Walt Wojtanik and I take pride in welcoming poets of all walks of life, years (or moments) of poetry-composing experience, ages, cultures, and belief systems. In this diverse Garden, there is a common thread that even a quick look-see is sure to reveal: many seeds of faith, blooming brilliantly. But you might need to dig just a bit deeper to discover we have a minister among us.
Come take a moment of your day to duck in and welcome our longtime poet and friend, the Reverend Linda M. Rhinehart Neas. Grab a cup of your favorite drink, sit down with us, and discover more about this delightful poet whose poems are consistently uplifting and peace-promoting.
MARIE ELENA: Welcome, Linda! Thank you for taking time to sit with me among the blooms to let us get to know you better.
There is a lot of ground I want to cover, but let’s start with this: How did you come to write poetry?
LINDA: Great question, Marie! I began writing poetry at the tender age of half-past six. My mother recited and read poetry to me all the time. At about 8, I wrote my first poem:
My baby brother’s name is Matty
and he is such a little fatty.
When it is time to go to bed,
he laughs, and laughs and shakes his head.
The poem was submitted to Horn Book Magazine for publication. I got my first rejection letter, beginning my life as a writer in earnest.
MARIE ELENA: Linda! That is just hysterically adorable! I love that you still remember it precisely, and that you sent it off for publication consideration – at 8 years old! I admire your mother for introducing you to poets and their work at such a young age, encouraging your own writing, and letting you risk and face rejection. That is love.
LINDA: Yes, it is. I didn’t know it at the time, but as with all of us, we tend not to see our parents’ qualities of goodness until much later in life. I am glad I had the chance to thank her for all she taught me.
MARIE ELENA: I’m glad too. A good lesson for all.
Is there a particular style you are drawn to, or a poet who inspires you?
LINDA: There are so many poets that I love to read. Early on, I fell in love with Emily Dickinson, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Robert Frost, Robert Service, and Rumi, to name a few. That said, my style is usually free but I enjoy writing haiku and other poetry forms, as well.
MARIE ELENA: For a moment, imagine you are in your dream writing space. What does it look like? Show us around, please.
LINDA: Oh my…well, my dream writing space is close to what I have now – computer by the window with a garden view, books I love close at hand, a cup of tea, plants, stones and angel statues around me. The only thing missing would be the ocean. In my dreams, my writing space would be in a small cottage that had a view of the sea. That would be heavenly!
MARIE ELENA: That sounds heavenly! Now, you’ve written a poem in that dream space. Please share it with us!
LINDA: Love it! And here you go …
THEATRICS OF INSPIRATION by Linda M. Rhinehart Neas
An audience of gulls and sparrows
catcall and whistle,
as the solar footlights rise along the edge
where horizon meets sea.
The Great Director calls for a backdrop spot
which rises upstage, casting a ribbon of light
on the watery floor.
A soft breeze ripples from stage left to right.
Then, on cue, the selkie raises her head,
looking soulfully at the shore.
In a flash of full sunlit spot,
her diva performance done,
she dives below,
leaving those watching –
MARIE ELENA: Thank you, Linda. Your last word describes what this poem does — leaves me breathless, from title to end.
While doing a bit of digging, I came across this poem of yours I don’t recall ever seeing.
REFUGE by Linda M. Rhinehart Neas
The church was dark,
smelling of incense and beeswax.
Silence spoke from
around the pews and pillars.
This was a blessed place –
Refuge – holy ground.
I sit on the altar steps,
too young to know the
mother, maiden, queen, crone –
hovers above me,
blue mantle, outstretched arms.
Such sad eyes,
sad perhaps because she knows –
knows the pain hidden deep
within my tiny body –
the pain stuffed deep down
within my soul.
I wish I could climb up in her lap –
the need for mother comfort
as palpable as the cold marble
on which I rest.
Outside, rain, children’s voices, seagulls
Create a backdrop for my prayers.
Inside, in the silence,
I hear the softest voice,
“You are safe… rest… you are safe…”
“Momma, I need you…”
“I am here…hush…rest…”
I lean against the altar rail,
heavy with sleep and burdens
too terrible for a seven-year-old.
Silence, warm and protective,
wraps around me
like Mary’s soft blue mantle.
Fear dissipates like
the heavy incense –
gone, but with a lingering scent,
gone, but ever-present.
With a start, I wake.
Alone – still –
but for the silence.
Soft with mother love –
tell my child’s heart
“You are home.”
*sigh* This piece touches me deeply, though I can’t pinpoint why it makes me so emotional. Was this born of personal experience? If so, may I ask you to tell us about it?
LINDA: Absolutely! Yes, this came from a personal experience.
I was raised Roman Catholic – parochial school. My family life was dysfunctional. When things got too difficult for my young heart and mind to handle, I would seek refuge in the empty church. (Our parish had a huge Gothic cathedral-style church. There were downstairs and upstairs worship areas. Downstairs was used for daily masses, had three altars and was dark wood, marble and stained glass.)
Often, I would simply go kneel/sit at the altar of Mary. The statue had deep, blue eyes that seemed to look right into my heart and soul. As a child, everything is magic, so talking to Mary and “hearing” her talk back wasn’t far-fetched, especially after being raised on Bible stories that I believed and held to be possible, even at that moment.
MARIE ELENA: Childlike faith can’t be beat, in my humble opinion.
I was interested to learn you are an ordained minister. My sister is as well! In this day and age, that still seems to be a relatively rare opportunity for a woman. What prompted you to seek this career? Or would you refer to it as your “calling?”
LINDA: For me, it is a calling, which I have had since I was a young girl. I am deeply spiritual. Since childhood, I have known that my mission in this life is to teach and exemplify Love. I wanted to be a priest/minister since childhood. However, I was always told this was not for women. Nevertheless, Spirit kept calling me to serve. Then six years ago, as I was researching an article for an online magazine, I came across The New Seminary in New York, which had a blended course for Interfaith Ministry. I wrote to inquire about the program and the rest, as they say, is history.
MARIE ELENA: Speaking as a minister, what advice would you have for the world in which we live right now?
LINDA: Simple! “Love One Another!!” These words, although said in various ways, are found in nearly every faith path.
I believe the world needs those who can Love without conditions. This is what I try to share in my poetry, in my writing and in my life.
MARIE ELENA: That love radiates from you, and is one of the traits I appreciate in you. I also deeply appreciate that you teach English as a second language to immigrants and refugees! A woman after my own heart! I am not a teacher, but I lead two Conversational English classes for immigrants and refugees at the American School for Women and Children, here in NW Ohio. I can’t even begin to tell you how much I love doing it, and how wonderful the ladies all are. But, I don’t have to tell you. You know exactly what I’m talking about! I’d love to know what led you to this path.
LINDA: Ah…this was also a long journey. I will try to be brief.
When I was about 10, our local librarian gave me permission to go to the adult section of the library to check out books on the world’s cultures. I spent hours reading about people – their beliefs, traditions, culture – from around the world.
Speed ahead several decades: I am a young mother, and our church got asked to “rescue” an exchange program that had lost their hosts the day that the students left from Spain to come to Maine for the summer. Because I was one of the local journalists, the organizer asked if I could teach the students English, even though I did not have a teaching degree. Next thing I know, I was organizing classes, creating curriculum and leading field trips for a group of 20 students ages 15-19.
I fell in love – with teaching, but most importantly with the students. They were all so grateful for the experience of learning a new language and culture. The joy they brought to the lives they touched in our community was palpable.
Fast forward again – I leave Maine for Western Massachusetts. I graduate with my BA and master’s in teaching. My first class is at a local college, teaching English to international students. Eventually, I get hired to teach at the Center for New Americans. I have been there for seven years, loving every minute.
MARIE ELENA: “The joy they brought to the lives they touched in our community was palpable.” Linda, the love you have for them is also palpable. What would you say is your favorite thing about it?
LINDA: My favorite thing about it is seeing my students grasp the language. When English finally clicks and they can express themselves clearly, it is magic! I also love that I get to use my knowledge as an ordained interfaith minister.
My students are from many cultures and many faith paths. My training allows me to be there for them when times are difficult, when they have had bad news or are in pain from memories of the past. My knowledge of their beliefs helps me to understand where they are coming from and how best to be there for them.
MARIE ELENA: I’m sure they have a great deal of appreciation for you … for your knowledge, your experience, and your love.
Is there anything about it that bothers you? Anything you would change, if you could?
LINDA: There is one thing I would change, if I had the power. This change has nothing to do with teaching, but rather how others see and respond to immigrants and refugees.
Working with immigrants and refugees has opened my eyes up to the vast inequities we live with unaware. I would change the belief that because someone has an accent and speaks a different first language, they are somehow inferior. How egocentric to think this! Many of my students have terminal degrees from their countries and yet, their achievements and knowledge are not recognized. They are required to start from scratch to be able to do the work they love. They are put into menial jobs to make ends meet – teachers, medical personnel, engineers, carpenters – all washing dishes, cleaning houses or cooking food. This makes me so sad.
MARIE ELENA: Yes, Linda. Yes. Never having heard the term, I must admit I had to look up “terminal degree.” For anyone else who may not know, this is someone who has attained the highest degree in their field of study.
Okay Linda, now for something different. You have 24 hours to spend anywhere you wish, with anyone you wish, doing whatever you choose. Where are you, who are you with, and what are you doing?
LINDA: Oh, this is tough! So many different people I would love to have 24 hours with – living and dead. But, if I choose just one, I guess I would say my love and soul mate, Roger. We would go to the Provence in France to walk through the places Van Gogh lived and painted, then go to Costa Blanca in Spain and walk along the shore, perhaps meeting up with some of my first ESL students who live there. We would simply “be” and enjoy the cultures, eat fresh local food and do lots of walking and maybe some writing *wink*.
MARIE ELENA: That sounds lovely! And I must say it doesn’t surprise me that you and Roger are soul mates. It shows, on Facebook (case-in-point, the photo above). It looks like you have known each other forever. May I be even nosier, and ask if there are children? Pets? Grandchildren?
LINDA: We have been together for 18 years of blessed love and companionship. I have four daughters and he has one. We have had pets, but when our dog Molly died, we decided not to have another pet for a while. I have 11 grandchildren. They are a joy and delight. Grandmothering is the best!
MARIE ELENA: Grandmothering is most certainly the best!
You may already know that I end all my interviews with this: If there was only one thing we could know about you, what would you want it to be … and why?
LINDA: I am (most of the time) a positive person. I work to keep my energy high so that I can be a positive influence in the world, lifting others up with my poetry, writing, photography, and art. I believe passionately that the world needs Love and Hope. I try to personify that in my life.
MARIE ELENA: Wonderful words with which to end our little chat. Thank you, Linda! This has been a joy!
Linda’s blog, Words From the Heart: https://contemplativeed.blogspot.com/
Information on how to purchase Linda’s books: https://contemplativeed.blogspot.com/p/books-by-linda-m-rhinehart-neas.html