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