Fall has always been my favorite time of year. I love all of the things written about in poetry and literature: the colors, the air, the frost, the digging out of sweaters and jackets, and the laughing complaints about the temperatures.  The  fall season (and early winter) has lots of great holidays, also: my birthday in September, Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas, Dashain and Dipawali, and sometimes Ramadan, to name a few. I especially like Halloween. I love the costumes that both kids and adults wear.  Two friends of mine who have since left town threw the greatest Halloween parties in Bloomington: some of the costumes over the years include a group that came as an African village , an American Gothic couple, and  the Blues Brothers. I have gone as a constellation (the swan); as Kali the Hindu goddess, and as a Tibetan woman. I miss their parties and the dancing and drumming and general good time that we all had.

These days, though, I have very mixed feelings about October. Exactly nine years ago this week I was diagnosed with breast cancer. Before the final diagnosis, I had had a lot of tests, and joked to my friends that I was going to go to a Halloween party as a skeleton that glowed in the dark because of some of the tests I had had.

October, it turns out, is  National Breast Cancer month, so there’s some irony in being diagnosed with the disease of the month in that very month.  October now grabs my attention: all of my follow-up tests also fall within that month, and fear that has been quieted during most of the rest of the year rises up for about three weeks. The check-ups include a mammogram, an ultrasound, a physical by the oncologist, and blood tests. Any one of these can bring bad news, and the results seem to trickle in while you are waiting over the days. If the news is good, you breathe a little more easily, not ever, ever forgetting what might still be making mischief in your body, but putting it away from most of your waking hours for a time.

Each year, the annual tests have been negative (which, contrary to the meaning of “negative” in other contexts, is actually “positive”). Up until those results come in, though, I can’t bring myself to make any commitments. But the first year, when the diagnosis was positive, I had to cancel a lunch with my best friend because I was too scared by the diagnosis to eat or talk.  I have mentioned magical thinking in my other writings, and believe me, it kicks into full gear in October!

Five years ago, the cancer tests were good too, but instead of that, my cat bit me so badly on the thumb on the side where the lymph nodes were removed during the lumpectomy procedure, that I had to go to the emergency room to have it tended to. That resulted in a 6 week long daily (including weekends) treatment of debrasion, antibiotic shots and antibiotic pills. It ended up taking 6 months to fully heal, and I missed the wedding of the daughter of the friend whose birthday lunch I had had to cancel two years before!  Her birthday is next week, and needless to say, we are waiting until the following week to celebrate, because magical thinking reminds me that I might be tempting the return of the cancer gods if I don’t postpone it until the Thought Magician tells me it’s safe.

Pink has never been my favorite color, and yet now, I have added  it to the repertoire of autumn colors. As a child, I was dressed in pink because my mom followed the fashion rules of the day: pastels for blondes and bright hues for brunettes. My sister got to wear reds and dark blues, I had to wear pink and powder blue…I hate pastels! These days, though, I do wear pink sometimes…I hate cancer more than the color.  I have a pink shirt, some pink scarves, and socks with pink breast cancer ribbons on them. When the SIRA/IMA walk for breast cancer occurs in October, and I wear them all. But the walk also gives rise to mixed feelings for me: It is heart-warming that so many people come out in support, but it is also heart-breaking to see how many of them have had breast cancer.

I always forget that anyone, including men, can develop this terrible disease. I like to think that we are all united in our experience, and those supporters are united with us. But, of course, we are as diverse as any community can be. Last year I was talking with a lady who works at SIRA, whom I didn’t know.  I had told her that my oncologist, whom I had just seen the day before, had mentioned that most people who work at SIRA/IMA had decided to wear pink on that Friday. He said that while people agreed, some of the other cancer specialists had asked why just pink for breast cancer…why not the other cancers, too?  I told this lady that I had told him that maybe we should all wear rainbows. She gave me a disgusted look, said ‘I don’t think so’, and walked away! Only then did I realize that she associated the rainbow with LGBTQ folk and she wanted nothing to do with it…the cancer experience does not unite us after all.

Yet, it does bring us together, in ways we probably would rather not have happened. Just recently, I learned that a friend of mine had joined this not-so-exclusive group…October has not lost its force at all: one more pink to add to the fall colors.

Bev Hartford

for Poplar Grove Muse






I am so weary this election season. This is clearly a tired response to the second presidential debate.–BLR


I reckon the way things are going
we’ll return to the fire,
no more mouths agape in TV glare-

Reckon once the world goes dark
and the waters rise
we’re back to gathering sticks

Reckoning with all we’ve
brought upon ourselves
at the end of the brittle day

I reckon the shadows of men
will fade in a certain light
to join with women in song.

I do.

After long suffering,
bitter dispute and
too much dust consumed

I reckon what rises between
us is a graceful
reckoning of our illusions

No guarantees
in the tally of truths
the settling of scores

But reckon it comes around
to getting up again another
day, wholly broken

Less grieved than
getting on with things
existentially reconciled

Still, alive.  Alight.campfire


Beth Lodge-Rigal

Bring Light

The Autumnal Equinox past, we move into shorter days, the residue of the calendar and solar years. The light draws down, no more basking in the brilliant summer sunlight one can bear unmediated for only so long; we, and our animal companions, are drawn to what subdued light shines into our lives, falling on scuffed floorboards, narrow windowsills, worn couch cushions.

And another darkness is descending, met by, calling out, a surfacing from the deep of fears and frustrations that have lain semi-dormant in unfathomed recesses. Our rhetoric grows harsh and cruel, divisions and misunderstandings erupt in usually civil interactions, we find ourselves defensive, tense, apprehensive, at odds with ourselves and our world.

Yet even, perhaps especially, in these less tangible, more heart-burdening areas of our lives, public and private, we can and must allow ourselves to be drawn toward what light shines into our lives, amplifying it, calling it out in ourselves and in others, holding our hopeful candles up against the seeming dying of the light.

I see it all around me, in the patient, positive gathering of circles in our Schoolhouse to write and to share insights, in the peaceful massing of individual voices and bodies in demonstrations proclaiming that Black Lives Matter and that education, rather than violence, is the answer, in knitting circles and meditation groups, in the feeding and sheltering of the homeless, in interfaith affirmations of solidarity and resettlement of refugees that proceeds in spite of bigoted laws that would prevent the very effort.

Bring the light you want to see in the world.


Mary Peckham for The Poplar Grove Muse

To that I am

(taken from a fastwrite exercise prompt from Telling the Truth-Writing as a Path of Self-Awakening at WWF(a)C)mystery

To her I am danger – to him I am irrelevant.  To her I am the first – to him a sunshine.  To them I am curious-to us I am useful- to he I am a student – to him I am an ass.  To that I am an icon – to them I am a voice.  To he I am a groomer – to them I am a nuisance – to her I am a savior – to her I am a demon.  To it I am a lover- to that I am a wizard.

To the experience-I am an architect – to the olive, I am an eater.  To the Bourbon with two cubes of ice, I am a worshipper of time.  To the sweater I am stuffing-to the road I am kin-to the desert I am a pilgrim-to silence I am a devotee.  To hygiene I am a rebel -to the unborn I am a chosen void -to lineage I am an escapist.  To the city I am a virgin-to the mountains I am a beginner-to Love I am food-To God I am, I am.

To her I am danger – to him I am irrelevant.  To her I am the first – to him a sunshine.  To cigarettes I am a quitter – to them, I am curious.

Allison for the Poplar Grove Muse

finding god…

For me, spirituality is a very practical thing.  My grandfather always wanted me to come to church, and I understand that concern, that desire, that lifestyle.  Church can be a beautiful place full of haunting music, lovely woodwork, a chorus of voices and a sea of smiling faces wishing each other well, a community, a place to find god.  But Grandpa, I wanted to say, I find god at the farmers market in the eyes of the man who raised the animals, slaughtered them humanely, and carried the heavy coolers full of them to the lot where I can purchase them to feed my family.  I find god in the smell of that meat cooking in my kitchen, surrounded by a colorful assortment of fresh vegetables that I also carried home in a green cloth bag from the market where I talked with the tan-faced man who, I noticed, still had dirt under his fingernails as he traded his work for my money.  I find god in the hot panting breath of my dog as she comes in tired and happy from a long grass-eating, tree-sniffing, leash-pulling walk.  I find god in the green eyes of my daughter, constantly questioning, seeking, looking to learn.  I find god in the prickle of my lover’s beard along the back of my neck in the quiet dark, his hand on my hip.  I find god in the fullness of my uterus and breasts during part of each month and in the heavy red flow that arrives with heralded predictability.  I find god in my own two bare feet as they meet the cool earth in spring.  I find god in the space between my in-breath, as I reach up for my first sun salutation, and the out-breath that follows as I fold over to meet my knees.  I find god in the trees and hills of this southern Indiana countryside that I was born in, raised in, that I bike through each day and in the sore muscles that wake me after the first long ride of the season.  I find god in the gurgle of cold water making its way over rocks, in the soft cooing of the dove couple that comes to drink from my bird bath, in the smell of fresh cut grass.  More than once I have found god in the gut-wrenching evacuation of my dinner into the cold, wet porcelain of a toilet bowl in the middle of the night and found god again in the sweet relief of my own perfectly rumpled pillow afterwards.  I have found god in the weathered, worn hands of the man on the street corner holding a cardboard sign and in the warmth of those hands as the bag of organic baby carrots passed from mine to them.  And, I find god in the words of other women’s voices that I hear sitting in circle in a charming old school house.   I find god in the still space inside myself that holds them carefully, with care, listening from the depth of my spirit.  It is this spirit, this god, the one I know is seeking me in this myriad of living ways, that I seek with all that I live and breathe and do.


DRH for The Poplar Grove Muse

Mornings Must Be the Hardest

He almost always stumbled out of their bedroom well before she did, an urgent call to the bathroom propelling him as fast as his dilapidated knees and metal walker could manage.  Then to the coffeepot to push the start button, confident that she had scooped in the coffee and poured in the water before she’d gone to bed.  Sometimes he’d take a quick nap in his recliner in the little TV room adjoining the kitchen before the bell signaled that the coffee was ready.  Sometimes he’d turn on the lamp and read a chapter in his Western.

She’d pass through the door into the TV room and veer right into the bathroom, squinting in the light.  She told us that she’d come out of the bathroom one morning recently, before he’d been rushed to the closest hospital by ambulance, before he’d spent those last five days in the hospital, and he’d said, “Why don’t you come here and give me a kiss, Polly?” And she did.  She’d kissed him smack on the lips before she went to the kitchen to pour her half cup of coffee and to heat his up a little.  She told us: “He must’ve known something was going on, something wasn’t right.  We really didn’t kiss much anymore—you know, we’re old people.” She kind of laughed and sighed as tears filled her eyes.  “I’m glad I kissed him.  What am I going to do without George?”

They’d drink their first cup of coffee, side by side in their matching recliners, reading their library books, or maybe she would read her Bible, or sometimes they’d talk in the hush of the morning about what they were going to do that day: mow the yard, pick tomatoes, go to the Dutch Discount to pick up a few groceries.  Then she would start breakfast—almost always two sausage patties and two eggs for him, and a bowl of cereal for herself; sometimes toast, buttered then browned under the broiler, and a spoonful of her strawberry preserves.

She said the first morning she walked into their little sitting room, after we’d all gone home and she was there by herself, she’d cried and cried because he wasn’t there in his recliner.  The house was too empty, too quiet. And no one had pushed the button on the coffeepot.


Glenda Breeden for The Poplar Grove Muse


Rowing to my Own Shore

stock-photo-19887951-a-small-empty-red-row-boat-docked-in-a-lakeWe learn and teach and as we go

each woman sings~ each woman’s hands are

water wings.  From “Water Women”

by Alla Renee Bozarth

I was pushed out of a very rocky and leaky boat twenty-five years ago. I went against my will, as I had only had this one boat for so many years that I was sure I would never feel at home in a new boat. The problem was, I had never even touched the oars in the old boat. They were never offered and up to that point, I had not dared to take them on my own. I knew how to swim, so I thought maybe I would tread water until a lifesaver floated my way. It took a while for me to realize that I was the lifesaver that I could teach myself to walk on water.

The more I treaded, the stronger I became, and I began to rise up out of the water. I spied a shore with a brand new boat bobbing tantalizingly at the water’s edge.

This is my boat, I said loud and clear to myself and to the whole world. The oars fit my hands perfectly. I painted my boat red, my new power color. Passengers in my new boat were by invitation only. No one stayed if they were toxic. I wasn’t the only one who could be pushed out of a boat.

My boat liked its new sheltering boathouse, but it also liked to travel. We’ve been on many journeys, many adventures, my boat and I.

Sometimes it springs a leak and I often surprise myself when I realize I have gathered just the right tools for the task at hand, and they are always ready.

Rebekah Spivey for the Poplar Grove Muse



  1. Babysitter. My first babysitting gig, aside from helping my mom in the nursery at church from early on, was wataching a newborn across the street in third grade. I was probably really hired as an early warning system for my mom, at home across the street, but I never called her. Throughout high school I babysat an unbelievable number of hours at 50 cents an hour. My regular gigs were mainly with three families: three spoiled preschool daughters of my dad’s racquetball buddy, who underpaid and made it worse by giving the money to the girls to give to me, who then refused to give part of it up; the four kids through the backyard, two older boys who bullied my own brother, and two girls much younger—while I would be getting the littles in bed, the boys would raid the cookie jars and I never knew if I should just let the parents assume I ate a ton of cookies or admit that the boys were not always in my control—to make THIS situation worse, the father would often insist on driving me home around a long block in a dubiously sober condition, when I just wanted to run the 400 yards through our backyards to home; and a family of two sweet boys, and later a little girl, who never had ANYTHING to eat in the house—I sat for every Viking game and a weekly gig I later learned was AA for five long years, got the job when my next-door-neighbor dropped the younger boy off the changing table and broke his arm, but didn’t own up to it. In my junior year, I bought my own $1800 Loree oboe with my earnings. That’s a lot of 50-cent hours.
  2. Substitute Paper Person. The same neighbor who dropped the toddler off the changing table and got me my steadiest babysitting job had a paper route, and would ask me to sub when she went to figure skating competitions out of town. This usually meant a Sunday substitution, which meant heavier papers, more configuring of sections and advertisements, and more unfamiliar delivery addresses, hard to read in the early Minnesota dark by streetlight. Once I learned that I wasn’t getting her full payment for doing the route (which may have been fair due to the horrors of collection my husband describes from his paper route, but didn’t seem so at the time), I was much less inclined to help her out.  I will always be grateful to my wonderful, amazing, always-kind younger brother for helping me out on these mornings, in cheerful, selfless, encouraging spirits.
  3. Toy Factory Line Worker. The summer after my junior year of high school, I applied for jobs all over suburban Minneapolis within the radius I could get to on my beloved red Raleigh Grand Prix. Because my family was moving to Detroit mid-summer, and because I admitted that in applications, all I could get was this miserable factory job at Lakeside Industries. It was a real education. I worked on a line, with almost no bathroom breaks, standing for 8+ hours, snapping open box tops and bottom for Superfection, placing the game into the box at whatever breakneck speed the line was running at. We also made Barrel of Monkeys, Hold the Mustard, Pass the Ketchup. My boss, an alcoholic ex-con, really had it in for me and the only other college-bound high schooler, and made life as uncomfortable as possible, ultimately assigning me to the toy makeup room, where we worked in high heat, our bodies covered in plastic gloves, aprons, hair covers, and booties that melted onto our skin. I became a vegetable for those weeks, couldn’t read, or even watch television in the evenings, couldn’t focus on much of anything. I used to take a slight detour to walk by the woman who had just gotten a pin for working a drill press for 25+ years and gawk.
  4. Bank Data Processing Balance Sheet Checker. I spent the worst summer of my life, after living with friends to finish high school in Minneapolis, in my parents’ new home just north of Detroit. My dad got me a night shift job working in one of the bank data processing centers in his new company, in bombed-out Pontiac, with the wives of men who worked in the auto shops, plus a few unemployable guys who turned out to be drug addicts and thieves. Our job was to scan endless computer printouts of long account balances to find any mistakes and balance the totals. Some of these women were amazing at this surprisingly high-skill task; I was not. I ended up filling in where needed, answering phones (something I’ve never been good at, once accidentally cut off my own father when he called to talk to my boss).  One memorable night a hugely obese co-worker answered the phone to a personal call, and immediately broke into wild wailing and sobbing; she had just had some medical tests, and I assumed a dire cancer diagnosis. In fact, Elvis had died, and half the office packed up and went off to Graceland for the next week.
  5. Work Study Jobs at Northwestern University. My first assignment, as a new music student, was filling in at lunch for the wonderful secretary of the Conductor of Bands. I played in an ensemble under said Conductor, and was scared to death of him, and of displaying ineptitude in managing his office. After I heard him call a couple of classmates on the carpet (literally) for various infractions, seeing their knees trembling above the figured carpet and hearing his stern, subdued voice, all the scarier for being so quiet, I had to get out of there; my unbelievably complicated patchwork of Music “Skills and Ensembles” for a single credit—piano skills, ear training, sight singing, chamber group and large ensemble, legitimated my escape.

My second assignment was in the Music Library, on the second floor of gorgeous, gothic Deering Library, looking out onto Deering Meadow off upper Sheridan Road in Evanston. I fielded patrons’ listening requests, finding the discs they wanted, placing them on a turntable, streaming the music into their study carrel. One night, not long before closing, a skinny student came in, needing to listen to some 15 selections and write up a summary of each for his freshman music theory class.  I was impressed by his ability to make sense of each selection in only a few moments, after which he would ask me to play the next number.  He got through the whole assignment in short order. And then forgot to take his work with him.  I hunted him down the next day and handed off his assignment to him. 13 years later, I married him.
6. Summer Dorm Cleaning at Northwestern University
I had been promised a waitstaff job after sophomore year at a local country club, but when I called back close to my start date, the job had been given to someone else. I managed to find a job cleaning out undergraduate dorms at NU. Most of the middle-aged female staff took the train up from the South Side daily, and I was one of few younger workers. I quickly learned that very little work actually got done, that the expectation among my fellow “workers” was that we would sit around and gab and read discarded magazines, plundering any booty left behind by frazzled students as they departed, leaping up to look busy when a supervisor came around. This was when I learned how much harder and more stressful it is NOT to work than simply to do the task at hand. (And how free stuff can be fun.)
7. The Hut
The Hut was a roach-infested dump of a deli, just down Clark street from my first apartment.  The owner, Burt, was a good guy, if a bit of a shyster.  His “three egg omelets” definitely contained only two, and he made the cook use the old pancake batter until someone complained that the pancakes tasted off.  But he gave jobs to runaway girls down on their luck, and didn’t exploit them.  And he hired me with no waitressing experience, opening my world up to a series of wait staff jobs that eventually took me across the country in railroad dining cars.  I got paid in cash, got to eat a meal during my shift, was largely my own boss, and loved my customers–cabbies and working men and an ever-changing cast of crazies and kooks who liked me for me and appreciated good service. I opened Saturdays and Sundays at 6, and loved coming into the dark diner, turning on the lights, setting out the Bennisons’ pastries and putting on the coffee, filling customers’ cups with coffee and their loneliness with conversation.


Mary Peckham for the Poplar Grove Muse


I am collecting

the gentle buzz of hummingbirds

and big bumble bees resting on fingertips,

dance parties in my living room,

tree swings, heavy rainstorm porch-sitting,

coffee sips well past noon.


Long neighborhood walks

and sweat pools at the base of my spine,

fancy cupcake shop outings,

three pairs of icing stained lips curved into smile.


I am collecting

books, piled high next to my bed,

stories for when I’m awake, again, at 3 AM,

OnBeing podcasts, the one with Naomi Shihab Nye,

words to settle me back to sleep.


Road trips to the prairie, chlorine soaked hair,

lake picnics, light pink shoulders,

the first sip of a cold beer after a long day of work outside,

the piercing, spiky, green, squeaky ball our Annie uses to insist

we must

play now.


I am collecting summer and soon I will collect fall,

moments to keep close, pull back out,

like a poem in a pocket,

for when my heavy heart

needs light.




The Gift of Vulnerability (an excerpt)

fearIt is Wednesday, it is 1am, it is a time a generally sleep through.  It is a time that instills no fear.  Except tonight.  I pick at my skin, I scratch pre-blood sting.  I fall into night visions of half memories, of being subjected to harsh treatment, held down, screaming out under bright lights and cannot identify – is this me or the ancestral fear of surgery…of death.  Are the bright lights approaching angels, me approaching them…or they me?  Are the stories of my life real or perceptions someone else has told me about how they thought, I was?  Is this what anxiety feels like?

Generalized anxiety, panic.  The quiet family disorder everyone has been afraid everyone else will get and then somehow if someone else doesn’t have….everyone feels anxious about.  That cycle.  I pick my skin.  I remember this.

It is Thursday.  I pick my skin.  I read about how healthy levels of anxiety prepare a system for upcoming danger.  Like battle…or surgery (next Tuesday at noon).  I leave my house with the agenda of vacuuming anything.

It is Thursday, it is 1 am.  I organize my words around last wishes.  When and if I die here are all the good poems-the almost finished memoir-the instructions for cremating my body and throwing the ashes into the high desert.

“No one in this family handles anesthesia well,” mom says.

This is not the story I can afford to believe.

I know my fears:

1.Guns and the sound of gunfire 2. Fast and hasty driving 3.  Free falling from high places 4. Public speaking 5. Needles

But as I compose this list I realize that I’ve another to list.  6.  Being afraid.

Maybe it’s’ the part of the family story, the part colored with family members who took place in some of the awful, ‘innovative’ psychiatric treatments of the old days.  Institutionalization, electric shock, clockwork orangish torment: ‘face all of your fears directly and overwhelmingly at once so that you won’t be afraid of them anymore’ cure.   In fact yes – my nervous system has been programmed directly to mute out and avoid at all cost anything like this to ever happen to me.  Result: never be afraid, never show weakness, never take medication, never….

The trouble with trying to delete fear is that it is a natural, spontaneous and often helpful upwelling of sensation.  And it’s impossible.

It is Friday.  I call my doctor, I call my therapist, I call my friends.  I take a leap (which I am afraid of) and admit that this time the fear is overwhelming.  I hear the internal voices of boo-hissing which sounds something like:

shouldn’t you be able to meditate out of this…what about all your yoga practice….essential oils…spiritual texts….positive affirmations….you’re a health practitioner for gods sake…

All summing up into one belief: You are a failure, especially spiritually, for allowing fear to take hold.

Spiritual materialism has a funny way into unconscious scripting.  My doctor prescribes a low dosage of Xanax, my therapist helps me to allow myself to consider that every once in a while we may need to take some medication to help us through a difficult moment.    I resist.  He replies:

 “You will not lose spiritual points for taking medication prior to surgery.”

It is Tuesday noon.  I arrive to the hospital with meditation music, a bag full of essential oils, a typed wish and resource list (just in case).  I’ve prepared my speech to have the lights low and to admit that I am afraid of needles so please, take it slow.  And, I’ve taken a Xanax

Allison for the PGM