Mary Oliver: You were one of us

“Oliver told NPR that simplicity was important to her. “Poetry, to be understood, must be clear,” she said. “It mustn’t be fancy. I have the feeling that a lot of poets writing now, they sort of tap dance through it. I always feel that whatever isn’t necessary should not be in the poem.”

I know many women who are a part of our writing circles at Women Writing for a Change are mourning the passing of Mary Oliver this week. Sometimes I believe Mary Oliver’s poetry was the grease that moved our collective into being. Circle after circle, we would use a poem by Mary O. to help us write our way through grief and injustice and understanding the human condition. So many of her poems were touchstones that in fact when I heard she had died, it felt like a fellow writing sister had died. This woman had been next to me in many circles and readings, and I didn’t even know her.

But little by little, as you left their voices behind,  through the sheets of clouds, and there was a new voice which you slowly recognized as your own, that kept you company as you strode deeper and deeper into the world,
determined to do the only thing you could do- determined to save the only life you could save. ~ From The Journey

Mary was the poet who taught me that it is okay to like poetry. That poems don’t always have to be so fancy it takes a seminar to understand them. That words, meter, metaphor, allusion and everything that goes into a perfect poem belongs to everyone. It is Mary that first gave me the notion that I might write poetry and that in fact, poetry is the great healer, great uniter, great witness to our love and lives.

When I read her biography, I learn that she spent her life pursuing her two great loves: nature and poetry. What a wonderful life, I think. Not only am I admiring that she was able to live as she loved, but that she so generously shared it with the world. She also wrote so much about death being the natural order of things that I know she is at peace. As sad as I am, I feel that peace welling up in me as well.

“To live in this world, you must be able to do three things: to love what is mortal; to hold it against your bones knowing your own life depends on it; and, when the time comes to let it go,” ~ Mary Oliver

I am grateful for her life. I am grateful that she shared her words with the world. Mostly I am grateful to be a part of a humankind (and a local writing program) that would treasure and uplift someone so beautiful. I join my writing sisters and men and women everywhere in lighting a candle for one of the true great writers of my generation. She wasn’t fancy. She didn’t need to be. She just told us the truth in her heart. Thank you for your words Mary Oliver.

“When it’s over, I want to say all my life/ I was a bride married to amazement.”~ Mary Oliver

~ Amy for the PGM

Neighbors, Repeated

Welcome to my neighborhood.
Let me introduce you
To my neighbors.
Some you probably know
From my Morning Farm Reports.
First there are my dearest neighbors
Sue and Charlie
Who were my mentors in all things rural
And rescued me from the snakes and raccoons,
Also neighbors,
one loved and one feared.
There are the cows
Those neighbors we call “The Girls”
Who peer over the neighboring fence
Eyeing my delicious begonias
And always greener grass
Or so they believe.
There are the birds of the neighborhood
Too numerous to enumerate
Who come to eat at
What my neighbor Jill
Calls Bev’s Neighborhood MCL.
There is the elementary school
Down the road
The children’s voices echoing
In the neighborhood
At their break times, or
Mixing with the roar of the busses
Come to let them off
Or pick them up
Yellowing our neighborhood
With their colorful bodies.
There is my back pasture
Where the neighbors cross to
Visit the farm,
Or their children take
As a short cut to the school,
Sometimes forgetting to secure the gate
And then the other neighbor horses
Buck and Mare (neighing, of course),
And sometimes some of The Girls,
Come over to try out the
Greener grass.
Occasionally chickens or pigs
Will also come on over,
Considering my home
Just a larger part of their
Own neighborhood.
Wandering around to see what’s what
And, of course, if there is anything
Delicious to eat.
The deer are also neighbors,
My yard and the pastures their
Own fertile neighborhood
Where the small packs
Come to graze and take dessert
On my budding daylilies and
Sue and Charlie’s jonquils.
Coyotes are also neighbors,
Sniffing through the pasture
For moles and shrews,
Delicious dinner,
Especially if a new litter
Of these canine neighbors
Is on its way.
Meet the Amish family
Who lived at The Farm
For a while.
Quiet and fascinating neighbors
Laboring, stooped in their blue and white,
Planting and weeding the garden
They planted to carry food to the Farmer’s Market
Every Saturday in their horse and buggy.
There is Ben, the beautiful big black Percheron,
Who lies buried in the east/west pasture,
Put in that spot by Sue and Charlie
So we all could gaze at him from our windows
As we did when he was alive
And grazing in the pasture,
A very good neighbor still.
And, of course, as every neighborhood
Has its nefarious resident
There is The Worm
(Also named by neighbor Jill)
Who felled a tree without
Checking with the utilities people
And knocked out my electricity
And my internet.
Who cut through my gas line
And claimed he could fix it
(Without an explosion?
I asked him)
Who shoots his guns
Near my backyard
With nary a care for the neighborhood
Endangering my neighbor Jill
And me.
Still, all in all, it’s a wonderful neighborhood
Where most of us live in harmony
And peace.
Good fences; good neighbors.
Bev Hartford

Something New

I came to Women Writing for a Change for the first time 5 years ago.  The Solstice Sampler.  A night just like this, cold and dark, and this room alive with candlelight, and the voices of women, and the invisible thing that lurks in the shadows here that calls us all together.  It had been calling me for a while when I accepted Veda’s invitation to the circle.

“I think it’s something you’ll like,” she said simply.

How right she was.  When Beth invited us to write and set that timer, I slumped into a pile in the corner with my notebook and allowed fevered words to pour from my pen.  Words about fire, and a childhood dream that was suddenly relevant again, and about being set free.  How prophetic they were.  Unknown to me at the time, that was the beginning of the end for me.  The end of a kind of habituated self-loathing that I had been unconscious of, that plagued me into sometimes insincerity and frequent self-doubt.  An unconsciousness that lured me into chasing people and things that didn’t fit me very well, and drove me to project my frustration and anger onto them in response.

Little did I know that, as the path lit up in front of me, and the circle in this room drew me deeper into contemplation held safe and sacred in these conscious practices, riveted together by rituals, little did I know that I was indeed on the brink of freeing myself from the pain of the inauthenticity that had become second nature to me.  Page by raw page, I wrote myself free, slowly but surely coming home to an awareness of my own goodness.  As I became more and more willing to extend goodwill to my sisters in the circle, I became more willing to extend it to others in the world, and finally, even to my own sweet self.  As I became more able to listen deeply to the words of the women sitting beside me, I became more able to listen to others in the world, and yes, even to myself.  To say that this has been transformative sounds trite.  It would be better if I could show you how easily I smile these days and how light my heart feels in the absence of longing.  Longing for what?  For something to fill me, to hold me, to make me feel less alone.  The gift of this community of courageous writers helped to relieve my longing, not by filling that space, no.  But by leading me to the awareness that I fill that space.  I am that space, or rather, it is me.  And life holds me.  Of course it does, as it holds all of us, as it holds the roots of trees, even as they burn.  And in burning, become something else, something new.

DRH for The Poplar Grove Muse


Tis the weekend before Xmas and all through the house
Ginger barks at the door, Turtle chases a mouse
Chuck hides in the loft afraid to come forth
cause he’s on my shit list cause he shat on the floor
and the rug in the bathroom and the rug by the door
and he pissed where he shat and he wants to some more

There is snow on the ground and there’s cold in the air
so Chuck has decided to piss every which where
Denise lies a’resting with hands behind head
hoping her nausea gets lost on a sled
sailing down yonder hillside to valley below
so she can eat garlic and play in the snow

Sean is sitting with family beside Nina’s bed
quietly reading a book he just read
waiting for Nina to rest from her pain
waiting for life to be happy again

Dietrich and Cara have left in the Trooper
to retrieve all the stuff from their car, now a blooper
crushed in the front and crushed in the side
from an Oldsmobile head-on collision last night
Twasn’t their fault and they weren’t hurt too badly
but their Christmas spirit is now sagging quite sadly

Bill is stretched out in the chair by the window
working crossword puzzles and hanging in limbo
“Look at the woodpecker! Look at the dogs!
“Will you bring me some coffee? Will you find me some togs?
“Would you wash ‘tween my toes? Would you please scratch my back?
“Would you fix me some supper?  Would you bring me a snack?”
He’s so mad at himself as on crutches he’s hopping
(I think he just wants to skip Christmas shopping)

Kevin slides around on brakes that don’t work
his grandma just died and his job has no perks
his sweetie is spending the holidays out west
his sons have blue hair and tattoos on their chests

Me? How am I? Mid this season so blest?
Mid this season that sounds like such a damn mess?
I’m thankful for family, for friends, for bean soup
and at least all my children aren’t dying of croup
I’m glad for my teeth and I’m glad for my hair
(I wish Bill still had his but his head’s getting bare)
I’m glad for my Trooper that goes in the snow
I’m glad that a reindeer didn’t step on my toe.
I’m glad for my paycheck even though it’s too small
it’s better than not any paycheck at all

I have presents to wrap and chickens to feed
a daughter to hold when she faints to her knees
(because of that youngun within her, so tiny
so full of new hope, all bright and sunshiney)
A son and his honey to hug cause they’re here
(maybe son will start wearing his seatbelt this year)
A son-in-law to pray for while he sits with his mother
while he waits with his dad
while he waits with his brothers
A husband to love, to pamper, to tease
to bake him some cookies, to check him for fleas

Life can be funny and life can be sad
luck can be good and luck can be bad
and so mid this season of good, bad, and ugly
I sit by my fire and smile rather smugly
The waterline’s not frozen, I have dishes to do
my cat’s not an elephant, Bill’s not broke in two
so I lift up my voice and sing out with delight
“Merry Christmas to all and to all a good night!”

Glenda Breeden for The Poplar Grove Muse





Trash or Treasure?

One Sunday, in order to avoid sitting down to write, I spent a couple of hours going through an old, beat-up file box. The items were not organized but were just stacked on one another in this box that was filled to the top. I could almost see me putting those items in the box with the intention to organize it -someday . I had no idea what I would find in there. It reminded me “Storage Wars”, a reality show where they auction an abandoned storage unit to the highest bidder. Sometimes there is trash in the units and sometimes there is treasure.

I approached the contents slowly, lovingly actually. I picked up the folded yellow legal pad of paper, which, if possible, was even more yellow than it had been in its original state. There were about 13 names on the sheet, neatly printed. This paper held names, long forgotten, complete with addresses and phone numbers of the women who lived on my floor in the dorm in 1975 when I returned to IU after a 2 ½ year hiatus. Memories of that year flooded back to me.

The next item in the box was a folder marked “personal” which contained poems that I had written in high school. Some of them were handwritten but most were typed on a typewriter on parchment paper. The darkness of the poetry stunned me. I sipped on my coffee as I digested these words that came from a place I was unable to identify. I was 13 years old when I wrote them. Was it my penchant for drama or did they come from reality?  I set them aside.

Torn out pages of an old journal were next. Naïve, twenty-two year old me, back in college, writing of longing to belong, lost keys at registration, and the dreams I had for this re-start. A newsletter I had created that year was stuffed vertically beside all of the other items. I was the governor of the dormitory floor and the newsletter looked so lame at first glance.  I hadn’t even typed it. The contents of the newsletter, however, were illuminating. Along with articles about happenings around the dorm there was an announcement of an all floor meeting I had planned with a guest speaker from the Political Science Department. The topic she would be speaking about was “The Role of Women in the Workplace”. Hmmm.

Below the newsletter was a stack of folded letters on lined note paper. I knew instantly what they were. When I lived in New York City my grandmother wrote me at least once or twice a month and I kept all these letters. The letters were very “newsy” and grandma didn’t waste one square inch of the paper, even writing vertically on the page and filling all of the white space. She kept me up to date on the activities of my family who were clearly grieving about my absence. I was so excited to be on my adventure that I wasn’t sensitive to their feelings.

The next letter I found was from my first born nephew who is in his 40’s now. He and I have always been close.

“Dear Aunt Sherri, I wish you could come out here. I miss you. My parents and I went to New Jersey to the Academy and I hope I get in (I said get in because I’m not sure if it is accepted or excepted and I still don’t know). Jeff and I went to a girl’s house and her parents didn’t know. I asked her if she wanted to go with me and she said yes but she broke up with me and is going with Jeff. I hate his guts. I have to go. This is the longest letter I have ever written! No, actually, this is the only letter I have ever written. I love you!”

I still smile about this.

There was one last worn out folder at the bottom of the box which, from its size, I assumed it contained old tax returns. It wasn’t tax returns. The first item in the folder held a detailed outline of a stage play I had written. I lived in New York at the time and took writing classes at NYU. I had thought that I had lost the folder when my apartment flooded after I moved back to Indiana, but here it was, in my lap, the last item in an old box. Under the stage play was an outline for a novel, complete with character sketches and several chapters of the manuscript written by hand. As I read the detailed sketch of the main character, Amanda, I was stunned to see that I had given her the birthdate of January 9th. Eight years after I had penned this, in 1990, I gave birth to my son on that very date. I still get chills when I think of it. I get nauseous when I think about all of the time I have wasted by not writing. The saddest thing is, that I didn’t believe  that I could or should try to be a writer.

As I placed everything back in the box, I was aware of the treasures this box held. My steps to avoid writing led me back to my writing and to myself. The message was clear.

Time is wasting, keep your hand moving.

Sherri Walker for the Poplar Grove Muse

Waldorf Salad






Waldorf Salad


It’s just a simple cake.

Any fool can make it

except your aunt, I

gave her the recipe

but she never got it right.

From My Mother Gives me her recipe, by Marge Piercy

 There is a Fawlty Towers episode in which an American guest orders a Waldorf Salad in the hotel dining room, but Basil had no idea what a Waldorf Salad is. And I thought, my dad could tell you how to make one because he made the best Waldorf Salad I ever tasted. He was a good cook who could make many delicious dishes, but that salad was my favorite.

I almost enjoyed watching him make it a much as I enjoyed eating it. Dad was six feet tall and had very distinctive hands with long yet thick fingers, not made for dexterity. He did everything precisely. So watching him dice each apple into uniform pieces was like watching a meticulous surgeon at work. I was in awe. The walnuts were always halved, then quartered, not minced. He didn’t want them to lose their crunch, the same with the celery. He chopped the stalks with a rapid-fire motion. Next came the grapes, each purple grape sliced precisely in half through its shiny skin. I believe if those halves could have been measured, they would have been exactly the same size, not even a millimeter off. Which is pretty amazing for a guy with a glass eye and no depth perception. He mixed it all together with Hellman’s mayonnaise. It was a delicious work of art. When I got married the second time I had him make Waldorf Salad for the wedding. And honestly, I was more excited about the salad than the marriage. That should have been a clue about the probable success of that relationship.

I remember lolling about on the couch as a child watching him put the finishing touches on our Christmas tree. It was his job to hang the tinsel, which in those days were made of foil and tore easily when you tried to take them off their cardboard spindle. Dad bit his nails, so watching him try to separate each strand was torture, but he never lost his cool. Each icicle had to be hung evenly, again, surgical precision. It took a long time, but I loved watching him do it. He was focused yet serene. As an adult I think of him trimming the tree and know the true meaning of a labor of love.

Rebekah Spivey for The Poplar Grove Muse

2018 Thanksgiving

A daughter texts: “I can’t wait to come home.”

Her mother replies: “Ah, that’s what I always felt about going home, until I got there….”

Response: “Hahaha.”

We come home to the people who raised us, loved us, fed us, and feed us still, in spirit, in memory, in flesh that is aging and weakening before our eyes. We see everything anew and acutely upon returning, with the wide-open vision of having gone ahead and attempted to forge a new way, an onward path. Sometimes the old ways are comforting upon return, often not.

We gather again at our tables, new tables, old tables. We make, or do not make, the foods of our childhood, and if not, we hope that Grandma will, if she sees, accept our loving sacrifice of having swallowed so much that wasn’t to our taste, will perhaps even admire us for making things better for ourselves, in a relatively unfreighted way denied to her.

We talk more freely, younger and older, not just men, but women and more, claiming opinions, beliefs we have worked to forge, to own, wanting to have a say in making a difference. And yet, we are wary, feel we must be, desiring easy community among those who have mattered to us, matter still, yet acknowledging  blistering, blustering cross-currents of misunderstanding, miscommunication, cultural division and disconnection—all fanned by those in power who seek even greater power.

Still, we gather, and give thanks, manifesting the belief that in gathering, sharing food around a table—old or new—talking, celebrating what we have shared, might still share, we can find heartfulness and healing.

In our home, we do not do The Thanksgiving, the roasting of the turkey, the gravy-making. Far from family, we are invited, grateful, to an unimaginably iconic feast, hosted by a dear friend who loves to cook and prepares a sumptuous board with artistry, heart, and great good spirit.  I carry to Newcastle what coals are allowed.

Two days later, I prepare a rump Thanksgiving in my home.  This year, husband off to China for a big gig, mother-in-law newly relocated to town, beloved daughters briefly home, some of us still working off a beautiful food coma, some  more enthusiastic feasters in quest of leftovers than others…, we share an afternoon of communal effort in turning out our favorite Thanksgiving dishes in a lower key, honoring both the effort and the awaited eating.

The calculations for any gathering around a table are many, delicate under best circumstances–a labor of love balanced with available energetic effort, filtered through ready resources and personnel, and, of course, the ultimate constellation of diners.  To be able to choose what to serve, and to whom, to be so blessed that restraint is a choice, a goal even, rather than a constraint born of necessity, is unthinkable to much of the world, and to most of human history.

And I give thanks.

Mary Peckham for The Poplar Grove Muse


The abiding mystery to me is how she wrote so microscopically. How two and a half years, from 1927 – early 1929 can be recorded in daily paragraphs of this, of that in a tiny leather-bound diary. How any of it is only decipherable with a magnifier. Mostly she records the grind of graduate school, boarding house rules, visitations with friends, the agonizing conflict over Chuck and Johnny, and who might make the most suitable choice for the long stretch of unknown life ahead. Chuck won out in the end. Just as I remember wondering as a girl, if I’d even exist if my mother had married her high school boyfriend instead of my Dad, same goes for whether Louise had gone with the swarthy, worldly Johnny instead of her steady guy back home. She went with dependability. She settled, happily it seems, for being a Jr. High School English teacher instead of a Botany Professor.

We’ll be back in her kitchen this Thanksgiving. The same kitchen that was her mother’s and her grandmother’s. We’ll eat with their forks on plates collected for over a hundred years. As the fifth in a line of generations of mothers at our Preble County Farm Table, I’ll ponder the larger questions of our legacy; gratitude for family, the fidelity to the land that shapes us, and the long stretch of unknown life in front of us. I search for a magnifying glass illuminative enough to help me see our unfolding story, the breaking or continuing lines of our lineage, and enough grounding required for going on with grace.

BLR for the Poplar Grove Muse

Random Thoughts in November

Every morning, I leave my home and drive to work. My car rises a small hill, out of our little holler (as we have come to call the place where our home in the woods rests), and I take a left onto the street that will lead me to the main road. That left hand turn brings me to my first glimpse of the sky for the day and it is always, always a beauty. The sky greets me with clouds dappled with sunshine in the most brilliant array of colors and patterns. I was trying to memorize all the different ways the sky greets me but they became too numerous. I simply appreciate my little patch of art every morning.

• My yogi teaches me continually the power of breath. I don’t wanna breathe, I think to myself as he teaches me some new breathing technique: bellows breath and dragon breath and fire breath. Greet the sun with a lion breath. Alternate nostril breath. Diaphragm breathing techniques. Haji breath. He counts for me to breathe in and then counts for me to breathe out. I am so sick of breathing. I am so sick of counting and holding the breath. Do not make me do this yogi. I flutter my eyes open and he is watching me. This is too hard, I think. The breathing is just way too hard. Why can’t I just breathe normally? I’ll breathe because I want to not because you tell me too, and I do a little renegade thing where I breathe out of the same nostril twice. Oh yogi. When will I learn?

• My friend makes maple leaf cookies every year and gives me a little bag. They are flavored with maple syrup and cut in all sizes of maple leaf. I do not share them. When I get my little bag of cookies I cannot wait to open the bag and eat them in one sitting before anyone asks me to share. Love the maple leaf cookies.

• The darkness has finally hit and with that chill in the air, it strikes me that it is good conjuring weather. I find myself wondering if I should google how to cast a spell or better yet, create a voo-doo doll. I think I need a lock of hair to create a real voo-doo doll. Now in the darkness of early night, I plan how to steal a lock of hair so that I might use it to cast a spell and wreak havoc. There is something about the arrival of the night, day of the dead, winter time hibernation, that brings out a need for real magic. If anyone knows any please send it to me. All spells welcome.

• I am guessing our commander in chief keeps his hair trimmings under lock and key.

• In April, I will be participating in National Poetry Writing Month or NAPOWRIMO as we insiders call it. We write a poem a day to a new prompt everyday. A bunch of us will get together at the beginning of the month to have a little lesson about poetic form, and we’ll get together at the end of the month to share what we’ve written. In between we will write and share and write and share and read. This month-long celebration of poetry makes me very happy. I look forward to it as much as I used to look forward to Christmas as a kid. I think it is because of a daily push and daily permission to be creative. It is a cliché to talk about creative juices, but that is exactly what it feels like. Like someone just has fed me joy and it is pulsing in my veins. Every day.

• I still love the end of every yoga class, everywhere in the world, when I bow my head and say “namaste” to the teacher and to myself. I whisper it under my breath with reverence. I love the feeling of hands in prayer position; I love the meanings of the word; I love the subtle bow of the head. One teacher I have now, makes a point of bowing to every student in the class. I love that.

Namaste.  Amy for the PGM

Safe Place

The School Across the Street has had that sign for many years.
You know, the one that assures the children that this is
A Place where they can be
Safe from storms at home and
Safe from storms of nature.
A Place where they do not need to fear the cyclone cloud of an Indiana spring,
where the echoing sirens,
telling them to shelter,
are sending them
to gather, to wait out whatever threat is being hurled at them.

We didn’t have
Safe Places when
I was a child except for our
Desks under
Which we knelt, just
“For Practice’,
in case the Russians bombed us with their nukes.
Then this is where we would be So Safe,
So Safe because our teachers told us so
and we wanted to believe them
and we waited until we heard the all clear
and then we emerged laughing a little nervously
because we didn’t really believe those desks
that kept our books and pencil cases safe would actually keep us safe
from The Bomb.
Still, though we had no Sign that announced this as a Safe Place,
it seemed it just might be one.

The School Across the Street has that sign. Safe Place.
It no longer convinces us that this is true.

Bev Hartford