POEMS by Barb Tilsen
Sacred Ground
Breathe: a poem for George Floyd
How Do You Treat the Stranger at Your Door
We Choose Love
North Shore Memories
Sky Dancer
For David
Where Love Resides
Poem for CMN
The Family Circle
Earth Muse

Poems: Meta-Musings

The Gift
Closed Mind in Flight
Early Days
What Happens to You Happens to Me
On Healing

by Barbara Tilsen
when you sing into a baby’s eyes
lightest blue to deepest brown
you gaze upon sacred ground
when you sing into a baby’s eyes
sky-tinged blue looks back at you
raindrop fresh on hot, dry ground
sweet and ancient innocence
eggshell-blue with bursting life
indigo depths of sparkling ponds
embued with life’s mystery
when you sing into a baby’s eyes
sprouting green, all tones between
tender wild grass growing
new shoots reaching to the sun
myriad forest canopies
seeking roots and soaring leaves
connecting earth and sky
when you sing into a baby’s eyes
abundant brown, holy ground
rings out its sonorous hues
feathered wing, free flying mane
wild tree-bark timbre growing
tints of wisdom from the well
traces from beyond birth’s door
when you sing into a baby’s eyes
dark rich earth, mystery of birth
fertile promise of seed in loam
wobbly colt’s newborn sheen
deep like velvet, luminous night
melodic stars, galaxies
resound in celestial space
when you sing into a baby’s eyes
blessed color, vibrant hue
pure and sweet, gaze back at you
a hallowed trust unfolding
troth between tomorrow and today
whose rainbow tones fill out with sound
as you sing on sacred ground
© Barbara S. Tilsen

by Barb Tilsen
Sometimes it moves through the air
Like a current in the stream
Just under the surface
flowing beneath you
Hardly perceived or realized
Then it catches you almost by surprise
But not really
This rising wave of grief
Tangible in the palpable way
of truly communal mourning
And you rise and fall
on the ebb and flow
of waves of sorrow
Flowing beneath the skin
A river of tears
For the beautiful man
Whose brother said everyone loved
Who spoke up for anyone hurt
Whose last breath flowed
Out of his body
under the knee
of cold indifference
callous power
racist intent
the dispassionate
brutal face of hate
Eight minutes and forty-six seconds
His “I can’t breathe”
Carried on the wind
Through 50 states
Circling the world
Gathering cries
Chanting no more
No justice no peace
As people join hands
Stand together and march
Take a knee, raise a fist
To breathe his name
George Floyd
© Barbara S. Tilsen

by Barb Tilsen
How do you treat the stranger at your door
The one who comes in need of comfort
with no place to sleep
Little food
Just the few possessions they can carry in one move
This question is before us all around the world
People displaced, on the move
from the dangerous and intolerable
The refugee, the homeless
the one seeking harbor and safety
at the border, on your doorstep
fleeing the storms of the world
How do we treat the stranger at our door
Like the Lady in the harbor raising the torch
poetry in her arms welcoming all to this shore
Or with barbed wire, the wall, the guns, the fear
It all comes home to rest in our front yard now
Just across the street in our beloved park
Yes we need compassion and love
But the harsh reality of hunger, unmet needs
of no place else to go
demands concrete solutions
As neighbors we act to meet the need
Bring food and supplies
We call and organize in all the ways we know to
pressure the city, the park, the county, the state
To answer
Not with elusive shifting drifting responsibility
or bureaucratic dysfunction and entanglements
Not to keep people languishing in tents
But to find the solution that is safe for all
Respectful, effective and long lasting
This is not the first nor the last time
we will need to answer
How do we treat the stranger at our door
© Barbara S. Tilsen

by Barb Tilsen
We choose love
Love will show the way
In wild and troubling times
Love brings the new day
We choose love
May healing love abound
In the face of hate and fear
Let love circle round
The ones who’ve gone before us
are memories in our bones
They carry and sustain us
bring us all back home
The ones who are yet to come
hold the promise in the seed
The flower and the garden
guide how we proceed
Our family is a circle
love always remains
Its strength and its resilience
flows within our veins
Through the joys and heartaches
together side by side
Riding waves of turbulence
we will turn the tide
We choose love
We choose love
© Barbara S. Tilsen

by Barb Tilsen
North Shore memories ride beside us in the car
Coming unbidden like fog rolling across the water
Popping up around a bend
Whispering in rustling leaves
Echoing in caws and chirps
Birds flying through the trees
Murmuring sounds and sights and smells
Summertime at the lake
Remembering the stories
A fighting fish brought to the net
The bigger one that got away
Cries of gulls remind us of the rich feast
thrown to their hungry impatience
as Paul filets the catch of the day
Our lakeside dinner anticipated the whole year long
Fresh caught trout, Mom’s baked beans
Kathy’s potato salad, Tom’s home-made rye bread
My fresh green salad filled with earth’s rich bounty
and Grandma’s Swedish Butter Cake, a specialty of mine
The evening campfire spits and crackles
as we circle round, guitar trading hands under the stars
Singing songs in the moonlight to the rhythm of waves
of love fulfilled and love denied
of longing, passion, change and healing
Proud Mary and Molly’s Song
Medley of tunes both whole and half-remembered
Gazing in awe as Northern lights dance in the darkened sky
Moon’s shimmering path shines across the water
Remembering the family trips when we were small
Now grown up with children of our own
Mom takes us all to this lovely inland sea
A gift of love the year after Dad died
We bring her again each summer
Starlight, stories and memory
flowing through eight years until she died too
Land and water have kissed through time
on this Great Lakes’ beloved shores
Enfolding people’s stories just like ours
Through generations
Deep enough to hold us all
© Barbara S. Tilsen

Sky Dancer
a meditation from the shores of Lake Superior
by Barb Tilsen
Within her velvet, flowered bag
Dewdrops, the deer
And the comet’s tail
Circle in wild anticipation
Wind whispers
“Will you come out tonight?”
While Moon meditates
On myriad cosmic dreams
She leaps from star to star
Rainbows ‘round her shoulders
Wrapping like a shawl
Arms open wide
She sails the solar breeze
Her streaming colors
Dance across the night
Waves beat upon the shore
Drumming to her song
Leaves, rustling, rub each other
Telling ancient secrets
Midnight magic in the northern sky
Aurora Borealis
Shimmering Northern Lights
© Barbara S. Tilsen

by Barb Tilsen
I was twenty-two when I first fell in love with you
With your long brown hair, laughing eyes
And heart so strong and true
You’re still that rebel filled with dreams
daring, brash and bold
Hand in hand we’ve worked to build
a just more peaceful world
With your fist held high you marched the streets
to put an end to war
With your hands outstretched, you’ve reached to bridge
the gulf between rich and poor
Across barriers and borders
you have touched so many lives
And held the children’s future
in arms loving and wise
Through the years, joys and sorrows
I’ve felt your warm embrace
Your rock-like steady strength
and the love that lights your face
In the circle of our arms entwined
we hold the whole world wide
As we share life’s journey
I’ll always want you by my side
Father of my children
My lover and my friend
You’ll always be a part of me
With a love that never ends
© Barbara S. Tilsen

by Barb Tilsen
Snoozing on the couch
Wrapped in warm sunbeams
Doggie sighs, doggie snores
Drifting doggie dreams
But you always come
When I start to sing
You sit down at my feet
Intently listening
I’m grateful for the good days
You are feeling well
The awful creeping sickness
Leaves you for a spell
Even in the bad days
You try to wag your tail
Breaks my heart, at the end
To watch you start to fail
I float in puppy memories
Nine years since you arrived
Your steady faithful heart
Sweet and soulful eyes
Love is in each moment
A truth you always show
This I will remember
As it’s time to let you go
© Barbara S. Tilsen

by Barb Tilsen
One single tear spills down my cheek
I am struck
Thinking how tragic, how sad
That after a lifetime of loving each other
It comes down to this
Sitting together
Side by side
Wheelchair to wheelchair
Holding hands
That’s all there is, nothing more
I’ve brought him to see her again
To the Oasis unit
Locked ward of the nursing home
for those on the steady downward slope
of Alzheimer’s decline
You can’t get out the door unless you know the code
Can’t get out of this disease at all
No one knows that code
We sit with sunlight streaming in the windows
This big room is peaceful and calm today
Other times, residents have wandered by
Shouting or swearing
“Take me home! Bring me back!”
“Where’s my furniture? Where’s my kitchen?”
“I want my mother.”
This lounge is quiet, tranquil
No one crying out, no moaning
No loud voices talking to thin air,
to a long-gone lover or friend, daughter or son
A forgotten argument in some long-ago time
No one moving in that slow solo dance
Within fragments of old memories
We sit with me on his left
He is in the middle, she is on his right
I am drifting in memories myself
Of childhood gatherings, laughter and loving faces
My grandma and my grandpa
My mom and my dad
Who’ve all passed on now
Sweet memories alive, but only in my heart
I think about this aunt and this uncle I sit with today
Both in their eighties, married almost 60 years
She seems oblivious, very much inside herself
Barely smiles when we first sit down
Staring ahead with a kind of sour look on her face
Doesn’t recognize me as her niece, or him as her husband
Those days seem past
since she could look at him and call him by his name
Long time since we’ve been able to sit
and talk about the same thing, or anything
Even have a conversation grounded
in the same perceived present reality
Sometimes she’ll talk in half-formed sentences
Words strung together in ways
I can barely follow or understand
Fleeting memories bobbing in and out of a crazy quilt of time
Another silent tear rolls down my cheek as I muse in the sunlight
Bittersweet—a lifetime of loving condensed
into a passing moment together
He reaches out and takes her hand as he often does when we visit
Sometimes she quietly holds his hand too
But today is different
This day, as he holds her hand
She slowly starts to squeeze his back
Then she strokes it and her face changes
Smiling, she says, “Oh, oh, oh”
She touches his fingers, his thumb and the back of his hand
She says, “This is nice,”
as though her skin recognizes his
Her mind can’t say his name but her body knows him
Memory and love living bone deep
She touches his hand, his arm
His shirt sleeve, and says again,
“This is nice!”
He says, “Oh yes, I like this shirt, it’s a good shirt”
She sits back, hand holding his
Her whole face transformed
with a gentle, sweet, contented smile
It is amazing to be together in this rare moment
Sharing the same intersection of time and space
One single tear spills down my cheek
I am struck
Thinking how incredible
How profoundly beautiful
That after a lifetime of loving each other
It all comes down to this
Sitting together
Side by side
Wheelchair to wheelchair
In their holding hands
The heart bridges the gap
The mind alone cannot leap
Where touch knows touch
Skin knows skin
Where love resides
© Barbara S. Tilsen

a poem for The Children’s Music Network
by Barb Tilsen
Music is our heartbeat, our pulse
Weaving through the community we build
Linking the connections we make
Strengthening the support we give
Rooted in the issues we face
Circling through the songs we share
Rising in the harmonies we sing
Flows the inspiring
Healing, transforming
Open promise
of the child
© Barbara S. Tilsen


by Barb Tilsen
Red dress hanging from the trees
Red dress swaying in the breeze
Red dress flying from the pole
Weeping flag, the wounded soul
Red handprint for all to see
Red reminding you and me
Women torn from life above
Families search with grieving love
Stolen child ripped from the womb
Mother thrown in river’s tomb
Missing women, stolen girls
Hidden names, red dress unfurls
Unknown numbers rising high
On floods of tears that fill our cry
Tell the story across time
Genocide, the unmarked crime
Women’s rape goes hand in hand
With broken treaties, stolen land
Missing and murdered indigenous women
Silence cannot be forgiven
Across the land our voices rise
Unmasking hate, greed and lies
No more: the red dress as a shroud
Stirring chorus rings out loud
Minds and hearts together strong
Bring them home where they belong
We lift our voice in love and song
No More Stolen Sisters!
No More Stolen Sisters!
© Barbara S. Tilsen


by Barb Tilsen
The family circle holds you in a loving warm embrace
Arms link ‘round each other, eyes shining in each face
The family arms can hold you through laughter, grief and fear
Holding on, letting go, when that time draws near
The family is a circle, always big enough to hold
The newly come, the ones passed on, the newborn and the old
Passing through the family circle, bigger, smaller, nearer, far
A circle ever changing, it holds just who we are
© Barbara S. Tilsen

by Barb Tilsen
for Margo, Florence, and Becka
I am a humming string
Plucked by the moon
Body, mind, soul
Aligning, reverberating
Earth synergy feeding my spirit
Elements combining, shift inside me
Dirt, rock, air, water
Greening shades of new growth
Blue expanses opening within
Strike a heart chord in my core
Inhaling beauty
Let me be the tree, my soaring leaves
Shimmering in the breeze
Listening to its stories
Trunk rooted in earthly embrace
Ever seeking the mysteries of Her cosmic pulse
Let me be the still, deep pool
Holding primal secrets
Water rippling gently
Whispering, rustling reeds
Softly dancing Her oceanic rhythms
Silver flash of insight sliding through my depths
Blessed dark waters churning
Rising like waking thoughts
Rainbow vision sparkling
Cavernous waters carry me
Currents of dream and desire
Streaming skyways, flowing waterways
Resonating the vibrational breath of living energy
Bear me along, opening what’s hidden
Touching earth to sky, linking above below
Outside inside the ancient spiral
Bringing thought to bloom like the seed of a poem
Idea sprouting full-blown to its own sweet blossom
Unique, beautiful, engulfing
Unfolding for me, as it does for you
This eternal, communal moment
Where inner river, tree, and sky
Merge as one inside the soul
Birthing fertile inspiration
© Barbara S. Tilsen

In 2016, I had bacterial meningitis. I was intubated under deep sedation for eight days, and in the hospital for five and a half weeks. That first day in the hospital I was in bad shape. I was septic, in organ failure, and my husband was told to prepare himself. I was dying. But I did survive, and the hospital called me the ‘miracle lady.’ When I first woke up, I couldn’t move. I spent that next month learning how to think coherently and communicate again, how to feed myself, how to sit up and walk again. My recovery took a long time. It was an experience that affected me profoundly.
Throughout my time in the hospital, I was thinking and talking constantly. Processing and focusing on language, on how to put words to what I was experiencing. Deeply pondering, exploring layers and levels of meaning in everything, I tried hard to put my self and my world back together. Surfing the waves of existence, I was in a state beyond anything I’d known. Feelings, thought, experiences, visitations, and voices flowed into and around each other. I felt I was in a “meta” state of mind. Meta-musings seems an appropriate name to give this period and to give these poems about my illness and about my healing. Musings about musing. I was splintered in body, mind and spirit but holding and experiencing them all together in their separate wholeness. I constantly reflected about this, contemplating my life, love and the interconnectedness of all things. Meta-Musing on my wild and wandering synthesis back to the whole.
—Barb Tilsen

by Barb Tilsen
It all started with the cancer
Not big “C” cancer but little “c”
Basal cell carcinoma
Becoming so common now
A legacy of carbon emissions run amok
thinning the protective patchy
blanket of ozone surrounding our Home
Our life-giving sun increasingly dangerous
shining through these wounds of Mother Earth
Mine was not the big kind of cancer
needing lasers, chemo or radiation
with months of discomfort and pain
Just little “c” cancer needing one surgery
Though the small bump on my face
turned out to be half-dollar size underneath
Still, on the outside I have only one curved scar
near my chin left behind to tell the tale
But inside lies another hidden gift of this ordeal
And I remember
Rising to meet the turbulence of any dangerous threat
I ready myself, steady myself, to face what is to come
You don’t choose what tragedies lie ahead
Only how you face what does appear before you
And big “C” or little “c” cancer is still cancer
The first time a doctor speaks those words
It gives you pause facing the unknown and all that it might bring
Hearing them, I find the place where my fiercest self
and love of life reside, calling it to the fore
to my core, right at the center of my being
Determined to face
whatever is required, to endure it
to survive it, healed and whole
I enter that place inside where spirit dwells
where hope is born
where our courage lies
This, this is the gift
As though through some kind of divine plan
directed by angels watching over me
with my scar healing
the next crisis looms
In the aftermath I realize
this fierce awakened heart of mine
lay ready to rise
keeping hold as I was swept away
when death truly came calling
© Barbara S. Tilsen

by Barb Tilsen
How do you hold a mind in flight
that doesn’t know it’s flying
When meningitis strikes
a bolt of lightening carrying you away
on a menin-tidal wave
Sweeping organs and thought aside
into the shock of sepsis
How do you walk through fire
singed, not burned, by rising flames
How do you sail over shifting sands
skimming traps of unsettled ground
Surfing waves of chaos
Flotsam and jetsam
Floating, drifting inside out
Pushed here pulled there
by rhythmic pulsing
Sucked up and down on muddy geysers
of DNA in flesh and blood
Soaring untethered up, up so high
the heartbeat of body and earth dwindles far away
Mind afloat, hurtling fast
through uncharted mountains of wind and cloud
Terrifying vertigo
Fighting not to be sucked inside
or swooped above
Removed from all that is familiar
all that is grounded, rooted in the earth
How do you hold on to life
to all that is precious, all that is dear
seemingly just beyond reach
Knowing you’re not done with this world
with those you love and what you want to do
Hanging on to the center place, your inner strength
where courage, spirit, heart and hope reside
Make the choice grasping your purpose tightly
The terms and conditions you’ve created
that must be met before you’d ever let the hands slip open
When letting go would bring release
from fear and the weary grip of intention
answering the lure of sweet surrender
the inviting relief of oblivion
The vision comes on waking
in the powerful wingstrokes of insight
posing this intrinsic question
How do you hold a mind in flight,
that doesn’t know it’s flying
How do you safely carry
awareness of self, of the world
disconnected from all it knows
Eyes open, the image forms
Strong steady wings riding currents of air
Lifting consciousness
on the soft sweet feathers of a tawny bird
Fastened with fine silk strings
so as not to cut or bruise
easing memories of
confusion pain and nightmare
Who will answer the question
of this trauma of body, of mind
Who will search in ceremony or meditation
with medical insight or new technique
in ritual or in prayer
to transform this wounded, suffocating grip
into the warm open encircling embrace of gentle hands
Who will even understand how to look for the downy bird
or know it is the silken straps that do not harm
Who will know it must be ready
at the very start to shelter and protect
Who will know how to safely nestle
the shredded heart in the sheltering tree
or how to find hidden harbors
for the expanded mind in the tossing, stormy sea
Who will push this boundary of our knowing
into healing love and wholeness
and help you learn how to travel
the long road back home to yourself
© Barbara S. Tilsen

MAMA (May 2016)
by Barb Tilsen
I open my eyes to a darkened room
I sense big machines nearby
I am hooked up to them
It seems there are other beds in the distance
I can turn my head, move my fingers just a little,
But not my arms or my legs or any part of my body
The steady presence and gentle voice of my nurse
tells me how sick I’ve been
The aftermath of bacterial meningitis
eight days of unconsciousness
has left my body frozen
My nurse says mama, we’re taking care of you
mama, you’ll be alright
mama, you just need some help right now
mama, let me take your arm
I say no
I don’t want to need help
To need so much
She says mama, you will be okay
Mama, I say, I am the mama
mamas take care of everyone else
mamas are the ones who give help
not the one who is helpless
She says who do you think takes care of mamas?
Other mamas do
Her warm brown eyes, serene sweet smile calm me
The other nurses tell me she is special
a healer they are lucky to have at the hospital
working as a nurse but so much more
She tells me she’s from Rwanda
I tell her my nephew is from Kenya
She says we are related then
My oldest daughter is near me
and I tell her
I will be
a little mama who accepts help
not Big Mama who gives it
She says do you mean I’m Big Mama now
And I look at her and say only for a little while
© Barbara S. Tilsen

by Barb Tilsen
In the long weeks I slowly heal
The nightmare mind recedes
The expansive mind expands
My frozen body starts to thaw and wake up
but not all at the same time
Nerves and muscles fire up
Flashing flares of random pain
come and go in a grip like lightening
I am learning how to move my body again
Hold a spoon, swallow, feed myself
I am transported on the Rooster
which I hate
My name for the metal sling on the ceiling track
that looks like a rooster-shaped weather vane on top of a barn
A lift that raises you, uncomfortably
sometimes painfully
around the bed, from bed to gurney
for the next test or procedure
The nurses hold me, prop me up
Rising into the awkward embrace of the huge machine
I’ve christened Big Bertha
Named for my grandma’s old friend
who we’d visit in the country long ago
Her sunny farm kitchen smelling
of the fresh-baked bread
her strong arms had kneaded and shaped
Baked golden brown in the wood-fired heat of her cast-iron stove
Big Bertha lifts me up so I can be wheeled and moved
Later I graduate to the smaller machine they call Sarah Steady
but I can’t remember what it’s called so I name her
‘my new best friend Steady Betty’
Much easier to recall if it rhymes
Eventually I can rise myself though I still need help
so I can be pushed around on Steady Betty
on the road to independence
All the while I keep reminding myself to be little mama
and not worry about taking care of anyone but myself
So hard because my husband is so sick
He can only visit me in his wheel chair
I was his caregiver before I got sick
What’s going to happen now
© Barbara S. Tilsen

What Happens to You Happens to Me
by Barb Tilsen
Voices rise, lifting up on the wings
of song, of tears and prayers
when the world cracks open
and the sky sweeps me upside down
on the wild winds of meningitis
Arms link together ready to catch
my swinging, swaying, falling, flailing body
dropping back into myself
From my pockets traces of me drift down
buttons, rocks, gems, thimbles and thread
torn snippets of memory, broken bits of poetry
faded photographs, strains of music
a sprinkling of angel dust
Communal arms and hands reach out
to catch me in singing and in love
My brother said
What happens to you happens to me
The pain that you feel, I feel
When a part of you disappears
Part of me does too
Everything in its totality
weaves together bringing me back
with my own fierce strength at the core
The skilled care of doctors, nurses
cleaners, cooks, attendants, transport, PT, OT staff
in the fluid somewhat chaotic curve of hospital dynamics
Along with the just-as-essential closeness
of my family, my friends, my loved ones
in the most extended communal sense
surrounding me with their presence
Their song stretching out in a musical net
made of heartstrings and tears
prayers, healing vibes, loving thoughts
the solo voice, the singing circles near and far
in beautiful cards and poetry, deep conversations
in ritual and the healing sanctuary of flowers
in Sun Dance, on Caring Bridge
People of many faiths from all directions
bringing me into their services, their congregations
to pray for my health, to pray for my survival
What happens to me happens to you
All in concert save my life
working as one to bring me back
All acts big and small, an essential part
of the return to wholeness, the return to balance
What happens to you happens to me
from this dying state into the expansive, shining, intuitive
interconnected fullness of all living things
© Barbara S. Tilsen

by Barb Tilsen
Opening, unfolding
Surrendering self
raw and wounded
Healing from the inside out
the wondering, wandering mind
the failing body
Boundaries sundered
Holding life close
Inviting people in
Here and not here
but there
What is here, what is there
Seeking true connections
Dissolving distance
Opening the way
Thoughts mingle
Soar and dive
Hearts touch
Love shines
Perception deepens
From sliding, spiraling downwards
towards a final release
To rising gripping holding on
Pulled above to vibrant growth
in this living breathing loving world
Weaving word comes alive
in the power of image
Leading spirit and flesh
all directions without, within
above, below
How could I not be changed
I almost left
The return is precious
Everyone, everything cherished
Holding all so close
breathing in life and love
© Barbara S. Tilsen

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