Poetry Friday: In Blackwater Woods  by Mary Oliver

Today’s Poetry Friday is hosted by Tricia at The Miss Rumphius Effect 

blackwater pond

It’s hard to believe, because hardly a day has since passed when I have not reached for some work of hers, but I discovered Mary Oliver by chance as I was rifling through the “Used and slightly damaged” book bin at the Strand Bookstore.  A copy of “American Primitive” with just its front cover page missing was among other treasures, and although I didn’t know Oliver, I did know and love Stanley Kunitz’s poetry, and this is what he had to say on the back cover blurb:

“Mary Oliver’s poetry is fine and deep; it reads like a blessing.  Her special gift is to connect us with our sources in the natural world, its beauties and terrors and mysteries and consolations.  American Primitive enchants me with the purity of its lyric voice, the knowing freshness of its perceptions, and the singular glow of a spiritual life brightening the pages.”

Memory tells me that the book fell open to this poem, but I think this is the way I have chosen to remember it:

In Blackwater Woods  by Mary Oliver

Look, the trees
are turning
their own bodies
into pillars

of light,
are giving off the rich
fragrance of cinnamon
and fulfillment,

the long tapers
of cattails
are bursting and floating away over
the blue shoulders

of the ponds,
and every pond,
no matter what its
name is, is

nameless now.
Every year
I have ever learned

in my lifetime
leads back to this: the fires
and the black river of loss
whose other side

is salvation,
whose meaning
none of us will ever know.
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,
to let it go.


I’ve bought every one of Oliver’s books since then, and have never failed to have been moved by  her poems and essays.  I tried to remember her “Instructions For Life: Pay attention. Be astonished. Tell about it.” every time I went for a walk or lost my way in the banality of daily life.  Many of her poems became life anthems, words I could call up for consolation and motivation in equal measure.  They are a blessing.


Poetry Friday: Shifted Perspective

This week’s Poetry Friday is hosted by Kathryn Apel


The writing group I belong to meets on Tuesdays.  This is always an incentive to have something to share: a work in progress, an idea to be fleshed out, a piece that has been revised.  This Tuesday, I had nothing.  I wrote a Slice of Life, however, as a way to jump start an idea I’d been mulling over: how my perspective of winter, my first here at the farm, had morphed since it first arrived in November.

Then, with an hour to go until writer’s group, I “found” this poem in that Slice of Life, with a little inspiration from a quote from Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden: “If you look the right way, you can see that the whole world is a garden.”

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Slice of Life Tuesday: Winter perspectives


The first winter at the farm.  It has not been a bad winter, yet, a winter such as it was last year for instance…yet.  But, we are just a week into January, and I have no illusions or predictions about what might well lie ahead.

For the last three years, the farm has always been drenched in color when I’ve been here: soft yellow greens of Spring, then deep and dense Summer green, and the russet and red glory of Fall.  All color bled away as October gave way to November, and every view looked somewhat like a Wyeth landscape: muted, quiet, watchful.

At first, I missed the color.  The landscape seemed somewhat wrong clothed in these browns, greys, and tired yellows. The clear, piercing blue of sunny-day skies was somehow too great a contrast – it almost seemed wrong to have such a blue sky hanging over such color parched fields and hills.

Then, out of necessity I suppose, I began looking closer.  Cornfields took on a kind of grandeur – row upon row of bronze, spooling out over the valley as far as the eyes could see.  And pasture grass, flattened by wind and snow, sprinkled with morning frost, revealed their own feathery beauty.

As in so many things, there is illumination and delight in shifting one’s perspective…

“If you look the right way, you can see that the whole world is a garden.”
― Frances Hodgson Burnett, The Secret Garden

Poetry Friday: Choices by Tess Gallagher

Today’s Poetry Friday is hosted by Sylvia at Poetry for Children  

I love poems that remind me to slow down, be still, listen, and look.  When I taught sixth grade, it seemed especially important to remind the children in my class, who were glued to their devices every free moment, to do the same.  The poem below is one I’d share, discuss, and then ask my kids to do as Gallagher instructs and look up.  What did they see that was unseen before?  Their noticings became the seeds of their own poems, and “Choices” became one of those poems I tried to  share every year:

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Recently, I became mindful that the reverse of looking up for the unseen holds true, as well, for me.  Every snow fall, it seems, brings quiet gifts from the trees around the farm…if I take the time to look down.
Sometimes, the sky is such an arresting blue, or the clouds are rushing by with particular drama, or a circling hawk keeps my attention so focused that I miss these gifts entirely.  Gifts like these perfect birds’ nests, lying wedged between furrows of snow and grass, shaken free by the wind or snow:
One of the great joys of life on the farm is that there are quiet offerings everywhere, reminders to pause, be still, and look up and down to take full measure of  them.  I haven’t selected one word to guide me through the new year, as I usually have, but I suspect that it would be a word gesturing at the spirit of looking for the unseen, up or down.

15 Words or Less Poems

I’m joining Laura Purdie Salas here  for this Thursday’s 15 Words or Less Poems.  This is today’s prompt image:

This image makes me think of a sudden summer storm descending upon the cornfields around us in high summer, after days of dry and windless heat.

Here’s my first draft:

Silver rivers of lightning

promise cool, soothing rain

to rows of golden corn…

sweet relief.

Thanks for the writing inspiration today, Laura!


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The farm, my children, my classroom, messages from the students who will always be in my heart, shepherding, and being able to travel with my youngest daughter: the pieces of my 2018

2018 was a year for the books: I left my life’s work of teaching for the chance to be a shepherd and tend to a different kind of flock, and I left suburbia (which I was never fond of) for farmland (which, even though I’ve lived in big cities for most of my life, I inexplicably love).

Packing up my classroom was much harder than packing up our home, and although I grieved about leaving the children and the work I believed in so deeply, I knew that it was the right time to close this chapter of my career.  Leaving the home we had raised our children in was easier to do.  They had left for lives of their own anyway, and it felt strange wandering around their empty rooms, stripped bare so that they could begin furnishing apartments of their own.  By the time we were ready to “stage” the house for sale, those rooms had lost all those personal touches that children bring to their spaces, they were just rooms, and it was time for another family to settle in and grow up in that house.

Now, I await the arrival of Spring and the work  that must be done by Summer, when the sheep arrive from Tammy White’s Wing and a Prayer Farm  in Vermont.  Each day is spent researching how to care for and live with a flock of sheep, and what to do with the lovely wool they produce.  School chores give way to farm chores, the hustle and bustle of a classroom gives way to those of the farmyard, and books about pedagogy give way to those about shepherding.

In the quiet of these winter months, I am transitioning from one way of life to another, and  I am grateful for being able to do so.  2019 promises to be another year for the books!

Poetry Friday:

Irene is hosting Poetry Friday here . 

Thanksgiving night – the farm under a full moon


It being our first Thanksgiving at the farm, I prepared for the day especially well.  Around these parts, where the nearest supermarket is forty minutes away, that meant making sure that whatever we needed for our feast was on hand.

Things went awry at breakfast, when we discovered that the kids had been in an extra eggy mood, which left us eggless.

They were also in the mood for extra helpings of bacon, which left us without any to bard the turkey.

Speaking of which, we had left the turkey on our porch since there was no space in our refrigerator to house the bird.  We had not thought to remember that below zero degree temperatures had been predicted for the night before Thanksgiving, which left us with a frozen solid bird.

So…Thanksgiving day became an exercise in adjusting plans, and settling for the less than perfect.  It turned out, no one noticed or minded.  After years and years of over thinking  the perfect feast, I just enjoyed it for what it was – a chance to be together with our family.  I think this poem captures something of that:

Thanksgiving by Billy Collins

The thing about the huge platter
of sliced celery, broccoli florets,
and baby tomatoes you had  arranged
to look like a turkey with its tail fanned out
was that all our guests were so intimidated
by the perfection of the design
no one dared disturb the symmetry
by removing so much as the nub of a carrot.

And the other thing about all that
was that it took only a few minutes
for the outline of the turkey to disappear
once the guests were encouraged to dig in,
so that no one else would have guessed
that this platter of scattered vegetables ever bore
the slightest resemblance to a turkey
or any other two- or four-legged animal.

It reminded me of the sand mandalas
so carefully designed by Tibetan monks
and then just as carefully destroyed
by lines scored across the diameter of the circle,
the variously colored sand then swept
into a pile and carried in a vessel
to the  nearest moving water and poured in–
a reminder of the impermanence of art and life.

Only, in the case of the vegetable turkey
such a reminder was never intended.
Or if it was, I was too busy slicing up
even more vivid lessons in impermanence
to notice. I mean the real turkey minus its head
and colorful feathers, and the ham
minus the pig minus its corkscrew tail.

P.S.  I had great fun looking at veggie platters such as the one Collins describes – this was my favorite, a regal-and-yet-resigned-to-its-fate looking bird.

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