Barbara Meier Mayfield is a risk-taker, a poet and a kindergarten teacher. After a period of loss - both personal and professional - she refocused her life, getting back in touch with who she is at her core and started writing again.
We both attended the same undergraduate college – Southwestern College in Kansas. After too many years of no contact, we recently reconnected and chatted about her multi-faceted life.
Barbara: OK, not to brag or anything, Dennis, but I have this big pond right outside my window too.
Barbara: And it's called the Pacific Ocean.
Dennis: Is it really outside your window? Seriously?
Barbara: Yes. Well, it’s… I have a view of it outside my window. [laughs]
Barbara: Yeah. Yeah. So, you know, I was like… I look out at that and then I go, “Am I really here?”
Dennis: So where are you in Oregon, then?
Barbara: I'm in Gold Beach Oregon.
Dennis: Which is?
Barb: Which is a very small town. But as I've found out by living out here that it's different being a tourist than it is living in a community like this. And it's a lot of poverty and a lot of wealth – not much in between.
Dennis: Wow. Interesting… Interesting.
Barbara: So it's real interesting to be in a small town again and have to drive to get and do anything anywhere.
Barbara: But I do have this big pond outside my window, which is really nice. But you know, so it's nice being near water.
Dennis: Yeah! Good for you!
Barbara: Okay. So when I was little, I used to dream of flying all the time, jumping off the barn roof, soaring through the clouds and flying and dipping. It happened all the time. I don't have the dream as an adult but when I was a kid. And you know, it's funny because I talked to an aunt on my ex’s side and she said she used to have the same dream. So then a couple of years ago, there's hang gliding right where I used to live and it was at this winery. And I was talking with this hang glider from New York and I said, “You know, I used to have this dream.” And he goes, “You know, a lot of hang gliders and paragliders had these dreams while growing up and that's why we wind up hang gliding and paragliding.” And so I thought, “You know, you can do tandem jumps and do that.” And I'm thinking, “You know, I really should do that someday.” And I wrote a poem about that, actually, about paragliding in Kansas and Oregon, all based on that dream of flying.
Dennis: Have you paraglided yet?
Barbara: No. I was going to but then I moved over here. But I think I might… I've seriously entertained the idea because you can do a tandem with a professional.
Barbara: And where I lived in Southern Oregon, Woodrat Mountain was like right up the road from where I lived and we use to go up there all the time, just to watch and see. And so I know the place to go, it's only like a hundred bucks. But just because of that dream and that memory, see, Dennis, so you probably are supposed to hang glide or paraglide too.
Dennis: Got to do it. I've hot air ballooned a couple of times which was pretty magical.
Barbara: Oh, I would do that. I've never done that either.
Dennis: You crawl in the basket and then suddenly, the ground just kind of slips away.
Dennis: And it's quiet and it's just… you're just up there it’s like, “That's just too easy.” And it's cool because you're flying and of course there's no wind because you're flying at the speed of wind, right? So it's calm and you hear everything from the ground. You hear all the sound coming up from below you. It's amazing. Kids playing in the yard, you can hear every word. It's like… it’s really cool.
Barbara: Well, I did research, then, on what actually happens when you're hang gliding or paragliding with the thermals and stuff, the turkey vultures and how they watch them testing to see where the winds are because you're basically just catching these thermals and you're jumping and you can… You actually fly for miles. You can soar, fly, glide for miles. And so I think about that diving in and out of clouds and the clouds is so… I mean it was a wonderful in literary metaphors.
Dennis: Yeah, yeah, yeah!
Barbara: Kind of like the childhood and then when you become an adult, you lose that ability to fly because you are this adult. But I think there's probably some of us that have not lost that.
And I had this realization probably about maybe five or six years ago that, you know, there's a lot of stuff that I never did because I wasn't good at it or at least I didn’t have the talent for it and all of that. And what I came to the realization is, is that, you know, I may never be at an artistic, fantastic level, but I can do anything if I teach myself. And that, yeah, okay so maybe I'm not an artist like as a painter or something like that, does that mean I shouldn’t take a class on watercolors and learn it and see the technique? Why not? To learn it and to do it. Why deny myself something that I want to try just because I'm not good at it? I can’t do that.
Dennis: Couldn’t agree more!
Barbara: And it's already happening with my five-year-olds. You know, “I can’t do that.” Well you know, my favorite thing is “can’t” means “you won’t.” You’ve got to try. It's a matter of trying. And it’s risk taking. And I think maybe that's what people get scared about is they don't want to… they're scared to take that risk. And so they deny themselves trying. You know what, I may never have a watercolor display, but you know what, someday I’d love to take a watercolor class – just to do it. And just to learn to draw. Why not? And I don't deny myself those things anymore because I can't do them because I'm not any good at it. And it's scary to take those risks but I have found that it's worth it to take those risks. Which kind of leads into your dream thing of – I think part of that dream thing is taking risks, you know? Taking that step and risking.
And I have to go back, okay, there's another thing in education about there are global teachers and then there are the linear teachers. Global see the whole picture, you know, and they break it down into smaller parts. Other people take the smaller parts and build up to global. So global people are usually… global teachers are messy and creative and they know all this stuff. And what I have found in the last five years of my life is that, you know, I was being condemned for being one of those global teachers because my room was messy, you know?
Barbara: Because I let the kids make messes because I think learning is messy. And I had a principal that the room had to be neat. It had to be perfect. And she, you know, was going to write me up for my messy room because I spent more time teaching than I did cleaning up. And it's not like it was like health hazard or anything like that, it's just that that to me wasn't what was important -- it was the whole picture. I'm not linear, okay?
Dennis: Listen, I love your thought about not being afraid and trying it. You know, my question always is, “What's the worst that can happen?” You know?
Barbara: Yeah. And that is something that I have learned just this late in life. One of those lessons I wish I would have learned when I was maybe 24. But I wouldn’t be the person I am today if I wouldn’t have gone through all those things that took me to this point in my life where I am a risk taker and I face rejection. And, like you said, what's the worst that can happen? And especially with my faith practice and my world view, you know, if God is really and truly in control of my life then I’ve got to leave it in his hands. And he's going to take care of me because he always has.
Dennis: Okay, yeah!
Barbara: So why not take that risk? That's why I'm here in Gold Beach Oregon. I took a risk.
Dennis: There you go.
Barbara: Took a pay cut. Moved myself over here. Gave up tenure [laughs] and here I am. Has it been easy? No. [laughs] It's not easy but I didn’t wanna wait until I was dead, you know? Before I did something I’ve always wanted to do which was live by the ocean.
Dennis: That's what the dream was then?
Barbara: That was one of my dreams was to live by the ocean. To see what it was like. And if I waited till I retired and had my tenure and did all of this stuff, I probably never would have got over here.
Barbara: Because, well, I got a job over here and I took up a huge pay cut because, you know what, I have sixteen years of experience and they only pay me for five years of my experience.
Barbara: So you know, that's a scary thing is to… can I live over here on this – on an amount of money I'm not used to living. Can I live over here without everything I've always been used to? And I thought, well, if I wait till I retire before I come over here to live. I've heard too many stories of people that have just… they die. [laughs] Never got to live their dream. So I thought, “Okay, I'm going to do it!”
Dennis: And how is it?
Barbara: It's hard! It's a completely different way of life than what I was used to. And I've struggled, yeah. I also know in the back of my head you know, I’ve got to give myself time, six months, blah, blah, blah, blah... Everything is completely different than anything I ever expected even though I thought I'd prepared myself. But I also know you’ve got to give things time. You know, it's never easy. It’s never easy…
Dennis: Very true.
Barbara: You know… ask me in a year.
Barbara: Ask me in a year and I'll tell you if I like it.
Dennis: There you go. Fair enough.
Barbara: I mean right now, I’ve just had… there's been too many... it's a poorer school district. They do things differently. They don't have as much money. The clientele… there’s poverty but it's a different poverty than Medford. It's not so much the entitlement poverty, which you see in Medford. The people here are at least, it's different. And I have the best class I've ever had. They do things differently. And I’ve found that, I'm very well qualified for the job. I'm very well trained and because they can’t usually get teachers like me over here…
Barbara: …they can’t pay. So, yeah, you know, I still have… I have access to rivers and the ocean and hiking and bicycling and the beach and rock collecting. And, so, yeah!
Barbara: You know what, I just know I guess that’s why you get to be our age and you realize that, “Okay, yeah, it's going to be hard for six months and then it's going to get easier.” Because when you start a new job, it's always hard. You know?
Barbara: Always. So you just got to get used to it.
Dennis: That's it!
Barbara: That's part of it.
Dennis: Okay. Well, you said that's one of your dreams. What was another dream?
Barbara: Well, the writing… and that's kind of like what I was thinking, because we were talking about. But you know, you kind of got me going on that. It has been something that you know, my senior project at Southwestern was poetry with Dr. Daniels.
Dennis: Oh, sure.
Barbara: And I was always going to you know, be published and blah, blah, blah. You know, I moved out here and I got married, I had kids and I just never did it. I just didn't do it. Like I did, I was focusing on my marriage and my kids and doing all this and being the best wife, best mom and all that I can be.
Dennis: So you stopped writing, then?
Barbara: Oh yeah. I stopped writing. I stopped acting. You know, I didn't do anything. Anything that you knew me as in college, didn’t do any of it.
Barbara: Because I get these mindsets. And so when that all fell apart, when my marriage fell apart and everything that I counted on and everything that I thought that made me who I am – my marriage, my motherhood, my relationship with my kids, my job as a teacher – all of those things, I lost them.
Barbara: What do you do with me? And so when I was going through all of that and I started thinking more about, “I'm going to do something for me now instead of doing everything for my husband, doing everything for my kids, throwing myself in everything for my classroom, everything for my job, I did all that. Never did anything for me.” Anything that I enjoyed doing, I started getting back into that. And so my favorite thing to do was to sit in Starbucks, drink my coffee and write. But you know, I was just writing for myself. And of course, the dream had always been to be published, you know? Because that's… wanting to share that.
Barbara: And I was going to look up the quote that you put on Facebook. You put a quote about following your dreams or something about… I think I have to look it up again but you had said something about dreams and doing it. And that was like, when I realized, “Okay, this is a risk. Let’s do it.” Dennis says this. That's good advice. Let’s do this! Take that risk. Take that step of faith, you know, that leap, whatever. So, I started writing and I got as far as having enough nerve to put in on a blog.
Dennis: Okay. Right.
Barbara: But nobody reads your blogs unless you really publicize. So I didn’t really have… except for people in Europe, I never could figure out why people in Russia were reading my blog.
I was like, “What?!” So, ironically, what happened is that I saw that there was a Southern Oregon Writer’s Conference in Gold Beach, Oregon. I was over here with Marcus. I was in a bookstore, saw this and went, “I think I'm going to go to that.” So I came over and I went to it and one of the seminars was on… Oh, I actually won a scholarship.
Barbara: I sent them one of my poems and I actually won a scholarship to go, which was really like getting published, right?
Barbara: Because before then I was like, “I don't know if I'm any good at this or not.” And I know that it is something that strikes me, gets me going, keeps me… it's one of my mental health strategies. It's something that I really enjoy doing. And so, one of the classes was on getting published. Well, heck, with all this online publishing, duotrope became my best friend. And so, I started sending out my stuff and started getting published. And it was like, you know, I love it. It's something that fulfills a deep, deep part of me. The working with words and creating with words and everything with my life and everything that I've learned about what writing does for me, I don't know, I guess I can’t think of the word. It's so fulfilling and it's so what I want to do. It's like, I feel driven to do it now.
Barbara: If I don't write, if I don't sit down and write, I ache inside.
Barbara: And it's also a way of… I’ve worked through my divorce. I’ve worked through the loss of relationship with my children. I’ve worked through all sorts of things: my faith, my romance, my marriage, you know. And actually what I'm doing now is, it's my memories. Taking my memories… of my childhood memories of Kansas and growing up on the farm. And it's a way of getting those down on paper. And even if I wasn't published, it would still be something that I would feel the need to do.
Dennis: I think it's great, though, that after all those years of denying yourself a part of yourself, you know…
Barbara: Yeah, I did!
Dennis: And I get that. I mean, that's happened with me with photography in the past as well. Just put it aside for a period of time. Could not figure out why I set it aside. It was insane because it’s so much a part of who I am.
Dennis: But you bring it back out and suddenly, you get that… “satisfaction” is not the right word.
Dennis: It's much deeper than that.
Barbara: Yeah. It's more. It's your heart and soul. It's your being.
Barbara: Yeah. And it was funny because I was thinking, I got one of the coldest rejection letters [laughs] I have ever, ever received, a week ago. Because most of the time the editors… what I've discovered is it's a numbers game. And the person that gave this talk said the same thing. I would say for every maybe ten to fifteen submissions, I get one published. And it's a matter of matching up your style with the magazine that is your style. And you know, my style, my voice – which I loved the keynote speaker last year – made voice really clear for me; voice is really where you were brought up; who you are, it's the memories of your past. Because everything's been written already but it's how we say it in our voice that makes it new.
So my voice, I realized, is not everybody’s voice. And all of the editors have been gracious and kind in their rejection saying things like, “This is just not a good fit for us right now. Thank you for submitting it.” “This doesn’t fit our issue right now, but please submit in the future.” And the person – this editor – last week came right out and said… I don't know, “Thank you for submitting but it just doesn't evoke any emotional responses.” And I just went…
Barbara: “Wow!” You know? And I think, “Is she, like, twenty five?” But to make that kind of a judgment…
Barbara: …when really, what's going on is that my voice does not match her vision, her voice of what they publish in their magazine. And just to come out and say, I thought, you know, because my poetry does strike a chord with people but it doesn’t strike a chord with everybody because it's not their schema, not their background.
Barbara: There's a Midwest flavor to what I write about. There's a religious flavor to what I write about. And you know, and I'm kind of old school because I'm old, you know? [laughs]
Barbara: But old school in the sense that, you know, don't know you agree we have some of the most wonderful professors in the world at Southwestern?
Dennis: We did. Absolutely.
Barbara: You know, Dr. Daniels taught me… Dr. Wroten… Mrs. Cope… Mr. Boucher…
Dennis: Yeah, yeah!
Barbara: They exposed me to literature, like Wordsworth and Shakespeare and TS Elliot. And you know, so when I say “old school,” I'm talking about that whole range of Western European literature.
Barbara: And so yeah, I'm not too avant-garde. I guess there’s kinds of poetry going on out there that's more visual and there's stuff I haven’t even heard of before. So yeah, it may not have fit. And you know, maybe I should have done a bit of more research before I submitted to their magazine, but I just thought…
Barbara: Really? You know.
Barbara: I think that's something I can say because of my age. But, do I face rejection in what I'm doing? Going back to the rejection and the risk taking? Yeah! You know, that's a huge risk. But then when I think I was rejected by my husband. I was rejected by my children. I was rejected by my employer. What's a little email, rejecting a couple of my poems, going to feel like compared to those life rejections that I've gone through and I've worked my way through?
Dennis: That's amazing. Just to try and keep in perspective that way because you know, you send something out for publication or whatever it is and to get a rejection letter never feels good.
Barbara: No. Never.
Dennis: You know, it's an awful feeling because you have such hope that it's going to be accepted and resonate with whoever is publishing the work, you know. Because that's part of you. You want to share it and you want… the third party recognition is really lovely when it happens. But man, what you just said, though, of in comparison with other rejections, what's an email?
Barbara: Yeah. And I have to remind myself of that, though, because I still will get those emails and I will look at them for twenty-four hours before I will open them.
Barbara: Oh, yeah! Because it's like, “Oh god, is it another rejection?” I literally have to armor myself up, gird my loins, whatever, to open that email.
Barbara: But I know now the difference between now and say, when I was twenty-four, I would have just given up and quit. But I don't quit now. I'm just, “Let’s resubmit somewhere else.” And one of my favorite poems that I've sent it off ever since a year ago and it's one of my favorites and nobody has ever picked it up. And I keep looking at it going, “Why doesn’t anybody pick this poem up?” because I just think it’s lovely. I just think it's this lovely poem. And I realize that I always think, “Okay, is it the religious overtones that are to it?” Because I realize that, you know, people don't like, probably, Christian poems or religious poems or they don't want to have anything or show anything like that. And so I think is it that? What is it? But you know what? Two weeks ago, somebody finally picked it up.
Dennis: Ah, there you go!
Barbara: It's going to get published. So I finally found the place for it.
Dennis: Outstanding! Congratulations!
Barbara: So, yeah! So, my dream? It’d be kind of nice to have a Pushcart Award someday. But will I live without it? Sure! It’d be kind of nice to be published and maybe go to a writer’s conference and be a keynote speaker because I’d be really good at that.
Dennis: You’d be great!
Barbara: Oh, I’d rock the audience. You know what? [laughs]
Barbara: Plus, I’m a teacher, you know? And I would be very good at that because I'm a very good teacher. And you know what, I have not been in a play in over thirty years but I can totally get up in front of people and talk. I do want to do a play again someday.
Dennis: Yeah, really?
Barbara: And it's a risk for me because it's been over thirty-five years since I've been in a play.
Dennis: I'm just a couple of years behind you on that because I've not been in a show in forever either.
Barbara: Well, has it been since college?
Dennis: Yeah. I did one thing at a church a bunch of years back. We did a little staging of something and that's it.
Dennis: But I do keynotes. I do keynotes on a regular basis and do workshops and I'm not afraid of the stage at all. I love it.
Barbara: Oh, me to! And hey, five-year-olds are the best audience I've ever had.
Barbara: I can sing and I can dance and they think I'm amazing.
Barbara: “Ms. Holtz, how did you get so good at that?”
I said “Because I'm old!” “You have such nice handwriting.” I was like, “Not really but, hey.” So, anyway, yeah. I thrive on that. I love that. So yeah, you know, it's those dreams… to talk about dreams is to take those risks. I think, you know, that it's risk taking and it's facing rejection and it's perseverance. And… getting new dreams. Trying new dreams out. You know?
Dennis: There you go.
Barbara: Because I think it used to be once you achieved your dream, it seemed like it was never as good as trying to get to your dream.
Dennis: Really? Yeah. Interesting.
Barbara: It seemed like that. But now, it's like I think maybe it's the dreams that you pick that are ongoing that they're never really over but they go to different levels.
Barbara: And stuff like that. So, different audiences.
Dennis: Interesting thought.
Barbara: So, yeah! That's kind of where I'm at. [laughs]
Dennis: I think it's great! [laughs] No, your energy is absolutely contagious.
Barbara: And, see, that's what I'm good at. This is me in front of the classroom. This is me in front of any classroom. I get excited and I'm not afraid to show that excitement because I am a very… and this is what gets me about this principal that didn’t like my style of teaching or my room. It's like, “She totally didn’t get the point.”
Barbara: She didn’t get me. She didn’t get what I do for people. What I do for my students. You need different styles for different people. Am I the right teacher for everybody? No. You know, it's realizing that you're not always going to get everybody but you can… that there's people's roles and places in everybody’s lives. You need all kinds of different teachers. You know.
Barbara: I'm the dramatic, theatrical, singing, dancing, but there's something to be said for that quiet, structured, linear teacher also.
Dennis: You’ve got to have both. It's much like in a business; you’ve got to have your marketing people and your sales people but you’ve got to have the finance people.
Dennis: Because what they focus on and their detail and so forth you don't get from the sales guys. And you need them both, you know? So it's just the same in your world as well when it comes to… you’ve got to have the linear quiet teachers and you got to have the nonlinear, crazy teachers. You’ve got to a mix because that's all a part of who we are.
Barbara: And she wanted everybody to be the same kind of teacher. And I think in ways, the educational system also wants that too. They want the same time kind of teacher… because you know, children are a product now. You know, they want education to be the business model and we are a manufacturer. And we are producing this product. You know, not taking into account that this product is a human being that has had different experiences and a different life… you know, their dad may be in jail and they may be homeless or they may be an on-meth baby. You know, you can’t make a person into a product. And you can’t have a teacher that… you know, you can have your standards that you need to teach, but you can’t expect a teacher to get the same results from every single child because we're all different. And that's part of the educational problem is that they want us to do that and they want to tie it to our salaries and they want to do all this stuff. And it's like, I have no control over what goes on in my student’s life at home. I have no control over that and it has a direct impact on how they are in my classroom. I can provide a safe, loving, caring, warm environment. And I can teach the standards, what they want me to teach but I have no control over anything else.
Dennis: It's true.
Barbara: So yeah. That's kind of it.
Dennis: Barb, this is great. As I’ve said, your energy is contagious and you have so many great stories. Love your dreams; love where you're going with it. You’ve got to keep me in the loop, please.
Barbara: Okay. Thank you for encouraging me!
Dennis: I'm honored. If I did that, that's lovely.
Barbara: Sir Dudley.
Dennis: There's more to that story!
After our original conversation, I caught up with Barb again, many months later…
Dennis: So how are you, besides parent-teacher conferences?
Barbara: Surviving. Survival mode. This is part of what I was reflecting on because the question came back – “I’ll let you know in a year how it is living over here on the coast.”
Dennis: Right, and?
Barbara: The first it was like major culture shock. I was blaming everything on moving to a small town, the poverty. All of the stuff that goes on because you’re in a small fish bowl now. But then I’m thinking about when I came back to school this year, like I’m still talking to my teacher friends over in Medford, bigger city and all that, and they’re going through the same thing.
So what I’ve come to the conclusion of is that education is in a really sad place and for teachers, it’s really extremely difficult, and hard, and extremely stressful. I think part of what’s going on is not so much that I’m blaming it on Gold Beach anymore. I’m blaming it on the profession.
So, what can I do that pays me just as much and still get some result? I don’t know. There’s just a lot of stresses now that are coming. It was fine because we were talking … we had a presentation on poverty and they talk about the children that are living in poverty are under chronic stress. All I could think about is “Well, what about us as teachers?” We are living under chronic stress and they say it actually changes your brain. It’s like, “Okay, that’s what’s wrong with my brain.”
Dennis: Wow, really? Okay.
Barbara: This year I’m doing a kindergarten-first grade blend and it’s proficiency grading which means I have all of the low first graders in all of that, and seven high kindergarteners. I’ve never done a blend. I have this … they’re a sweet class but it’s hard work. It’s just been a really hard year.
The first quarter is over with so I’m hoping that it will get … as I get used to what I’m doing and stuff, it will get easier, I hope.
Dennis: I hope so too.
Barbara: Okay. What else do we need to …
Dennis: Well, you talked about … Do you want to read one of your works?
Barbara: Yes, and I want to show you my book.
Barbara: It’s called The Poeming Pigeon which is this is one of the anthologies that I had poems about food, and this is one of my Kansas poems.
Barbara: This was set in Vassar Junction – remember Bruce and Veda Rogers?
Dennis: Oh sure, yeah.
Barbara: Yeah. Well, this was about a memory from Vassar Junction. Did you ever know Rick Rottschaefer? He was probably before your time.
Barbara: He went … yeah. Okay. Well, anyway. We did the summer theater together. This was kind of like my poem about remembering him.
Barbara: It’s called Glass Jars and Root Cellars.
Glass Jars In Root Cellars
by Barbara A Meier
What good is it to open jars
long-sealed on cellar shelves?
Rimmed in dust,
and encrusted in spider eggs?
If I took them off the cellar shelf-
(shuddering at the wispy touch of mummy silk)
would light reveal preserves or rot?
Could I hear the hallow sound
if I pinged the lid with my knuckle?
Would the dull thud reveal sooty strings of decay?
A seal broken by the years?
a stench of you long gone in the ground….
Or could I hold it to a light,
swinging on the end of a chain,
where the memories would be rich ruby red.
I’d climb the planks
feel the breath of cellar rock
at the nape of my neck.
I’d stride to the light,
and hold the memories high.
Maybe then to examine for cracks,
leaks of air, bulging sides.
Sniff for foul.
Would the memories hold with examination?
Or would the first touch of air dust the insides?
Just as I am sure your body now resides in dust…
I take the church key,
apply with surgical precision,
pry the lid back,
Whiffs of crème de mint, Tanqueray, Oreos,
flypaper spit, and cigarette smoke,
on a late night prairie train…
with the Perseids
showering us in August,
melting across a Kansas sky.
Then they are extinguished…
Like we are long since dead,
you in your coffin,
and I in my glass jar memories…
Dennis: Thank you.
Barbara: Did you get that?
Dennis: That’s lovely.
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