Poetry Lingers

Poetry. Part of my life for as long as I can remember. I see the little girl standing on a kitchen chair drying silver while her big sister does the plates and glasses. Mother, her hands deep in the soapy water squints through her glasses at the book propped behind the soap tray.

At the door on summer evenings

Sat the little Hiawatha;

Heard the whispering of the pine-trees,

Heard the lapping of the waters,

Sounds of music, words of wonder;

“Minne-wawa!” said the Pine-trees,

“Mudway-aushka!” said the water.

We chanted the Longfellow poem until the last pot and pan was safely stowed. I still can chant it, sometimes to the distress of my family. (I know lots more lines than I’ve put here.)

Learning poetry meant learning it by heart in my youth. At school William Ernest Henley’s Invictus—

Out of the night that covers me,

      Black as the pit from pole to pole,

I thank whatever gods may be

      For my unconquerable soul.

While at home, besides the stints with the dishes, I learned from my writer-Dad. He set Portia (Merchant of Venus) as a role model for me—a woman with a career! Thanks, Dad! For one summer, almost daily when I made my dinner-time entrance, I’d smack my forehead—“The quality of mercy is not strained, it falleth as the gentle rain. . .” Distressing family with recitation seems to be in my system.

            I gave up the memorizing game, but I’ve never stopped reading poetry; indeed, I’m now reading more than ever. Occasionally, I write some, but we’ll save that endeavor for another day. I’ve always loved women poets, so many of them speak right to my heart. Just now I’m reading Luminous Other by Robin Davidson (watch for a Story Circle Review one of these days.) who, as so many of the women poets do, can take my breathe away. How did she know?

            Women poets spill out of my overfilled books shelves—Sharon Olds, Mary Oliver, Anne Sexton, Kay Ryan, Muriel Rukeyser, Grace Paley, Marianne Moore, Rita Dove, and the current United States Poet Laureate Natasha Trethewey. Of course, there are many, many more but one has always a few favorites. Right at the top of my heap is Maxine Kumin, since the day sometimes in the 1980s that I first read her. She gi

Maxine Kumin

I love this picture of Maxine Kumin reading away. It appeared in a New Yorker interview in 2012. You can read the interview at http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/books/2012/03/poetry-questions-maxine-kumin.html

ves a wonderful mix of prose and poetry. Her poems focus on family; horses, she named one of her poetry books after Jack; dogs, children and life. She is real and a realist, but never bitter or heavy. Her prose is straightforward. I learned much about poetry, both reading and writing from these essays.

Kumin 2

My Sunday afternoon.

            Last Sunday, her name appeared in a headline in the New York Times. To my dismay, it was an obituary.  After a long and mostly satisfying life and almost equally long marriage (66 years) Maxine Kumin died. I cannot mourn the end of this long life; rather I rejoice that it touched mine and that will not end. (You can read the obituary here http://www.nytimes.com/2014/02/08/books/maxine-kumin-pulitzer-winning-poet-dies-at-88.html?_r=0 )

One approach to poetry Maxine Kumin shared with my folks. Memorize. She did herself and when teaching poetry writing, she had her students learn 55 lines a week. That’s a lot. I’m thinking that to honor both Kumin and my parents I can begin (or try to begin) to memorize a few lines a week. But where to begin? More Hiawatha? Then what do I find but an app for my phone.

            This week I’m learning, appropriately, Eternity by William Blake.

He who binds to himself a joy

Does the winged life destroy

He who kisses joy as it flies

Lives in eternity’s sunrise.

Except I’m learning it as “She who binds herself to joy.”

(To learn more about Maxine Kumin and read some of her poems visit the Poetry Foundation: http://www.poetryfoundation.org/bio/maxine-w-kumin .)

Hyacinth Hope

Hyacinth HopeImages and essay by Janet Grace Riehl 

Hope sits quietly.

So pregnant with potential.

Clearly ready to open fully at any second. 

 –Said a friend who would cringe to be thought a poet


Pop (over the phone): “What are you doing?”

Janet: “Watching my hyacinths grow.”

My mother raised flowers galore. If she was going to grow a day lily, why not 500 varieties? While she’s at it, why not map out each color and kind on graph paper and then plant the beds like a Monet painting? Why not stake them as if in an arboretum and then move them around to improve the real life painting? Her only problem was that being equipped with only three children and one husband she was short-staffed

I knew firsthand the price of those glorious garden paintings, and never grew flowers—inside or out. Then, by chance I found that if I kept my garden on a tiny scale I could be an avid gardener too.

I wheeled my cart past hyacinths in the store—blooming and pricey. The wafting scent stayed with me even when I unloaded the groceries in my father’s kitchen.  A field trip was in order to White’s Greenhouse on the other hill. I went to school with Jim. He started his business in 1976, and now its annual revenue exceeds $5 million. Yet, it’s still an unassuming family business. I stepped inside the greenhouse late in the day.

“Do you have hyacinths yet?”

“None blooming.”

“That’s okay. I’d rather grow them from the bulbs.”

She took me over to a cluster of pots with green spears just poking up through the dirt.

“We have pink and blue. What would you like?”

I chose blue and left with three pots—each filled with three plants—all for less than $25. Back at my father’s I soaked them, and left them in the cardboard flat they came in. They rested on my floor of my upstairs bedroom with indirect light so they wouldn’t come on too fast.

1 Hyacinths pushing up

I went back to my place in St. Louis for a few days. When I came back, I saw humps of dirt displaced by the energetic plants bursting upwards. This time when I packed to go back to the city I took them with me in a white oval enamel wash pan I grabbed from our back porch.  Back in my apartment I placed them by my picture window where I could keep a good eye on them.

I’d only known gardening as hard work—without the joy. But in my secret garden I was surprised by joy as I watched the little plants poke through the dirt and grow all the way to blooming. Each morning they amazed me with another upward bound. I put giant paper clips in the pots to measure their progress—like marking a child’s height in pencil on a wall. Over the next weeks more plants poked up their heads. I didn’t have 9 plants. I had 15.

2 hyacynth collage growing

I carried my hyacinths back and forth from my place in the city to Pop’s place in the country and back again and again in the white enamel pan. They proved to be good companions. Amid the blizzards and unusual chill they testified to the humbleness of the life force around us and in us. They proclaimed hope for all that is green, and good, and glorious.

3 hyacinth collage little to bloom

Yesterday I decided to transplant them. I carefully trod down the icy back steps at my father’s around the corner to our potting basement down limestone steps. I ducked through the doorway and squinted in the dim light to locate a bucket of soil and clay pots. The  plastic bag of perlite fell apart in my hands and the white beads piled on the dirt floor. I scooped up what I needed and left the clean-up for a warmer day. As I got deeper into the narrow basement in search of clay pots I found that the spiders had been busy. Along with the pots and dirt I left covered with cobwebs.

I lined the sink with newspaper and set to my task—using less than a model technique. I was definitely out of practice. But, with some gravel for drainage and some dirt and potting soil mixed with perlite, I ended up with 15 plants in 10 pots. Some of the plants came from offshoots of the same bulb; I let these be.

4 hyacinth collage blooming

Then, on to the great give-away: to my niece, one of my father’s caregivers, a friend in the city. And some for me to keep in the white enamel pan on top of the walnut chest my father made so many years ago.

Pop (over the phone): “What are you doing?”

Janet: “My hyacinths bloomed, Daddy. But I’m still watching them grow.”

S-l-o-w living is so good for the soul.

P. S. Check out Chris Bradley’s January post “Surprised by Hope.”  She gave us two writing prompts:

1) What reminds you to be hopeful?

2) Have you been physically comforted by nature?


Janet Riehl is an artist, writer, storyteller and glad when joy finds her.  You can learn more about her work at Riehl Life: Village Wisdom for the 21st Century. Creating connections through the arts and across cultures.

Surprised by Hope


A few years ago, when we arrived in Baja California for our winter stay, I was slowly recovering from a pinched nerve in my neck. After several weeks of physical therapy and medication, I was still hurting, and, in addition, I had the remnants of a nasty sinus and respiratory infection, often snorting and blowing and coughing.

On our second day, I decided to attend an informal yoga class which met nearby in order to force my body to relax.

I joined in with the group, a little nervous as to my abilities, but determined to do what was good for me. Ten minutes into the class, the tickle in my throat took over; I coughed continually and could not make myself stop. Self-conscious, wary of disturbing the others, and disappointed, I stepped outside to try to quiet myself, to take control.

I was upset and embarrassed about interrupting the others by my exit, and I sat on a large rock to regain my composure.

And then–as I continued to focus on my negative feelings and on the tension in my neck–a hooded oriole landed in the bougainvillea next to me, brilliant orange amid brilliant fuchsia, turquoise water as background, and suddenly I was pulled into that moment, into awareness of the beauty around me. I heard in my head Emily Dickinson’s line: “Hope is the thing with feathers.”

The rustle of hope incarnate, the gorgeous detail of nature’s landscape, eased the tension in my body, and the tickle in my throat was gone.

Writing Practice:

What reminds you to be hopeful?

Have you been physically comforted by nature?

For quite a few years, Chris Bradley taught English and creative writing to high school students in the Texas hill country. She now has time to travel, garden, ride horses, and mountain bike, but she still misses those discussions with students and continues to be thankful for all the lessons which they taught her.  Chris blogs at www.practicingwonder.com
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Photo by Chris Bradley.

Daddy Care: Chatting about death as we were…


Pop playing violin

Photo and Essay by Janet Grace Riehl

Excerpt from “King’s Sake” From “Sightlines: A Poet’s Diary”

By Janet Grace Riehl

For my father, Erwin A. Thompson

The Old King is dying, and he knows it. 

The Old Ways are dying, and he knows it.

 The Old Music is dying, even as he plays it.


The only thing he’ll die of is old age.

Or, maybe old age and a broken heart that keeps on breaking.

The Old King is dying. Long live the King!

*****   ****    ****    ****

 Chatting About Death As We Were….

“Grace, shall we put the kettle on?” It’s the night before my 65th birthday and we’re celebrating with a friend nearing 90. After a yummy dinner out, we’re ready to snuggle in front of the fire, eat sweets, and open presents.  Then the call comes. Pop has taken a bad turn. Daniel and I hug Grace good-bye, head for the car, and arrive back at Pop’s in 30 minutes—record time.  I walk in the door, kick off my shoes, drop my coat and purse in an easy chair, and quickly move into his bedroom.  Virginia, a long-time family friend, has come over from the other hill to stay with my father. She’s a nurse, and tells me how my father came near choking to death.

“I’m miserable. I feel like dying. My back hurts so much.” Coming from my father these words have additional force. He’s not a man who likes to admit any kind of weakness.  We plug in the electric massager. I’m trying to do it one-handed while calling my brother when Virginia sensibly takes over. He leans back to rest. I call the Hospice night duty nurse. Fortunately we know the woman on call. Kim has met my father and like many a gal before her has fallen under his charm. It’s hard not to. When he wants to pour it on, it flows like a river. Pop gets on the phone. “Honey, I’m just fine. There’s no need to you to come out. I’d hate to bother you.” Virginia and I roll our eyes; we know this one so well.  Then, because he hasn’t coughed for awhile, she goes home.  It’s just Daniel, Pop, and me.

“What can I do to help?”

“The best thing is for you to get some sleep. This may be a long night, and at least one of us ought to be rested.”

Now it’s just Pop and me. He can’t get comfortable no matter how he tries—as a woman might in hard labor. He lurches from the bed he usually sleeps in to the nearby hospital bed we have at the ready. Then he rocks at the edge of the bed. As he lurches from bed to bed I spot him as if he were jumping on a trampoline. He repeats over and over the refrain: “I’m miserable. I feel like dying. My back hurts so much.”

I settle him on the hospital bed long enough to use the electric massager and knead him with my hands. Eventually he calms, and curls up to sleep.

Upstairs I change from my black velvet sheath into flannel pajamas. When I go back down, I sleep across the room from him. As I listen to his raspy breathing I imagine that it must be something like being with a baby in a nursery. When his breathing evens, I go upstairs to cuddle with Daniel in my bed. At 1 a.m. Daniel says, “I hear your father. He’s up.”

When I get to him, he’s on the toilet. I sit on the bathtub, and we chat about what’s happened. I need to change his clothes, but before I can get the clean set on, he staggers forward. “Don’t worry about that. I just want to get back to bed.” I support him as he walks the three yards before he dives into bed. This is not my father. Despite my father’s difficulty in getting around he has remained graceful and in touch with his body.  I rush forward to straighten him out. He can’t lift his legs. I lift them for him and pivot them onto the bed. I’ve never seen him so weak. I call the hospice nurse back. She’ll be here in 40 minutes.

The quiet darkness is strangely comforting and strengthening. “My mind is clear. I am just having trouble.” There’s a lag time between thought and speaking. Just as he doesn’t have control of his body, he doesn’t have complete control of his language. He scans his body.

“My right foot hurts. I can’t feel my toe.” I rub my hands together like fire sticks so that my warmth can seep into his foot. “Is that better?” It is, but now his hip hurts. I move to the other side of the bed and lift his hip so I can find the tight muscle. “Better?”

Yes, and now his hand hurts. I come back again to clasp his hand.  “I’m here, Pop. I’ve got your hand.”

“And, I’m glad you’re here. I’m glad you do have my hand. You are my lovebird, my 24-hour girl. I love you.” Goodness gracious. My father is old-school. I’ve heard him say, “I love you” maybe 5 times in my life. In our family love is unspoken. If you don’t know you’re loved, then you are some kind of stupid. How could you not know? Still, it’s nice to hear. Is he talking to me or to my late mother, though? No matter, I am here. I’ll take it.

“Just think, Pop, it’s officially my birthday. You and mother had quite a go of it 65 years ago getting me born.”

“Yes, that was a good thing.”

The Hospice nurse arrives around 2:30. I meet her at the door. I’m so glad it’s Kim. She’s warm, matter-of-fact, calm, and totally has Daddy’s number.

“How are you Mr. Thompson? I heard you had a little adventure.”

“Honey, now that you’re here, I’m just fine.”

“Are you feeling pain anywhere?”

“No. How could anyone feel pain with a pretty nurse beside him?”

Kim looks over at me, and we do the eye-roll, shake our heads, and suppress a giggle. She checks his blood pressure, oxygen, heartbeat, and respiration. His hands are grey and waxy, but it looks like he’ll make it yet again. She’s there for over an hour. When he seems stable, she gets up to leave.

“Good-bye, Mr. Thompson. I’m glad you’re feeling better.”

“I need my hug. That’s the best medicine.” He gets a pretty good one. It’s not easy to leave my father. He keeps talking and talking. Finally I say, “Kim, you’re just going to have to go.” I walk her back to the door. He’s still talking when I get back.

“Janet, I hurt so much before. But now it’s like nothing ever happened. Everything’s alright.”

“It’s like a moment of perfect peace. No matter what happens, you’ll be alright.”

“Yes.” He drops off, and begins to snore softly.

At 4 I make my way upstairs for another round of sleep. When I wake at 7 and pad downstairs, he’s still sleeping. I hang out in the other bed until he opens his eyes and gets ready for the bathroom trek. Like last night I support him there and back. He is too weak to raise himself on the handles of the walker. Once again I lift his legs and pivot him back into bed. Later I bring in his morning medicine, and prop him up while he takes it.

“Janet, let me tell you about the good thing that happened last night.”

“Yes, Daddy.”

“I stopped hurting. I felt that everything would be alright.”

“Yes, it was a moment of perfect peace, wasn’t it? Even if you would have died then, you’d have been fine.”


When he wakes again around 11 he says, “Well, I’ve been lying around here long enough. Time to get up.” And, so he does. I help him dress, and lever himself up to the walker. Like a turtle on drugs he creeps towards his recliner. He makes it! We swing into the morning routine: breakfast, foot soaking, and so on. He stays up until 4.

“Why don’t you go to bed, Daddy?”

“I was just thinking about that.”

I help him get ready for bed, and then read him a bedtime story from one of the Westerns he wrote when we were children. “That’s it for tonight. We’ll take up the story tomorrow night where we left off.”

“Janet, let me tell you about a good thing that happened last night.”

And he does.

To Those Who Write the Words of Their Personal Experience:

by Sheila Bender

It isn’t an easy path to write from personal experience. There are no guarantees that editors will want to publish what we have to say and no guarantees that we will successfully find a way to say it, publication or not. What is guaranteed is that committing words to the page and revising our writing until it successfully makes contact with others changes our lives in unexpected directions.

Writing takes courage and affirmations about writing help us value our personal writing and acquire this courage. After a Writing It Real writers’ conference during which participants shared fresh work and enjoyed time to help one another craft their early starts, I wrote these:


That we write because we feel the need,

That we write because we want to reflect on the meaning in our experience,

That we write because we want to get something down for others to read after we are gone,

That we write because we are alive and writing makes us more alive,

That we write because it is a form of play,

That we write because it brings us into contact with other writers whose minds and hearts we resonate with,

That we write because it makes us the people we want to be

makes writing a gift we cannot refuse to accept.

Sharing our writing with trusted readers and learning to hear what our writing wants to discover, we not only grow our poems, our essays, and our stories but we grow ourselves, creating a path toward self-actualization.

The Person’s Mark

signed gladys jones

The smell of Dove soap can evoke memories of my maternal grandmother, even though she died fifty years ago when I was in first grade.  When I see a red rose bush, I think of her garden,  and the taste of rainbow sherbet reminds me of her gentle kindness.

Two of her former possessions grace my display shelves, and those two beautiful pieces of pottery evoke not just Grandmother (known to her friends by her unusual name of Matybel),  but, because  they were made by one of her friends, they also remind me of her connections to her community.

Gladys Jones and my grandmother both belonged to the local garden club, and Miss Gladys was a talented potter.  I suspect my grandmother received these two vases as part of a holiday gift exchange, and I treasure their lovely shapes:

made by gladys jones

gladys jones pottery

I have a passion–which I probably developed during early visits to Grandmother’s home–for handmade pottery, for its earthiness and colorful glazes.

Even more, I treasure the idea that I am connected through handmade pieces to artisans, in this case to Miss Gladys, who I believe was born in 1900 and died three years after my grandmother.

Miss Gladys’ own grandchildren (they called her “Mama Gladys” and her husband “Papa Frank”) were schoolmates of mine and of my siblings, and I recall her as a gracious presence at many of the small community gatherings of my young childhood.

Her family is part of my group of lifelong friends.  There are myriad connections, the kind which occur in small Texas hill country towns such as the one where my grandmother lived and where I grew up.

I love thinking of Miss Gladys and her family and of my grandmother and her generosity when I daily notice these items fashioned by hand from the earth itself.

My favorite pottery bowl, the one which looks especially beautiful with lots of brightly colored chopped veggies mixed in with salad greens, was made more than thirty years ago by Roger Garrison, a neighbor of the Jones family for many years.

rogers bowl

signed roger

The father of a high school friend of mine, he had married into an important hill country pioneer family. His mother-in-law, Mrs. Bob Davis (nee Annie Auld), sat in the same spot of the same pew during Sunday morning services at the Baptist Church for the first twenty years of my life.

A World War II veteran, Roger became a potter after a distinguished career with the U. S. Air Force and was a kind and humorous man with a lively intellect.  His wife, Lora Bea, has shared stories and history and wisdom and warmth as a natural part of her character for as long as I have known her.

I feel privileged to honor the love Roger had for all humanity by sharing food with friends–that everyday type of communion–served in the bowl made by his hands.

So this week, I nodded in understanding to read Aimee Bender’s words:  “That’s the thing with handmade items. They still have the person’s mark on them, and when you hold them, you feel less alone.”

Writing Practice:

What sensory details evoke memories for you?  Describe them.

What handmade items have particular meaning to you?  Who made them and what feelings do they evoke?

For quite a few years, Chris Bradley taught English and creative writing to high school students in the Texas hill country. She now has time to travel, garden, ride horses, and mountain bike, but she still misses those discussions with students and continues to be thankful for all the lessons which they taught her.  Chris blogs at www.practicingwonder.com
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Photos by Chris Bradley.

The Balance Beam

This is the fourth installment in Khadijah’s series, Splitting the World Wide Open, in which we discuss finding your passions and writing for change.

After my last post, someone left a comment saying in part, “I feel compelled to point out that having 8 children is antithetical to your stated “commitment to treading lightly on the Earth.” You don’t ever make mention of your children being adopted, which would be an entirely different story.

This was not the first time this criticism has been offered, and I strongly suspect that it will not be the last. At first I thought I should answer it at length, address the issue of overpopulation and food justice, talk about how my family and I leave a footprint equal to one average person living in the West, ask her probing questions to see how many places she may be falling short when it comes to living lightly and consciously in this world. Then I realized that in doing that, I would be falling short myself, veering from the path I set for myself when I first began teaching and speaking years ago. The path of gentleness, kindness, and presenting possibility rather than focusing on deconstruction.

Whatever your passion, whatever change you want to make in the world, it is crucial that you understand why you feel it is important to spread the message and help make that change happen. To that end, I read extensively. One of my favorite authors is Sharon Astyk, author of Depletion and Abundance: Life on the New Home Front and Making Home: Adapting our Homes and our Lives to Settle in Place. She does an excellent job of balancing the facts (“Just the facts, Ma’am”) with the “What can I do now, and what can I strive to do in the future?” aspects of climate change and many other issues that are facing humankind today. On top of that, she lives what she believes- she truly walks the talk- and that means a lot to me. In other words, she is a role model in any number of ways; and that, to me is the game changer. Words are great, but show me what you do to live them and I’m sold.

I remember last summer I went to an open house at Dancing Rabbit Ecovillage in Missouri. Officially established in 1997, Dancing Rabbit is a thriving example of what people can do if they band together and live what they believe. One thing, though, made me think deeply. Until very recently, the ecovillage was completely off the grid. In his talk, co-founder Tony Sirna said that they had recently decided to go back on the grid to a certain degree. When he said this, my first thought was that this sounded like a step backwards. Happily, I didn’t say anything, because after listening to his explanation of why, I saw the wisdom in what they did. Basically, he said that not everyone wants to live off the grid. They want lights when they want them. They don’t want to have to worry if there are no sunny days for a month. In essence, by giving people in the village a choice of connecting to the grid in whatever capacity they chose, they opened their arms wider to allow more people in- and this, essentially, is their goal. To reach as many people as they can- not to get them to come live there necessarily, but to urge them to examine their lives and see what changes they can make to tread more lightly on the earth; not just environmentally, but with an awareness of social justice and other issues as well. By widening their scope, they hope to affect a greater audience, and thus a greater change.

amran16This. Instead of looking at where everyone is falling short, I try to focus on where they can do better. Instead of seeing just what I think is wrong with the world, I try to focus on the steps needed to make positive change. Perhaps it is true (and I actually don’t believe it is- for a detailed explanation go here) that everyone should stop having children, or be forced to only have one child per family. But in reality, that isn’t going to happen unless some Orwellian changes take place globally. The reality is, many people who care about people, who care about the environment, who care about social justice, will have children, be it one or three or seven or thirteen. I don’t see the purpose in criticizing them, or trying to take them down, or dismissing them as ignorant or uncaring. Rather, they should be encouraged to take whatever steps they can towards good. They should be shown how to live simply while enjoying the abundance of what they have been given.

We have to work with the reality we have been given. I can’t see people voluntarily giving up their cars tomorrow because of peak oil or the havoc wrought by auto emissions on the environment- though we personally don’t own a car and have not had one for over ten years. Does that mean I write all motorists off, or waste my energy preaching a car-less existence to anyone who will listen?  We may not all agree on the causes of the problems, and we may not all agree on the solutions- in fact, we may not agree on the problems at all- but I believe my time is best spent sharing information, doing my personal best so that I can be an example to others, growing community, and building bridges.

How about you? How do you approach these issues? I look forward to reading your responses below!

Khadijah and her family are currently transitioning to 20 acres in southern Missouri, after spending ten years living in Yemen in the capital city of Sana’a as well as in both mountain and seaside villages. She is a student, teacher, herbalist, writer and translator who has had several books published on the subject of Islaam, as well as a children’s poetry book. She is currently working on a women’s herbal book and another children’s book as well as her own story which you can read about at Yemeni Journey. She also writes about sustainable living at Wide Earth.