newlywed or novice, releasing
my cards into the crocodile maw
of the mail bin, that yawning metal hole
that never vowed to be faithful, yet
still carried every check and love
note to its destination, undamaged.

The post office closed today, and I admit
I cried sending last letters in this place
where life never let me down.
--Lauren B

Some more poetry for the Post Office

When the Post Office was a Happy Place

Back then, when mailmen walked their routes
Leather bags slung over their shoulders
Cans of mace tucked safely at their hips
Mail contained letters and postcards from lovers and grandmas

Leather bags slung over their shoulders
Cream colored envelopes with black handwriting
Mail contained letters and postcards from lovers and grandmas
Pictures of gondolas in Venice and brown bears in Yellowstone

Cream colored envelopes with black handwriting
Gave way to No money down; only %6 APR financing
Pictures of gondolas in Vienna and brown bears in Yellowstone
Became fake sweepstakes entries with million dollar first prizes

No money down; only %6 APR financing
I once was a child traveling with that mailbag
Hoarding the fake sweepstakes entries with million dollar first prizes
Waiting for riches in letters arriving by post

I once was a child traveling with that mailbag
Understanding that hope often came in envelopes
Waiting for riches in letters arriving by post
The most anticipated light of day was the shadow of the mailman on the porch

Understanding that hope often came in envelopes
I had a secret crush on the man who lugged this mailbag up and down my street
The most anticipated light of day was his shadow
Bringing my letters from a long ago best friend moved to Boston

I had a secret crush on the man who lugged this mailbag up and down my street
Bringing my admission to the college that would take me finally far from home
Bringing my letters from a long ago best friend moved to Boston
Or a card and note from my grandmother with a $5 bill

Bringing my admission to the college that would take me finally far from home
Back then, when mailmen walked their routes
Cans of mace tucked safely at their hips
Bringing a card and note from my grandmother with a $5 bill.

--Amy C

Monday, November 7, 2011

Mary and James

She moves more slowly now than ever.  Think weebles wobble but they don’t fall down.  She’s short and round.  One leg appears several inches shorter than the other and the extreme limp is actually the result of many years of hip degeneration, a couple of operations, and failed physical therapy to alter destructive patterns of movement that go back to her childhood.  Her soft tongue protrudes with the concentration it takes for her to stay on her feet.  She looks down to see where her feet will land but somehow, out of the corner of her eye, she’s also aware of the need to get across the traffic lane.  So she speeds up.  In so doing she tilts and wobbles at ever more extreme angles.

He seems to glide across the parking lot as if on a slow conveyor belt.  He carries his slim frame like a torch, but there’s a small stoop to his shoulder and his left arm bends close to his chest, his weak fingers curl near his heart.  His prominent smile and squint behind thick glasses tells us what he told us earlier.  He’s just really happy to be alive.  They do not touch as they walk; each make their way as best they can. But they are definitely together. 

Lots of people stare.  They stop traffic as they navigate the parking lot and I think they should have held on to the shopping cart, or at least she should have, since it worked as a kind of walker for her in the store.  After many months of our not seeing one another, I’m alarmed by how unsteady she seems on her feet these days.  I do not hover.  I walk at my own pace and trust they'll make it through this gauntlet on their own terms.

“That was fun, Sweetie,” he says in a gorgeous baritone radio voice I keep thinking he could have used as an announcer had his circumstances been different in life.  She says “Oh yeah Honey, we should do this more often,” and they hug and slide in to the back seat of my Toyota Highlander. 

My sister, Kate and I have just taken our youngest sister, Mary, and her boyfriend, James to lunch and to Walmart.   This “sister day” was a day Mary had been advocating for for many months. The four hour drive and my busy schedule have prevented me from visiting Mary in her own apartment, sadly, for over two years. While I see her regularly at family gatherings, this is different. 

Today I think the distance and my life are no excuse.  We’re aging. Time is passing.   This sister, who, in my mind, will always be a sweet girl with odd ways in need of my protection, now has grey streaks in her thinning hair, and seems on track for a wheelchair if her body doesn’t miraculously straighten out.  Still, she navigates without me day in day out. She works with James 5 days a week but they never see one another except at break times.  So Saturday Lunch and shopping.  Meeting James.  Mary's wished for this more than anything for a long time and it's taken me too long to make it happen.  While there's plenty to worry about on my sister's behalf,  James is not one of those things.  In fact, he's a beacon and their tenderness for one another gives me pause to think all is well in the world for the moment.

But five hours together is enough for her, as I suspected it would be.  By late afternoon we have accomplished all her sister goals for the day. We visited at her place, fetched James, ate a meal out on the town, did some shopping.  She exchanged her faulty Discman, purchased new headphones, some beloved “office supplies”: pens and spiral ring notebooks.  She got to snuggle and laugh with James in the back seat as James told me his story and wished aloud for a place of his own like Mary has.  When we dropped him off at his group home, they hugged but did not kiss.  “Love you James,” Mary said.   “Love you too Mary,” said James.

I got to see Mary in the world with the man she loves.  She helped him cut his sandwich at lunch and was by his side to sort out his financial transaction at the Walmart check-out counter.  “He’s good to me,” Mary says.  “She looks out for me, Beth,” James says.  

When we leave her, Mary hugs Kate and me each quickly but completely, totally ready for us to clear out so she can have her alone time.  She has house chores to do and a schedule to keep.   I know this includes listening to music on her new Discman and writing her version of the day down in her notebook. 

BLR for the Poplar Grove Muse  11-7-11

Monday, October 31, 2011


This piece is based on a conversation I had with David Clemson who was co-facilitating a retreat I attended on Iona in 2009. As I think of my return to Iona in 2012, I thought it might be appropriate to share Changeling at this time. The bench in front of the Arygll Hotel is where this conversation took

Someone changed me. Forever. In a way so profound I feel as though my DNA has been altered or a chromosome has mutated. I know how to handle hurt. I can kick disappointment in the ass.  I know what to do with passive-aggressive behavior aimed like a gun at me while the aimer wants me to guess if it’s loaded. It’s always loaded. I’ve learned how to disarm those manipulators.  I’ve overcome my fear of abandonment. I know how to grieve and move on with comforting memories held in my heart. I can set boundaries and keep toxic people out of my life.

But it appears as though I have never learned how to accept a sincere compliment, a compliment praising something that is at the core of who I am, My Writing. When someone says, “I like your hair, earrings, glasses, fruit salad or purse,” I can easily reply, "Thank you," and move on with my life. But when someone who has no agenda, who only knows me through my writing, who doesn't love me, who is a teacher and an accomplished poet gives me, in all sincerity, a compliment beyond anything I've ever heard before, it's hard to absorb. My first reaction was to say “Yeah, right," and giggle nervously. Then this person says, “I’m not kidding. You are the best writer who has come through this course in the eleven years that I’ve been teaching it.” When I first arrived at this retreat in Scotland in 2009, I had felt way out of my league, just as I did on my first retreat with Women Writing for a Change. The creativity and the honesty were almost overwhelming, but at the same time inspired me to reach higher. So maybe because I'm sitting outside the Argyll Hotel on Iona and because the sun is shining for the first time in ten days, I start to glow. After a brief stint of denial while telling myself it only sounded important because it was said in an English accent, I'm back to glowing. 

So what has really happened here? What's happened here is the bar has been raised.  It doesn’t matter if what this person said is even close to being true. What matters is that it was said in truth and I feel a pressure to live up to that belief in me. Not because I don’t want to   disappoint another, but in order to not disappoint myself. And do what I truly know I am capable of as a writer. Dammit. This means I need to turn the TV off, quit being distracted by shiny objects, stop talking about writing and write. Just write. 

Rebekah for Poplar Grove Muse

Monday, October 24, 2011

The Book Club Refugee Finds Shelter

I have had an essay in progress for some years now, with the working title “Book Club Refugee.” It begins to recount the amazing number of book clubs I have attended, at least briefly, since leaving full-time employment in 1996 and moving to serial small university towns with my growing family.
I do hope I’ll finish the essay eventually. Some of the memories are just painful—the play group from hell that morphed into the book group from hell where the alpha women allowed 15 minutes max of touching on the book before launching into vicious gossip; the university women’s book club that picked a whole year’s slate by a committee of long-time members (who wouldn’t allow newer members to speak); several groups of lovely, earnest, intimate women where I just couldn’t break in.
But some of the memories are priceless treasures. The group I found just before I moved to Bloomington looked to be an excellent fit, with a mix of serious readers and hip professors who genuinely wanted to discuss the chosen selections. The second evening I attended, just as I learned I would be moving, we discussed a fabulous book in a secluded backyard hot tub with glasses of excellent chardonnay and candles balanced on the surrounding ledges, as huge, airy snowflakes drifted down around us in a mild New England evening.
I also attended unbelievably rich, public “Author Events” at the Odyssey Bookshop in South Hadley, MA, a second-generation family-owned bookstore just across Route 116 from Mount Holyoke College; it remains a reader’s paradise, with two floors of well-selected books, cards, and bibliophile paraphernalia, and a full slate of monthly author and reader events. There I, along with 11 other fortunate and avid readers who signed up, got to discuss their books with such authors as Alice McDermott, Ruth Ozeki, Jane Smiley, and others. (I coined the name “Book Club Refugees” for the “club” of two, myself and my dear friend Ellen, so that we could attend an evening event limited to book clubs only.) In those intimate conversations with authors, I learned so much about the assumptions I bring to a text, and how little those assumptions sometimes have to do with the writing decisions made by a contemporary author, among other things.
Here in Bloomington, I am a devoted member of the WWF(a)C Book Club that meets third Thursdays over tea and optional sack lunch at the Poplar Grove Schoolhouse. I cannot say enough about this ambitious, articulate, and thoughtful group of readers. We are all serious, but not humorless, about our reading, and discussion of the selections is always primary. A group of some 10 regulars, most with some connection to the WWF(a)C program, we are led by a wise and dedicated facilitator who usually reads the books at least twice and never fails to challenge us with thought-provoking questions and considerations. In recent months, we have chosen a set of three books that all bear on African American history: James McBride’s haunting “Song Yet Sung,” a tale of escaped slaves in pre-Civil War Maryland, Jon Clinch’s gorgeous and grisly imagining of Huckleberry Finn’s Pap “Finn,” and next month, Isabel Wilkerson’s “The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration.” We are all looking forward to hearing James McBride speak in Bloomington as a guest of the Friends of the Monroe County Library on November 12.
Each of us has our own history of reading, alone, with friends and partners, as well as in groups, and surely each of us has our own experiences of the pleasures and perils of shared reading with others. Share some of yours! Or come share ours with us!
Mary for the Poplar Grove Muse

Monday, October 17, 2011

Making Soup

When I decided to write about making soup, I Googled one word. SOUP. I was astounded by the amount of information available on this subject. The varieties alone were staggering and the historical references copious. I found that this humble food has warmly and steadfastly accompanied man and womankind’s march through time. Soup in all of its guises, broth, pottage, bisque, gumbo, chowder, consomm√©, stew, porridge and even gruel has found its place in the story of the human race and it’s survival.

Picture early woman, kneeling by her cook fire dropping heated rocks into a stone bowl to bring the water to a boil, carefully adding the ingredients for the cattail, tuber and mammoth stew. Techniques improved through the ages but the fact remains, all of our ancestors used the simple method of cooking grains, vegetables and meats in liquid to make----SOUP! By utilizing the ingredients found in their regions each culture added a unique adaptation, but soup making has been around for as long as watertight containers.

Soup has been used to heal the sick, comfort the old and nourish the young. It can be prepared hot or cold, thick or thin. Soup can be the first course or served up as the entire meal, as simple as consommé or as complex as bisque. Both kings and beggars have inspired it and it is appreciated by everyone.

I come from a long line of soup makers. I recall the rich goodness of my Grandmother’s chicken and dumplings and the hearty brightness of my Mom’s vegetable soup. I grew up eating my sister’s chili and I still judge all other chilies by its measure. I remember my Dad introducing us to the oddly named but deliciously exotic matzo ball soup. To not make and eat soup would never occur to me. Therefore, it surprises me when people tell me they never make soup. I think some people believe making soup is akin to practicing alchemy, that there is a wizard locked in a tower room somewhere, jealously guarding the “soup secrets.” If there is, I’ve never been introduced to him and there is not a secret soup maker handshake, as far as I know. Soup making is not mysterious, it’s just soup.

For me, it is truly a freeform and creative way of cooking. When I make soup, I regard recipes as suggestions. They serve to give me a basic list of ingredients. They recommend flavors and textures that will enhance one another. They instruct in techniques and procedures. All the rest is gleefully and freely open to my interpretation of what that soup will be. The myriad ways to combine the meats, beans, vegetables, grains, pastas, fruits and spices is at my disposal. Only the supplies in my pantry and my own imagination limit the choice. I anticipate the layering of flavors, each ingredient releasing its essence to merge with the whole, creating a new taste. There is satisfaction in striking the perfect savory or spicy note and when the rich soupy aroma envelops the house it is ambrosia.

Vegetable soup, one of the first I can remember making is still one of my favorites. It was nothing complicated, beef, tomatoes, carrots and potatoes, maybe some celery, the vegetables of my Mom’s soup. My first attempt at making chicken noodle soup created a pallid, bashful version. Today my soups are more daring, more intense and like me more mature. Over the years my taste and sense of adventure has expanded and I relish experimenting with new ingredients and techniques. The vegetable soup I made thirty-five years ago would not be recognized as the steamy concoction I give that name to today and that too, is the beauty of soup. The endless combinations, the forgivingness of accuracy and the adaptability of soup are the things that make it so appealing.

Don’t be afraid to dive into the soup pot. Making soup is a joyful, liberating and warm expression of your own creativity that can be enthusiastically shared with your family and friends.

Diana for the Poplar Grove Muse

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

WWfaC Writers in Print

Every once in a while it is nice to take a look around and applaud the women and men of our circles who have published written work. Although this list is by no means all inclusive, we are excited when we see the name of someone we know in print. Often the poems and stories that make it into real magazines and chapbooks are part of the circles in which we all participate.

I love knowing that the poems I read in a circle last month or the story I discussed with a writer, are now part of the public eye. Being part of the great ebb and flow of the written word is satisfying in so many ways.

Last summer, perennial WWfaC writer and co-editor of Women with Wings, Lauren Bryant published her first chapbook of poetry. Now Comes the Petitioner arrived in my mailbox in the full heat of the summer. I pulled up a chair, got my glass of cabernet, and enjoyed discovering and sometimes rediscovering some fine poems. You can order it straight from the publisher at finishing line press or of course on Amazon.

This past month, Kim Evans, facilitator in the Young Women's program, and long time WWfaC writer had a piece published in the anthology, The Moment I knew: Reflections from Women on Life's Defining Moments. Kim's essay, What I Gave to the Fire, is a beautifully rendered account of grieving and loss. This book is available from Amazon or from Sugati Publications.

Stephanie Lemmons Wilson longtime WWfaC writer and original blogger for the PGM, who moved to the West Coast last year, recently had an essay about friendship published in A Tea Reader: Living Life One Cup at a Time, edited by Katrina Avila Munichiello. Steph's essay entitled A Teacup of Friends celebrates the friendships she has made over a cup of tea. I look forward to receiving my copy of the book very soon. It is officially in the bookstores on October 10th. You can find it on Amazon or at a tea shop near you.

Shane Haggard a sampler and workshop participant who some of you may know from his featured blog Ramblings of a Caffeinated Acupuncturist added an essay about quilts to Crazy-Quilted Memories, his brother's recent book about quilting. The essay called A Story of Creative Inspiration from the Imagination of My Brother lovingly introduces this beautiful book on quilt making.

Last but not least, my own short story, Tulip Trestle, will be published in December in Bloom Magazine. I was excited to win third prize in their first fiction contest. Pick up a free copy somewhere around Bloomington in December.

Women Writing for (a) Change celebrates all people who chose to write and share their stories whether through publication, or simply read aloud at a read-around, or shared quietly among friends in a small group. Please post a note below if you have recently published something and would like our readers to know about it.

Amy C for the Poplar Grove Muse

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Elaine Halloween

Elaine remembered the fall of her second grade. Late on Halloween a knock sounded on her parents’ side door. After nightfall only her Father answered the phone or the door. Men did that for protection and defense. This was many generations ago, when men stayed home at night and most wives stayed home during the day. Let’s say 1955.

An older neighbor dressed like a witch, a pointed black hat atop her head, with warts painted on her face and green lipstick on her lips, cackled.

“Look kids, it’s witchy Miss Thomas from next door,” her Dad said as he opened the door wide.

Miss Thomas thrust a liquor jigger toward her lean Army dad saying, “Tricks or Booze, you choose. I have jars of all sorts to drain it into.”

Elaine and her brothers were sorting the bags of their candy treats into a massive pile in the living room to start bartering with one another. Elaine could always get rid of a Clark bar for a Milky Way or trade the moldy apple from next door for licorice twists. Brother Matt was especially naive in distinguishing good chocolate-y tastes from bright packaging.

“You’re joking, right Miss T?” her Dad muttered under his breath.

“Heck, no, check it out, Harry,” as she opened her bag to reveal glass mason jars labeled with words like GIN and RUM taped on their sides.

“I’ll get a nice supply going tonight. Everyone gives me something. What do you have on hand, I’m not particular,” she giggled. The children turned back to their candy negotiations.

There was much parental muttering that night, but other than ” I told you she drinks!” coming from her Mother, and ”She’s harmless!” coming from her Dad, none of it made much sense to Elaine, who was utterly bored and on her own pre-bed sugar high.

Many decades later, as two older ladies now,Elaine’s mother spoke kindly about the December that she had to call an ambulance for Miss Thomas.

“She had called late, real late at night, 11:30 maybe or midnight. Way past polite calling hours. We had had a snow storm and our street hadn’t been plowed in days. So poor Miss T hadn’t made a run to the liquor store for a while. She was climbing the walls. DT’s, we called them then. She was seeing monkeys on the ceiling and they were scaring her to death. Chewing her toes and fingers, she kept telling your Dad.”

“I guess that Halloween treat bag was long gone,” was all Elaine thought to add.

Carole for the Poplar Grove Muse

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

If You Saw Me (homage to Gerald Stern)

If you saw me riding a paint pony, Tonto, around a cool, dimly lit arena on a hot Chicago summer day, my short, 6-year-old legs barely reaching down past the saddle skirt, cantering for the very first time,

You would see a smile fill my face with all my heart’s joy as my body relaxed into that rocking motion and my mind thrilled to the speed.

If you saw me riding a dark bay horse, Charlie Brown, in an outdoor arena in the far northwoods of Minnesota with my fellow campers,

You would hear me laughing as the horse dropped out from under me in the space of one stride. You would see me climb off him just before he rolled in the sandy track, and watch, gleefully amazed at this display of personality.

If you saw me, age 15, galloping bareback cross-country on a blue-eyed albino, Silver Leaf, flying over stacks of hay bales, my hands entwined in that white mane,

You would know I felt in my whole body the power of those long limbs, those broad muscles, as he sailed through the air, and you would understand all my blissful dreams of flying to be reality.

If you saw me on a delicate bay thoroughbred mare, Valhalla, jumping with one perfect spring over poles stacked four feet high, going straight up and straight down in such harmony of motion, ease of momentum, grace of landing,

You would understand what I sought then as a teenager, and now – perfect unity with another living creature, achieved through delicacy of feel and abandonment of thought.

If you saw me out of control, clinging to my thoroughbred Spiffy’s black mane, wind whipping tears from my eyes, as he tore across the rocky Texas hill country until his urge to run was finally spent,

You would see me rise above caution, move through fear, and reach the place of trust.

If you saw me swimming bareback in the Carmel River with Windy, broad backed and solid bay Arabian mare,

You would see her repeatedly, playfully strike out from the shore, swim a large loop while my body streamed out across her back half floating, half pulled by her power through the cold water, and emerge again onto the bank dripping, shaking herself in the California sun.

If you saw me astride Kabir, white Arab glowing under the full moon as he stepped lightly through misty Indiana fields, or cantering in knee deep snow,

You would know the magic of horses’ gifts to me, and you would realize the depths of my gratitude.

Amy L for the PGM

Monday, September 19, 2011


Stories about the tenth anniversary of the attacks on the United States of September 11, 2001 have been prominent in the news. Everyone has been reflecting on where they were that day and how these horrors affected them and their loved ones. Even if we didn’t know anyone who died that day, we were still devastated as a nation. I can remember exactly where I was and who told me about the attacks on our country, just as when President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in 1963 when I was a senior in high school, I can remember exactly where I was when I heard that news. It was another devastating day for country. Casey was 28 years old when our country was attacked on 9/11 and we watched the news that night together, sitting in front of the TV in shock and hearing the stories of the sacrifices of the firefighters. I’m not sure how much that affected his decision to become a firefighter, but I imagine it had its influence on his ultimate choice to change professions. But this is not about our country’s tragedies. This is about my son, a firefighter/EMT.

The 9/11 anniversary coverage contained numerous features about firefighters and those were the stories I paid the most attention to. As I watched programs about these amazing men and women, I had a slow realization that there is a common trait among firefighters that is immediately recognizable. Even though each one is an individual with different physical attributes, ethnicities and genders, there is a certain look they all possess. It’s in their eyes and in their calm demeanor. To me, it is instantly recognizable. My son has that look.

He has been a full-time firefighter since 2007.He was 35 and just made it in under the wire for the cut off age of 36. He had worked in the family business since graduating from high school, running heavy equipment. It was a job that paid well, but that was about it. It was just a job. He told me when he was taking his training that he wanted to go home at the end of the day feeling that he had made a difference. And he’s certainly doing that now. I’m so proud of him.

He has always been a daredevil, fearless. When he was around 6-7 years old, there was a TV show he watched called Emergency! about Los Angeles county firefighters and EMTs. He loved that show. We bought him a record that played certain episodes of the show. He would go in his room and shut the door and play it over and over again. Maybe on some level he knew then what he wanted to do with his life. I’m so happy for him, that he has found the thing he loves to do in life. And that it gives him the time to do the things that he enjoys, that feed his creative spirit. He rebuilds muscle cars, restores history. He’s one of the most patient people I know and that serves him well in the tedious task of restoring a car from the wheels up, piece by piece.

He certainly has that firefighter aura about him. To me it says, “I’m here and everything is going to be okay.” He is a good person to have around when things get tough. He’s calm, reassuring and supportive, just the right formula to put people at ease when they are frightened or hurting, or both.

He’s an old soul, and we have been around many times together. It’s comforting to know that. That has helped me to let him go and be the person he needs to be in this world. And what a person he is! I believe that parents should lay the groundwork to put their child on solid footing to inhabit this world and then get out of their way and let them Become. I’ve always been able to say that I am proud of him. He has an inner fortitude that has been present since he was a child and had to face some tough physical and emotional challenges from an electrical burn. I have received the great gift of being able to say that I admire Casey for the person he has become. I admire and respect him. I am blessed to be his mother.

Rebekah for the Poplar Grove Muse

Thursday, September 15, 2011

9/11 All Over Again

We each remember the day so clearly, the perfect blue sky for those of us nearby in the Northeast, all crispness and clarity, the very best of fall in New England. We all remember in literally excruciating detail what we were doing, how we heard, the endless loops of destruction playing out over and over on our televisions, the emergency calls and commentary and analysis, rhetoric and remembrances, and throughout, the astonished collective grieving.

Ten years have passed, both quickly and painfully slowly. Two wars have multiplied and misdirected death and destruction in ways we could not, but should have, imagined. International solidarity has been transmuted into a complex soup of contradictory and self-justifying impulses.

People magazine’s cover profiles 9-year-olds born after the devastation of their fathers’ unexpected deaths, who will never know them. Every publication has manufactured coverage, some lesson or lecture or occasion for taking stock and counting blessings. Localities across the nation have scrambled to create memorials befitting the losses and the learnings of a decade, no doubt with varying degrees of success, but all with the intention to wrest something noble from the wreckage.

For those who suffered unimaginable losses on that day (and in the years since, in ways related or unrelated to 9/11), the evocation of grief is necessary, but necessarily painful. For those whose griefs are newer, the anniversary raises them afresh.

In the stunned aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, I promised myself to do everything I could to make my own days matter, to honor those who wouldn’t have that chance. The past weeks have been a time of taking stock, and renewing that promise to myself.

Mary for the Poplar Grove Muse

Monday, September 5, 2011


The Leaving

It is finally moving day and August has gifted us with a gloriously cool morning. The Fates and fortune that took us to Ohio twenty-seven years ago are now taking us back home, to Indiana.

The last fifteen of those twenty-seven years have been lived here, in this house. Built among an acre of spruce and pines, it was once our dream home, but now our dreams have changed. Now our hearts tell us we need to return to our hometown and the comforting circle of family and friends there.

Soon the last box will be stowed and this day will pass but for now the memories run deep and they roll through my mind in ceaseless vignettes. The days, the seasons, the years slipping past in the quick/slow tempo of recollection, the day is bittersweet.

The crew of movers is a friendly noisy group, experienced in handing not only the furniture but anxious homeowners as well. They chat as they move through the house assessing, wrapping and stacking our possessions.

The benches that Jay refinished when we first moved to Ohio are cocooned in layers of blankets, upended and carted off. Rocky, the jokester of the moving crew, points out that the big dresser I have had since I was twenty should never be moved because of its weight. It is the same comment we hear every time it is moved and that makes me smile. The elaborately scrolled wooden secretary, handed down from Jay’s mother is admired as they discuss the best way to protect its glass front. The bright yellow, numbered stickers placed on every box, crate and piece of furniture is that item’s ticket to board the truck to Indiana.

Retreating from the rush I find a seat on the screened in porch and John, the lead mover, seems to understand that I am having a difficult day and tells me he will leave the table and chair on the porch until the last. Knowing that I need my little spot of refuge until they have finished. How nice it is to sit here, where I have sat so many times before, reading, writing, and watching the birds.

More quickly than I can imagine each stickered box, each piece of furniture finds its way into the cavernous maw of the truck. All of our possessions fitting together inside like a giant 3-D jigsaw puzzle. Every trip they make in and out of the house depletes the rooms until we are left standing in the large empty space that was our family room. Making sure nothing remains, we gather even these last memories and walk out the door.

At the closing, excitement is bursting from the young couple buying our house but we are stuck in this moment of transition, not in either place. We still have the three and a half hour drive to Indy to make tonight, so we get in the cars to head west. It is a familiar trip, one taken many times over the years, yet this one feels different. As I drive, I think about the bonds that tie us to the place we are leaving and those we are traveling toward. Life changes and we are changing with it. We look forward to being home.

As our cars pull into my sister’s driveway, family surrounds us and I know that this moving day is finally over, this first step in the journey of returning. There will be other difficult parts I know, but perhaps this was the hardest, the leaving.

Diana for Poplar Grove Muse

Monday, August 29, 2011


Another day of 90 degrees after a season of extreme and unrelenting summer heat. Everyone everywhere every day can say the same of the weather this crazy year. “If this is global warming, we’re in for a world of hurt,” Elaine, our heroine, was heard to say. Initially, she thought having a milder winter sounded perfect, but even these cold seasons were becoming unpredictable. As the winter weather turned a bit warmer with peculiar cold fronts hitting bizarre warm fronts, more snow storms happened then ever before. "Things never occur how you expect them to," Elaine mused to herself. This was a new weather pattern and no one had yet invented a divining rod for the future.

But now it's almost September. A middling month. A tickling of summer heat with a hint of fall’s crisp reprieve. A favorite month, seldom extreme, typically filled with promises of hopeful changes and healthier habits. For Elaine, the survivor of many varied academic years, she was on high alert in this month of new beginnings. September was spanking new and spotlessly clean, blank slate to start everyone on a level playing field. All worthy of an A grade until it is shown they aren't. A completely new year of turning from say, a junior to a senior, just by the passage of time and a few tests thrown in. “ Those were the best days," she thought. Elaine then recalled her even earlier school days when her mother bought each child a new notebook and an entirely perfect box of never used crayons. Flesh was her favorite color but she was always confused why it was pinkish when her best friend’s was toffee colored.

Some of her old school friends even shopped for all new clothes each year. Elaine's needs were simpler: the Catholic school only required a short sleeve pastel shirt in summer and a long sleeve white one with a dark sweater every winter. The same horrid plaid skirt both seasons. "Wonder what they wear now?" Elaine pondered, probably an updated combo like her son wore ten years ago, white collared shirts and beige long pants.

The start of her marriage a jillion years ago was in September. Her parent's wedding over sixty-three years ago, was just two days after her own in that month. Elaine thought, "Freudian, perhaps?" She couldn’t even remember what the weather had been. No rain is all she could recall. She had been more fretful over misplacing the hoop for her dress. It was recycled and the seventies, enough said.

This is the hopeful month of ‘start overs .‘ Although septa in Latin meant seven, this ninth month of the year is pregnant with possibilities. At least this is how she saw September. They even sold those 18-month calendars that began with September. "Who ever really buys those?" she muttered.

TV shows begin a new season lineup in the early fall. "If one more promotion about crossing over teases my interest, I will strangle the cat," Elaine told her neighbor. But the lineup of Oscar worthy movies looked promising. Movies about Hoover and a prequel to the Terminator and a remake of an old Nazi spy film with Helen Mirren were all showcased.

Often in September, a new cause caught Elaine’s interest. This year it was a local horse rescue league. Last year it was the tornado victims and a stint as a Red Cross disaster volunteer. Her interests were as timely as the newest catastrophe.

On a personal note, Elaine was even trying to improve her skin routine. Slathering serums and lotions and potions on her skin every morning and night. “Hope in a bottle”, she sang as she tried to remember the steps of application. She was a bit concerned the special super-duper SPF moisturizer was actually eating away at the jar lid.

Elaine always started some new exercise campaign every September. Yoga or Pilates or walking—something physical. She hated to sweat so that ate into her exertion level a bit. Her mother had told her young ladies never perspire. Zumba about killed her. "I miss my dead dog," she sighed. The dog walks turned her into a daily street walker, rain or shine. Elaine knew all about the newest neighbors from these walks—the next door woman's knee replacement, whose dog/child/parent was ill or what new well was dug or fence laid. Minutes pass by in conversation over a leash rather than a prolonged sit down with teacups and a house vacuumed quickly. Elaine liked people and was social but "I get bored easily, you can say it all in about 30 minutes," she would tell even her dearest of friends.

Elaine’s love of September lasted longer than just one month and she knew in her flawed heart that was a good thing, new crayons or not. “Not like February”, she grumbled.

Carole for The Poplar Grove Muse