LINGERING, on Mary Oliver’s “Invitation”


Oh do you have time
to linger
for just a little while
out of your busy

and very important day
for the goldfinches
that have gathered
in a field of thistles

for a musical battle,
to see who can sing
the highest note,
or the lowest,

or the most expressive of mirth,
or the most tender?
Their strong, blunt beaks
drink the air

as they strive
not for your sake
and not for mine

and not for the sake of winning
but for sheer delight and gratitude –
believe us, they say,
it is a serious thing

just to be alive
on this fresh morning
in the broken world.
I beg of you,

do not walk by
without pausing
to attend to this
rather ridiculous performance.

It could mean something.
It could mean everything.
It could be what Rilke meant, when he wrote:
You must change your life.*

Lingering.  Even the word itself seems leisurely, relaxed, languid. It makes me think about how so many people would linger in my mother’s kitchen, having just stopped by, in the most walkable neighborhood in town, not wanting to let the moment of being in her calm, engaged acceptance go. Few visitors sat, and certainly not the beloved ones we children most wanted to sit and share their stories and jokes and good will; their refusal to commit to a chair made their presence all the more desired and valued, since it manifested their understanding of how much my mom was always trying to do.  People knew that my mother rarely sat herself, how she was usually multitasking, and so they stood, on the verge of departure, yearning to stay. When I think harder, this standing-in-the-doorway sometimes meant that these were people who had nowhere to go, no one to listen, who needed something even they couldn’t name. So maybe that isn’t really lingering. But my mother listened, deeply, and often quietly went about a task in the kitchen while she did so.

Her close friends–all busy so-called-stay-at-home women definitely not staying home, making things happen, growing their town, lifting the weight–I think we could say they mini-lingered. Like my mom, they all had a mental list years long of the responsibilities they had taken on in family, church, community, school, what were called “civic arts” at the time.  These moving and shaking women truly did linger, on a tight schedule, enjoying the deep understanding and discreet knowledge they shared but did not share out loud, exchanging anecdotes about their kids, just drinking in each other’s presence, being in true company.

My mother was, however, also an expert and efficient lingerer. When she made her cup of herbal tea of an afternoon and braced her aching varicose-veined legs straight up on a chair or a wall, she was instantly and completely relaxed, free of thought, basking in the relief of a well-earned break. When she laid down for a nap (again on the floor), she was out like a light, immediately.

Of course, the direct opposite of lingering, in my book, is procrastination.  My beloved says procrastination is the hardest work we do.  Avoiding hard tasks that make demands of us, whether by screwing off, doing busywork, or perhaps most painful of all, pretending to address the task at hand, yet knowing we are not doing what needs to be done, is exhausting and demoralizing. Two years ago, my New Year’s non-resolution was to attack the tasks I most dread, which have, perhaps, been lingering the longest. (I’ve done reasonably well, but you are next Direct TV, who courted me under false pretenses and have overcharged us from the beginning, although I know it will be a multi-hour phone call, hence the procrastination….)

I guess, when it comes down to it, there is way too little pure, unadulterated lingering. Here’s to a summer of straight-ahead, unimpeded work when work must be done, and delicious, intentional lingering in the in-betweens.

* Rilke’s Archaic Torso of Apollo struck me in the heart when I first read it, in German, with a little translation help, at 22.

Mary Peckham for The Poplar Grove Muse

The State of Our Union

Riding the roller coaster of network news is exhausting.  Since November of 2016, many of my evenings consisted of fixing dinner then watching MSNBC. Chris, Chris, Rachel, Lawrence and, when awake, Brian.  One night in January I hopped off the ride. I ate my dinner, sat down in front of the television, but my hand refused to go near the remote.  I didn’t want to hear a word, a clap. I didn’t want to see more standing up and sitting down than a Catholic Mass. I refused to watch Pence and Ryan raise stiff arms when “Heil to the Chief” played. Oh, did I spell that wrong? Oh well. I didn’t want to hear what I was sure would be the misrepresentation of accomplishments – the same reason I don’t watch the press conferences, except the ones on Saturday Night Live.  So, I played soothing music instead, Women Writing for a Change kind of music, and I breathed deeply.

Damn notifications!  I didn’t think about turning them off of my phone or my computer.  The New York Times, keeping me in the loop, CNN letting me know they were streaming live.  I don’t give a flying…well you know what flies.

One thing I am certain of is that I have to stop letting him take up residence in my brain.  I need to do something rather than get tearful every time I think about the environment, the parks, the dreamers, the poor…our rights.  I wonder how I will look in  a red cape?  No, I forgot,  it will be green for me – not my favorite color.

I want to sit in front of the TV, at work, like we did in 1973, when we watched John Dean testify and do his part to take down a president.  Nixon’s crimes stand in the shadow of the crimes of the current resident of 1600.  But most of all, I want to turn on the TV and see what I saw on  August 9, 1974, a disgraced President boarding a helicopter. Will he wave, or will he flip us off?  I want to see his followers, in lock-step, boarding the copter behind him.  Heil to the Chief.

It is May now – no helicopter yet.  I cancelled my cable last month.  I had to look in the mirror and realize that I was doing the same thing I freely criticized others for doing. The only difference – the network I was watching. I admit, the first night, the withdrawal was intense. I do find that I am happier with my head in the sand just a little.  I still get CNN notifications and subscribe to the Times and the Post. I didn’t cancel my passion about the state of our union.  I know there are many working very hard  to get someone to do what John Dean had the courage to do.  Who will it be?  Who will stand up? It needs to be soon.

Sherri “Martha” Walker for the Poplar Grove Muse

Mother’s Day Letter (May 7, 2018)

My mother, Pauline Baker, is 91 years old, has been a widow for almost two years, and lives alone on the family farm in Southeastern Indiana. My blog entry today, a Mother’s Day letter to her, is about connections—family, community, earth.  Picture Mom walking out her front door, holding onto the rail beside her front steps as she makes her daily trip to the mailbox, then going back into the small, two-story farmhouse, opening the card addressed to her, and sliding both card and letter from the envelope. She’ll let you read it when she’s finished—she always leaves her cards and letters on the kitchen counter for at least two weeks for family and neighbors to read when they drop by. She’ll probably even pour you a cup of coffee to sip along with the reading. Enjoy.

Dear Mom,

Next Sunday is Mother’s Day so I thought I’d better get started on a letter to you—you know how I am about remembering things at the last minute, a day late and a dollar short, sometimes a month late and ten dollars short, but I usually manage somehow and don’t mind that my last minutes and shallow pockets have become part of family lore.

Yesterday didn’t meet the criteria for a day of rest that Sundays have traditionally honored in our family, but we took time to smell the roses along the way—metaphorically, of course. Roses aren’t blooming yet, for one thing, and if Bill had taken time to smell them, his allergies would’ve clobbered his head and mucous membranes—not the optimum combination for a preacher! No roses, but red buds, dogwoods and crab apples, blankets of yellow wildflower fields, and the many shades of spring green as far as our eyes could see filled our senses as we buzzed along the roads, to and from our destinations.

We left the house (and our sad-eyed puppy) at 9AM and didn’t get home till after dark, after 10PM, after the chickens were roosting and the duck had given up her vigil at the open chicken house door and was sleeping against the far wall in a pile of hay with her head tucked under her wing. It was a long day, a full day, brimming with friends and community—a hundred and forty-mile zig-zag from home to Terre Haute to Bloomington and back home again.

We didn’t linger long after Bill’s preaching gig at the Terre Haute UU Church—grabbed a cup of coffee for the road and drove to our Bloomington church to help with the annual talent auction. We arrived just in time to get the last two bowls of Vivian’s vegetarian noodle soup for lunch, which brought us back to earth and ready for the task at hand.

Darrell was auctioneer, as usual, and Bill was his sidekick, so you can imagine their twin antics, unrehearsed, feeding off each other’s spur of the moment commentary and quips. It was a fast paced, laughter filled, lucrative fundraiser. It amazes me that Bill and Darrell still crack me up after more than fifty years of hanging out with them! And I was one of the two “Vannas” who held up auction items, paraded them up and down the aisles for all to see, and, in general, added to the spectacle. Neither of us Vannas have long slender waistlines or glitz and glamour like the real Vanna, and we both wear comfortable shoes, but our unaltered, aging beauty and genuine connection to the gathered community far surpasses hers—at least that’s my biased opinion.

We had only two hours, not enough time to drive home, love on our puppy and take naps before the concert we had tickets for at 7PM, and Bill had worked up an appetite since that bowl of noodle soup, so we went to Nick’s and shared a fish sandwich—my share was about five bites.  Of course, I always think of you when there’s fried catfish involved—so glad you enjoyed the first catfish out of our lake this year.  I can pretty much count on Bill to follow through when I ask him to: “Go catch a catfish for Mom.”

The concert we attended was the final performance of an acapella women’s group, Kaia, that has been part of Bloomington’s music scene for fourteen years—songs from around the world, in their traditional languages, and songs for justice and peace. We know most of the seven women who sing in it and love their harmonies and rhythms and message. It was a beautiful and bittersweet concert (since it was their last), and a worthy ending to our long day.

So now, on this blue-sky, sunny Monday morning, Bill has gone again to Terre Haute, to visit Chad, the young man he mentors on death row; Obi (that aforementioned “puppy” who’s almost three years old!) is on the rug at the back door, watching for squirrels, and hoping I’ll close this missive (her vocabulary is quite advanced for a dog of her age) and take her to the creek soon. I’m supposed to go to a meeting in town, but think I’ll beg off—I need to spend today at home—all day long.

Wishing you were here to hang out with me, to see the hostas, ferns, wild phlox and azaleas in my front yard. To walk up to the garden and see where we’ve tilled, weeded, trimmed and planted a few seeds; to see the pear tree, apple trees, and blueberry bushes in bloom. To eat some leftover beef stew with me for lunch and read a few chapters of whatever books we’re into before taking an early afternoon nap. (Obi will let you have her recliner since you’re the honored guest.)  And I have a couple of pieces of peach cobbler left that we could put a dipper of ice cream on and have with our three o’clock coffee. I do wish you lived closer, Mom, so we could spend more time together. I love you, I’m glad you’re my mom, and I am so very grateful that you are still at the hub of our opinionated, story-telling, diverse, loving, and mostly functional family.

Happy Mother’s Day!

With love and gratitude,