So Close, Yet So Far



What if you knew you’d be the last

to touch someone? ~ “If You Knew”, Ellen Bass


Several times a week I drive past the Grace Chapel of the Korean United Methodist Church. I see the stone that marks the spot where Korean graduate student Won-Joon Yoon was shot down by white supremacist, Benjamin Smith. Won- Joon was Smith’s final victim before he took his own life in 1999. The marker is only about ten feet from the front door of Grace Chapel, so close to being safely inside. So close to living beyond his twenty-six years-of-age. So close to finishing grad school. So close to life. So close to death.

I’m thinking of those liminal spaces between here and there, between yes and no, between life and death. So close to the dragon’s spume as Ellen Bass calls it in her amazing poem, “If You Knew”. We are all, each of us, every moment of every hour, a breath away from death, always in that liminal space, one breath away from that breath being our last.

As I watched both my parents’ transition out of this world, I saw a breath, then not a breath. Not one more breath. Smooth, peaceful and so very quiet. Was it like that from their perspective? I really hope so.

I’m wondering what we do with each of those bright and shining moments that are not our last? Make the most of them? Probably not. Take them for granted? Most likely. I think it would take too much energy to live like each moment was our last. I think I can manage being in the moment though. I can manage to slow down, be kinder, be more patient with people as Bass suggests. I don’t believe thresholds are meant to keep us stuck, caught in a web of choices. I believe they are meant to move us forward, to prepare us gently, intentionally for the next step in our journey, determine that needed first right step for our next adventure.

I’m reminded that we are just one decision or action away from being here or not here, by my friend, Nancy Comiskey who said after her twenty-four-year old daughter was killed in an accident caused by a driver who was high, she tearfully suggested that if only Kate hadn’t been able to find her hairbrush that morning, or had overslept, she might still be alive.

Who knows when we will be the last to touch someone before they die? Who will be the last to touch me before I die? I’m wondering who touched Won-Joon Yoon before he breathed his last. Was it a friend with a casual hand on his shoulder? Was it a paramedic trying to stop the flow of blood from his wound? Did he feel that touch? I hope he felt kindness right up to the very end. I went to his memorial service at the MAC. The place was packed. His father spoke so proudly, so lovingly. He spoke without hate. Didn’t want hate to be his son’s legacy. Won-Joon Yoon was loved. I hope he knew that.

Rebekah Spivey for The Poplar Grove Muse


Then the Drive Home: A Pantoum

We never talk much
No heart to heart or idle chat
Did you remember your pills?
When is your homework due?

No heart to heart or idle chat
We let the landscape speak
When is your homework due?
Fields of umber and ochre wave by

We let the landscape speak
Forests also beginning to sleep
Alongside fields of umber and ochre
The hills here show off their curve and crest

Forests begin to sleep in red and orange
Lone barn, grain silo, bible verse
The hills curving and cresting as we wind south
Pumpkins, mums, cornstalk

Lone barn, grain silo, Bible verse
I point to an odd sign
Pumpkins, mums, cornstalks
I might get a word or a nod

I point to the sign: repent
We never talk much
Now I get a word, a smile
Did you remember to take your pills?

~Amy for the PGM

On Enchantment (after “Enchantment” by Jim Grabski)

No automatic alt text available.

We find our enchantments
as we can,
when and where they come to us,
drinking deep
and long, as long as we can.

Perhaps in a far-off garden
of the mind or of the heart.

Where a crane raises its graceful neck,
a red crown, into an apricot sky,
lifts its stark leggy grace above
the soil and sorrow of earth,
a soaring banner of luck and longevity
for an ailing world.

Where the slow, steady support
of the turtle is a stepping stone
for the blue-plumed crane
to cross water, ascend air,
transcend even these exotic
enticing garden pleasures.

In the old tales, enchantment
may reveal inner truth,
hidden beauty, the golden
currency of a single soul.
A hag is not only enchantress,
but young beauty shrouded
in wrinkled skin and tattered robe.
The fair unknown rises
above seeming humble birth
unmasked by dint of kindness,
brushing off the toilsome dirt
of pigsty and horse stall.

My love would will you or charm you
from this sickbed,
paint you into an earthly garden
of radiant health, of shining
fortune and sunlit groves,
shimmering water, air that hums
with creatures of every hue.

Be enchanted.
Be transformed.
Be well.

Mary Peckham for The Poplar Grove Muse
This poem was written for an Ekphrasis event held at The Venue on September 10, 2017. Eight artists were asked to contribute a visual piece, and eight poets were invited to select one and write to it. Jim Grabski painted this unworldly piece to console and encourage his beloved wife when she was very ill and in a lot of pain, which spoke to me as much as the beauty of the painting did.

Bed Bugs and Other Hazards of Hospitality

It’s a testament to the difficulty of raising children that I find prepping the house for bed bug treatment to be almost relaxing. I put on a John Denver album and begin pulling down the curtains, packing up the story books, emptying drawers, throwing everything cloth into the dryer (not all at once, of course, but again and again and again). When Grandma took the kids away earlier today, instead of using the disposable diaper I offered her, she went to her car to retrieve one. “I don’t want to take any chances,” she said. Bed bugs, you know, they could be anywhere.

The strange thing is that we haven’t seen any since last Friday night when Robbie (not his real name), our guest, showed us the corner of his bed, crawling with the reddish bugs: big ones, teenage ones, baby ones. This whole week, not a single sighting, though we’ve moved couches and beds and dumped out drawers of stuff. Not-a-one little bed bug hiding in our stuff. I’ve come across other bugs, though. When moving a basket of books this morning, a cockroach dropped out of the bottom. I was just relieved to see it wasn’t a bed bug. I’ve seen spiders in all the corners, dense cobwebs a testament to the scant attention we pay to nooks and crannies of our rooms. There is a moth on the bathroom light that’s been there for days. I don’t mind, but maybe I should be kind enough to put it outside? Or else let it die when the exterminator blows his chemicals through the house?

When I worked at the day shelter, I’d frequently hear landlords blast their tenants for bringing in bed bugs. I’d always defend the tenant. “It’s not his fault!” I’d say, “Bed bugs follow the food. You treat one apartment and they go next door.”

But the night that Robbie found the bed bugs, I blamed him. There they were. Right in his bed, crawling on his shirt, in our house! And who was going to have to deal with it? Me and David. It didn’t matter that Robbie was the one being bit. In fact, if he was being bit, why hadn’t he noticed them sooner? He kept saying, in a cheery voice, trying to deflect my anger, “Good thing I saw ‘em!”

I grimaced and he asked, “You aren’t mad at me, are ya?”

“Yes,” I said, “I’m mad that the room is full of trash. The least you could do when you’re given a free place to stay is keep it clean.”

He didn’t say anything after that. We worked side by side, me instructing him what to do: bag up all the clothes, take them outside, put your medicine on the dresser, mattresses outside, trash to trash can, vacuum everywhere, especially the baseboards. I’d had enough of Robbie. Really enough.

It was bad timing to be mad at Robbie. Just a few hours prior to finding the bed bugs, Robbie and I had stood on our front step talking about his depression.

“Yeah,” he’d said, drawing the word out slowly as he always did when opening a new line of conversation, “I told my counselor I’d been feeling really down lately. She said, ‘Now Robbie, don’t you do anything’ and I said, ‘I’m not going to do anything.’ She said, ‘Can you talk to the people you live with?’ and I said, ‘Well duh!’”

I know that it doesn’t help a man with severe depression to have me mad at him. He probably didn’t clean his room because he was depressed. Still, no matter, whoever lives in our house next will wash and dry all their belongings before they move in. Their room will be subject to weekly inspections, expectations of vacuuming and bathroom cleaning will be enforced. The room will be bed bug and clutter free.

This thing of hospitality – of sharing our home with the poor — is tricky and often unappetizing. I don’t want to live with Robbie Mack any longer. I don’t want to share breakfast with him every morning and have to talk to him instead of listening to my children. I don’t want to see him pull out his teeth at the table or cook for him and do the dishes all on my own. How do you get past all that? Love in action is a harsh and dreadful thing. Is that what Dostoyevsky said? Ack. It is. In this moment, it is hard to choose to live with Robbie Mack.

Laura Lasuertmer for The Poplar Grove Muse

One Word? Only One?

What word would it be—
That one word that I cannot let die?
(Just one? Is that all I get?)
Surely I’d have time
To voice more than one,
Maybe two, three, a dozen!
Voice them, pass them along
With my eyes, my hands,
My passion!


But they must be action words,

Love your neighbor!
Walk in peace!
Be kind!
Show compassion!
Make music!

I want to say more!
To gather up a whole bucketful
Of words that cannot die,
Words that lift and heal—
Mother words, father words,
Arms-full-of-children words!
I want to pass them hand over hand
In a bucket brigade
To those who fill my shoes someday.

One word? Only one?
Then love it must be.
As in:

Love one another!
Love the earth!
Love yourself!
Love peace!
Love kindness!

Love is a fat word—
Perhaps it can eat all the other words
That cannot die,
And spill them out
When time and occasion arise.
Love will know what to do.
I must trust love—
Love cannot die.

Glenda Breeden for The Poplar Grove Muse

The Mouse and the Giraffe



“There you go again, looking down on me, “ said Miss Mouse to Mr. Giraffe.

“What do you expect me to do?” he asked. “Look at the sky when I’m talking to you? Then you would complain that I’m being rude. Besides that it’s hard on my old knees to get down on the ground, “  Mr. Giraffe answered.

“Can’t you kneel down when you’re talking to me?” Miss Mouse asked.

“I don’t see how that would help. I’d still be way taller than you. Why don’t you climb up to the top of this trees where I’m having brunch and look me in the eye?”

“No way. Mr. Hawk can’t see me under this leaf, but he would make me his morning snack if he heard me up there talking to you. No thanks!”

“Is that why you always talk so softly? You don’t want Mr. Hawk to hear you? I thought you were testing me because I’m older than you and you wanted to show off your keen hearing,” he answered.

“No, it’s all about staying safe. Setting boundaries,” she answered.

“So how can we work this out?” asked Mr. Giraffe. “You are a great conversationalist and I would miss our talks.”

“You never told me that before. I had no idea you enjoyed our talks so much. Maybe I don’t feel so looked down upon now. I’m beginning to think it was my own issue. Thanks for talking that chip off my shoulder.”

“And I thought you hid under that leaf because you were ashamed to be seen with someone who is not your own kind. Now I realize you were just protecting yourself from Mr. Hawk,” said Mr. Giraffe, swallowing a lump in his very long throat. He was afraid if he shed even one tear it would drown Miss Mouse.

“I’m proud to be your friend. I talk about our friendship to any one who will listen. But I still have to keep myself safe, “ answered Miss Mouse, trying not to sob and give away her location. “You’ll notice I always hide under a mint leaf to disguise my delicious mousy smell.”

“I have it!” said Mr. Giraffe, looking quite proud of himself.

“Tell me,” squeaked Miss Mouse as quietly as she could in her excitement.

“I’ll bend down and you climb up my neck and perch by my ear. Mr. Hawk would never attack you there. You’ll be safe and we can talk to our hearts’ content. What do you think?” he asked as he bent down to Miss Mouse’s level.

“I love it!”  said Miss Mouse as she climbed on to Mr. Giraffe’s velvety nose and scampered up his neck to safety.

Today’s topic: What’s happens when you presume goodwill?

Rebekah Spivey for the Poplar Grove Muse

Light in August (apologies to William Faulkner)

August is an odd month: it has no Federal holidays; it is officially a summer month yet is the gateway to the autumn; it marks the beginning of the school year for many places and the end of vacation; it toys with us, teasing us to “get ready” and yet to “enjoy the dog days”. Every August, or, as I usually refer to it, every summer, I go “home” to Maine, where I grew up, to visit my sister and her family and to touch base with the Pine Tree State and its lakes and ocean. It is always odd to be a tourist in the place of one’s birth and childhood; in a place where tourists are hated and loved and barely tolerated; in a place of history and family and change. The people talk of folks I should know and yet, I don’t. I might recognize surnames of families I grew up with, names such as “Libby”, “Dolloff”, “Swayze”, “Walker”, and “Thompson”, but I don’t know the people they’re talking about. I haven’t lived there since 1964, and while many of my generation moved away, their clans are still there, and some of them are even some kind of cousin to me, but I don’t know them. I also don’t know the places…the streets now have names and signs which announce those names. I have to remember that Route 25, the one I grew up on, is now the Ossipee Trail, and that Route 35, which crosses it, is also the Bonny Eagle Road to the west and something else to the east. I suppose there were good reasons for these names, but it still seems alien to me.

Other things also seem alien, but I know, deep down, that the real alien is me. I haven’t lived through those changes and my 22-year-old self who insists on arising when I’m there, loses her bearings. She wants it to be the same; she does not want to be one of the “away” summer folk. But I am, and I am not 22, and I am only a Mainer by memory. Moreover, while I’m there, we plan lots of excursions that tourists tend to take, because, living there, we seldom actually did any of those things or travelled to some of the places that most visitors make it a point to see. And so, this summer, we made a day trip to Mt. Desert Island, where Cadillac Mountain, the highest point on the Eastern seaboard, is located (so far as I know, there is no actual Mt. Desert, only an island with three peaks of a different names), and where sunrise is first sighted for most of the year in the United States. We set off on this excursion in the 4am dark of the early morning, but the three-hour drive didn’t get us there to actually see the sunrise from the top. Instead, we headed into the sunrise as we drove up the coast, to Down East, and stopped for breakfast at one of those little diners that Maine people know so well and hope that the tourists never learn about.

We arrived and drove to the top, and even found a parking place among all of the folks already there, folks from all over the world: license plates from all over the US, and also people from India and from Europe and from Thailand and from South America. A true conversion of geographies. We walked out onto the rocks, dutifully following the designated path, taking our pictures and staring out across the North Atlantic, wondering if we could see our neighbors on its other side, where it would already be afternoon.

The light on Cadillac Mountain was only ordinary, a little misty from the sea, but, since it was past dawn, it seemed no different to me than light anywhere else. Yet, it reminded me of one of the most astonishing things that I experience on my yearly home-going and return to Bloomington. This journey means that I travel from one edge of a time zone to another of the same zone, touching its east and west boundaries, and also going from an area fairly southern in the zone to one of the northern most.

When I leave Bloomington in early August, the sun rises at about 6:40am, already heading towards the dark mornings of autumn and winter. The next morning, in Maine, sun rise is at about 5:30am…more than an hour earlier. In less than 24 hours, the light has changed for me. It always delights me, because I’m an early morning person, and love that the sun is up at that time. Sunset in Bloomington is at about 8:50 and in Maine, about 8:00. Somehow, I don’t notice that difference as much. I get used, again, to the sun being on the rise when I waken for the two weeks I am there, and my brother-in-law and I enjoy an early cup of coffee and news-watching before the rest of the household stirs (except for the cats, who are, of course, ready for food). And then I return to Bloomington after two weeks of sunny mornings. Sunrise is suddenly not until 7am here, and I feel like I have been plunged into an Arctic winter. And it seems to take a very short time before it is even darker, so that each day the mornings delay, and I fuss at the darkness. In just little over a week since I got home, the time for morning light to appear has increased a minute a day, and it seems like an hour a day.

This year, things got even stranger. Three days after I got back to Bloomington, there was the eclipse of the sun. Now, not only was it taking longer for the day to get here, suddenly it slinked away, laughing at my cognitive dissonance, teasing me about the fickleness of light, poking at me about the restlessness of the universe, and astounding me with the reminder of how odd and relative time is. And so, into the next season we go, the 22-year-old me becoming the three-quarter-century me in two more weeks, and the sun rising and setting with no nod to my own journey that seems to have taken no longer than those two weeks in Maine.



Bev for PGM

Solo Eclipse

I wanted to be alone.  

Don’t get me wrong, plenty of peak moments of my life have been spent in physical and emotional communion with throngs of other beings in the experience of positive awe together. Our high school basketball state semi-final win 1977. July 4th fireworks on the Manhattan Bridge, 1983. The Harmonic Convergence a few years later. It was a low-key meditation event, but there were thousands of us humming along with the planets in alignment that year. Not all that long ago, we sang with Coldplay and 10,000 others, that song, Yellow, with my young teenage kids all the way across a vast Louisville stadium full of yellow balloons before we grew up again and grew more or less weary of treks to see stadium shows.  Election night 2008. The Cubs win last year–OK, those last two were televised throngs, but we felt the joy!

I am both lazy and an introvert. I didn’t feel called to drive the relatively short distance to totality, to fight traffic, to bear witness with lots of others. Not this time. I’ve thrilled at the stories of those who made the pilgrimage.  I believe every person who felt something momentous happen when the world went dark , the stars came out, and the nighttime crickets sang at 2:30 in the afternoon.

Instead, I chose to watch the 94% show from the back porch with my dogs. I didn’t snag special glasses or primitive viewing tools. Having read up on how to create a 10 minute viewer with a shoe box, scissors, foil and a pin, I passed on that, and the colander viewer concept too, and just decided that the leaves on the many trees in my yard, might make a lovely celestial showing on the ground if the skies cooperated. They did.

I’ve been drawing a bit again, after a 40 year hiatus, so yesterday in the hour and a half I spent simply watching for what might transpire,  I doodled and took notes in the run-up. I chased the dogs inside when I noticed their restless energy distracting me. They fell asleep and missed the rest.

Next I noticed the light around me turned Technicolor –hyper vivid.  I regretted the limitations of a black, fine point marker. (Not to mention my drawing skills–but hey, the practice kept me in the moment, more or less).

My cheeks begin to tingle,  my arms, then my legs, then I felt a weightiness in my head. Had I been stung by a bee? Was I having an allergic reaction? Could I have been touched by something more cosmic? I noticed all the dark shadows, the bright pink, purple, blue sky splashes, the birds and bugs quieting, I swear they did—mourning doves practically nestling at my feet as if turning in for the night. I noticed how much I missed having young children around to filter the wonder with, the younger me who would surely have nabbed a pair of approved glasses, or made the view finder, or hauled out the colander, set up “stations” for different vantage points.

The nostalgia was fleeting. All of the sudden, the ground at my feet began to flutter with hundreds of crescent suns. In that moment my own childself emerged, filled with wildness and mystery. “COOL!” The word escaped my mouth from my deepest belly place. For 7 minutes I walked as if in a dream around the outside of my house. I snapped pictures of the wavering crescents, tried to shoot a video but erased it accidentally, (probable punishment for losing focus on what my own eyes could behold before the moment passed). I didn’t see the perfect alignment of our moon covering up our sun, but  I saw fairy phenomenon , as the light moved and the air cooled.  It was the trembling, temporary, haunting magic that has made humans wonder for millennia about the secret signs of shadows and light.

My photos are like many pictures we’ve now seen since yesterday…from those of us using the leaves as viewfinders. But the primitive sketches I made make me smile. The kid inside of me was wandering aimlessly alone but happy through the hours of Eclipse day. Poised. Waiting for and finding with delight both sun and moon at the ground at my feet dancing together.

BLR For the Poplar Grove Muse 2/22/17

On Shopping Malls

I came of age in a mall. Working my part time job at a now defunct towel and drapery store called Homemaker Shop. My best friend worked at an anchor store which was called May Company (quick who knows what city I am from?). It became, I believe, LS Ayers and eventually turned into Macy’s like all of them. She sold lamps. We both had to dress in skirts and blouses. Another friend stocked shoes next door at Kinney Shoes and yet another worked at a fast food steak place called York Steak House, which had a big “no tipping” sign at the door. We met on breaks at Orange Julius or maybe across the parking lot at a popular restaurant called The Ground Round. We ate a lot of pizza and ice cream and played Ms. Pac Man. And we shopped, a lot. We tried on make-up at the Clinique counter, and we went to lots of movies. This was before Starbucks and Game Stops and pre-teen stores like Hot Topic and Justice. We went to Spencer’s for lava lamps and posters and fart jokes. We ripped fake plants out of their planters and squeezed into photo booths and raced around empty parking lots when the mall closed. One year, at Christmas time, this desperate lady who ran the Christmas stocking booth hired a friend and me to write kids names on stockings in glue and glitter. I pity all the poor kids who got my sloppy left handed hook scrawl on their stockings that year. I am sure Santa didn’t know Sally from Susie. I got a free elf hat for all my efforts. Another time we went into a furniture department and cozied up on beds and began to read the prop books they had on display, playacting from corny old stories about farmers and their wives.

So, I have this real fondness for the mall of my youth. I don’t go in them unless I have to any more. (They give me a headache which I have deemed mall ache.) but the ghosts of all my best peeps and me when we were young and stupid and thought time was endless hang out there. Sometimes, when I am quiet, I can see them.

Amy for the PGM

How Can I Keep From Singing?

The other night, as I processed laundry in the basement, sorting soggy garments, transferring delicates to the drying rack and tossing un-delicates into the ancient Harvest Gold dryer, I found myself singing “Beautiful Savior,”  a beloved old hymn from my childhood. It’s a lovely tune with resonant, comforting words. I can’t remember a time in my life where I didn’t yet know it.

It got me thinking.

My basement hymn-singing is one of my oldest habits, one of my first self-soothing strategies. As a girl, I was terrified of basements. The first had one friendly, semi-finished playroom, but also an unfinished concrete warren of scary furnace sounds and dark, spider-webbed corners. And once, a stray spark from the fireplace above fell through the hearth, smoldering in the ceiling below, nearly causing a devastating housefire and fusing my fear of basements with my even greater fear of fire. The second was darker, even scarier, with a terrifying octopus furnace from a long-gone era. When sent to these basements on errands for my mother, I took to singing or whistling “A Mighty Fortress is our God” while I scurried down and back, dragging my little brother with me if I could.

I used to sing all the time.  In the shower, for a good 20 minutes to my girls at bedtime, as I cleaned and walked the dog and made supper in the kitchen. I knew the words to countless songs— folk songs and ballads, 60’s protest songs and protestant hymns, nursery rhymes and love songs—and accompanied myself during my days by singing them to a select audience of—myself.

I also listened to a lot of music, on CD, before that on cassette tape or LP. Music filled my life, informed my existence with singular energy and storytelling and metaphoric contemplation of various emotional and life states. My housecleaning jumpstart song was The Pointer Sisters’ “Jump (For My Love),” my kitchen floor scrubbing soundtrack was provided on Saturday nights by Fiona Ritchie, Bruce was a great companion to all manner of chores.

And I have allowed this life-giving, sustaining music to largely leave my life.

About 10 years ago, I experienced a change in my voice, and not for the better; my awkward, limited range seemed to constrict further, and the top and bottom notes were even harder to eke out, making many of my favorite songs unsingable, even for myself. Gradually, I sang less and less. And listened less to music in the house, not wanting to disturb those working at the dining room table or slung across comfy living room chairs, (who had by now developed their own distinctive musical sensibilities and abilities), not wanting to bare, or perhaps declare, my own musical tastes.

Now, when I work in the kitchen, I usually listen to progressive talk radio, endless analysis and recounting of every aspect of our alarming national state of affairs: NPR, 1A, The Daily, Pod Save America. All of which, suddenly, seem unbearable, unconstructive, treading the same dismal territory in which we currently wander, leading nowhere.

I am resolved to restore the soulful, life-giving soundtrack of my life.  We are living in a scary basement of a time. I, for one, will sing my hymns again, sacred and secular, as I travel this dark and dispiriting territory.

Mary Peckham for The Poplar Grove Muse